Indian Larry rode alone. He would join no bike club. Not even the Hells Angels were nonconformist enough for him — and they coined the term “1%-ers” fifty years ago to make sure we knew they were outlaws. Larry made his opinion clear with a tattoo on his arm: No Club Lone Wolf. And he was no Indian. No one remembers who bestowed him with that moniker but he used to cruise the streets of Brooklyn on a chopped Indian motorcycle back in the 80s, and he was the go-to guy for wrenching on that classic brand. It stuck.
Born Lawrence DeSmedt in 1949 near West Point, New York, Larry grew up near the United States Military Academy where his father was a custodian. The illiberal father did not abide the son’s grimy passion for dismantling machinery to see what made it tick. He reprimanded young Larry harshly for spending too much time in the garage and not enough time with his academic responsibilities. But Larry resented the nuns at the Catholic school where he was reluctantly enrolled. More than once he felt obliged to explain away his bloodied knuckles to his family as the result of fistfights instead of revealing that the backs of his boys’ hands were seldom spared the rod and he was sometimes locked in a closet, alone. At 16 he rebelled, less in adolescent exasperation than desperation. The natural desire of a son to please his family took a perverse turn. Because he was expected to do no good, he set out with a vengeance to do bad.
Larry rolled with a nasty crew. They committed armed robberies, hijacked trucks, and did drugs. “The worst thing,” Larry said, “was that those guys were dirtbags and I was their ringleader.” He was a high school dropout with rap sheets in four states by the time he got nabbed robbing a bank at 23. He was tried, convicted, and sent to “Sing Sing” state prison in Ossining, New York, while still recovering from the crease in his skull, put there by a cop’s bullet during that attempted heist.
Locked in a cell, he sought redemption with the same resolve he once mustered toward anti-social rage. He earned his GED, read every book his mother sent him — she had a bent for philosophy — and he honed the skills he’d use to earn an honest living as a journeyman mechanic by working in the prison machine shop. He served three years then got paroled.
Larry was no innocent. But he fancied himself a kindred spirit of Forrest Gump. His own not-always-providential adventures began with the mass gate-crashing at Woodstock, in 1969, where he sneaked high up onto a scaffold to see Jimi Hendrix. Not until later, having made his way to California to join his younger runaway sister in L.A., did he delve into long hair, tie dye, and pharmacological recreation. It was the time of Charles Manson paranoia. And unrelated, but for the horror of morbid coincidence, his sister was found dead, mysteriously murdered. Larry accompanied her body back home and descended into the netherworld of bad-guys.
When he got out of prison, with the hopes and dreams of a remade man, Larry’s hippie-biker, crash-and-burn persona preceded him to New York City with a fortuitous outcome. He found himself in the company of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, both of whom depicted his increasingly tattooed torso in their work. Modeling led to gigs back in Hollywood as a stuntman. There, he met a childhood hero, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who threw him a bone painting cars. Big Daddy was the creator of Rat Fink and other cartoon icons of the “Kounter Kulture,” foul and ferocious-looking but benign creatures associated with hotrodding and adored by teenage boys. Larry also met and was influenced by Kenny Howard (aka Von Dutch), a legendary pinstriper and originator of the Flying Eyeball, a graphic meme that influenced L.A.’s Soul Assassin art scene. Larry was already thinking about staying in L.A. and becoming an artist himself when Brooklyn beckoned with an opportunity to set up shop and build his vehicles of self-expression: performance art he could ride, custom choppers. Once again, Larry found himself behind bars: handlebars.
It was the seventies. A chopper was as good as a backstage pass when it came to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. “It’s loud and it’s fun,” said Larry. “Get a girl on the back of a bike and it’s just like that!” He snapped his fingers. “Case closed.” He qualified his male-chauvinist boast as an abandoned aberation of his youth.“But I still chase girls,” he said coyly, implying he could hardly catch anyone, try as he might. “My wife doesn’t quite like it. But that’s just who I am.” His other obsession was engines. “Strip ’em and stroke ’em!” was his vulgar pun. “I don’t want to lose my focus.” That wouldn’t fly today either. But he meant stripping parts off motorcycles, “chopping” them: removing whatever didn’t make them either go faster or stop faster. Stroking an engine means turning a stock Harley-Davidson into a bad-ass bike by fixing a longer crankshaft onto the flywheel, thereby extending piston travel to increase compression, torque, and horsepower. “There’s a million guys out there,” Larry liked to say, “with fancy-pants choppers who can’t get laid with a hundred-dollar bill stuck to their forehead.” That was Larry trash-talking the posers who rode his competitors’ bikes, not Larry the Lothario. He just didn’t like posers, especially riders who berated “hardtails,” any motorcycle without rear suspension (shock absorbers), a classic chopper criterion in Larry’s book; part of the less-is-more aesthetic. “The slightest bit of discomfort is too much [for those wimps],” said Larry.
An Indian Larry chopper is old school but not old-fashioned. Jargon doesn’t do justice for a sight to behold. Nevertheless, his top tubes are close to the ground, his front ends are short (no stretch in the rake) and his rims are skinny. Heaven forbid there should be a gauge of any kind! “By the time the oil pressure is gone,” Larry would say, “you’re wiped anyway.” He said his choppers were a cross between top-fuel dragster and bar-hopper. He never sacrificed performance for visual effect but had no disdain for pure decoration. He went all out for candy-color and metal-flake paint jobs. (Painter of choice: Robert Pradke.) Billet parts (solid blocks aluminum, machined and polished, including the engine itself on Chain of Mystery) are often engraved with Larry’s personal tattoo motifs (laid on by master engraver CJ Allan). His hardtail frames flaunt an inimitable virtuosity, fabricated from twisted and twirled red-hot steel tubing that resembles architectural wrought-iron ornamentation.
When his body got tired, Larry’s mind still spun in high gear. He downshifted by practicing meditation. And if he told you he could build a bike in his sleep, he virtually meant it. Late at night, wearing a tank-top, pajama bottoms, and flip-flops, he routinely slipped out of bed like a sleepwalker to his not so “secret shop” under a stairwell in the basement garage of an apartment he shared with his wife Bambi in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (His main shop and showroom remained in Brooklyn.) Chock full of tools, it was only five feet wide but eighteen feet long, with just enough elbow room to hop up his sui generis version of a rip-snorting, dual-carbureted, amalgamated motor he called a “Pan-Shovel.” It was an infernal combustion engine, a conflation of two different Harley-Davidson motors melded together and nicknamed for the way their cylinder head rocker boxes resemble a frying pan and a shovel respectively. The Panhead and Shovelhead engine designs each represent a different epoch in The Motor Company’s history.
Building engines was Larry’s spiritual recreation. He told me, “If I lived in the Middle Ages I’d probably be building cathedrals.” The motor was his cathedral. He also referred to a dream he had about an archaeologist, centuries in the future, who would discover one of his Pan-Shovels and liken its mechanical intricacies to a clockwork universe created by some advanced but lost civilization. He loved its “gizmo-ness.”
In his professional guise as Indian Larry, Larry gave himself up to his fans, making himself available at biker rallies for as long as it took to shake every hand, sign every autograph, and pose for every picture. He knew how to cultivate his celebrity in the biker world, and there was nothing phony about it. Fame was business: selling tickets, trinkets, moto-parts, and T-shirts; and business facilitated the creation of art. The art was also for sale: choppers. One hand washed the other. And speaking of hands, Larry lost his left pinkie in a mysterious explosion when he was a boy. Was it a pipe bomb? Illegal fireworks? He wouldn’t elaborate. But he admitted hiding his mutilated and bleeding hand inside of a sock for several days, spurning the ER, for fear his father would find out — until, of course, he did.
Later in life, with L-O-V-E tattooed below each knuckle on his right fist, and with too few fingers to spell H-A-T-E on the left, he made do with F-T-W. Larry’s whole body was a canvas for tattoos. Four evocative lines of text occupied his neck; the middle two inked in reverse so he could read them in the mirror while shaving: Vengeance is Mine Sayeth the Lord.
As a stuntman and performer, Larry took risks. But he took umbrage at being called a daredevil. “A daredevil,” he insisted, “takes uncalculated risks.” On August 30, 2004 in front of of eight thousand onlookers in Concord, North Carolina, he forgot to heed that distinction. By the time he arrived, after a long motorcycle ride with little sleep the night before, the day had become one of those torpid Southern-summer scorchers; so clammy that each bead of sweat hanging from your brow, pendulously gaining critical mass before falling in a metronomic cadence of drips, was a quantifiably precious unit of vitality sapped by the sun. That didn’t keep Larry from making his entrance lastly through a hogshead of real fire — riding through a flaming circus hoop for chrissakes! No pause for a drink of water or to sit for a spell in the shade. In this liminal moment, now dismounted, the fans who vied for Larry’s attention surrounded him, his body ricocheting from one glad-hander to another within their throng like the steel shot in a pinball machine. By the time he was expected to perform his signature stunt, he was running on empty.
The crowd parted to form a lane, lined up on either side of Larry and his chopper. He rode Grease Monkey that day. It needed a long runway to accelerate when Larry rolled on the throttle, and to sustain optimal velocity when he let go. If it’s not going fast enough, a motorcycle starts to wobble like a child’s top losing its spin. Larry stood next to his bike, on the right, holding it up by the grips. His left knee was bent high off the ground, his heel on the kickstarter. Pushing off with his right foot, he jumped up and came down hard on the pedal with enough force to turn over the crankshaft and deliver a spark from the magneto to ignite the fuel engulfing both pistons. The engine gulped air and exploded to life with a thunderous roar before settling into a syncopated rumble. Larry threw a leg over and sat astride the idling chopper. With a few blips on the gas, once satisfied with a sharp staccato bark from the exhaust pipes, he let out the foot clutch and got rolling. He wound through the gears, jockey-shifting with his left hand at the side of the gas tank, and then, grabbing both grips, leaped into position, balancing the soles of his boots on top of the saddle. Letting go of the grips, he stood erect, in the wind with his arms outstretched like a crucifix. But with his energy flagging and fatigue clouding his judgment, Larry chose a course too short to get up to a good clip. The bike lost momentum too early — too slow! At 5mph Larry reached down for the handlebars. Why didn’t he sit? Give it some gas! He stepped off and landed upright on the pavement but with an awkward pirouette like he had slipped on ice. The bike got away and kept going by itself for a few more feet. Then it fell drunkenly on its side, leaving Larry standing alone for a split second before his feet went out from under him. His head hit the ground — hard. That was the end of the show. That was the end of Larry.