Thursday, 17 November 2011
Jackie Leven RIP
Jackie Leven, who has died of cancer aged 61, was one of rock and folk music’s most colourful and individual talents, though he never achieved the wide success and recognition that his performances undoubtedly merited.
“The greatest band you’ve never heard of,” was how a Daily Telegraph critic described Doll By Doll, the idiosyncratic band Leven led in compelling fashion through the late 1970s and early 1980s. The group’s psychedelic-flavoured style may have been out of step with the times, preventing it from achieving anything more than cult status, but Leven’s rampant imagination rewarded fans’ fascination. Doll By Doll’s 1979 album Gypsy Blood was hailed, retrospectively, as one of British rock’s masterpieces.
Usually described as a maverick, or an outsider who swam constantly against the tide, Leven survived not only the split of Doll By Doll in 1982, but also an attempt to murder him, as well as debilitating drug addiction. He re-emerged in the 1990s as a darkly witty and unusually perceptive singer-songwriter operating on the fringes of the folk scene. After a 40-year career and 400 original songs, he was still at the top of his game when he collaborated with the multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosgrave on his final album Wayside Shrines and the Code of the Travelling Man – released to enthusiastic reviews earlier this year.
Leven had an unusual background. He was born to a gypsy family in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, on June 19 1950, with a London Irish father and a Northumbrian mother. He was a loner in childhood and had a sketchy education, constantly playing truant from school. Instead he preferred to spend his time wandering alone in the hills near Kirkcaldy, an environment which subsequently featured heavily in his songwriting. On the rare days he did attend, one of his schoolmates was the future Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the pair were even on Kirkcaldy High School’s debating society together. As a Labour backbencher, Brown occasionally attended Leven’s solo gigs.
One thing Leven did learn, however, was his mother’s love of the blues, and as a teenager he spent much of his time playing in local folk clubs. Having definitively left school he hitchhiked around Britain and parts of Europe, often sleeping rough, and then wound up busking in London. Initially adopting the name John St Field, he released his eccentric, psychedelic first record, Control, in 1971 (reissued by Cooking Vinyl in 1997), before forming Doll By Doll during the height of the punk movement in the late 1970s.
Leven’s weirdly disquieting songs — often confronting such difficult issues as mental illness and homelessness — sharply distinguished Doll By Doll from the more usual bands of the punk era and their simplistic anger. After challenging but failing to dent the dogmatic attitudes of the day, the band disintegrated following four albums that were critically well-received but sold sparsely.
While working on a solo album in 1983 Leven became the victim of a vicious random attack in the street by a group of strangers who tried to strangle him as he walked home from a recording session in North London. “One guy was strangling me and some others were giving me a serious kicking,” Leven recalled. “I remember thinking, quite clearly: 'I’m going to die here.’” He was saved by his producer, who, Leven said, “jumped in a Range Rover and came surging up the street, horn blaring, hurtling onto the pavement in great grandstanding style.”
Nonetheless, Leven’s larynx was badly damaged and in the aftermath of the assault he was unable to sing or play guitar. He was plunged further into gloom when he separated from his girlfriend, and he soon became a recluse, taking solace in heroin.
Two years later he emerged – fully recovered – after undergoing a course of alternative Chinese treatment and psychic healing. Such was his praise for these remedies over more traditional rehabilitation treatments that he went on to co-found the Core Trust, an organisation in Marylebone which promotes a “holistic” approach to helping people with alcohol and drug addictions. As a patron of the Core Trust, he once met Diana, Princess of Wales, responding to her request to sing something with the traditional Scottish ballad The Bonnie Earl Of Moray, which he had previously used as the basis for one of Doll By Doll’s most popular songs, Main Travelled Roads.
Leven subsequently left London to live in Oban on the west coast of Scotland, where he involved himself in the local community and wrote the material that provided the basis of his dramatic and expansive comeback album, The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death (1994). This was ranked by Q magazine as one of the “100 Best Albums of All Time” and included one of his finest songs, Call Mother.
His ambitious follow-up solo album, Forbidden Songs Of The Dying West (1995), included a 60-voice male choir, guest artists such as the songwriters Eddi Reader and Andy White, and one of his most remarkable songs, Young Male Suicide Blessed By Invisible Woman. The mystical Fairy Tales For Hard Man album (1997), confirmed his evolution into both a soulful, almost spiritual singer and a broody, intriguing songwriter.
Leven continued to experiment and explore different styles on the eclectic Night Lilies (1998) and Defending Ancient Springs (2000). This album, in part inspired by the poet Kathleen Raine, includes sound effects, industrial samples, and a duet with David Thomas (of the experimental rock music group Pere Ubu) on a bold cover of the old Righteous Brothers’ hit You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.
He only became more prolific in the new millennium, releasing further imaginative collections such as Elegy For Johnny Cash (2005) – which includes the entertainingly-titled Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students Of Zen – as well as Lovers At The Gun Club (2008). His final record – subtitled Songs Written In German Hotel Rooms — was full of characteristically dark but funny numbers such as Swine Flu Fever Blues; To Live and Die In Levenland; and Townes At The Borderline, and incorporated references to Captain Beefheart, John Coltrane and Leslie Phillips along the way.
“All I can do is make records that I would like and want to listen to and hope others agree,” Jackie Leven said earlier this year. “That is my fate.”
He was twice married and is survived by his partner, Deborah Greenwood, and by a son of an earlier relationship.
Jackie Leven, born June 19 1950, died November 15 2011