Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Searching for Indian Larry

Great Biker Build-Off has motorcycle builders design bike from scratch

Here’s why I dislike motorcycles: the noise. I live near a bridge that leads into a very crowded city, and every so often I’ll be watching TV or reading a book or just staring into space when all of a sudden the sound of a motorcycle engine rips through the cosmos and spits me out of my reverie. It’s a lot like a feeling Kenny Rogers detailed in “I Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was in)” when he said, “I got so tight I couldn’t unwind; I saw so much I broke my mind.”

The only modes of transportation that I own are a scooter that I plucked out of a Brooklyn trash heap and my old buddy’s skateboard, which I obtained in exchange for a stack of Heavy Metal magazines. If it weren’t for my love of electronic doodads and geegaws I’d be a complete Luddite. But after watching Discovery Channel’s strangely enchanting Great Biker Build-Off, I found myself appreciative of the art of building motorcycles from scratch.

For those who don’t know, the concept behind Great Biker Build-Off is to take two renowned motorcycle builders and have them each design a bike from scratch and then ride the bikes to a motorcycle rally where a bunch of bikers decide which one is more bitchin’. Oftentimes, there are two equally matched builders, and then sometimes two builders with completely different styles clash. The bikers at the rallies tend to be less enthused about a bike’s ability to spit fire from its exhaust pipe, but they love it when show regular Indian Larry makes the fuckin’ thing peel out amongst a cloud of smoke. Good times all around.

None of this enthusiasm has inspired me to go out and buy a hog, but lemme tell ya, Indian Larry is my man. We live in the same neighbourhood. I’ve probably heard the sound of his motorcycle tearing through the night and sent him bad vibes. The episode of Great Biker Build-Off that introduced me to Indian Larry featured him pitted against Paul Yaffe.

Indian Larry takes his inspiration from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (creator of Rat Fink and assorted tricked out roadster designs) and, everyone’s current favourite name on a hipster T-shirt, Von Dutch. Under these masters, it should come as no surprise that Indian Larry takes the classic design of a chopper and tricks it out to cartoonish proportions and yet holds the design together with sheer craftsmanship. This is a guy who gives a shit about spokes, basically.

I’m a writer of some degree or another and I spend a lot of time sitting on my duff staring at a screen, a keyboard, the ceiling or simply alienating myself at parties; but inherently I like to feel as though putting words together is a craft. I give a shit about punctuation. That’s my spoke. So when I see some long-haired, rat-faced, tweaked-out, heavily tattooed dude from Brooklyn pounding a gas tank out of a sheet of metal while talking about how you can see the mechanics of the universe inside the workings of a motorcycle—I’m there.

Shortly after being inducted into Indian Larry’s sphere, I decided to trek out to his garage so I could say, “Hey.” I have a poor sense of direction and Brooklyn is confusing, so I soon found myself following sidewalks that resembled rubble, all of which led to factories converted into residential lofts and strange hipster coffee shops in the middle of nowhere—but not to Indian Larry’s. The second time I ventured out, I stopped for ice cream on the way. As I wandered along eating spoonfuls of quickly melting goop, I wondered what Indian Larry would make of me. Perhaps the ice cream I was eating out of a cup combined with the cargo shorts and red sneakers I was wearing wouldn’t portray me accurately as a total badass gearhead. Luckily, he wasn’t in. But the garage door with the massive Indian Larry question mark logo was open enough for me to peek inside and catch a glimpse of his garage.

It was a cluttered space, mildly dank, but remarkably tidy for a garage where metal is shaped and fuel is spilt on the floors. One of Indian Larry’s assistants saw me peeking in the door and came over to see what I was up to. I told him that I just wanted to see what was going on and complimented their work. He wiped grease from his hands with a filthy rag and we stared at each other awkwardly before I nodded my head and turned to leave. It was enough that I’d gotten to take a look inside the garage; I’ve never been good at interviews, and I wouldn’t have known what to say to Indian Larry anyway.

Things don’t always work out that simply. Like I said, we’re both in the same neighbourhood, and often people never appear when you want them to, but if you pay attention and hang around they’ll turn up eventually. As his website says, “Larry can be found around beautiful women, tattoos, motorcycles, and the Coney Island Polar Bear Club.” I have a weakness for beautiful women and I’d like to get a tattoo someday. I own a Razor scooter, which is close to a motorcycle, and I’ve been to Coney Island. Regardless of all these half-baked similarities, I found him.

While on my way to work one afternoon, I heard a motorcycle revving its engine at the intersection on the block opposing me. It was Indian Larry, with one foot on the ground keeping a monstrous chopper at bay. I did the only sensible thing I could think of. I yelled: “Hey, Indian Larry! Whoo!” He nodded at me, then gunned it and tore off, heading deep into Brooklyn. I realized then that it was probably a good thing I never caught Indian Larry at work if all I was going to do was “whoo” at him. If I was going to do that, I’d at least have to bust open a beer bottle on my head or kick-start a chopper with my penis. I could possibly also do all three things at the same time, but I’d need to wear a T-shirt with “If you can read this, then the bitch fell off” written on the back. But I don’t think that would impress Indian Larry either.

There’s a thin line between pestering a celebrity when you encounter them in real life and affording them the praise you feel they’re due. While it might make the celebrity feel better about him or herself to shake a fan’s hand while they’re trying to browse through a bookstore, eat dinner, make a call on their cell phone or merely walk down the street, most of the gratification from the encounter tends to rest with the fan. You and me, we’re the ones who are going to walk away with a story to tell (unless you’re a total freak and you scare the dickens out of the celebrity, or if you’ve met them under a circumstance where you can each be respected as equals). Sometimes it’s better to “whoo” at them from a distance than to trundle up to them and make everyone feel uncomfortable.

Indian Larry builds motorcycles and most likely doesn’t need to be impressed. He is who he is—and that’s all he expects out of other people. That’s why Paul Yaffe lost to him in Great Biker Build-Off. Not because Paul Yaffe is something of a yuppie, but because his bikes hide their mechanics inside streamlined chrome and sparkling paintjobs. Indian Larry’s bikes are much like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink: strange functional works of terrifying design that operate under the principle that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Instead of making the mechanics of a bike look more elegant, Indian Larry takes pride in the craftsmanship of a fuel tank, and it’s that pride in his work that I respect. I never thought of motorcycles as something one could make by hand. I always thought they were either assembled in factories by robots or appeared magically in showrooms. But the craft and art of building motorcycles by hand still exists, and folks like Indian Larry keep that craft alive.

Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.