True romance

Despite her fearsome reputation, Lady Gaga knows how to charm a crowd.

By now, even the most gentle readers among you probably have heard of Lady Gaga, stage name of the 24-year-old New Yorker Stefani Germanotta. In the past 18 months, she has sold an astonishing 12 million albums worldwide (no mean feat in these days of declining record sales), become the darling of both the broadsheets and the tabloids, and has just added yet another British date to her Monster Ball tour.

This week, she played two nights at London's O2 Arena. I went to see what is it about Gaga that attracts her Little Monsters -- the provocative, colourfully clobbered young fans that worship at her altar -- as well as the audience of conventional rock fans, and mothers and daughters, that make up her shows.

At the end of evening, I had a theory. At the same time as Gaga manages to shock and provoke people with her outlandish behaviour, she simultaneously cossets and welcomes the people who follow her. Also, unlike Madonna, the pop predecessor to whom she is always compared, she tells her audience to be themselves -- and that peculiarness is part of who we really are.

Her live show, for example, addresses mortality (which has suddenly taken on deeper resonance this week since rumours surfaced about her being diagnosed with lupus). There is one striking routine in which Gaga's dancers tear at her body, leaving her neck and chest covered in blood, which she doesn't remove. She also stops stock-still after songs for 20 seconds at a time, breathing heavily, as if issuing a death rattle.

Stage oddity

Even in her skimpiest outfits, Gaga foregrounds ugliness rather than prettiness, which shows us that her presentation is nothing to do with sexiness, and everything to do with the acceptance of weirdness. Among contemporaries of hers like Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé, as well as Madonna, this is unique.

Then there is Gaga's personal way of talking to her fans on stage. She talks at length about what their love for her means to her, her speeches sounding born of a hunger for friendship and acceptance, rather than a desire for dollar bills. She also tells her fans things they want to hear, but far too few pop stars tell them.

"You don't need money or plastic surgery to be a star," she says. "Reject the idea of not being good enough, thin enough, blonde enough. Like every motherfucker told me."

Whether they are straight or gay, black or white, anarchic or everyday, she tells her fans constantly to accept their odd qualities.

At the Monster Ball, Gaga says, everyone can be free.

There are other things that make Lady Gaga a great pop star, that people of all ages and backgrounds can see. There are her musical talents: the piano-playing with her fingers as well as her stiletto boots; the way she can make her voice growl and soar as well as soothe.

And there are songs like "Bad Romance", the set's dazzling encore. A five-minute epic that exposes the agonies of lust, and culminates in the most melancholic vocal in the pop canon for years -- "I don't want to be friends", she wails, desperately hinting at those times in our lives when we have all craved the opposite -- it reveals the high, dark drama in our real worlds. This is what Lady Gaga is all about. Long may we all be her monsters.

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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