She was a big ham sandwich of a woman, and …
I’m reliably informed that, if he’d ever written his autobiography, those would have been the opening words from what surely would have been one of the most fascinating accounts of life in the eye of the storm that is rock’n’roll. That man was known to most as Jackie Leven. He never wrote that memoir and, as far as I know, no-one has attempted a biography of one of the most complex yet openly human and honest musicians the British Isles have ever produced.
From those early days as a psych folk singer in the early 70’s, through the intimidatory and controversial period fronting Doll By Doll during the latter part of that decade, to the stop start nature of his 80’s era and the final flourishing of an extraordinary solo career, his life in music was one that certainly didn’t lack drama. It was some journey, one that I’ve been driven to follow in order to find out more about the musician, lyricist, philosopher and commentator and ultimately, the man himself.
I guess the seeds of this urge to discover more about the man born Allan Moffatt where literally sown eleven years before my birth on June 18th 1961, as a quirk of fate meant the day I entered the world was the very day the young Alan was celebrating his 11th birthday. There were several more serendipitous events along the next 50 odd years that led me to this very point now, where I’m writing about someone I never met but who had a profound effect on me, especially during a period of around six weeks in late 2011, more of which later.
Of course, I was completely unaware of the existence of Alan Moffat until reading about his band Doll By Doll in the late 70’s, probably in Sounds or The New Musical Express (I was never really a fan of Melody Maker). To someone who was keen to find out more about the new sounds emerging in those heady days of punk, new wave and post-punk, these were essential reading, as were the glut of fanzines that were prevalent at the time. By this time, Alan had already released music under the pseudonym of John St Field before changing again to Jackie Leven and becoming the singer, front man and songwriter in this new venture.
I had the opportunity to catch the band live on at least a couple of occasions, and was keen to do so having read and heard about the brutal power and transcendent beauty of the music and the almost threatening nature of their performances. Unfortunately, through illness, ill luck or the apathy of youth I missed out each time, something I regret to this day. Instead, the albums were bought as they released, then it was a case of…nothing. The band split, or at least fizzled out, with news being scarce as the music weeklies moved on to their next fashion or fad to build up before dropping as the fickle nature of the music business played itself out.
So that was it for many years. I became vaguely aware during the mid 80’s that Jackie Leven was releasing music but barely took note. Life had moved on for me- I was no longer that carefree, music chasing, gig going single man of my teens and twenties but was now a married man with children who counted himself lucky to attend a couple of gigs a year and buy a handful of albums that the family budget would allow. As a result, my thirst for music was quenched to the extent I became that person I despised as a youngster- the safe, play list led, fad of the day following consumer of music rather than the restless, adventurous, independently minded finder of new and interesting sounds.
Then, in the early noughties, I bought one of the many music monthlies that were cropping up, taking much of the circulation from the established weeklies. I no longer had the time or inclination to read the weeklies, who I felt quite detached from anyway- probably a sign of my maturing (stagnating?) while they continued to target an age group whose music and language I largely didn’t understand or care for. I’d say I was turning into my Step Dad, but as his musical taste didn’t stretch beyond Lieutenant Pigeon’s Mouldy Old Dough or the odd Daniel O’Donnell record, then that’s possibly a little extreme. Maybe I was turning into someone else’s Dad, but just didn’t know who’s. Anyway, this magazine (Uncut, sometime in 2001) had a cover mount cd of the month’s best new releases. I often bought these just to hang on to what was going on and listen to what new music I could but, as you’d expect from a compilation crossing many genres, they were patchy at best. But with this one, I kept returning to one particular track called The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ.
I first listened to the track when driving to work one day. The in-car stereo only had a cassette player, but I’d found a way to play cds by purchasing a portable cd player which I could link a cassette to with an in-built cable and jack plug. The cassette was then inserted into the car stereo and would play the cd through the speakers. It all sounds quite quaint now, but needs must. Anyway, on listening to the track, I was immediately taken in by the Scottish voice seemingly talking about retaining dignity and remaining true to oneself over a lone keyboard which gradually swells before a voice echoes the word ‚desolation‘ twice, heralding the arrival of an insistent drum beat and an almost stuttering vocal delivery of these lines:
They say that god is in the detail
And I’m sure that’s true
I run my thumb across egyptian stone
And the images come through
It was one of those moments when you listen to music that catches you unawares. Not just the music, but the lyrics as well. Your mind might be drifting elsewhere- last night’s shenanigans, what sandwich to get for lunch, the plight of your football team (Hull City in case you wondered, plenty to think about there) etc- but as an opening to a song, it pulls your mind back into focus and has you asking ‘What the fuck was that?’, before you carry on to the end of the song, press the back button and listen again. No doubt the frequency of these happenings vary from person to person, but I’m guessing it’s probably happened to me maybe half a dozen times over the course of my life, it’s that rare an occurrence. The first time I heard Bowie’s Space Oddity or Complete Control by The Clash out as classic examples for me. These songs might not even end up being your favourites by a band, but for impact on listening to the first few seconds of each, they stand out. I’m sure you have your own, but at least read the rest of this blog before you dive down that particular rabbit hole.
Anyway, suffice to say, the impact of that song led me to buying the album from which it came, the equally intriguingly titled ‘Creatures of Light and Darkness‘. Which then led to a gradual re-discovery of his back catalogue and a renewed interest in whatever he was going to release next. Only it wasn’t quite as simple as that. He only occasionally graced the pages of the monthly music magazines review sections and sometimes released music under a different name. What I didn’t know at the time was his popularity in some European countries and the hardcore following he had in the UK. Again, as with the Doll By Doll days, I had the opportunities to see Jackie live, but to my regret to this day, never took them up.
So it came to the year 2011 and I’d heard Jackie was due to release a new album with regular collaborator Michael Cosgrave called, as enigmatically as ever, ‘Wayside Shrines and the Code of the Travelling Man‘. Although it was the year of my fiftieth Birthday (and Jackie’s 61st), it had been a difficult year with a recent period out of work and my Step Dad’s ongoing period of ill health with cancer, which wasn’t helped by my living the best part of 200 miles away. It was during the return leg of one of my trips to see him that I managed to write off my car (and two trees in the process) when sliding off what was an otherwise empty road, though I escaped with minor brusies to body and ego. What I was most upset about was the cds that were broken in the process.
Anyway, by this point I’d somehow managed to get involved with hosting a radio show on a small community radio station called Thetford Radio. When I say somehow, I mean it was a series of very unlikely events that got me, a lad from Hull, living in Suffolk, presenting a radio show in Norfolk having had no previous experience of doing anything in the music industry ever. Well, apart from a stint doing some unpaid stewarding at the old Wembley Arena in the early 1980s. It involved attending a work colleagues leaving do at a bangers and mash restaurant in Bury St Edmunds. Sitting next to a chatty and knowledgeable chap called Robbie Puricelli, we quickly struck up a conversation about music and realised we had some overlap in taste. Somehow or other, the increasingly tipsy chat turned to a band I was hugely fond of, The Distractions, who to that date had released only one album in 1980. Both in mild shock that the other had even heard of the band, Robbie told me about a recent tweet he’d seen by the TV writer and music critic David Quantick, mentioning the possibility of some band members reforming and recording again. Tickled with excitement at this possibility (and perhaps the increasing flow of wine) Robbie invited me on to his weekly show on Thetford Radio, which I drunkenly accepted.
I attended Robbie‘s show, chatted with the very amenable and professional host, took along a few tunes to play and immediately fell in love with being on the microphone end of this wonderful medium, even if I did feel pretty inadequate for the most part. Fortunately, the station manager liked what he heard and asked if I’d be interested in doing a show of my own. After dismissing my immediate thought that they must be really desperate, I accepted the offer and within a week or two was hosting The Smelly Flowerpot- a nod of gratitude to John Peel’s Perfumed Garden radio show in the 60’s.
Jackie released the ‘Wayside Shrines…‘ album in September 2011. Needless to say, I adored the album, its melancholic way of dealing with the heavyweight subjects of life and death, its nostalgia for happier as well as sadder times resonating with my mood at the time. At the time, I had no idea Jackie was ill himself. Around a month later, my Step Dad finally succumbed to cancer. A little more than two weeks later, Jackie was gone too. Then a month later my Mam also passed away, never recovering from the loss of her husband a mere six weeks earlier. I always remember Mam telling me around this time about life without her beloved after all those years. He used to snore something rotten, but every now and again the noise would stop, as if he was pausing for what seemed an age. Weirdly, she’d sleep through the noise but it was was those silent pauses that used to wake her up. Fearing that he’d stopped breathing for good, she’d reach out, give him a nudge and he would reassuringly start snoring again. After he’d passed away, she’d wake during the night to that same silence and reach out to nudge him only to find he wasn’t there. That’s when it really hit her and, frail as she was, she never really recovered from this loss. The music from ‘Wayside Shrines…’ was my soundtrack to that period, but also my support and comfort.
On the night Jackie died, I was broadcasting live on Thetford Radio. Part of the way in to my show, I saw a message on social media stating that Jackie had passed away. Stunned by the news and reeling somewhat, I mumbled something on air about the tragedy and quickly re-arranged the playlist to add some Jackie tunes as an impromptu tribute. On the drive home, I pondered the news. I clearly loved his music, it had affected me massively over the years- perhaps I hadn’t known quite how much. But I didn’t know anything about him, had never met him or seen him play live and now would never get the chance. I’d seen plenty of live clips on Youtube and listened to the live albums with the wonderful preamble and shaggy dog stories between songs. But that was it. Suddenly, tragically, there was a Jackie sized hole in the world of music. But, the more I thought about it the more I realised there was something else nagging at me- the gradual realisation that I needed to find out more about the person who wrote those songs that had touched me at various points during my life.
During the months after the loss of Jackie, I became more and more aware of the circle of people that had grown over the years that were linked to and had great affection for him. Many of these people became friends of my own, initially through social media as I was invited to join a Facebook page of his friends, peers and fans. Perhaps inspired by some of the shenanigans on that page and the obvious love shown by the members towards Jackie, as well as what I saw as the lack of appreciation in the media of who we all saw as one of the greatest songwriters these islands had produced, I was spurred on to do something in his memory. I gradually hatched an idea to produce a one off radio show featuring his music and the words of those that knew him. Over the next few months, I made contact with and interviewed many associates and, fuelled by cheap red wine, started to piece together a two hour tribute. At this time, through the Facebook group, I was also invited to an emotional evening of Jackie’s music as performed by his partner Deborah Greenwood and long time friend and occasional collaborator, Michael Weston King. A wonderful night of music was topped off with a great interview with Michael- it’s just a shame my incompetence with an unfamiliar, borrowed recorder meant I inadvertently pressed pause instead of record. Fortunately, Michael was good enough to indulge me and agreed to a repeat interview on the telephone a few days later. That radio show was eventually broadcast on Cambridge 105 Radio on September 17th 2013 and is still available to listen to on Mixcloud where it remains my most listened to show. You can hear the full show, plus some extra material, via the link below. Ignore the occasional continuity error and the bumbling, amateurish presenter and revel in the wonderful music and glowing testaments from those that knew and loved him. November 14th is the anniversary of his passing and, as I do with my Mam and step Dad’s anniversaries, I smile and remember all the good things about them.
As an addendum to the above, My Darling Clementine (Michael Weston King and partner Lou Dalgleish) have a new album out called ‘Country Darkness‘, which is an album full of wonderful Elvis Costello covers. Well worth checking out, as are their previous albums of original songs which you can check out via the link below. I admit I have a fairly limited number of Country albums in my collection, but these rank right up there with the best of Dolly, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. Great music transcends genres- one of the highlights of my time presenting The Smelly Flowerpot on Cambridge 105 Radio was the session they played a few years ago.