FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Stray Cat Blues

There’s a scene near the beginning of the Donald Cammell 1970 film Performance starring Mick Jagger and James Fox where a chauffeur is tied up, his boss’s car mutilated with acid, and his head shaven. The recently released biography of David Litvinoff begins with a very similar scene. There is a reason for that. Not only was Litvinoff intimately involved in the making of the film, it his life that the James Fox character is partially modeled after. Other gangsters in the film are modeled from people Litvinoff knew and worked with.

Litvinoff was one of those characters in bohemian circles who never quite make their own art. Instead, these characters inspire the work of the bohemians they hang out with, procure illegal drugs for, and otherwise provide elements of danger and excitement most artists would not otherwise encounter. In the US counterculture, the Beat inspiration and Merry Prankster bus driver Neal Cassady is probably the best known such individual. Litvinoff, who like Casady, could talk a mile a minute, also knew how to tell a good story. In addition, he had serious connections in the London criminal underworld as well as in the art scene. He often made it his business to introduce members of each scene to the other.

Litvinoff was also a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. However, according to his biographer Keiron Pim in the recently released (in the United Kingdom) Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock N’ Roll Underworld, Litvinoff never really tried to hide his sexuality. Naturally, this made the men in the overly macho world of gangsters nervous, especially among the individuals who were uncertain of their own sexuality. Like any good rock and roll biography, there is an undercurrent of sexuality throughout Pim’s text. To his credit, Pim does not make it the central element to Litvinoff’s story, leaving the reader to deduce that Litvinoff was much more than a person defined by his sexual desires.51JUkV8i8qL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

This is a fascinating look at what I would consider a life well-lived. A man who never had much of a bank account (and never seemed to really need that type of security), Litvinoff came from the Jewish working class district of London. His parents were refugees from the Tsarist pogroms in Russia. After his real father died, his mother remarried and had five more children. Two of his half-brothers were known among the mainstream intellectual culture in Britain; one as a writer and the other as a historian. Both had minimal interaction with David once he left home, although Kim writes that his brother Emmanuel (the writer) would occasionally give his half-brother a place to sleep and some money.

Besides meeting and hanging out with the Rolling Stones, Litvinoff also knew the artists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. He met both men through his underworld connections—specifically through his dealings with the Kray brothers, two of London’s best-known gangsters during Litvinoff’s adult life. In essence, Litvinoff would serve as a bill collector for businessmen the Kray’s were “protecting.” He also played this role once after the Rolling Stones were arrested at Keith Richards’ Redlands mansion. The raid occurred because of a policeman intent on busting pop stars. Litvinoff and some others in the circle were convinced there was an informer in the Stones scene and, when they found the man they believed to be the snitch, beat him around a bit. The Stones were somewhat appalled and distanced themselves a bit from Litvinoff and his criminal associates.

In part because of his then illegal sexuality, Litvinoff was introduced to many men in varied levels of London society who were also gay. His silence about their sexuality meant he was occasionally able to use his knowledge for his own gain. However, Pim seems to think this was not a standard mode of operation for Litvinoff. Indeed, it is the author’s belief that his protagonist was a man who lived for the joy of life. He had his dark side, as evidenced by his violence in the service of the Krays, but, as he moved away from that life, he was able to enjoy music, hashish, art and writing. The final years of his life were spent in the service of the muse, working with artists, musicians, and other performers as inspiration and in-house critic. It was also when he worked with filmmakers Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg and actors James Fox, Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger on the British classic film, Performance. The film, originally panned and harshly criticized by critics, especially in the United States, is now recognized as one of the best British films of the twentieth century. It is a film that is much greater than the actual images on the screen. Ina a manner similar to the Dennis Hopper creation Blue Velvet, Performance leaves the viewer with a feeling of transformation not easily put into words. Its power is in the uneasiness it creates.

There’s a brief scene in the film where the James Fox character, a gangster on the run named Chas Devlin (and the Litvinoff-based character), is asked by retired rock star Turner, the character played by Mick Jagger, what he does. Chas answers that he “performs.” Indeed, this is what Litvinoff also did. Like his cousin in spirit, Neal Cassady, Litvinoff lived a life that was performance, both conscious and otherwise. Also like Neal Cassady, it is that life that made David Litvinoff bigger than life. Like so much of the period we call the Sixties, Litvinoff’s biography proves that who you were and how you presented yourself mattered more than how much money you made or where you came from. Kieron Pim’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash is both the equivalent of a topnotch pirate tale and unique look at the history of the 1960s British counterculture.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 06, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 and the Failures of Capitalism
W. T. Whitney
Donald Trump, Capitalism, and Letting Them Die
Cesar Chelala
Cuba’s Promising Approach to Cancer
David A. Schultz
Camus and Kübler-Ross in a Time of COVID-19 and Trump
Nomi Prins 
Wall Street Wins, Again: Bailouts in the Time of Coronavirus
Dean Baker
Getting to Medicare-for-All, Eventually
Dave Lindorff
Neither Pandemic Nor Economic Collapse is Going to Be a Short-Lived Crisis
Sonali Kolhatkar
Capitalism in America Has Dropped the Mask: Its Face is Cruel and Selfish
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 7 Pro-Contagion Reversals Increase the Coronavirus Toll
David Swanson
A Department of Actual Defense in a Time of Coronavirus
Ellen Brown
Was the Fed Just Nationalized?
Jeff Birkenstein
Postcards From Trump
Nick Licata
Authoritarian Leaders Rejected the Danger of a COVID-19 Pandemic Because It Challenged Their Image
Kathy Kelly
“He’s Got Eight Numbers, Just Like Everybody Else”
Graham Peebles
Change Love and the Need for Unity
Kim C. Domenico
Can We Transform Fear to Strength In A Time of Pandemic?
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Files Lawsuit to Stop Logging and Burning Project in Rocky Mountain Front Inventoried Roadless Area
Stephen Cooper
“The Soul Syndicate members dem, dem are all icons”: an Interview with Tony Chin
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail