Jackie Leven: Always look on the dark side of life

Jackie Leven knows all about plumbing the depths. But his childhood in a depressed small town, years of heroin addiction, and his failure to make the big time have made him a stronger artist
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The Independent Culture

Back in his native Glenrothes in East Fife in the early Sixties, just before he became the first schoolboy in the country to be expelled for drug possession, Jackie Leven won the national Scottish Round Table School Essay competition.

"The subject was straightforward: what are you going to do when you leave school? I simply wrote about how I would go round the world playing my guitar," he smiles, a large burly but baby- faced man bursting out of his shorts and khaki shirt, nursing a mid-afternoon pint in a London Railway Tavern.

"I had no interest in being a pop star, I simply wanted to see the world, though what I was looking for I don't know."

What he found was a wealth of experience that he has transmuted into a series of accomplished, soul-stirring albums. The latest, Creatures of Light and Darkness, is the 21st in a 30-year recording career that includes five albums by the semi-legendary Doll by Doll. The new album's title is inspired by his memory of a childhood journey to the bottom of the local coal mine with local pit workers, but the music within is informed by the harsh truths, and illuminating wisdom he's encountered during his life as a travelling troubadour.

Keeping faith with what he calls that "unforgettable" journey down the mineshaft, Leven's life has involved many journeys to deep dark places. The late Sixties were spent in an intense LSD haze and in the early Seventies he lived in a Madrid still ruled by Franco and a Berlin still divided by the Wall.

"It gave me an acute insight into the various forms of duress people can suffer and fed into the group of songs that would form the basis for Doll by Doll."

Described by many as the greatest band you never saw, Doll by Doll were Leven's one and only lunge for the mainstream – melodic Celtic blues, literary invocations and transcendent hard rock. Defiantly out of kilter with the post- punk climate, they failed commercially and it's a wound he still bears.

"There's a saying you should know a man by his defeats, and that was definitely mine. Does it still hurt? Yes. Do I want revenge? No. You carry on but the scars are there, definitely."

In 1983, his solo career was cut short by a near-fatal street attack that took away his high-flown falsetto and left him unable to sing for several years. Depressed, he and his then girlfriend resorted to heroin, eventually devising their own method of treating addiction. This method was to become the foundation of the CORE Trust, which was funded by Shirley Porter's Westminster Council and strongly supported by Diana, Princess of Wales.

"She was great for us – any opportunity to raise money she'd be down at the centre," he recalls. "One day after a fundraising lunch she said to me, 'I heard you used to be a singer.' I was indignant; I said, 'I am a singer.' She put me on the spot and asked whether I'd like to sing now. I had to prove myself so I sang for her, it was a way back into my career."

Later, towards the end of the great actor's life, he became a friend of Lord Olivier and sang for him also. By that time he was again on the troubadour trail, averaging more than an album a year, including official bootlegs and specially compiled collections for his Haunted Valley fan club, since signing for Cooking Vinyl in 1995.

The themes on these albums – drink and memory, love and death, spiritual and emotional exile – were already apparent on his 1970 debut, Control.

"It's important for the maintenance of mystique and intrigue to think that you're developing away from who you are. But I think artists and people generally follow the same themes all their life."

What makes Creatures of Light and Darkness so compelling is the way Leven finds striking new settings for his preoccupations, as on "The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ". "I've got a bit of a thing about the Christians. I don't know where it came from, other than growing up in an unemployed mining town with 14 churches and one pub for 44,000 people. We had the highest male suicide rate in Europe for three years running in the mid Sixties.

"I was having a laugh with some friends about the inarticulate Jesus. In the Bible, he's incredibly articulate and always says the right things. He must have had another life. I was thinking about the sort of paranoias that build up when you lose touch with the sexual world and how this might have affected his judgement.

"The other point of the song is in the voices you hear at the beginning. They are Glaswegian shipyard workers who'd just been sacked. Their articulacy is amazing and it provides the precise emotional and cultural tone the rest of the song can be heard by."

Like its acclaimed predecessor Defending Ancient Springs, Creatures of Light and Darkness gilds Leven's rich melancholic voice in a musical backdrop that is woven with stealth and cunning.

"Often I don't let the musicians hear what others have done; it's the direct opposite of ensemble playing. If people hear what you've already got they get formulaic ideas about what they should do. The better the musician, the bigger the problem that can be.

"On one song I caught the rhythm section saying to each other 'just think James Taylor'. It really pissed me off. If the rest of the band had heard that it would have been tragic."

Leven is an extremely busy man. When we meet, he's spent the morning giving advice to CORE, which is still a successful treatment centre. He's releasing his own brand of Scottish whisky – Leven's Lament – concurrently with the album and has just returned from an event with 75 other blokes in the Scottish Highlands run by his friend, the poet and men's movement figurehead, Robert Bly.

"It was about grief and what happens when you don't acknowledge it. It's an area I love, going to those sad places. It gives me tremendous mirth when a sad song takes shape in the studio, because I think that when you come away from it you feel much better.

"I think people who like my music come away from it with a strengthened sense of identity. At least I hope so, because that sadness is universal and archetypal – without experiencing it you can't really claim to be alive."

'Creatures of Light and Darkness' is released on 3 July on Cooking Vinyl