Jailhouse rock

Billy Bragg's charity takes an unusual approach to prisoner rehabilitation

Prisoner rehabilitation is not the most fashionable of causes for pop stars to espouse. Which is why you have to admire singer Billy Bragg's efforts to recruit his colleagues on to a project offering hope to those locked up in Britain's jails.

Bragg has persuaded the likes of the Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, the Clash co-founder Mick Jones and Dirty Pretty Things to stage a number of low-key concerts for inmates, a world away from the backslapping of most charity events. These have now been captured in Breaking Rocks, a new documentary about the charity Jail Guitar Doors, set up by Bragg to supply prisoners with guitars and the skills to use them, in order to help them on the outside.

In the film/ Jones and Bragg perform a version of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" at Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons in London. After one visit Jones says: "The guys were telling us how much this scheme had helped them move on from their previous lives before prison. It was really touching to think we've helped, even if it's in a small way."

The initiative is attracting a growing number of performers. Shiflett has led a guitar class at Brixton, while the indie band Hard-Fi hope to perform inside Feltham Young Offender Institution in west London -- the setting of "Feltham Is Singing Out", their song about the suicide of a petty thief on remand. Dirty Pretty Things held a workshop inside Brixton, and the Lincoln band Eastroad played at HMP Stocken, in Rutland.

But the principal aim of Bragg's charity is not to stage star-studded concerts, but to raise money for instruments. Guitars have already been donated to HMP Styal -- Britain's largest women's prison -- as well as Guys Marsh in Dorset, Pentonville, Wandsworth, the Verne on the Isle of Portland, Wormwood Scrubs and Reading Young Offender Institution.

Bragg believes that mastering a guitar can offer a way out of the reoffending cycle into which so many prisoners fall. "I support punishment," he says, "but I also believe in rehabilitation. Prison has to be about much more than just locking people up. We want people to move on from their situation and reconnect with the outside world. Learning to play and write gives them self-confidence, which is very important in cutting reoffending. We're preparing them to deal with what life throws at them in a non-confrontational way."

Bragg and the film's director, Alan Miles, plan to screen the documentary -- whose title is taken from the opening words of the Bobby Fuller Four's classic "outlaw" song "I Fought the Law" -- at a number of jails next year. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Bragg introduces a former prisoner on to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival. The man, recently paroled from nearby HMP Shepton Mallet, soon has the crowd cheering as he performs a song he composed behind bars.

"The lifers at Shepton Mallet Prison over the hill hear the festival at night," Bragg tells them. "There are guys there who play guitar, and as musicians they know, as I know, that a guitar will help you transcend your surroundings and find a release."

"Breaking Rocks" is being screened at the Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey, south-east London, on Sunday 22 November, then at venues nationwide in February.

 

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser