When speaking, some people seem to be all capital letters and exclamation marks. Throw in a good-natured growl as a kind of seasoning -- like the rub of herbs and spices you might use before grilling a choice cut of meat -- and you get an idea of how it sounds when Bill Levin holds forth.
Levin's way of expressing himself is not accidental. It's a style developed over more than 30 years of some of the most wild-assed promoting, producing and all-around promenading that's been perpetrated in Indianapolis.
While, at first blush, his bleached shock of electric hair and swashbuckling approach to personal style might seem to peg Levin as a rock and roll buccaneer, it is just as true that he is the latest incarnation of a tradition as old as the frontier, when medicine shows with hyperbolic barkers toured the land, selling all manner of elixirs and potions from the backs of their wagons. Whether the patent medicine they peddled killed or cured you might have been debatable, but one thing was certain: The performance leading up to the sale was bound to be a doozy.
Levin's persona may owe as much to the W.C. Fields of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
as to a punk icon like Stiv Bators.
Levin's latest project is a classic example of his flair for the unexpected. In what amounts to a kind of haiku forged with power chords where the 17 syllables are supposed to be, Levin has juxtaposed a fundraiser for Rupert's Kids -- the initiative started by Survivor
star Rupert Boneham that's aimed at helping troubled teens gain some traction in their lives -- with what is being touted as a week-long celebration of "the beauty and art of tattoos and body mods."
Naturally, all this kicks into gear on April 1.
Running to the left
Bill Levin was born in 1955 at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago. As Levin tells it, he was delivered by a Navy doctor whose niece, Marcia, would become his adopted mother. "He told her to drop the baby they were going to adopt and pick me up," Levin says. "That isn't done -- but it was done."
And so Levin started life with his new parents, Marcia and Bob Levin, in Indianapolis -- Broad Ripple, to be exact.
"Dad and I always got along well," Levin recalls. "Dad was the vice president of Kipp Brothers, that was our family business."
Kipp Brothers was the city's great toy wholesaler. "I grew up waxing the damn slide from the fifth floor down to the first floor so you could ship merchandise down. You learn your dozens, your half-dozens, your grosses, real quick.
"Dad used to bring home a lot of the toys to see if we would play with them," Levin says. "We got patent-pending G.I. Joes in February before the Christmas release that year. My dad wasn't going to stock them because boys didn't play with dolls at that time. But there was no such thing as action figures; they didn't exist. I thought it was cool as hell!"
Relations with his mom were a little rockier. "I kept running to the left," Levin says. "There are some classic pictures of me at 8 or 9 in tennis sweaters, looking miserable."
Where Mrs. Levin wanted her son to make the country club scene, young Bill was finding himself being electrified by the likes of Abby Hoffman and the clash between protesters and police during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. "I remember watching and feeling, 'I want to go, I want to go, I want to go, I want to go!'" Levin says today.
In sixth grade, Levin managed a band of his classmates called The Professionals (grandly named for the western starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Jack Palance), consisting of future astronaut David Wolf, Randy Selig and Mitch Tuchman. "I told them to practice," Levin laughs. "I think I got them a gig at a grade school show."
Life at home, though, continued to be difficult.
"By the time I was 13, it was decided it was best that I not live under the same roof with Mom. It was an oil-and-water situation."
Levin was enrolled at the Hyde Academy for Men in Bath, Maine, where he was "gleefully and happily thrown out" after six months. He returned to Indianapolis, where he ran away from home. Eventually, he was sent to another boarding school in Cleveland, where he managed to graduate, but not before dosing the punch bowl at a school party with LSD. "We had three-quarters of our campus tripping. Needless to say, we got into some trouble for that. But the following year I was elected campus council president."
"Foosball and one shitty little pool table"
Levin returned to Indianapolis in the early part of the mid 1970s in search of a local counter culture. "It was lonely," he says. "Broad Ripple was 70 percent vacant. You couldn't find anybody. Fox's deli was there. The Patio had a Chicken Delight next to it; they knocked a hole in the wall and put foosball tables in there. Foosball and one shitty little pool table."
Levin, however, did his best to get a party going. "It was a whole different culture. You stayed up until 3:30 in the morning, you had breakfast at Waffle House, by 4:30 you were asleep. You got up at 2 in the afternoon and opened the bar at 3 or 4. Hopefully, somebody was there to get the deliveries you didn't get at noon.
"People were allowed to drink and drive. Police, if you pulled into a telephone pole, would help you get away from that telephone pole, not ticket you for hitting it. They'd ask if they could follow you home. They would protect and serve! Sometimes they'd come over and you'd give them a case of beer and say thanks."
Things began to pick up in 1977. "We put on the first urban guerilla pop festival," Levin claims. The event was inspired by the annual Fourth of July party his dad would throw on the cul-de-sac where they lived. Every summer, Mr. Levin would entertain the neighbors with a couple of cases of illegal fireworks and plenty of cold beer.
"We had all the area alternative bands out at American Heritage Park. And we offered fireworks and free beer. People most certainly came out for the free beer," Levin says. "It was a long day. We lost thousands of dollars and hundreds of drunks drove home intoxicated, but it was quite a trip."
An intoxication of bliss
Rock and roll and Bill Levin were made for each other. By his own reckoning, Levin booked every alternative club in town from 1979 to 1988. "If there was an alternative club, I was the booking agent," Levin says matter of factly. "I remember when the Chili Peppers went through the Patio. They used to be a $350 act and they'd come through about every four months. Then they went to $750 and really pissed us off. That was the year they all wanted tube socks on their contract rider. We couldn't figure out what the fuck these idiots were up to."
Genital fashion statements aside, Levin was almost hopelessly attracted to bands that did their own thing -- and wrote their own material. This was not particularly profitable in Central Indiana at that time.
"I was told by Chubby at the Patio they would never allow original music on anything other than a Monday or Tuesday because everybody wanted to see cover bands," Levin says. "They had to play four 40-minute sets, starting at 10 at night and ending at 2:30 in the morning. There were hundreds of bands working throughout our state and regionally as working rock and roll artists. They made a good living. They paid their mortgages, they paid their car insurance, they paid the bills, making two to three grand a week doing live performances. That doesn't happen anymore."
Being the impresario, turning people on to something new, gave Levin the greatest pleasure. "I love watching people's eyes light up and a light go off in their head," he says. "It's like striking a match three times. The first two, it doesn't work, but the third time it does -- hey! Look! Fire!"
Levin experienced that himself when he first saw the Zero Boys play at Pizza Castle in the late '70s. "It was the consummate obsession point. I remember distinctly saying, 'These guys are good. What the fuck are they doing here?' I remember saying that out loud and somebody from the band said, 'Why don't you do something about it?' I scratched my head and thought, 'I can do that.' It started gathering mass."
Levin managed the legendary band through their first East Coast tour. "We got to play New York City, which was a triumph."
The Zero Boys were hired because the club, the A-7, at the corner of Seventh and A, was booking a night of bands with the word "Boys" in their name. "Dead Boys, Zero Boys, Beastie Boys, some other boys," Levin recalls. "I remember goofing on the Beastie Boys because they were doing stuff not even heard of yet. The evening was, from my point of view, an intoxication of bliss."
Not long after that, Levin booked the band into a club in Chicago. "It was the coldest day in Chicago history. The band got there and their amps were frozen. The Zero Boys, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and the Replacements. All these bands were huddled around space heaters in the dressing room, drinking free beer. We had four people in the audience because the bar wasn't heated. Great night!"
Levin smiles. "Rock and roll was not made by thousands of people witnessing it. Rock and roll was made by no one seeing the good shit."
"Do you know what you're doing?"
Levin and the Zero Boys parted ways when the band cut its first album, Vicious Circle
in 1982. In the meantime, Levin was making his livelihood up as he went along. "DIY wasn't even DIY at the time. It was 'Do you know what you're doing? No. Let's try this.' It wasn't until McLaren's film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle
came out that gave us a path to base a marketing campaign for punks on. It really gave was a blueprint on how to market to the counter culture."
Inspired by Malcolm McLaren's calculated anarchy, Levin traveled to England to get a firsthand taste. When he returned to Indy, he opened a punk store at 54th and College called CARFAX after Dracula's abbey. "We used a coffin lid for a sign. It was snowing out, the middle of winter and I stuck this coffin lid outside the store. We got quite a reaction. You just didn't do that. You didn't have purple hair."
Provocation was Levin's stock in trade. It still is. "To make a better world, you have to start with one," he says. "Whether it's one person, one group, one thought, one anything. If put in a positive way, people can share the same thought. Art can do it. Music can do it. I would much prefer to see an art show that pisses people off than just let people walk through and go, 'Oh, OK.' An actual reaction, a physical reaction from something created from the heart is always a positive thing. It's stimulation, it's growth. If you find it distasteful, you are challenged to grow yourself into how to disperse what you view as distasteful. And if you find it beautiful, you need to promote it."
"Culture is like a teen"
Tattoo art is what Levin is promoting now. He estimates that there are at least 300 tattoo artists working in Central Indiana. "These are guys who make a living every day drawing pictures."
Lately, Levin has been making a living by supplying the tattoo trade with professional supplies and equipment.
A longtime tattoo aficionado, Levin has watched the ink scene follow a familiar counter cultural trajectory leading to what he believes is mainstream acceptance. "Whatever is labeled bad, the culture is going to do obstinately," he says, "because the culture is like a teen -- it's growing. Harley Davidson motorcycles were a counter culture icon and then they became a popular culture icon. Tattoos are following the same swing. Now we've got half a dozen TV shows about it. There are contests all over North America. I would like to see Indianapolis warmly greet the tattoo industry and help us with grants so we can have the world's largest tattoo convention here."
Levin's interest in creating a large-scale tattoo happening in Indianapolis -- what he's calling "Body Arts Celebration Week" -- really took off when he learned about the program created by local Survivor
star Rupert Boneham to reach out to kids who have fallen on hard times. Levin decided to make his festival a benefit to support Rupert's Kids.
"I did some time in '69, '70, '71 in the juvenile center here in Indianapolis for running away," Levin says. "So I am very familiar with that facility. I didn't like it. When I saw a bunch of kids from the juvenile center at Rupert's place, I realized he's actually doing a fucking good job. I can give this man my money. He does it. I can see it. It's not a mystery foundation. I can see my money in action and I can see it helping those kids. The mentoring program is amazing. Imagine being 13, 14, locked up, away from your family. You're in kid jail. Everything's gone, everything's lost, your life's all screwed up. In comes a fucking TV star, somebody everybody knows. He gives you a warm hug and he says, 'I can help you if you want to help yourself.' Anything I can do to help him help those kids is helping my ghost of 40 years ago."
Levin sees a soulful connection between tattoos' attraction for many people and Rupert's Kids. "You can't repossess a tattoo," he says. "It's something you've got that is beautiful and there forever. People want to feel good about themselves. They want to beautify themselves. They want to feel stronger. Everybody's reason is different. Having big, scary demons on your back is a way to scare the bad forces."
As Levin sees it, the surge in tattooing and body modification is, quite literally, a sign of the times. "The more difficult the times, the more colorful the art," he says. "Art is something that is created from within. And if people are squeezed real, real tight, lots of times good art comes out. It will come out in new forms."
Levin laughs. "We're probably two Christmases away from having implants that flash and twitter!"
SIDEBAR: Rupert's Kids Sidebar for Tattoo week
Tattoo art reminds us that beauty resides in unlikely places, emblazoned on your chest or hidden in the crook of your arm. Over the years, local-boy-done-good Rupert Boneham has found beauty in even odder places, like pink toilets and decaying Christmas trees. He's not a junk yard artist, but he's found beauty in the way leftovers can make over lives.
This bearded, tie-die-wearing bear of a man became famous on the TV reality show Survivor
and then rich on "Survivor All Stars." Before his $1 million win, Boneham had worked in mental health and in construction and as a grave digger and a bouncer. Over the years, he developed a special compassion for teens who struggled, as he had, to reach adulthood without being conquered by addiction, crime, or violence. Using his own money, he paid local kids to work alongside him, often rehabbing houses. He made a specialty out of recycling perfectly good but ugly used bathroom fixtures into low income homes.
When Boneham made his million, he didn't retire to a resort island. He founded Rupert's Kids, a nonprofit mentoring program that's all about work and reinvention. His workers, aged 14 to 24, are referred to RK by social workers, worried parents, and the police. Some are having trouble in school. Some are beyond high school, but unable to find work, or facing physical or mental handicaps. Many come from the Marion County Probation Department, laboring at RK to make restitution for crimes like theft and vandalism.
Depending on the day, Rupert's Kids might be cleaning gutters for the elderly, shoveling snowy sidewalks, or learning how to install a light fixture. Most of the year, they are keeping Indianapolis beautiful by maintaining city parks. By landscaping for free, RK estimates they have saved Indy Parks more than $200,000 since 2006. In the winter, when they can't mow or rake, Rupert's Kids are pushing discarded Christmas trees through the city mulcher.
Though the kids on probation don't get paid, they can graduate into RK's 60-day, 90-day, or 180-day work programs and earn minimum wage, $6.55 per hour. RK's social worker and a team of mentors individualize the program to meet the kids' different needs. Some are getting ready for the workplace and need help with resumes. Others want to go to college, but don't know where to get funding. All Rupert's Kids have access to tutoring, computers, job training, and life skills lessons. They learn how to balance a checkbook, think about nutrition, and get along with a boss.
Boneham is often away making celebrity appearances around the country to support his family and RK, so his kids are supervised by paid mentors now, many of whom once crossed the legal line between right and wrong themselves.
"We are all Rupert's Kids," explains RK Program Director Darren Bunton, who spent two of his high school years in a juvenile correctional facility for shoplifting. He calls this time "a rude awakening that was totally necessary." His turnaround was made complete by "contact with those who care and a social network with good examples." After his release, he went straight to college, ultimately earning a Master's Degree in organizational psychology. At RK, he hopes to give to others what he received: adult attention, a dose of reality, and options. Bunton only asks that kids are "willing and motivated."
In a landscape of decreasing wages and diminishing opportunity, Rupert's Kids has a beauty all its own. For more on the organization, see: www.rupertskids.org