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The closest musical relationships often begin by chance. In the case of Jackie Leven, my dad happened upon him only because his set overran at a festival.
Heading in the opposite direction as the crowd filled up for a headline set by Robert Plant, dad – never a Zeppelin fan – had seen the band he bought a ticket for (The Incredible String Band) and was now following my recommendation of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, headlining in one of the tents.
A good recommendation, as it turned out. But, coming to the end of his set as Dad walked into the tent was Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven. Performing alone with an acoustic guitar, his rich booming voice and fantastical stage banter was a revelation.
Backstage, Leven and WGC-main-man Robert Fisher were bonding. Leven had ended his set with an impassioned plea for the audience to stay in the tent, rather than watch Robert Plant stumble through his back catalogue on the main stage. Not many people followed Leven’s advice, but the pair soon started appearing on each other’s albums.
Soon, my dad was ploughing through Leven’s back catalogue, and chasing up rarities. He’d soon joined the hard-core Leven fanbase. My conversion to the Leven cause soon followed. If you want a good introduction to his music, I’d recommend the song I started with – 'Classic Northern Diversions' – a freewheeling epic that sums up both his musical and lyrical fascinations perfectly.
I heard about Jackie’s death when we were sent the sad news that he had lost his battle with cancer in a press release. I was one of the last journalists to speak to him alive. I hope you will go back and read that interview in our archives – if I’d known it would my last chance to speak to him, I would have insisted on it lasting far longer.
I knew that my brother Charles would be very upset at the news. He had become something of a Jackie Leven missionary, dragging any friends he could along to his shows. It seemed wrong for him not to share some words about his favourite modern songwriter.
Here’s what he had to say:
“When my brother asked me if I would like share my thoughts on the sad passing of Jackie Leven, I knew that it would be difficult. There was so much I wanted to say that it might ironically become hard to say anything at all. After starting and abandoning a number of articles, I resolved, come what may, to stick with whatever came next. What came is a description of the first time I saw Jackie. It was undoubtedly the best gig I have ever seen. What follows is not, I am sure, a complete tribute, but it is the best I can offer.
The first time I saw Jackie Leven was a Sunday in a midday pub in Bath. On the way I regretted not bringing a coat. It was the sort of day that makes girls in bell-bottom jeans soak water to their knees. Once I arrived the pub was half-full, mostly with young families chasing stewed roasts around ceramic plates. The bar propped by old men, I fumbled with my phone keypad, stabbing furtive glances sideways to avoid provoking conversation.
On the left as you entered was a modest stage perhaps a foot high. On to it stooped a large, dishevelled man. Streaks of greying hair, slightly damp from the rain, tossed back behind ears. His eyes and hands fidgeted nervously with sheets of scrawled paper in a manner I would learn well over many more gigs in the coming years. His waist bore the evidence of a life lived. He reminded me of the oilskinned fishermen I saw trawling their catch up the North Cornwall coast as a child.
Finally he zeroed upon an azimuth for his papers, laid them down, and brought his guitar to his chest. As he began to tune his guitar and check the microphones, two boys; no older than two or three continued to play on the stage next to him. He gave them a smile as their fathers hurried them off the stage.
When he begun to play I knew at once it was something quite special. It was as if some Divine kenosis had empted the weight of his wanderer's soul. He became alight, his hands and his voice became so sure, so wonderful. Song after song, each much more than a tune, they were stories. A narrative etched from a hard life, cut in the experience of a man who has seen suffering and begun to come through the other side. I had never heard any of his songs before and yet I felt as if each was a favourite from years past. Even though the songs drew inspiration from the colds of Northern Europe, they were soothing songs, warming songs.
Perhaps my favourite was 'Museum of Childhood'. I loved the image of a man walking through the memory of his own childhood as though each event is his life were an exhibit in a museum. It reminded me of the line from Dylan, 'n the Museums, infinity is going up on trial.' Our history is not forgotten, its exhibits stand in our conscience reminding us who we are and where we have been. Leven intertwines this message with the story of the boxing rematch between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, where Duran quit with the now famous words, 'No más' (No more.) Leven's interpretation of the event was deeply affecting.
In his best songs his lyrical narrative was earthed in a sense of the spiritually profane. He was a storyteller, and his songs poems to the lonely. They were reflections redolent of the vagabond spirit. It was as though he was orientated - as all the great lyricists are – towards a sense of the cosmic mystery that grounds all human experience. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay him is to say that he understood what it meant to be human, and could express it in a way that we could all understand.
As I travelled home from Bath I was sure that, truly, ‘these songs spoke to the hearts of all men’.”
Commenting On: 1950-2011 - Jackie Leven
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Ben Howarth and his brother Charles pay tribute to Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven, who died in November
Singer-songwriter Jackie Leven speaks to Ben Howarth about his new album, 'Wayside Shrines and the Code of the Travelling Man', a collaboration with his regular keyboardist Michael Cosgrave, which was written in a set of German hotel rooms
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