Ian Rankin on a Celtic cult legend: ‘Why isn’t he better known? He should be revered’

The novelist recalls his relationship with the singer Jackie Leven, chronicler of alienation

'He was a machine for coming up with melodies and lyrics': Singer-songwriter Jackie Leven, 1981. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

'He was a machine for coming up with melodies and lyrics': Singer-songwriter Jackie Leven, 1981. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

 

I was a late adopter of Jackie Leven, really. His new-wave band Doll by Doll had passed me by. But then I saw a review in the music press that mentioned a singer-songwriter with muscular lyrics and good guitar playing – and from Fife. My ears pricked up. I managed to find a couple of his CDs in a shop. I was writing an Inspector Rebus novel at the time, and not only did I like Shining Brother Shining Sister, but I thought my guy Rebus would like it as well.

And so, in the next Rebus book, Rebus is happily listening to a Jackie Leven album at home. I didn’t realise Jackie was a fan of the books. He was sitting on an aeroplane somewhere over Scandinavia and he suddenly saw himself mentioned. I don’t know how much of a crime-fiction reader he was, but he was confronted in my books by a larger-than-life male character, John Rebus, who is flawed, complex and awkward socially, who has problems falling in and out of love, and whose job makes him often quite a lonely figure. And I think Jackie got all of that – he got this notion of a person who is wandering through a city and through a life, looking for meaning.

Jackie Leven (left) and Doll By Doll on a rooftop in London, 1981. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns
Jackie Leven (left) and Doll By Doll on a rooftop in London, 1981. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

He was a man who reinvented himself several times. There was the folk troubadour of the early years, and then there was Doll by Doll, who I wish I had seen live – apparently they were quite intimidating. And he suffered a terrible violent attack in Camden, in north London, after which he lost confidence, couldn’t sing. He got into heroin, then off heroin, and then started a charity to help other people get off heroin. And then the further reinvention, when he went solo. It was a hell of a life.

One more thing that linked us was a love of the pub. He was a great one for going into bars and listening to people share their stories – and I’ve been doing that my whole life.

There’s an incredible passion in his work: masculinity, but quite fragile masculinity. His album titles give the game away: Fairy Tales for Hard Men; Lovers at the Gun Club. You get the that sense he’s singing from the point of view of hardened men who are hiding their feelings – and that it would be much better for them if they didn’t. Then there are songs that borrow from Scots ballads and other ballads – a folk tradition, but grafted on to something much more modern. A lot of the songs are about touring and the alienation that touring brings, and he sometimes sets out to shock – The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ: what an extraordinary title for a song! That’s not going to get you too many gigs in the Vatican.

Crime writer Ian Rankin: ‘Jackie Leven was a man who reinvented himself several times.’ Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty
Crime writer Ian Rankin: ‘Jackie Leven was a man who reinvented himself several times.’ Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty

It’s tough to pin him down. Is it Caledonian soul? Is it in the spirit of people like Van Morrison? Leven was a magpie. He loved playing with people from different traditions. African musicians; Arabian musicians. Give him jazz musicians, he’d play along with them. He was a huge fan of Johnny Cash, and recorded a homage to him. He was a machine for coming up with melodies and lyrics.

After he read that Rebus book he got in touch with my publisher, and we started corresponding. I went along to a solo gig of his at the Edinburgh fringe, at midnight in an old converted church. I had barely seen a photograph of him. I thought he was the roadie, because he came shambling on stage. Then he started playing, and as soon as you heard the voice you thought, Oh, that’s Jackie Leven! And his guitar technique was incredible.

We met briefly afterwards, and that was the start. He was doing an event at Celtic Connections and suggested we do a show together: “You read out some of your work and I’ll sing some songs,” he said. “Why don’t we stretch ourselves?” I said. “I’ll write a piece picking up on themes that I find in your songs, and you write some new songs in response to that short story.” And that became Jackie Leven Said, which went down really well. We did it several times, and it was recorded.

Jackie Leven performs at La Pedrera in Barcelona, Spain, 2006. Photograph: Jordi Vidal/Redferns
Jackie Leven performs at La Pedrera in Barcelona, Spain, 2006. Photograph: Jordi Vidal/Redferns

He wrote The Haunting of John Rebus specifically for the show. What a great honour that is! Touring the album was hilarious. Jackie asked what I wanted on the rider. I said: “What the hell is that?” He explained it’s the backstage requirements for the dressing room. I said: “Mate, I’m a writer: we’re lucky if we get a bottle of water – you do the rider.” The first venue was on the Southbank in London. We were sharing a huge dressing room: his side of the room was replete with stuff, and on my side of the room there was nothing – until a backstage technician arrived bearing a haggis and said, “Which one of you f**kers ordered this?” Jackie pointed to me. That’s what he had put on the rider for me: one uncooked haggis for every venue.

After he died, in 2011, I was listening to a lot of his music. I named Standing in Another Man’s Grave after one of his songs – though it turned out I had misheard the lyric: his title was actually Standing in Another Man’s Rain. For my next book, I thought another of his lyrics would suffice, so I took Saints of the Shadow Bible: “The saints of the shadow bible following me from bar to bar into eternity.” I’d always wanted to ask him what the hell that meant and never got round to it. There’s no doubt we would have worked together again, maybe made another album, done some songs together.

Straight Outta Caledonia … The Songs of Jackie Leven is released on Friday. Photograph: Night School Records
Straight Outta Caledonia … The Songs of Jackie Leven is released on Friday. Photograph: Night School Records

I don’t know why he is not better known. He had his fans worldwide, but the media in the UK just didn’t take notice. Go somewhere like Norway and people in the music press or the music clubs all know and revere Jackie Leven. I hope this Straight Outta Caledonia compilation makes a difference. It’s a lovely introduction that just scratches the surface. I’d love it if, having listened to it, people went off and explored Jackie’s discography. You could spend your whole life there, getting to know this guy. – As told to Robin Denselow

Straight Outta Caledonia … The Songs of Jackie Leven is released on Night School Records today

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