Alistair Leigh - ??/??/???? - 04/02/2010
The word "legend" is very overused in our current age. A definition of the word legend is - "a collection of stories about an admirable person. a person who is the centre of such stories: s/he became a legend in his/her own lifetime."
How many people can we genuinely say that about?
The West End of Glasgow was once filled with truly eccentric, wonderful characters, almost all of whom have now vanished. Anyone who lived in this part of the city during the 80s and 90s would be familiar with various outlandish creatures who were a fixture on the streets of what was once a genuinely Bohemian part of the city. Although I still live on the fringes of the West End, sadly these days it is about as edgy as a branch of Starbucks. As the wealthy have moved in, so the area has become sanitised and lost a lot of its character and characters. A few struggle on and there are a few parts that remain run down and cheap to rent where pockets of creativity try to fight the good fight. But, for the most part, the West End as a bastion of the anarchic of spirit is sadly long gone.
One West End character, and a person possibly more deserving of the term "legend" in the true sense than anyone I have ever met was Alistair Leigh (or Lee, depending on his mood). To anyone who frequented certain Glasgow and Edinburgh nightclubs throughout the 90s he was unmissable. A fixture on the dancefloors at Pure, Pussypower, Tangent, Test and Monox amongst others, Alistair was skeletally thin, shaven headed and truly looked as if he was not of this world. No photo can really convey his striking uniqueness. For a start he was patently around 20 years older than anyone else, although it was impossible to ascertain exactly how old he was. My guess is that he was born in the late 1940s. But, beyond his appearance, there was his dancing. Never has the term "lost in music" been so appropriate. Alistair looked like he was in a different realm to everyone else. He had such a distinctive way of moving to, and being moved by music. Words can't really do it justice and anyone who saw him out back then will be instantly able to visualise it. He would always be rooted to the same spot and had this very distinctive slow motion Shiva-esque dance that made him appear to be lost in true ecstasy. If one happened to get close to him he would be making audible swooshing and swishing noises as his outstretched arms seemed to gently stroke the edges of his universe.
He freaked out quite a lot of people, not least several visiting djs, but I instantly took to him and for a few years we were great friends. He came through to Pure in Edinburgh almost every Friday night for several years and would always stand in exactly the same spot right at the front of the stage in front of the dj riser looking out into the dark depths of the club or signalling his joy (or distaste) to whoever was playing. He wasn't much of a fan of public transport (he once told me he had been a bus conductor in the 1960s, which was undoubtedly the only time in his life he was ever in any sort of gainful employment) and after we stopped running our weekly Pure bus from Glasgow to Edinburgh he would often persuade one of his camp followers (or even complete strangers) to drive him through. He would usually arrive a little late and one week on his arrival his space had been taken. He pulled me aside to say how unacceptable this was and suggested that we procure some Police cones so that in future his space could be reserved for him.
He was also highly opinionated about what music he liked and didn't like and on one occasion when Derrick May was playing he gave him a very visible thumbs down gesture. Derrick freaked and started demanding we have Alistair removed. We explained that this simply just wasn't possible and Derrick upped his ante and went on to play one of his classic sets. Alistair and Derrick would encounter each other several times over the years and eventually they reached a mutual understanding.
Alistair was deaf in one ear. Russ, aka DJ Dribbler, one of the four Pure djs recounted this Al story - "I spoke to Alistair for the entire bus journey once coming back from Pure. He turned and looked at me and jumped with shock around Easterhouse. He was shocked I was there and hadn't heard a word I had said for the last 40 mins!"
There are countless wonderful Alistair anecdotes, but apart from being a character and fixture on the Scottish club scene, he was also a very kind, very gentle, profoundly interesting and intelligent man. Along with my friends Jill and Gerard I would visit his tenement flat on a regular basis. His flat was a whole story unto itself. He had been there since time immemorial and was paying some ridiculously low rent much to the chagrin of the woman who owned the flat, who he seemed to be in constant dispute with. He shared his sizeable three bedroom flat with his ever present dogs and more clutter than one would believe it was possible to fit in to such a space. It was literally impossible to open the bedroom doors as they were piled to the ceiling with junk. Alistair was a nocturnal creature, to say the least, and would seldom rise before 11pm. On his brief daytime sorties when he was forced to interact with the normal world (he signed on for decades) he would collect all the detritus people had thrown out around the West End. Allegedly, once a year a guy in a van from Eastern Europe would drive over and buy it all. By the time I started visiting he patently hadn't been over for a few years. Alistair definitely operated on a different mental plane. On a couple of occasions he presented me with records he had found in skips that I had spent years looking for. The oddest instance of this was that I had been desperate to procure a 12" called "Health and Efficiency" by the band This Heat. I had never mentioned this to Alistair as we didn't really talk about things like that, but one time I visited him he announced "I believe this might be of interest to you" and handed me a filthy, covered in who knows what, dog eared copy of the 12". The record inside was immaculate.
I think Alistair had thrived in the 1960s and embraced the counter culture wholeheartedly. When the 1970s came along he was less than impressed. Initially he spent the early 70s getting into heavy drinking, a classic Glasgow pastime. He told me he used to go out on the town with a £1 note sticking out of his jacket pocket and used to wear a badge with his address written on it. He would get so drunk that when it was time to go home he would fall into a taxi and point at his badge so the driver would know where to take him. The driver would then empty Al out of the taxi by his flat and take the £1. Alistair wasn't really the hard drinking type so soon tired of this and by all accounts spent the rest of the 70s and all the 80s in his flat waiting for "something interesting to happen". When he was introduced to rave culture, he had a Eureka moment and decided THIS was what he had been waiting for and embraced it wholeheartedly.
Alistair had an outstanding knowledge of almost any subject one cared to think of. From the culture of ancient Mesopotamia to quantum mechanics, he could happily converse about it all. He had a profound occult knowledge (in the literal meaning of the term - knowledge which is "hidden") and if one allowed oneself to get into his flow and listened long enough (a conversation with him was most definitely a one way street), he had his own wonderful, gentle philosophy on life and it is one of life's great shames that he never wrote any of it down. He was incredibly erudite and eloquent and never boring or patronising, although he could be very cutting. He often made me think he could be a character in an Alasdair Gray book which is also a little odd as they were old, old friends, so maybe he was! Knowing I was quite the fan, he once took me to an Alisdair Gray reading and introduced me to him at the end. I nearly died of embarrassment as he announced "Alisdair, you simply must come and hear Keith play one night. The experience might help remove some of the stiffness from your prose". Ouch!
Sometimes we would take visiting artists round to visit Alistair who loved holding court and genuinely got a kick out of receiving visitors. He and ambient dj Mixmaster Morris hit it off in particular. Dutch techno hero Orlando Voorn had his mind blown so much after a visit that when he got back to the Glasgow flat he was staying in (which happened to have a load of synths and drum machines in it) he said he had to make a track about his experience immediately. That track was (of course) called Alistair's Theme and was released by myself and Brainstorm as a 12" with a photo of Alistair on the label. You can hear an extract from it here.
Around 1995 work was being conducted on the building Alistair lived in and the whole tenement block was encased in scaffolding. One night Alistair thought he heard noises on the scaffolding and stuck his head out his bathroom window to see what was going on. He received a serious blow to his head from a mentally disturbed person with a hammer which took out a big chunk of his skull. He was very lucky to survive and spent a long time recovering. He became a bit more reclusive after that and wouldn't venture out so often. He came to the last Pure in 2000 and shortly thereafter made his only visit to Optimo which was absolutely not to his taste - "Guitars??? How primitive!" He also thought it was a terrible name for a club night. I last saw him a couple of years ago and he was as charming, erudite, amusing and gentle as ever. I promised to visit him but life got in the way and sadly that was to be my last encounter with him. I have lots of other great Alistair memories but i'll leave it there. I'm sure everyone who knew him well has their own mythology about Big Al, so what I've written can only reflect my personal experience which is really from the period 1991 - 1997. I felt something had to be written about him and hopefully this will remain online for some time. Maybe people will pass on their own memories or anecdotes and I'll develop this page into a bit more of an Alistair tribute from those he made an impression on?
A true one off. One of those once in a lifetime characters you meet who seem to have been beamed down from another dimension. A true gentleman and a profoundly kind soul. Rave in peace Alistair.