Playing the Flute for the Hell's Angels
Meet Bear Mountain Motorcycles owner Michael Kunz — biker, flutist, photographer, Buddhist, grease monkey, Renaissance man in black leather.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
"You finally figured it out, didn't you? You just gotta drop in and grab me," says Michael Kunz. With a slightly bad-boy sparkle in his eye and that disarming megawatt smile, he laughs off the weeks of phone tag — mostly him not returning messages — and throws his arms open wide for a tight, welcoming hug.
"Yeah, I was out on a test drive when you called yesterday. They did tell me you called. But then. . .," he says, voice trailing off. He shrugs and laughs again.
Kunz is the owner of Bear Mountain Motorcycles in Silver City, the company he founded five years ago come next Cinco de Mayo. He's just the man you want to talk to about your Fat Boy or some new leathers.
But don't dismiss Kunz as a grease monkey. There are many other facets to this tall, raven-haired bundle of energy. He's also a musician, a builder of Native American-style flutes, the founder of the New Mexico Flute Circle and a fine art photographer — things not normally associated with a man up to his armpits in axle grease all day. He's also a brown belt in karate — "Never took my black belt test," he says, "but I'm confident I can do it." And, religion-wise, he leans Buddhist, something that trickles out in conversation as "live and let live" and how "respect goes a long way" toward resolving conflicts — even between, say, big, burly Harley riders.
Explaining the more esoteric aspects of his life, Kunz says, "You can do as many things in this life as you want to do."
Kunz does plenty.
On this clear morning, he's down on the floor of his shop early, doing what he does to earn the daily bread. He looks admiringly at one mighty large pair of exhaust pipes, cocking his head at the gleaming steel.
"Ain't they pretty? What I'm doing here is putting on a new exhaust system to make it nice and loud so the locals can enjoy them!" he says with a naughty laugh. "Hey, like they say, 'loud pipes save lives.'"
Asked why he doesn't wear a helmet when he rides if he's interested in protecting his own life, he ticks off his talking points — how helmets don't provide protection over 13 miles per hour, how the helmet lobbyists are in bed with the helmet makers, resulting in a conflict of interest. He's strong on the rhetoric and colorful in his delivery. His bottom line is that the best protection is good driver education, which includes motorcyclists being skilled, sensible and defensive, and auto drivers learning to watch out for folks on bikes.
But if you happen to be a writer with a strong belief that helmets are a good thing, he'll fit you with a loaner for your afternoon spin on the back of his bike. OK, he'll laugh at you, but at least your cranium's covered!
Maybe that's an aspect of that respect and tolerance thing again — something Kunz has made a hallmark of in his shop. Over the doorway between his store and the garage hangs a wooden sign, proclaiming the place "neutral territory on common ground." The love of motorcycles and the freedom they bring, the sign goes on, is what bikers of all stripes and colors share. The top of the sign is decorated with a peace pipe. The message is clear: Peace, brothers and sisters!
"Well, all kinds of people come in here," Kunz explains. "Hell, I'm talking about rival clubs, Christians, gays, Harleys versus whatever. I tell 'em, the love of the bike is what we've got in common, so let's get along. The differences between us? You'd just better leave that outside. And you can check your attitude at the door while you're at it!"
Kunz started riding dirt bikes — motorcycles were prohibited in his family — when he was nine or 10 years old, he says. He got his first street bike in 1987. Just two years later, he got flat-out serious about bikes and bought himself a "real pretty bike, a divorce gift to myself!"
He describes his current main ride in one adjective-laden sentence: "It's a 1980 Harley FLH Electro-glide with a stroker motor, a real hopped-up engine and kick-start-only ignition. That and the service manual, that's how I started working on bikes." Though he's since gotten certified at "Harley School," Kunz credits a dude called Flat Black with teaching him the real ropes.
"He's a master rebuilder," Kunz says. "And he paints all his own motorcycles flat black — that's how he got the name."
Kunz owns about a half-dozen bikes now, including one old classic BMW up on a bench in the back of his shop. Needs work is the phrase that springs to mind. Doubtless for Kunz, restoring this heap and getting her on the road will be a labor of love.
"I brought my yuppie bike today, so I could take it easy on you," he says with a mischievous smile and a hearty laugh that's, OK, just a bit unsettling.
How Kunz came to find his motorcycle niche in Silver City — both as a mechanic and owning his own shop — is an interesting tale, if almost unbelievable. "There's this guy, Shannon (Walker), and he was working at a motorcycle shop in Apache Junction, Ariz. He happened to be leaving that shop, so I took his job," Kunz begins.
A few years later, Kunz was riding up from El Paso, back home to Arizona, and passed through Silver City. As many a biker will do, needing repairs or not, he stopped in at the local motorcycle shop, the Iron Horse Corral, then located at what is now the Silver City Brewing Company on College Avenue.
"I saw the name 'Shannon,' and asked about him. Sure enough, it was the same guy," Kunz recalls. "He was out to lunch — literally, not metaphorically — so I didn't get to see him on that trip."
He hooked up with Shannon Walker on a subsequent visit, however, and was given some interesting news. "Shannon was moving on again, and they offered me his job. I even got to take over his apartment when I moved to town. Now he's in Missouri, but I told him, 'Forget about it. There's no way I'm following you to misery,'" Kunz says with a laugh, deliberately butchering the pronunciation.
Kunz picked up his wrench at the Iron Horse, following the shop when it moved to the corner of Hwy. 180 and Memory Lane. But disappointment in the way that company was going, not to mention a heated argument over well, flutes — more on that later — led to his departure.
You can't ignore your calling, though, and it seemed Kunz was destined to work on bikes. "My clientele started to find out where I lived," he says. "Then they started dropping by with their bikes, asking me to work on them. So my customer base actually forced me to go into business for myself, and that's the best way to start — when people really want you and are, well, literally knocking at your door."
He borrowed $7,000 from a friend and set up shop in a dinky little location at the corner of Texas and Market Street, much to the delight of his customers, some of whom drive four hours to have him work on their machines.
"And that's another thing," Kunz pipes up. "Don't tell me you can't start up a business without some $20,000 business loan. That's just a load of. . . well, you can't say that." He pauses, then adds with a chuckle, "Well, it's just a load of nonsense, that's what it is!"
Perhaps drawn by Kunz' elevated voice, Lynda Bernadette, who's been helping customers and ringing the register in the front of the shop, wanders into the back room where he now is mounting the other exhaust pipe. She's currently Kunz' business partner, though he hopes to buy her out by the end of this year.
"She brought in the leathers," Kunz says, explaining the start of their business relationship in creative shorthand.
The very embodiment of a sassy blonde with biker attitude, Bernadette erupts with, "Whoa! Look at all the stuff this guy's got on his bike now!" She and Kunz go over all the customizations and "bling" on the gleaming bike. The two chat about a regular customer who wants to sell one of his bikes to buy another model. Kunz suggests the guy bring it down to the shop, and Bernadette goes back up front to greet another customer, this one scoping out the biker-oriented clothing.
Happy with his progress on the exhaust pipes and having decided it's about time to take the writer out for a spin and grab lunch, Kunz leads the way out front to his "yuppie bike."
"Oh, I brought this along," he says, and rummages in the saddlebag, pulling out a simple tan wooden flute with green ribbons. "It's a Hawaiian nose flute."
He puts the instrument up to his nostril and plays a melodic, peaceful tune, the Cherokee Morning Song. "Hawaiians play flutes with their noses because they think that's the only pure air. The mouth isn't pure enough because it can swear and lie, but the nose can't," he says.
Following the peaceful music and Kunz' mini-lecture on Hawaiian musical culture, his bad-boy smile has been replaced with one that's childlike, sweet. You'd perhaps be tempted to call it "pure."
Kunz started playing Native American-style flutes 13 years ago, and soon started building them himself out of local yucca stems. He's been too busy to make them lately.
"I have a lot of half-built flutes all over my house," he confesses.
When Kunz was working as a mechanic at Iron Horse, he had more time and energy for flute building, and sold quite a few. One time, however, a flute buyer came by his workplace to pick up her purchase. Let's just say Kunz' boss wasn't pleased at his doing "outside commerce" through the shop. Though Kunz says the transaction didn't take anything away from his productivity — he even had the woman come during his lunch hour — the business' owner made it clear there were to be no more flute pick-ups at the shop.
"He said, 'This isn't a music shop. This is a bike shop,'" Kunz recalls. "He said it wasn't the right image. I think that's just crazy! Just because you're a biker, you can't have anything to do with a flute? Heck, I want to create enough wall space in my shop to hang my art. A bike shop doesn't have to look scary. People should feel welcome, and like it's a friendly place!"
Wanting to further his point about music's ability to unite and, well, perhaps calm the savage breast, he gives another example. "I've played my flute for the Hell's Angels," he says, and recounts how one biker groused when he didn't see how the floating melodies were enhancing the, um, gathering. "He started mouthing off about it, saying, 'What's this stuff about?' and this other guy told him to shut up. He said, 'Mike's cool. Go ahead and play, Michael,' and that was the end of that."
A few weeks later, Kunz played for the Bandito motorcycle club. "And that's really odd, 'cause those guys and the Hell's Angels don't have anything to do with each other," he says.
Displaying some of the work he hopes to hang on his shop's walls, Kunz lines up three of his framed photographs. The images are completely different — a canyon scene with a waterfall, a beautiful, mysterious black-cloaked woman standing in a forest, and a fiery maelstrom — yet he introduces them as variations on the same theme.
"Here's what I do: nature, nature and nature," he says with a smile. Then he goes into detail on each photograph, starting with the canyon waterfall.
"Well, that's Yosemite. Yosemite's Yosemite, and it's beautiful and that's all there is to it," he says. "An idiot could take good pictures of Yosemite."
But the picture's composition, perfectly balanced half-light, half-dark, belies his offhand description. Lush green evergreens play off the leafless, golden, willowy deciduous trees on the facing shore. The blue dome of sky above the scene mirrors the dark bowl of water below, a bleached, sawed-off stump anchored at center. The waterfall, which stands out only upon a closer look, gushes forth from a crack in the craggy hillside, pouring out into the dead center of the photo.
Kunz, obviously pleased with the observer's comments and wide-eyed scrutiny of the work, moves on to describe the next photo, which appears to be a swirling mass of red and orange flames and smoke.
"That's 'The Face in the Fire,'" he explains. "People ask me how I superimposed the face into the picture. Hey, I'm a 35-millimeter guy! I don't do that! What you see is what you get, and this is exactly what was happening at that time, and I just got lucky and caught it in this shot."
The red and gold flames leap against the black background, and a plume of flame-illuminated smoke billows from the blaze. There appear to be two faces, actually, one a near-profile in the smoke, with a perfectly definable brow, nose and chin. The other face is created by the flames themselves, two dark spots making the phantom visage's eye sockets, a furrow of flame providing an unmistakable nose, gold flames seeming to pour from its nostrils.
Kunz adds that he got several good shots of the fire, blazing from a black barrel. The effect is like looking at an inferno on a black horizon at midnight.
"And this is the milder one, the more tame one," he adds with a small laugh and that mischievous smile. This fire series was taken near the Superstition Mountain wilderness area in Arizona, he says. "I had this other fire photo hanging at the old Yankie Creek Gallery for a while. People used to actually jump back from that one! I had this one guy who looked at it and then he looked at me and said, 'El Diablo!' It's a pretty frightening image, I admit."
Milder or not, this one is plenty ominous. Or perhaps "mysterious" would be a better word.
Following along the "mystery" theme, Kunz points out a third photo, the one of the woman in the woods. "And that's 'The Maid in the Forest,'" he says simply. "It was taken in Norway." He gazes at the photo in a different way than the others, with a sort of fond recognition. In fact, the large-eyed, dramatic beauty in the photo was at one time Kunz' fiancé.
Captured on black-and-white film, the scene is a dance of light and shadows. The "maid" seems to rise from the lichen-covered rock in the foreground, and she mirrors the tall pine tree at her back. Bright white bits of sky, seen through the branches above her, give a counterpoint to the maid's black, hooded robe.
Kunz picks up the photo, turns it to nullify glare from light hitting the glass, then traces his finger along some of the shrubbery in the image. His eyes light up and a broad smile breaks out over his face.
"Look! It's a Green Man!" he exclaims. "Can you see that? They just pop out at you. They're always there, but they're hidden, and then they just pop out and let you see them!"
The so-called Green Man is a mythical deity, representing the natural world. He appears in sculptures and drawings as a face surrounded by or made from leaves. Often, the images blend into their surroundings, and "pop out" only upon closer inspection.
A whimsical look on his face, Kunz seems to be seeking other images of the Green Man in the photo. "I have one of these hanging up in my house. And I'll take a look at it, and then I'll spot one that I didn't see before. Then I'll look at the calendar and see what day it is," he says, suggesting that the mythical foliate-faced ones may tend to emerge on, say, equinoxes or ancient feast days.
"They just come out of hiding. You never know when you'll see them or exactly what they'll look like," he says with a smile and that sparkle in his eye.
Finding the Green Man peeping out from the layered foliage is not unlike, perhaps, being surprised by one of the many faces of the multi-faceted Michael Kunz himself.
Visit Michael Kunz, and perhaps see some of his photography, at Bear Mountain Motorcycles, 108 E. College Ave., Silver City, 388-3500, open Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. To find out about the New Mexico Flute Circle, email MDKflutes@yahoo.com or call the shop. Keep an eye out for local gigs to catch him playing flute or harmonica.
Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of
and has recovered from her wild ride on the back of Michael Kunz' bike.