Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Flying Demon With a Billboard Heart

Larry "Link" Linkogle, Mind of the Demon: A Memoir of Motocross, Madness, and the Metal Mulisha

A motocross prodigy, Larry Linkogle went pro at 15, stealing prestigious trophies from senior riders. He never loved competitive motocross, though, preferring trick riding and audience-pleasing theatrics. At one high-profile event, he poked the establishment in the eye with a high-profile, rebellious ride, and freestyle motocross was born. But when his sport got co-opted by the money mavens he despised, he began a defiant descent into brutal self-destruction.

Link’s narrative of a life in motorcycles seems both familiar and strange. Familiar, because we recognize his rapid rise and violent collapse from a million rock star biographies. Strange because sportsmen usually suffer this massive crack-up only after their careers end, not at their athletic peak. Link’s ability to balance an apparent death wish against record-setting accomplishments and remarkable business feats makes a harsh study in contrasts.

Pushed into competitive riding early, by a father whose own demons cast a long shadow, Link always balked at racing, speed trials, and other statistics that attracted big-money sponsors. He felt most comfortable performing the tricks and stunts that motocrossers shared when audiences weren’t looking. He sought ways to bring such showmanship onto the track, an effort that alienated sponsors but made him an anti-hero to audiences.

Time after time, Link snagged some sponsor that loved his muscular theatricality. But as his sponsors became more established, gambling ever-greater sums on his track prowess, they inevitably demanded Link tone it down. He lost representation by biting the hand that fed him, though such oppositional defiance repeatedly snagged him some new, aspiring sponsor. Then his new Daddy Warbucks got rich and conservative; the cycle never ends.

Finally, in 1996, Link and another rider snapped. They turned their sponsor-labeled shirts inside out, wrote “Metal Mulisha” on their chests, and flubbed a major race in the most histrionic way possible. Audiences, largely numbed on lap counts, ate it wholesale. In Link’s telling, freestyle motocross (FMX) was born on that day, as was Metal Mulisha, perhaps the most lucrative team and cross-marketing brand ever to emerge from sport motorcycling.

Readers familiar with FMX will recognize that Link somewhat oversells his influence. Long before he snubbed his sponsors, riders like Bob Kohl and Travis Pastrana were performing trick rides on dirt tracks. Many riders pilfered BMX stunts, though they reserved their theatrics for warm-ups and victory laps. Link didn’t so much invent FMX as demonstrate that freestyling, essentially motorcycle ballet, could revitalize jaded audiences and draw sponsors.

But this isn’t unvarnished history or the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is Link’s subjective story of how one of FMX’s most talented stars nearly destroyed himself. If Link looms large in his own legend, so what? It means he acknowledges how far he fell, and how much he needed to recover. Though I doubt he’d phrase it thus, in his telling, Link’s FMX career resembles the dramatic swings of Greek tragedy.

Link created (or helped create) FMX to escape the tyrannical influence of scorekeepers and sponsors. But inside three years, those same influences overtook FMX. He’d long used self-destruction to rebel against constraining authorities, like his father and his sponsors, but when those rebellious displays became part of a family-friendly commodity, Link could only amplify his high-profile seppuku, devolving into prescription drug abuse and naked thuggery.

Through it all, Link remains blind to the ways he creates the situation he deplores. By undermining himself, while vigorously courting audience approval, he unconsciously channels other infamous kamikaze celebrities, like GG Allin and John Belushi, who commodified their own death spirals. His implosion morphs into a billboard. Link’s prose suggests he still doesn’t realize the role he played. One wonders if his ghost writer, Joe Layden, perhaps enhances the dramatic irony behind Link’s back.

Yet even as he excoriates the money and stardom that warped his sport, and justified his implosion, Link demonstrates a remarkable natural talent for business. He and his partners parley their antics into free publicity for the Metal Mulisha, making themselves stars and their brand a mark of militant authenticity. One wonders whether Link realizes, behind the haze of Vicodin and guns, that he’s covertly become the thing he despises.

Link’s memoir brashly refuses to be touching, uplifting, or any other adjective reviewers indiscriminately apply to self-immolation accounts. Yet his macho posturing often cracks, revealing surprising corners even he probably hasn’t noticed. Link exists on two planes: the recovering abuser who reclaims his peak achievements, and an anti-hero blind to his own destructive wake. This makes his slow decay strangely appealing, if not sympathetic.

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