A Cult Artist’s Cult Artist | Music Review | Chicago Reader

A Cult Artist’s Cult Artist 

Who’s Jackie Leven? Ask Johnny Dowd, or Ron Sexsmith, or Pere Ubu's David Thomas.

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Over the years he's kept some diverse artistic company. In addition to David Thomas—who contributes to three tracks on the excellent 2000 release Defending Ancient Springs, including that improbable, wonderful Righteous Brothers cover—he's collaborated with alt-country hell-raiser Johnny Dowd, melancholy Canadian popster Ron Sexsmith, best-selling Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin (who's also from Fife), and poet Robert Bly, whom Leven has known since the 1970s, long before he came to fame as a guru of the "men's movement."

This is how the notoriously autocratic Thomas explains his creative relationship with Leven in an interview on Leven's 2004 concert video, The Meeting of Remarkable Men: "I envy his voice. He's a great singer, he's a great storyteller, and he's a man's man, and therefore he's a lot of fun to work with, because you get that male poetic bonding right away, and that's a lot of fun artistically. . . . He's got a deep connection with the land, with geography, with landscape, and we connected immediately on that level. And working with Jackie is . . . When you're working with people who are your equals, then you're willing to be submissive to their way. It's like dogs. Dogs immediately recognize where they are in a hierarchy. They don't object to being in a hierarchy. . . . If I walk into a room I know pretty much immediately where I fit into the hierarchy of other arty types. I know whether I'm an alpha male in that room or whether I'm somewhere else down the line."

As a cult artist's cult artist, Leven has been obliged to make his living by relentless touring, playing small club dates with just his guitar or with a drummer and keyboardist. Until recently it wasn't unusual for him to be on the road 200 days a year, though lately he's been touring less—he says he wants to "spend more time writing songs at home and less time pillaging minibars." When Leven leaves Hampshire, England, where he lives with longtime romantic partner Deborah Greenwood, it's mostly to play in Germany and Scandinavia, where his biggest fan base lives. "It seems that these countries with gloomy reputations are also the places where people think that what I do is funny," he says. Most of Leven's lyrics could compete with Townes Van Zandt's and the Handsome Family's for sunlit cheer, but he's also recorded a rousing cover of the country-and-western chestnut "I've Been Everywhere" rejiggered with German place names.

Doesn't it sometimes drive him crazy, doing all this good work to so little notice? "Yeah, sometimes it does," he allows. "But then, I know so many musicians who complain that they're bored out of their minds with what they do, and if they only they had a choice, they'd be doing something completely different. To which I say, 'What the fuck do you mean? Of course you've got a choice, you've just got to be willing to pay the price.'"

Which leads me to a sly little joke Leven inserted into the lyrics of "Last of the Badmen," an atmospheric downer on Gothic Road. "I hold an ace of sunlight / In this weatherbeaten game / It's the card that saved me / From the injuries of fame." It's sure to have them rolling in the aisles in Germany and Scandinavia.   

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