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‘Strong on the outside, brittle on the inside’: the life, death and genius of Jackie Leven

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 14/09/2021 Graeme Thomson
Jackie Leven standing in front of a window: Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven passed away in 2011, aged 61 - Redferns © Redferns Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven passed away in 2011, aged 61 - Redferns

He has been compared to Van Morrison, John Martyn and Tim Hardin, but ultimately Jackie Leven sounded like no one but himself. Perhaps that was the problem. Never a household name in the UK, when the Scottish singer-songwriter died on 14 November 2011, aged just 61, the occasion passed with little mainstream attention.

Nothing, however, becomes a cult artist so much as posthumous acclaim. Ten years after his death, from pancreatic cancer, Leven’s profile is steadily rising. On the back of a recently released compilation comes a tribute album, The Wanderer, released this week and featuring contributions from, among others, Ian Rankin, Kathryn Williams, Tom Robinson, James Yorkston, Eliza Carthy and Ralph McTell.

The album was instigated by English musician Michael Weston King, who played countless shows with Leven through the years. When his friend died, King vowed to keep the songs alive. “I was saddened and angry,” he tells me, “that after all this time, nothing had been done to honour such a unique talent, and such a large and high-quality body of work.”

It is little wonder that Leven was held in high esteem by his peers. He was not only a beautiful singer, but a bold and unsentimental lyricist, a phenomenal guitarist and a consistently innovative recording artist. Though rooted in the Celtic poetic vernacular, his music ranged from folk to synth-pop, Americana to Caledonian soul, hard rock to jazz. 

“He played around with styles,” says the Mercury Prize-nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, who first met Leven in 2000 when she opened for him in an Aberdeen club. “He was constantly experimenting. He didn’t just cast himself as a folk guitarist, he gave us the whole rainbow of things he was interested in.”

Jackie Leven sitting on a bench: Leven has been praised for pushing lyrical boundaries - Lotte van den Berg © Provided by The Telegraph Leven has been praised for pushing lyrical boundaries - Lotte van den Berg

The son of a London-Irish father and a mother from north-east England, Leven was born Alan Moffatt in Fife in 1950. At Kirkcaldy High School, he was a contemporary of the future Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, though their subsequent paths could hardly have diverged more spectacularly. Leven felt branded by his Romany heritage and left home, already married, at 16. He travelled to England, worked odd jobs, played folk clubs and got into considerable amounts of trouble.

Credited to “John St Field”, his debut album, Control, was released in 1971. Subsequently settling in London, Leven formed Doll by Doll, who signed to the Warner Brothers subsidiary Automatic, and in 1979 released Remember and Gypsy Blood, two tough rock albums with a thuggish undertow. 

Fittingly for a group named after a line in the E.E. Cummings poem, “The First of All My Dreams” – “two tiny selves sleep (doll by doll) motionless under magical foreverfully falling snow” – there was something dark and disquieting about the band. They were thrown off a Hawkwind tour for intimidating the headliners. Guitarist Jo Shaw later remembered audiences coming out of shows shaking, as though they had escaped from a horror film.

Roguishly handsome in his prime, Leven had extraordinary stage presence. “I first saw Jackie fronting Doll by Doll at the Reading Festival in 1979,” recalls the singer-songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson. “The crowd were barracking him for taking a long time to tune his guitar between songs. 

“He didn’t say a word… he just stared them out, and then, very slowly and deliberately, reached down and picked up a can of beer, staring all the while. He downed the whole can before starting the next number, while the boos rose in volume and people started throwing things at the stage. I remember thinking that this was a man it would be inadvisable for anyone to try to f___ with.”

In later life, Leven was less confrontational on stage, but still magnetic. He would test the audience’s propriety with profane yarns about getting drunk with Laurence Olivier, losing a girlfriend to the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard, and defecating in a Glasgow lane. “The stories he told between the songs were extraordinary,” says novelist Ian Rankin, a fellow Fifer who became friends with Leven following their mixed-media collaboration, Jackie Leven Said, in 2005. “How many of them were true I don’t know, but I desperately want them to be.”

a person holding a guitar: Leven's range included folk, synth-pop, Americana, Caledonian soul, hard rock and jazz © Provided by The Telegraph Leven's range included folk, synth-pop, Americana, Caledonian soul, hard rock and jazz

Leven titled a later solo album Fairy Tales for Hard Men. Few artists wrote more honestly about angry, damaged men – about loneliness, violence and family conflict. On songs such as ‘Poortoun’ and ‘Men in Prison’, says the folk musician Eliza Carthy, he proved himself “a master of setting the laments of lost souls into verse”.  

“He’s always written well about men who appear to be strong on the outside, but are damaged or brittle on the inside,” notes Rankin. “He picks apart that working-class Scottish machismo. It’s a world of bar-rooms, disappointed relationships, regret and hitting the bottle to escape your consciousness. He does it in such a melodic way, you almost get the tragic element by osmosis.”

Doll by Doll split in 1983, having done themselves few favours. The band’s frequently exasperated PR man, Mick Houghton, recalls setting up an interview with music writer Nick Kent for a cover story in New Musical Express (NME). Houghton delivered Kent on a Friday morning to the band’s Maida Vale squat. On Monday he received a call from a concerned editor at the paper, saying Kent hadn’t been seen or heard from since. Leven and the notoriously hedonistic journalist had apparently hit it off rather too well. Doll by Doll never did get their cover story.

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Afterwards, Leven signed to Virgin as a solo artist. Leaving a late-night recording session in 1984, he was brutally attacked and almost killed. Suffering from the physical and psychological effects of strangulation, in the immediate aftermath Leven couldn’t sing. He struggled to even speak. Hard drugs had been around during the Doll by Doll days, but shortly after the attack Leven succumbed to heroin addiction.

He quit in 1985 using a mixture of acupuncture and “psychic healing”, and formalised this unorthodox methodology by founding the Core Trust with his then-partner, Carol Wolf. Housed in a row of Victorian cottages in Marylebone, the trust advocated a holistic approach to treating addiction, and continues today as part of the Westminster Drug Project. It will receive half of the profits from The Wanderer.

Diana, Princess of Wales became a patron of the Core Trust, and each year attended a gala fundraising lunch, during one of which she told Leven that she had heard that he was once a singer. Wounded, he replied that he was still one. The Princess asked him to sing something; when Leven prevaricated, she deployed royal prerogative and gently insisted. He serenaded her with a Scottish ballad, ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray’, and later recognised this intimate performance as a pivotal step on his road back to music.

Violence and addiction had, by then, stolen a decade of Leven’s prime. He returned to recording in 1994, embarking on a fertile third act that produced more than 30 stylistically scattered albums: official releases, fan-club CDs, live recordings and many eclectic collaborations. Leven was, by his nature, a collegiate artist. 

a painting of a person: Half of the profits of The Wanderer will go to the Core Trust, the addiction treatment charity that Leven co-founded - Lotte van den Berg © Provided by The Telegraph Half of the profits of The Wanderer will go to the Core Trust, the addiction treatment charity that Leven co-founded - Lotte van den Berg

“There’s no doubt the attack in London changed him,” Rankin says, “and made him think really hard about the kinds of songs he wanted to sing, the stories he wanted to tell, and how he wanted to project himself. Having been through these various guises and disguises, he became this troubadour in later life.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man whose catalogue included songs called ‘The War Crimes of Ariel Sharon’ and ‘The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ’, Leven never achieved mainstream recognition in Britain, though he enjoyed a higher profile in Scandinavia. “There’s no question he could write catchy songs, but he was left-field,” Rankin adds. “If he’d been interested in commercial success, he would have gone in a different direction.”

As it was, Leven followed his own, rather eccentric path. When he toured with Rankin, he arranged for a “rider” of a single uncooked haggis to be delivered to the novelist each night. Kathryn Williams recalls his favoured backstage tipple was Kalimotxo, an unholy blend of red wine and Coca-Cola. “There are some people who are just on the edges,” she says. “He was an outsider and a loner. It makes for great, pure songwriting, but doesn’t always help playing the game in this business.” Robinson agrees: “Uncompromising honesty was Jackie’s hallmark as a human being, and he was unwilling to tolerate anything less from others.”

A decade after his death, Leven’s music feels more potent and necessary than ever. In his song-world, there are no easy binaries, and nothing is off-limits. His deeply human songs say the unsayable, with blinding beauty and searing honesty. “There’s no self-conscious filter,” says Williams. “There’s a lack of musical cynicism, of trying to be cool, which I adore. It doesn’t win awards, but music isn’t about that. It’s about connection.”

The Wanderer is out on Cooking Vinyl on Friday

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