Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim

Review published on February 20, 2017.

David Litvinoff was a chap of his time who haunted the periphery of musicianship, the gentry, East End gangsters and other strange denizens of the 1950s onward. I had heard his name on a couple of occasions during my own life, but in what capacity I could not recall at all. This book exposes his life to well researched scrutiny.

The author, Keiron Pim, searched hard to compile the man’s life story. Many of those who could possibly remember him were either psychotic, very old or simply did not want to be reminded of Litvinoff at all. So, who was this man and how did he come to create a persona that was so noted?

The book begins with an interview with David’s older brother Emmanuel Levy. He explains that David changed his name to Livitnoff because it sounded grander, more expansive. He came from Jewish parentage, his family having lived through the progroms years before. David held his educated elder brother in very high regard, but Emmanuel despaired of David and his lifestyle. David was the black sheep in essence. He was always the sickly child who played truant, was disruptive at school, came home when evacuated during WW2, and spent his youth learning the ropes of street life. Career wise, he loathed working for a living, he earned his money playing the system on the streets. He slowly became a well-known character in the East End of London; he craved relationships with the prime movers and shakers of the time at the same time as behaving in a shocking way. Always tending to out-talk people with his perceived knowledge, risking much to garner acceptance by characters from all walks of life. He dressed somewhat outlandishly, although acceptable usually, he smoked considerably, he partook of drugs as they began to sweep the nation, mildly at first but advancing as the frequency of obtaining it became easier.

He was also a homosexual at a time when it was outlawed and he flaunted it openly. He became closely associated with Peter Rachman, the property mogul of disrepute, the Kray twins and many others of that ilk. He lived at various addresses, which coincided with Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger and George Melly et al. This was manna from heaven for feeding his need to associate with the great people of the time.

David somehow or other gained a reputation as an art expert, which led him into all sorts of situations. His portrait was painted by Lucian Freud, it’s working title being ‘Portrait of a Jew’, although after a size reduction the painting eventually became entitled ‘The Procurer’, before later being known as ‘Man in a Headscarf’. This caused all sorts of repercussions for David, but that was typical of him.

The stories he told became more and more outrageous as time went on, but the one thing that kept him ‘in’ with a lot of folk was his ability to remember much of the early blues records. His recall was apparently stunning; he compiled hours of reel-to-reel tape recordings of his often rare record collections. He also recorded  his more famous phone conversations, one in particular with the late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, which took place earlier during the day he actually committed suicide!

The exaggerated stories he weaved throughout his life were largely unproved, although there is no doubt that he was once the victims of the cutthroat razor trick of cutting a larger mouth, with the whispered comment ‘Ronnie says hello”. The real reason for this attack has never been clarified; his stories were always dramatically embellished, with the result that anything he said was taken with a pinch of salt by those who knew him well, However, his self-induced mythology was quite spectacular.

A move to a small, remote cottage in Wales in search of solitude, in order to write a book, became a madcap situation, with all these strange, named, London hippies arriving to stay. His antics were getting more adventurous by this time as well. He had a perceived, serious input in the film ‘Performance’ (1970) starring Mick Jagger, James Fox and Anita Pallenburg etc. This enabled him to live off the fame of this inclusion, no matter how minor. He took the money and eventually arrived in Australia, became a big wheel in ‘The Yellow House’ art gallery in Sydney, although the enterprise was somewhat jaded in reality. His acceptance by younger, more naïve Australians made him feel invincible as far as his homosexual relationships were concerned, but he suffered all sorts of ignominious situations when refused. His drug taking was taking its toll, and he was getting older.

Maybe this sounds like I have told his story entirely, albeit briefly, but there is much more to David Litvinoff’s life to read here. This book is written extremely well, descriptively astute throughout, with a few pictures to help the reader better understand the narrative. The author has achieved a remarkable book, which others have tried to write in the past and failed. It is an altogether fascinating treatise on a little remembered man, who’s star burned bright, mainly in the 1960s, but carried resonance wherever and whenever he went.

Reg Seward 4/1

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim
Jonathan Cape 9780224098120 pbk Jan 2016

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