Your King Is On This Earth No More: Jackie Leven 1950-2011

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November 14, 2012 by Jake Cantona


I couldn’t get out of the mystery wood, once loved a woman who wished I could[i]


Jackie Leven died on 14th November 2011; the absent year from then to now has provided ample space to reflect on who he was and what that meant. It’s a necessary absence, because Jackie was such a larger than life figure – a virtue in itself of no purpose in the dead – and perhaps it’s only with their passing that larger than life figures attain an honest stature.

It’s not that they diminish – if anything the posthumous height of giants always tends towards exaggeration – but rather that when we see them at a distance their silhouettes gains clarity.

In the same way that you look at someone and can, quite literally, size them up from a physical perspective, when you did the same to Jackie what you saw and got was an immensity of, for want of a more accurate word, soul. I’m really not sure if there’s such a thing as a Rabelaisian Fifer, but if there can be Jackie was, expounding his philosophy in songs full of warmth and generosity, brimming with both anger and desire. Above all, he understood the male condition, its capacity both for violence and generosity, the vulnerability it often cloaks in heroic words and, sometimes, deeds. He spoke to the masculine essence, not by ignoring the difficulties of masculinity, nor by apologising for them, but simply by saying this is how it is.

So it’s been a year of knowing there’ll be no more gigs, no more records, and knowing that some dreams have died as well; my son has Leven as one of his given names and I had wanted for him to see Jackie perform[ii]. That gig I tried to organise won’t happen either.

And there’s the lesson of death, not the sins of commission, but those of omission, the things we didn’t do or never said. At least I did get to tell Jackie what his music meant for me, and how I only got out this side of 2005 because of ‘Shining Brother, Shining Sister’.

I have never wanted to be particularly close to any of my heroes for the age-old fear of disappointment, and in any case, Perhaps as we age our heroes grow shorter in our sight, becoming inspirations, or mentors instead. But Jackie was a hero, a remarkable man, and one who did not lessen in the meeting.

So, knowing this anniversary was approaching I gathered in the Lagavulin and set aside time. In a box room, at the top of the house, to listen again to my favourites of Jackie’s records. Making my choice of Bonfire songs to put aboard the Viking boat, to cheer a wave to the distant giant against the setting sun.

Going back to listen to his work again brought another sense of loss, that this voice booming and soaring out of the speakers was merely a relic of glory, not an echo of the living thing itself. It had become historic.

So I go, travelling out through ‘My Spanish Dad’, a song for the lost parent from which I’ve taken my title for this remembrance, through the elegiac snapshots of ‘My Philosophy’[iii] to the bruised love of ‘Museum of Childhood’, set against the counterpunching story of iconic fighters[iv] where, in the case of Roberto Duran, defeat is not a laying low, but an assertion of an intent which is all the stronger for it.

One of the features of Jackie’s later work was his collaborative work, be it the excellent ‘Jackie Leven Said’ with Ian Rankin[v], from which his shuffling jive recalling adolescent 60s Kirkcaldy ‘Linseed Oil’ is indirectly taken to his final album[vi] with Michael Cosgrove. The tougher-than-death figure of Johnny Dowd makes a couple of telling appearances, providing lead vocals for ‘Lovers At The Gun Club’ and riding shotgun on ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’, where Jackie name checks virtually every road stop in Germany.

It could be Spain, Germany or Norway, but I go to ‘Classic Northern Diversions’, a song set in England -and the opening track on the first of Jackie’s albums that I bought – for the sense of distance and alienation[vii], ending as it does in the admission of St. Michael’s Prayer and Van Morrison’s ‘Please Don’t Go’

‘Here Come The Urban Ravens’ is one a number of elegies Jackie completed towards the end of his life; this one for Kevin Coyne[viii], and one of the most complete songs, in my opinion, that Jackie ever made.

‘Keys to the Forest’, with its theme and phrasing both recalling ‘Raglan Road’, an erotic tour-de-force leading to its inevitable disillusionment in ‘Extremely Violent Man’. And then, the denouement of ‘Night Lilies’ with its folk-shanty dirge and the line ‘but the knives are all dull’ echoing Philip Larkin’s ‘The Less Deceived’

And after the dark we come in to land with ’Gladly Go Blind’ – Jackie’s Frankie Miller[ix]cover serving here for me as a lament for the maker himself.

So this is how I’m remembering Jackie, a playlist on Spotify[x] and a large whisky in a room with the sound of the distant sea – and another self-indulgent blog.

And I find myself asking if this is ok, a slightly boozy ramble through an arbitrary set of songs; if this is a right and fair account to give the measure of a man. I’ve missed songs out and there’s no objective explanation for why I chose one song over another as a background to this drunken remembrance. Perhaps the picture painted through these songs is one that only I will recognise as an honest portrait.

But no one can correct it, least of all Jackie- it is the nature of the dead to baffle us; they never reply to our letters, or answer our questions, return our calls.

I think Jackie would be ok with that. He never did like encores.

14th November 2012

[i] Jackie Leven ‘Museum Of Childhood’

[ii] To be fair, Jackie would have been pushing 75 before the boy could have got to a gig under his own steam.

[iii] “I still think of her on cold grey mornings, when I’m drinking in the Royal Exchange”

[iv] “Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, in their time, were the bravest of men… ”

[v] Symbiosis here: Jackie inspires Ian to write a story which fits around some of Jackie’s songs. Perhaps I simplify.

[vi] Wayside Shrines and The Code of The Travelling Man

[vii] “It took me fifty long years just to find out that because I was angry didn’t mean I was right”

[viii] Others were for Judee Sill ‘The Silver In Her Crucifix’ and, self-evidently, ‘Elegy For Johnny Cash’

[ix] Though I don’t think Frankie Miller actually wrote it himself?


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