Jimmy Levan built a career on defying gravity.
His path to worldwide recognition as a professional BMX rider began as a teenager in Louisville in the early 1980s, when he’d practice religiously on wooden ramps in his backyard.
Levan started racing professionally in 1983, and over the last 22 years, every maniacal jump, every inconceivable contortion of his bike, has elevated the 33-year-old trickster to the top echelon of BMX pros.
“He pioneered street riding,” says Chad Shackelford, whose production company, Nonetofive Films, shot footage of Levan for an upcoming film to be released by Odyssey, the Cerritas, Calif., bike-parts company that sponsors Levan.
The world of BMX didn’t include many full-blown street-riders before he came along, says Shackelford, a Cincinnati native who has known Levan since they were 15. “It was nonexistent. Before it was just BMX racing. They had a dirt (track) contest. Now you’ve got your freestyle aspect. Jimmy’s always been known as the street-rider guy.”
There are Hollywood actors who’ve had less publicity than Levan. He has appeared on the covers of Ride BMX and the Irish magazine Dig. England has christened one of its BMX festivals the “Jimmy Jam,” and Levan owns and operates his own manufacturing company, Metal Bikes, in California.
But on Nov. 3, gravity, and momentum, played a cruel trick of their own.
Levan, Shackelford and fellow Odyssey riders Aaron Ross, Chase Hawk, Wade Young and Jim Cielencki were in New Jersey, taking a break from shooting an upcoming BMX video called “Electronical.” They arrived at the home of one of Young’s friends so Young could drop off his car before the bikers drove to New York to continue filming.
According to Shackelford, Hawk and Levan were “goofing off” on a skateboard Hawk had bought the week before. Levan grabbed the board and sailed down a steep, S-shaped hill, effortlessly reaching the bottom. The group thought they should film the run, so Levan did it again, only this time, he started his ride 100 feet farther uphill. As he neared the bottom, Levan was traveling about 20 mph when the skateboard wobbled and shot out from under him. He fell backward, smacked his head on the pavement and went limp.
Injuries are an occupational hazard in BMX, and Levan, who’s suffered 15 concussions from riding, knows what an emergency room looks like. Two weeks before this accident, Dig published a two-page spread on Levan showing his numerous injuries.
Levan lay on the ground unconscious for three minutes. When he came to, he was disoriented and refused to go to the hospital. EMTs bandaged the 3-inch gash in the back of his head, and took him to a nearby hospital. His brain was bruised and he had a fractured skull. “I’m supposed to be dead, or have the brain of a 4-year-old,” Levan told LEO. “My skull’s still fractured in a bunch of places. I lucked out.”
Luck, and quick medical thinking. The impact bruised Levan’s brain. Doctors inserted a tube through his forehead and drained three pints of brain fluid.
His contusion affected his short- and long-term memory, and his emotions: He didn’t remember, for example, doctors handcuffing him to his hospital bed or putting boxing gloves on his hands. He could remember things that happened when he was 4, but not his mom’s middle name. “The way my brain contusion was, it affects your emotions and how you handle yourself. You’re going to either be hateful or loving,” Levan recalled.
His wreck stunned BMX athletes all over the world. Australian riders held a raffle to help Levan pay his hospital bills. Bikers in Austin raised $2,000 at a “Get High for Jimmy” BMX, music and art show. Empire BMX set up a fund, too, offering to match any donation sent in. Levan’s own company, Metal, hopes to collect thousands through sales of a one-of-a-kind T-shirt. This Saturday, the Forecastle Festival is hosting a 12-hour music and BMX show — “Halfway to Forecastle” — to ease Levan’s financial burden. Sub Pop Recording artist Band of Horses and local dance rock giants VHS or Beta top the bill at Headliners Music Hall.
The outpouring has shocked and humbled him. “I can’t believe they’re doing a raffle for me in Australia,” he says. “I’m just shocked. I’m blown away. This is crazy. People from Korea are sending me stuff right now, all this wild stuff I didn’t even ask for. It just makes me respect the friendship.”
Three doctors told Levan they didn’t know how he survived the worst skull fracture they’d ever seen. He has been ordered not to ride until April, and his insurance requires him to attend mental and physical rehabilitation classes. His sponsors said they’d pay him to take a year off.
He agreed, but isn’t hanging it up. “I’m 33 years old,” he said. “It’s too late for me to stop for a year. When my skull’s healed, I’m back to riding.”
Driven as he is, Levan’s not at all cavalier about the dangers of BMX, and advises all young riders to wear helmets.
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Halfway to Forecastle Benefit
Featuring Band of Horses, VHS or Beta, Catfish Haven, Early Day Miners, Cass McCombs & more
Saturday, Jan. 26
Headliners Music Hall
1386 Lexington Road
$15; 2 p.m.