Damn. Jackie Leven, Celtic soul troubadour, Iron John come down from Fife … brown bread.
I think I’ve seen Jackie Leven play live more times than any other artist, and I was looking forward to increasing that number. Sadly, not to be.
Never mind what he did with the underrated Doll by Doll (a band whose name came from an e e Cummings poem), since 1994’s stunning solo album The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death – still as fresh as the day it was forged, if you don’t know it, it will amaze you – his body of significant recorded work – singing, writing, playing – is surely unparalleled in both quality and quantity. The now inevitable ‘Best of’ will have to be a double at the very least to even scratch the surface. Too long a secret, he really was one of the major creative figures of his generation, loved by those he touched. There are so many songs.
Live, he was intense, mesmerizing. A rich warm voice that could chill, drawing you into the song; dazzling guitar, never for its own sake. Poortown and Jim O’Windygates (both from the outstanding Fairy tales for hard men) could make you weep. An early outing of Classic northern diversions, upstairs in a nondescript Oxford pub, his opening song to an audience of no more than 20 souls, was one of the most exciting things I have ever heard or seen. His comic Rabelaisian between-song tales were not to everyone’s taste but something was necessary to break up the intensity of the songs and usually were funny, not to say righteous. He was a big man in every way, but approachable. I’m glad to have shaken his hand a couple of times.
He didn’t do encores. Not of that sort, anyway. This was important, made him special. His shows weren’t planned to arrive at climaxes; you could say each song was a compassionate climax. There was humour, gratitude, good grace, intelligence, respect in play. Hence the lack of encores. He’d say, “right, this is my last song. You’re all adults. I could get up and walk out that door and you could clap and I’d come back and play the song I’m going to play anyway. Thank you for coming.” It would sound better if I could quote verbatim. And, of course, he was right; every ritual orchestrated encore diminishes us.
On record he could create spare epic layered soundscapes. Shining brother shining sister, for example, has a lovely sway to it. His broad expanse of work really should have been better known and far better rewarded. Poetry was one of the mainsprings of his creative force, an early love from errant schooldays, encouraged by a sympathetic librarian. He talked interestingly about this and other influences to those at Jockstock, an occasional event created around him, in 2004; a text of what he said is reproduced in part on a page of its own here.
You have to say it sometimes. His heart was huge, the world is a smaller place. His Courtship in Scottish factories, tucked away on a Sir Vincent Lone album – a pseudonym because his main label, Cooking Vinyl, only allowed him one a year – is one of the great love songs.
“There are spiritual story tellers and there are soulful story tellers. I hope to be a soulful story teller. I see the two kinds as two different directions. Spiritual is ascending. Sky, God and all that. I hope my story telling is going down into the earth, is wetter, has more moisture.” Jackie Leven
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, there’s plenty on YouTube for starters.