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.
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.