Wednesday 16 November 2011

Life is Fight : A Tribute To Jackie Leven

The Spiral Earth website invited me to write a tribute to the great singer songwriter Jackie Leven
Jackie was a highly talented and respected singer songwriter, whose commercial success sadly did not reflect his widespread critical acclaim... he will be much missed! Below are the thoughts that I wrote....

Yesterday (Tuesday 15th Nov) at 2pm I was sitting by a wood-burning stove in the open plan kitchen of Gill Stevens, a dear friend and current musical collaborator. We’d spent the morning working on pieces for our new project and had just stopped for a well over-due lunch break. I was in the middle of a discussion with Gill’s partner Dylan Fowler about rock n roll and the state of punk music and the parts it did and didn’t play in politics, when out of nowhere there was an almighty crash from outside. We looked out to discover that a pigeon had fatally flown head-on into a window and broken its neck- not a pretty sight. Moments later (after a cowardly ‘bagsy not cleaning it up‘ comment ) I stepped inside to check my phone messages and casually switched to scan the news feed of my face-book pages in typical voyeuristic- social media addicted style.  The words hit me with a force somewhat similar to the crash sound the pigeon had just made seconds before, high impact and head on. Jackie Leven was dead.

I didn’t know Jackie Leven well. This morning as Spiral Earth editor Dave Kushar invited me to write this piece my first instincts were to say ‘but how can I, who am I to comment on the life of this person who my path crossed with so fleetingly?’ But I find myself typing regardless.

I was first introduced to Jackie’s music from the cosy hospitality of Barton and Humber’s MTM music promoters Mark and Jan. Being good friends with Jackie and genuine fans of his work they offered up many entertaining anecdotal stories of their recent encounters with him and urged me to check out his music. I did so and in doing so I was not disappointed. Personally I’ve been a long time fan of the music of Kevin Coyne, and found that Jackie’s songs filled with portraits of struggling, eccentric under-dog type characters resonated with me in a similar way to those of Kevin’s music. It came as no surprise when I finally met Jackie to discover that he was also a Kevin Coyne fan.

When an opportunity arrived of sharing a gig with him on the stale beer scented stage of what was then Barfly in Cardiff a few years back I seized it. Watching Jackie play his barfly set, I remember looking around the room that was two thirds full and thinking it a crime that a performer of his calibre was not filling much larger venues. At the same time however, the grotty, sweaty grime of the venue didn’t detract but served, as a fitting backdrop to the gritty content of his songs and stories.  Engaged from the word go, Jackie and his music took me on a journey and I left a different person to the one I’d arrived as. First things first, the obvious one, Jackie Leven was a big man, filling the stage with his larger than life stories. But it seemed to me that he was also a man engaged with the tiny details. He had the ability of inhabiting a moment completely, reinterpreting a full spectrum of emotion inside a sentence or two. He was authentic. Very much aware of his own failings he didn’t pretend and had no time for anyone who did, taking the what you see is what you get approach.  A skilled guitar player with his own trademark blues style and a wordsmith who knew his craft. An engaging storyteller who could reel you in and hold you captivated with a self-deprecating humour and sharp, sometimes sardonic tongue that could as likely rip you to shreds as build you up. A performer and artist engaged with the ongoing battle of ‘eeking out a living as a musician and keeping on keeping on regardless of the outcome. Stating the obvious again here I know, but I guess it comes down to the power and gift of music and song, the transforming connection that it makes with an individual. Jackie and his music stirred me. Entertained me. Moved me. Amused me. Uplifted me. Challenged me. Stayed with me and travelled beyond the initial first listening and took root (as all good art does,) in some part of me.
After the gig we chatted about our common love of Kevin Coyne, and Jackie recommended that I go check out the music of Judee Sill and Karen Dalton (I’m guessing he may have suggested this to most female singer songwriters he met on the road!) Which I dutifully did and was rewarded by what I discovered in both of them!

I was recently involved in a songwriting project with Roma teenagers.
And one of the phrases that we used was the Romany saying  “Zivot Je Boj” meaning, ‘Life is fight.’  Thinking of Jackie Leven as an artist and a man, I find myself reminded of this phrase (not least of all as Jackie’s own mother was Romany.) And though there are countless stories that I’ve heard about Jackie and his temper and his crazy punk rock ‘n’ ways, I mean this fight in the most positive way it can be interpreted. It seems to me with my very limited knowledge of Jackie as a person, that whatever the circumstances he just kept on fighting. From the outset, having to leave his Glasgow estate for fear of his life due to gang threats. Fighting literally for his own life after being mugged and left for dead in London. Fighting to overcome the heroin addiction that followed. Fighting on behalf of others to setting up the CORE TRUST a holistic treatment centre for alcoholics and drug addicts. Fighting on as a solo performer all these years.

But the impression that is foremost in the front of my mind as I type is that of a person engaged in the struggle, the fight that is this thing called life and for myself as an artist I’m deeply grateful for the impact that both he and his music have made on me.