Tag Archives: Donald Cammell

Uncovering a London ghost: the half-life of David Litvinoff

In the current issue of Uncut, I spoke to write Keiron Pim about his excellent book on David Litvinoff, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Litvinoff is one of those characters that crops up in all sorts of strange places once you first notice him – in the last few years I’ve read books about the Krays, Performance and Operation Julie, and Litvinoff has featured in all of them as a mercurial, menacing muse. He also appears in Iain Sinclair’s books, but Sinclair is most interested in what he can use Litvinoff to represent – in this case a deliberately unknowable, shadowy figure who flits through London’s secret history, connecting the shadowy worlds of counterculture and crimes.

litv

Pim is a journalist, interested in people as people rather than as metaphors, and his book diligently puts flesh on the bones of Litvinoff’s known history, tracing this strange character’s ascent from the Jewish East End and into the worlds of art, crime and music, where he rubbed up against everybody from Lucien Freud to Eric Clapton.  It’s said that Litvinoff reached such elevated company he was even invited to Jimi Hendrix’s funeral – the invitation contained a tab of acid that the recipient was meant to take if they couldn’t physically attend.

Litvinoff was an unpredictable chancer who survived on his wits, making money here and there through schemes both legal and not. He worked for the Krays and Peter Rachman, but his defining role, as seen by Pim, is as consultant for Performance, that heady, troubling film that could be the finest ever made in this city. Litvinoff befriended and advised both Edward Fox and Mick Jagger on the ways of the underworld, and supplied his old Soho pal Donald Cammell with ideas for scenes and dialogue. One of the many memorable moments in the film – the shaving of one victim’s head by gangsters – was based on Litvinoff’s own experiences. This was a man who both delivered and received mob justice – and at times, he is unsympathetic to the point of psychopathy – until he discovered a form of salvation through drugs and the woolly world of hippie idealism.

performance

The story is ultimately a tragic one, as Litvinoff increasingly found himself left behind by friends, who could tolerate his wit and weirdness for only so long. He killed himself in 1975 as punk was breaking, and one sense that this movement of chaotic creativity, violence and contradiction would have suited him fine, although Malcolm McLaren may have baulked at the competition.

Given that Litvinoff didn’t actually leave much behind – no books or diaries, photographs or albums, little that is tangible or concrete – it’s difficult to put a pin in what he actually did. In an age in which we are increasingly defined by our jobs – commit a social media faux pas, and you are immediately reported to your employer – that’s strangely unsettling. The brilliant late artist Martin Sharp, a close friend of Litvinoff, makes a case that this needn’t be the case, that Litvinoff, by simply being himself and acting as muse and creative conspirator, did plenty. “It’s hard to earn a living doing it, but he made an enormous contribution to people’s lives,” says Sharp. “It’s not something you can send someone a bill for.”

Syd, psychedelia, If…. and the Olympics: an interview with Kevin Whitney

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Psychedelia,  a film made in 1969 and featuring Syd Barrett. The film has been sitting underneath Kevin Whitney’s bed for 40 years, but will be shown in June 2014 at the ICA ahead of its sale. Whitney was on the fringes of the psychedelic movement in the late-1960s and later became the first official artist of the Olympic movement. ‘In my work there are still hints of psychedelic imagery,’ he tells me. ‘But using beautiful athletes instead of mad freaks.’ 

Psychedelia can be seen at Room&Book: ICA Art Book Fair, ICA, 6-8 June. 

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‘I was at art school until 1970 and during I was making the film. I was inspired by psychedelic light shows, which I’d screen on the front of Chelsea Art School  at underground pop shows at the Roundhouse. Chelsea Art School was a modern building off the Kings Road. It was the only building built in the 20th century to be used as an art school. It’s now a hotel. It was very anarchic. Art is now geared towards corporate success and Saatchi but then that sort of thing was frowned upon, you weren’t supposed to make any money out of it. You did conceptual things, it was against the system. Now it’s the opposite and has no balls. We were very privileged to be around then. We took art into the streets.

Chelsea Art School on Manresa Road, built in 1963

Previously, I’d been at art school in Ipswich with Brian Eno. We smoked our first joint together at Christchurch Park in Ipswich. We did a thing where about 12 of us would get on a bus and we’d have these sheets of Perspex the size of a newspaper. We cut out the title of the paper and glued it to the Perspex and then sit next to people on the bus pretending to read the stories from this empty sheet of Perspex. Everybody thought we were bonkers.

UFO Club flyer

I never did light shows at the UFO Club. I went there but they had some Americans, Joe’s Lights, who got the contract and nobody else could do it. I knew them and admit I was influenced by their ideas but I also showed them some of my tricks. One was fabulous. You’d get two pieces of Perspex and put in some olive or vegetable oil, then drop some vegetable dye – bright blue, red or yellow – and then close the Perspex together. You’d put that in the projector, which had a very powerful light and would heat up the dye and send it shooting to the edges of the Perspex. It was like going through a timewarp. Joe’s Lights liked this and used it at the Roundhouse for the big Jefferson Airplane/Door show in 1968. [Editor note: I think that while Joe’s Lights did the Roundhouse gig, the Boyle Family did projections at UFO.]

In 1968, I began making my film, Psychedelia. Syd was part of the scenario. Well, he was the scenario. Anybody that would agree I got to appear in the film, which was done at this basement on Old Church Street in Chelsea in a house owned by Antonia Chetwynd [regular visitors included Donald Cammell, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Anita Pallenberg]. One day I went to Wetherby Mansions to pick up Syd. I was going to take him to the art school to this red and green painted studio I had in the annexe where I was making the film.

Syd Barrett in Wetherby Mansions

On the way, Syd offered me half a Mandrax. It’s like a sleeping pill that makes you very randy. We took half each. Then we got to the art school and I realised my camera didn’t have a cassette in it and all the shops were closed. So I said we’d do it tomorrow in Old Church Street. In the evening I called Duggie Fields [Syd’s flatmate, still resident at Wetherby Mansions] to check Syd had got back okay and Duggie told me he’d gone to Ibiza. He had a passport with him and he’d just gone to the airport and taken a flight to Ibiza.

When he got back we went to the basement and did the filming. I just had the camera with this psychedelic lighting. It was very amateur and everyone was very stoned. I’d sit people down and tell them to do whatever they wanted. Some took their tops off, some stared at the camera, talked, had a cup of tea… and I just filmed it because they were fabulous people. I filmed so many. In the scene I shot with Syd was Geoffrey Cleghorn, who was a friend of the Who and the Stones. I’d met him at art school in Ipswich and he’d followed when I moved to London and got involved in the whole scene. He’s an amazing guy. There was another chap called David Crowland. There’s a chap called Rupert [Webster], who was the very pretty boy in “If….”.

 

I screened it while playing Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. I also use them on the other film I made Red And Green, when they are actually on the soundtrack, the Syd film was silent though I would have been playing Velvet Underground in the basement when making it. I was obsessed with them. It was all very Warholesque.

 

I gave my camera to Derek Jarman, I was living with the artist Luciana Martinez and she said, ‘You’ve finished with films and Derek’s a lousy painter, so why not give him your camera.’ He’d just finished making The Devils with Ken Russell, doing the sets. I did that and the rest is history. I then got totally into paining, film was an art student fling. In 1982 I got involved with the Olympis and been there ever since.

“Female gymnast”, 1984

I knew Syd as well as anybody could know Syd. He definitely wasn’t on this planet but he was lovely, very charming, and he seemed to like my paintings. He liked to paint himself and because I was pretty good he warmed to me. Also, I don’t hold him in awe, I was the same with Bowie, they were friends and I’d talk to them like that. I’d ask to draw them but treat them as I would anybody. People can treat pop stars in a different way and they can get very isolated. Most people were too much in awe of Syd to ask to film him and I think that comes across in the film. He was a very troubled mind and this wasn’t a great time. He’d been eased out of the Floyd and Dave Gilmour had taken over. But people who knew him said he looks so happy.’