A great but sadly unknown singer and song writer has died. A man who lived terrible things and made them into warm and wonderful songs. Warm like the sunshine falling on the polar ice. Warm like your hand feels when it holds something dead. Warm like almost cooled metal that has been smelted and beaten.
The first song I heard by Jackie Leven was The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ It's one of those perfect songs that punches you in the gut and then reaches up to wrap itself round your heart, squeezing gently. It smashed into me from a compilation cd made for me by my friend Alex. I was 20 years old. I played it on repeat for a long time. I didn't want to stop hearing it.
It seemed to be absolutely about me and at the same time it was about everything that has ever existed. It seemed to describe both my soul and all of history. It didn't change me exactly. It was more that it uncovered something in me that had always been there but id not known before. From then till now that part of me has always been there, close to my surface. Poking out from time to time.
I borrowed the album Fairy Tales for Hard Men and listened to it. It was full of songs and a voice that spoke in simple poetry about domestic violence, alcoholism and drug addiction. Intensely personal and yet amazingly universal it mixed the specific and the transcendental. I could relate absolutely despite never experiencing those things.
I listened to the album every morning and evening as I walked between my house and campus, Leven's voice engraving itself into the slate of my mind. My feet kept time with him as I walked along the thin, winding, Lancashire roads. Twice I found myself crying.
A year later in a small church in the city of Edinburgh my girlfriend and I saw him play. A man in his 50's, overweight with long, greying, scraggly hair he didn't look impressive. He called to the venue staff for a pint glass half full of red wine and half full of white. He drank 3 of them that night. He explained that his voice had only just recovered from when he was stabbed in the throat. He'd had to learn to sing again.
He started to play.
Despite being only one man and a guitar he provided rhythm worthy of a full drum kit, his tapping foot miked up booming the bass, his fingers beating out snares and toms on the body of his instrument. His healed voice reached high up into the churches rafters and whispered in your ears.
In between songs he told hilarious anecdotes about heroin addiction, death and suicide. They were funny, sad and absolutely enthralling. They were warm, wry and above all else painfully human.
We were sat on the front row. It felt like he'd invited us into his front room. He asked people for requests and I called out for The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ. He looked me in the eyes and said in his soft Scottish accent;
"It's a great song. But I can't sing it anymore since the stabbing."
He looked me in the eyes.
And he played Exit Wound instead. And I'd never heard it before. And it was beautiful.
Afterwards in the bar we bought his CDs. Unlike when I've bought CDs from singers before and after I felt like something had passed from him to me. Not an exchange. He had given me something. He looked right into me, from the stage and in person, but there was no judgement there just understanding.
We were the only young people there and in that respect I think we did touch him a little. He was surprised we knew him.
And even though I know it's not true I do feel like I knew him.
Which is why I feel sad that he's gone.