Vi­brant biog of a Swing­ing 60s cat

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Ke­iron Pim Vin­tage, £10.99 Re­view by Alas­tair Mab­bott

LON­DON never knew a time like the Swing­ing 60s. So­cial bar­ri­ers had be­come por­ous, and no one slipped through them as eas­ily as David Litvi­noff. A man who de­clared he wanted to leave no proof of his ex­is­tence beyond a birth cer­tifi­cate and a death cer­tifi­cate, Litvi­noff is like a phan­tom haunt­ing the era.

It’s not as if he’s gone un­doc­u­mented. He pops up in set­tings so di­verse that it’s hard to credit that they could be the same man. But Kieron Pim is the first author to tie all th­ese sight­ings to­gether and look closely at one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing but un­cel­e­brated fig­ures of those times.

Born to par­ents who fled Rus­sian pogroms for Whitechapel, Litvi­noff was Jewish, gay, highly in­tel­li­gent and wickedly ar­tic­u­late. He was a charis­matic ball of en­ergy who dis­liked author­ity and thrived on dan­ger.

In Pim’s words, he “en­er­gised time”. In the mid-50s, the born hus­tler charmed his way into the bo­hemian Soho set and be­gan his long as­so­ci­a­tion with the Krays, who had no com­punc­tion about send­ing one of their boys to plunge a knife through both his cheeks when he dis­pleased them.

One night Litvi­noff, who had been im­per­son­at­ing Lu­cian Freud and charg­ing his drinks to the artist’s tab, was caught in the act by Freud him­self, who thought him “pos­si­bly the most re­volt­ing per­son I have met in my life” but in­sisted on paint­ing him – as though, Pim sug­gests, Freud was see­ing him­self “in a fair­ground mir­ror”. A few years later, Litvi­noff was dan­gled from a bal­cony in an at­tack widely thought to have been ar­ranged by Freud him­self.

Through­out the 1960s, he lived mul­ti­ple lives si­mul­ta­ne­ously, writ­ing for the Daily Ex­press’s Wil­liam Hickey col­umn at the same time as he col­lected rents for no­to­ri­ous land­lord Peter Rachman, then be­friend­ing Mick Jag­ger and Eric Clap­ton, bond­ing with the gui­tarist over their shared love of the blues.

Of all Pim’s in­ter­vie­wees, Clap­ton of­fers some of the most com­pas­sion­ate in­sights into Litvi­noff’s an­guished soul. As clever and quick-wit­ted as he may have been, he was no artist: un­like his fa­mous friends, he would leave noth­ing be­hind but anec­dotes.

Clap­ton tried to re­as­sure him that liv­ing his life as a work of art was OK too. But even­tu­ally Litvi­noff’s com­pul­sion to negate him­self won out. He com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1975.

He never com­pleted his book on Lenny Bruce. But Litvi­noff did, in fact, leave an in­deli­ble mark on cul­ture in Don­ald Cam­mell’s film Per­for­mance. Litvi­noff’s credit as “di­a­logue con­sul­tant and tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor” vastly un­der­states his con­tri­bu­tion. The film is in­fused with his DNA: his out­look, his lan­guage, his life.

Un­til this book came out, Per­for­mance was the clos­est one could get to David Litvi­noff. Pim has closed that gap with a foren­sic examination of a com­plex man who was dis­arm­ingly open about his need to be ac­cepted, but also some­one ca­pa­ble of cal­lous cru­elty who car­ried a guilty bur­den to the grave.

It’s vi­brant, colour­ful, re­veal­ing, of­ten vi­o­lent and one of the most ab­sorb­ing bi­ogra­phies in a long time.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a colour­ful, re­veal­ing, of­ten vi­o­lent and al­ways ab­sorb­ing por­trait of Lon­don in the 1960s

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