"I had him in the back of my cab": Goldfarb picked up Philip Roth (or did he?). Photo: Rex/Courtesy Everett Collection
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A writer unbound: driving a New York taxi in the 1970s

Author and one-time cabby Michael Goldfarb recalled how he’d been behind the wheel to pay for acting lessons, studying under Marlon Brando’s dauntless mentor Stella Adler.

The Essay: Trip Sheets
BBC Radio 3

In a marvellous series of monologues about driving a taxi in New York in the 1970s (29 September to 3 October, 10.45pm), author and one-time cabby Michael Goldfarb recalled how he’d been behind the wheel to pay for acting lessons, studying under Marlon Brando’s dauntless mentor Stella Adler. His anecdotes about her slipped down well. (“You’re middle class!” she would cry, witheringly, in lessons. “You’re boring me . . .”) Then came a brief and evocative mention of picking up Philip Roth in 1976: “a tall man on Madison Avenue” who tartly replied to Goldfarb’s “Philip Roth!” with, “No. But I look like I am.”

Roth was 43 at the time and understandably nettlesome. It was his weird fate to have had – on the publication of Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 – sudden and surprising fame, followed immediately by a devastating shit storm. Recognised as a dangerous intelligence, he had to face down self-appointed community-leader blowhards, the sort who might say: “I haven’t read anything Philip Roth has written but I think he is mocking the burden of Jewishness . . .”

Portnoy’s Complaint, ten years later, was almost inconceivably famous, in terms of public engagement with a serious book. The hoopla over Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was a mere Beyoncé to Portnoy’s Sergeant Pepper. People cared about Portnoy and talked about it endlessly but, by the time Goldfarb picked him up that day, Roth was still considered “the pervy Jewish guy who hates his parents” (in reality, he had a relationship with them that most people would envy) or: “The guy who writes about sex and doesn’t like women, right?” What’s amazing is that it took almost until the new millennium, with the publication of Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, for Roth’s reputation as a serious, engaged and good man – and as the best living novelist in the English language – to be restored.

And still the blowhards exist! Am I being paranoid to suggest that the Nobel committee remains “funny” about Roth? Can he even hope for the long-deserved prize come December? “No. But I look like I am . . .” Just one line on the radio can have you standing at the hob with your wooden spoon suspended for an age.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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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