`I opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium ... sort of'

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The Independent Online
To use his own parlance, Steve Levitt is a piece of work. He is 5ft 8in of New York know-how and can-do; a stocky, heavy-hitting, take- no-bullshit kind of guy. He is amiable in a way you would expect from a Brooklyn native, with a warm smile and no-frills charm, but a certain glint in his eyes tells you that here is a man who has seen it all, twice. A stocky 50-year-old, in denim shirt and pressed jeans, with a full head of grey hair tied in a ponytail that reaches halfway down his back, Mr Levitt chops the air with his chunky hands, especially when he is making a serious point, which is often.

Even if he had done nothing else, Mr Levitt could spend the rest of his life telling people: "Listen buddy, I opened for the Beatles at the Shea Stadium in 1965." That concert, the first date of the Beatles' first American tour, was the biggest pop event ever witnessed: 64,000 hysterical fans - mostly teenage girls - screamed solidly for three hours. Hosted by America's then top TV personality, Ed Sullivan, the Shea Stadium gig was a tidal wave announcing the eruption of global pop culture; it was practically the start of the Sixties as we know them.

And Mr Levitt was right there, hanging on the crest of that wave. Having graduated from street dancing via the Martha Graham studio, he opened on that wild August night as one of the Hullabaloo Discotheque Dancers, performing a frenetic go-go routine along with five girls in mini-dresses. Rent the video - that's him, that skinny 20-year-old blur, frugging for all he is worth in a pair of hipster pants and a wine-coloured short-sleeve shirt. What does he remember most about the show? "That scream, man. It was the most terrifying noise you ever heard. I had that scream ringing in my ears for the next six months." The whole tour, it should be noted, lasted only six weeks.

Mr Levitt is part of a dying breed, one of those who can still recall a time before media saturation made us all tourists in our own culture. Back then, despite obvious parallels between the Merseybeat sound and the nascent New York underground art scene, there was no pop-literate media to join the dots, to spell it all out for those on the fringes and beyond. This made for a vital, intense curiosity; Mr Levitt would call his girlfriend in New York at prearranged times, so their friends could be present, listening into his on-the-road report. "My place would be packed with people, sometimes nearly 50 of them, all dying to know: `Are they freaks? What music do they like? Do they turn on? Are they into art?'."

But Mr Levitt's life did not stop at a prolonged bonding session with the world's most famous pop band: it simply got weirder. He worked with avant-garde art groups such as Electric Lotus and the American Thought Combine, producing cutting-edge computer graphics and multi-media installations with a spiritual undertone: in his teens he had met the likes of D T Suzuki, J Krishnamurti and Swami Satchidananda, and throughout the Sixties he delved into meditation and yoga, until he had "a pretty good oversight of the spiritual map". By 1969, he had become involved in American Indian issues, long before it had become fashionable to do so.

But Mr Levitt's was no drop-out lifestyle. He forged several careers; one of them as a highly-paid film director specialising in TV commercials and documentaries, though he was "always looking for a way to combine work and my personal interests". To this end, he travelled the world: China, India, South America, Australia, Japan, Europe, Africa - there is hardly anywhere he has not been - in search of wisdom.

"We have entered a time of profound spiritual crisis," he says. "At times like these, leadership disintegrates, causing a spiritual vacuum, and charlatans rush in to fill that void. But the real spiritual leaders, the true knowledge holders, they don't reveal themselves immediately. They only manifest when it is time."

And that time is now, he says. "It's like that Old Testament thing: the prophets are coming off the desert."

As the culmination of two decades of searching, Levitt is raising finance and finalising the research for Journeys Of The Spirit, a feature-length film that will dramatise the teachings of several mystic figures from around the world. "That's mystics, as opposed to spiritual leaders. These are people who have had something very profound happen to them, and have shared it, but don't necessarily welcome followers or believers."

But doesn't a straight-talking son of Brooklyn find it a little dour, pursuing the spiritual communality that binds humankind? Not at all. "These are people who like to have a bit of fun. Truly spiritual people never take themselves too seriously. As for me, I'm certainly not interested in saving anybody."