We Are Upstate NY With Local Legend Michael Esposito
If you’re a real “local” then you know Michael Esposito. He’s one of Woodstock’s true Local Legends… a musician-artist-priest, gentle spirit, friend… and proprietor of the “Old Spokes Home”, an old-style bicycle repair shop in a dilapidated barn just off Tinker Street. Michael is a cherished elder who chooses to live his life ‘in the moment’.
If you don’t mind waiting, he’ll also fix your bike for a “Woodstock Deal.” I recommend listening to him wax philosophical about the world or geek out on musical instruments that revolutionized the music world for decades to come, something he explained (for those of you old enough to remember) on the Jack Benny Show in 1967.
Mike also loves talking about the blues and how it changed his life. How his youth was filled with fascination and moments of true good karma. He’s a beautiful human being who holds a special place in many of our hearts, a gentle 83-year old reincarnated soul – the Swami of “Mike’s Bikes: Old Spokes Home.”
We’re blessed to have the opportunity to sit down with Michael to dig deeper into his life’s story and learn more about what makes him “tick”. Urana Kinlen, Inside+Out’s digital manager and friend, catches up with Michael. So, let’s begin…..
INSIDE+OUT | Urana Kinlen: Hi Michael! How are you?
Michael Esposito: Is it rolling, Bob? (referring to my iPhone recording our conversation…)
I+O (Urana): It’s rolling…
We both chuckle at the reference to 50s and 60s Television shows. Eventually, he notices my new iPhone lying on the table in front of him, with red EKG-type lines dancing back and forth on the white screen. For a luddite, he’s a quick learner and picks up on the sound vibrations like he’s reading a soundboard or amp. Suddenly HE’s the authority, quickly absorbing the new technology on the spot. This free spirit is surely still in tune.
Michael, where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
I started my life in the Hudson Valley on March 29, 1940, at The Station Hospital in West Point, New York.
What sign are you?
Aries. Flagrantly Aries.
Did you live anywhere before West Point?
During WWII, before I was born, my parents had to move from Virginia to DC to West Point every six months so the “enemy” wouldn’t know where they lived. If you had a telephone for more than a year, they’d find your number and surveil you. Very crude compared to today.
(It now makes sense why Michael refuses to have a mobile phone, computer or anything remotely traceable.)
Anyway, that’s where I started out. I lived on campus at The U.S. Military Academy at West Point with my family. We collected copper pennies during World War II for my father, Vincent J Esposito.
What does that mean? You collected copper pennies. Why?
They were making bullets and needed copper for that.
Interesting…. tell us more.
During the war, my father was the head of the Military Art & Engineering Mapping Department for the whole country. He worked for President Eisenhower, who was then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during WWII. My dad was a very talented artist with beautiful skills and he hand-made military campaign maps for Eisenhower and our troops. (Eventually, his life’s work became a publication as a book called, The West Point Atlas of American Wars.) Funny story, my drummer from the Blues Magoos found a copy at a flea market and he bought it for me. I still have it. The original maps were as big as this table. They were like four feet long. When we were kids, I would leaf through it. It was a different time.
Today it’s in the Library of Congress. Then, it became part of a publication. So, you could buy it in a bookstore (they had to reduce it to 1/4 the size). Now it’s on Amazon. Crazy! Interesting time to grow up.
Tell us more about your home life growing up.
My father could have been a chef in another life. He was a really good cook and we were raised around great cuisine. Back then, he spent a lot of time with a man named Gene Leone who owned a restaurant called Mama Leone’s in New York City. Very famous restaurant. My dad helped him to write the seafood section of “Leone’s Italian Cookbook”, of which Eisenhower wrote the foreword. That book is worth a lot of money now.
Tell me about the rest of your family.
My mother’s name was Eleanor Grace Vineyard. She was the daughter of the shipbuilding magnate of Vineyard Ship Building in Delaware. She was a dutiful army wife who stayed home and raised three boys at the West Point Military Academy. Some of my memories of her were her amazing baked goods. My favorite is her lemon meringue pie. She was dedicated to us and was a stabilizing influence. She taught me how to collaborate with others which eventually helped me to keep it together in my bands.
I had two brothers. My older brother, Vincent Jr., was a cadet at West Point and six years older than me. He continued a military career. Because of our age difference, we weren’t very close.
My younger brother Curtis and I were inseparable as kids. We’re just a year apart in age. Later, he stayed at West Point as a cadet and I went off to Syracuse Art School. Curtis raised a family, spent time in the Vietnam War and eventually retired as a full Colonel. We’re still close and see each other when we can.
Why didn’t you follow in the military footsteps of the other men in your family?
I had rheumatic fever and was classified 4-F, which means you’re not available for military service. I had a stigmatic reflex, which is where your heart skips a beat now and then. Luckily for me, they had just developed the medical technology of extracting cortisone from cow blood, which saved my life. So, instead of military life, I went to art school.
Tell us how you began your musical career and college.
After I graduated high school in 1958, I went to Syracuse College to study art. While I was there, I played with a band called The Daiquiris. I’ve got a picture of them. They were SO cool. We all wore matching outfits, typical 60s style, and we played pop, kind of like lightweight pop music. I also played on the Syracuse ice hockey team. My art teacher loved my work so, when I graduated college he got me an internship at a Madison Avenue advertising firm. I went to New York and lasted just two weeks at the agency. I knew it wasn’t for me.
At night, I would go to MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village to hang out and listen to music. Mostly folk and rock music at the Night Owl Cafe, Café Wha, The Basement Cafe or in the basement of the Albert Hotel where we stored our equipment, but that’s another story for another day….
That’s when I first started playing in a band with Felix Cavaliere called The Escorts playing Ray Charles and James Brown covers (Felix was later a co-founder of The Rascals). We played at a club called The Gold Bug, which was owned by two mafia brothers and all kinds of nefarious characters in the back room. Yeah, I loved it. I must have been around 22-23 years old. The owner, Louie Santa Pietro, would ask us to come upstairs to their bulletproof room and pay us with crisp new hundred-dollar bills. What a trip!
Wasn’t this about the time when you met the “Bloos Magoos” which you later changed to the “Blues Magoos”?
Yeah. One night I was at the Night Owl club to see who was playing, sat down to listen for a bit and found out they had just fired the guitar player between sets. So they needed a guitar player to finish their set. I’m a bass player but I got up and improvised to help them finish the set. The kids liked it and hired me on the spot. Since they also let go of the drummer, I called my drummer friend, Jeoff Daking, who ended up joining us. That’s when we became The Blues Magoos.
We played The Night Owl for about a year before recording our first song, “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet”, which made Billboard’s Top 5. We also made our first record, Psychedelic Lollipop (the album artwork was one of my paintings). In 1967, we ended up going on tour in California with Herman Hermits as their headlining band. The Who actually opened for us. It was wild!
Bruce Milner’s (now “Woodstock’s Favorite Dentist”) band, “Every Mother’s Son”, also toured with The Who. I learned a lot about the mindset of the British back then. The Who didn’t really talk to us (they still thought about us as part of the British Colonies, even the younger generations). It was an interesting awareness of cultural perceptions even though we spoke the same language of music.
How did the rest of the tour go?
I did make friends with Pete Townsend, the lead guitar player of The Who. Probably because he loved American guitars and I showed him where all the pawn shops were in California and Texas. Pete bought like a dozen guitars. They’re each probably worth like a million dollars today, of course. Anyway, I had the one guitar that they all wanted but I wouldn’t sell it. It was a number No. 38 made by Leo Fender in his shop in California. I knew it was an old guitar because everything wasn’t finished on it. I played it for a while, but I liked my Stratocaster better because it had more variation. I finally gave it away to the Tracy Nelson Band’s road manager when I came to Woodstock. Later on, I wound up giving away all my guitars.
In your famous interview with Jack Benny in 1967, he alludes to a new sound called “Psychedelic” Rock n Roll. How was your sound different? What was your take on that?
We used a Theremin (broken AM radio) and an Echoplex (tape delay) made by Fender. The Echoplex was a tape delay machine. Which only recording studios had and was mobile. You could make a million sounds using the delay. It was not computerized. It was a physical tape machine. With a sliding tape head while the tape is turning between two reels. Here is the secret to our sound…this one was broken. It had been dropped and wasn’t working normally. So, I used that to make my guitar have that psychedelic sound effect. Then, I would use the Theremin to make the sound like it was in outer space. That was the quaver sound effect that you hear on our albums and the Jack Benny video. You can see it when I move the neck over the long narrow box ,which is the Thermin antennae sending out sound wavelengths that I interrupt with my guitar neck or my hand which results in a change of pitch.
The original Theremin was invented by a Russian man named, Leon Theremin. It would send our wavelengths stretching 10-20 feet which he would play and dancers would dance through to create these sounds. It led to the invention of the synthesizer.
So, now you’re in this famous band touring with an even more famous British band. What happened after that?
We came back from touring and we were in NYC recording our last album together called, Basic Blues Magoos. We recorded at Mercury Records, but would go down to this shabby Capitol Records studio somewhere in Midtown Manhattan where a lot of famous people were recording. I met Happy and Arty Traum there (along with Bob Dylan who was also hanging out since they were all friends). So they told me about this town upstate called Woodstock and invited me to come up and rehearse with them on their first album Happy & Artie Traum. Happy was already known coast to coast as a folk singer with Pete Seeger, but they didn’t have an album yet so I did it. So I hopped on a Trailways bus and headed up to Woodstock.
The day I stepped off that bus, a local resident and deputy on the Woodstock Police Force walked right up to me and said, “Why don’t you get back on that bus?” I clearly remember that. I said, “Oh, welcome to Woodstock, right?” So that was my welcome to Woodstock. He was difficult, a typical redneck at the time. Now he brings me bicycles and we’re good friends. We became friends by having coffee at Duey’s every morning. In spite of my bus experience, I knew right away that Woodstock was where I was going to spend my life. I even bought my plot in the Artist Cemetery that year. I thought, “Okay, I’ve got my final resting place. I’m happy.” I then met Mark Black and he and Betty McDonald were playing up at the Pine Crest. I started playing with them and we became the Mark Black Trio. I have been playing with Mark ever since.
Your cover of the James Brown song, “I’ll Go Crazy” from your Psychedelic Lollipop’s album, strikes me as how you have lived your life in Woodstock ever since you left The Blues Magoos. Is there any truth to this?
I felt that vibe when I got here. I’m free to do me. “You got to live for yourself and nobody else…” Yeah, I tried everything. I became a priest for 10 years, a guru, painted lots of paintings, sex, drugs and psychedelic rock n’ roll, drew social-political cartoons and more. Now I’m fixing bikes. I’m kind of tame now.
I remember growing up in Woodstock in the 80s and all the kids at Sled Hill (across from the current Post Office) used to sled there. You used to play music at Sled Hill Cafe. Are we talking about the same place?
Nope. Sled Hill is the road between Deming Street and Pine Grove Street in town. It’s a steep little hill that was a terribly terrifying ride on a sled, but that’s not what we were doing. We were hanging out in an old two-car garage on the North side of the street (now an empty lot) that was converted into a makeshift jam space called the Sled Hill Café where musicians would practice or collaborate with each other. I was in my late 20s at that time. The owner of the house let us use it to play music and they strung a wire out from the house to the garage. I remember Mike Winfield, a bass player, holding together the plugs connecting the two buildings while he was standing in water. We didn’t care. It was also a little bar.
Who would play there?
Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, The Band and so many more local musicians played there. They’d finish recording at Albert Grossman‘s studio up in Bearsville, then come down at four o’clock in the morning to hang out and maybe jam.
Sounds like the Tinker Street Café in the 80s – 90s. There were some great bands that played there after they finished recording in Bearsville. Sled Hill Café was a bar, too?
Yes. Great times! A local, Frank Spinelli, was one of the cafe’s bartenders.
Tell us more about the musicians in Woodstock during that time.
It was an amazing time for live music in Woodstock. Even Charles Mingus, the great jazz pianist, could be found playing the piano in the middle of an empty cafe and mid-day. He’d be sitting there, working on a song, alone. John Sebastian (of the Lovin’ Spoonful) raised his family here. Libby Titus and Eric Kaz (a later member of Blues Magoos) wrote, “Love Has No Pride.” One of the most famous, most recorded songs ever in history by all different artists. Then, there was Bob Dylan, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, The Band, Todd Rundgren and so many others who were lesser-known musicians but still amazing all around town. The town was filled with artisans!
Did you go to the famous Woodstock Concert in Bethel?
The one thing I somewhat regret is not going to the 1969 Woodstock Concert. I forget the band I was in at that time, but we were supposed to play as an opening act. We didn’t go because I heard about the traffic and I said, “I’m not gonna get involved with that.” Instead, we made 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the musicians on the village green right in front of the church. ShopRite gave us 30 cases of their store-brand cola and we sent it to Bethel with this kid who swung by the Green.
Who was this kid?
All I could remember about him was that he was from Pennsylvania and had a truck. He told us that he knew how to get backstage. He exclaimed, “I know the fire roads.” He ended up going as far as he could go on Route 209 South. And then he went off into the woods on a fire road and came out right behind the stage! So we at least supplied food for the musicians. I felt good about that, involved somehow.
Wow! You’re right. It must have been crazy to venture out as a musician looking for provisions.
There was nothing there and since it was so crowded, you couldn’t even walk to a vendor to get food. At one point they were helicoptering in musicians like Richie Havens into the site; he ended up playing for four hours to cover for the missing bands. Unfortunately, we were one of the bands that were supposed to play but it was just too crazy. Plus, I’m not a fan of riding in cars. They make me nervous. I’d rather be in a large Trailways bus.
In 1972, you gave it all up to become a priest. What precipitated this? Tell us more about this time in your life. What was the name of the Church?
It was the Church of Christ on The Mount with Father Francis. Father Francis was a scholar of many religions and knew enough about Tibetan Buddhism. He was amazing. Just an amazing guy, a legend unto himself. All the young adults in their 20s-30s were in love with Father Francis “The Hippy Priest.” He was very independent, highly intelligent and a bit of a radical. Youth used to come up to the church to sing in a choir called, “The Last Temptations” with Jed Welsh who was the choir director and “hippy.”
Anyway, they had just started building the Tibetan Monastery while I was there. When it opened, I took Father Francis to meet Kalu, who was the oldest Tibetan Llama at that time and who came to Woodstock to bless the new building. I had to keep making tea for four hours while these two 96-year-old holy guys sat there telling each other their best jokes.
What was it that inspired you to stay for ten years?
I was totally into Saint Francis and “suffering” at that time. I wore a robe down to the ground out of rough wool. With a rope as a belt. I lived under a piece of plywood with a tarp hanging down off it and I had an army sleeping bag for the summer. I wanted bare bones. I still have my walking stick. I started reading about Saint Francis and the great Christian Saints and their writings. I got totally immersed in it. Eventually, they built me a room.
That sounds like quite the internal journey.
Yeh, The whole idea of when you become a monk is to leave the world. And you’re at the gates of heaven. That’s the psychology behind it. It was a great time. I gave away thirteen guitars to all of the people I ever knew in the business. Anyone who had asked me if I wanted to sell them my guitar someday got it for free. I was in hypnosis. I really believe that now.
What brought you out of this life?
I came out of it gradually, back into the “world of fleshly desires”. I started playing music with Mark Black again, bought a piece of land from Dudley Summers off Glasco Turnpike with a little inheritance my mother had left me. Lots of folks helped me build my house from donated materials and artisan skills in the community. I had a string of girlfriends and stuff.
I remember the 80s and how vibrant the locals, artists and families were back then. It was a special time. What are some of your favorite memories of the vibe over the years since you came to town?
This is nostalgia… “Naus-stalgia”. That’s an interesting term. Reliving the past. Well, I have trouble remembering. All I remember is that in the early 80s I was playing music almost every night. There were so many places to play, I think we had seven clubs in town. First, it was the Espresso, then that became the Tinker Street Café. Joyous Lake, The Elephant Café, Sled Hill Café, Bearsville Theater, Pine Crest and later upstairs at Joshua’s. Mark and I played a lot at the Pine Crest, Joshua’s, anywhere we felt like it. It was really a music town. There were a lot of famous musicians recording out in Bearsville. Lots of good vibes.
I’ve been coming to you as my bicycle guru for bicycles for decades. First, it was Ciro’s and now you own and operate Old Spokes Home behind “Changes” in the village. Tell me about that transition.
I worked for Ciro for three years, then he moved to a bigger shop behind the current Film Festival building on Rock City Road. That was an experience. My grandfather is from Brooklyn, my father is from Brooklyn and Ciro is from Brooklyn. I think they even knew people that knew my family. He was a very smart, talented mechanic and really a great human being, ya know. I learned the trade from him. How to do it wrong. How to do it right. After Ciro passed away, I inherited his tools and his customers. A year later, I moved the shop to behind Changes Men’s Store and opened my own place called, The Old Spokes Home. You can find me there on any sunny day from noon to about 4 or 5pm.
Tell us about The Old Spoke Home. How is it different from other businesses in the area?
Number one, I don’t have a budget. And I don’t have a projected gross income. None of that kind of business school stuff. It’s just not how I work. If you talk to my good friend, Billy, he has to run his shop based on selling very expensive NEW bikes. He has 5 to 6 employees that work for him and I have none. I’m a second-hand bike dealer, a mechanic with a public parts department where people can come and just recycle the leftover parts they may need rather than buying new ones. Parts such as tires, brake pads, wheels, handlebars, cables, seats and pedals. This allows me to sell my bikes at a much lower cost. I also have little overhead. My shop is an old barn with no floor, no electricity and I share the space with other businesses. I mean, I’m an old guy without a floor.
What is your business philosophy?
I make my business fun. I’m 83 now so I make sure not to work too hard. Last year, I pulled my back out for three months by working too hard. I’m not gonna do that again because then, I can’t work. I could do that when I was 20. I’ve had to learn to slow down.
Tell us about your routine.
It’s not a brisk business, so mostly it’s me sitting around the parking lot doing a crossword puzzle. Now and then somebody will drive up with the bike on the back of their car. I’ll have it ready in a couple of hours, if not right there on the spot. If it’s warm enough and the sky and the ground are dry, I’m there seven days a week from April to November. You could say that I work “in the moment”.
One time, this couple came by and gave me two Specialized bicycles to tune up. They hardly needed any work and I was done inside of an hour. They just needed air in the tires and some lubrication. Two years later, she comes back and wants to know if her bikes are ready. I thought, “What world do you live in? I thought my world was slow.”
I love being at my bike shop because every morning there’s always an orphaned bike waiting for me. I have lots of love to give. At the Old Spokes Homes, we cherish old bikes that are ready for a new life. Sometimes I rebuild them from the ground up. I’m always in the mood to fix a bike just like I’m always in the mood to play music.
But I’m not always in the mood to do a painting anymore, which is not good. Mostly, because I don’t have a space to paint. I was exhibiting my stuff at the Artists Association and Fletcher Gallery. I sold seven paintings on my first opening. They’re nice and did pretty well, but my prices weren’t high enough. When I met Lou, she said that my prices were “prehistoric.” But it was never really about the money.
Tell us about Swami Salami. What is his journey?
Well, I went to Syracuse for Fine Arts. I loved my graphics design teacher, Peter Penning, but he was a grouchy German guy. If he didn’t like your work, he’d just tear it up. One of those guys. Like how Miles Davis was on set with his musicians. He’d fine you $50 for just playing a wrong note. (You might say Miles was a perfectionist..)
Any kind of art form brings out the best and the worst in everybody. The product has to shine. That’s why I was attracted to African-American music my whole life. Because it shines even though its rough. Blues, jazz, soul and funk speak to the human condition.
Anyway, that’s where my artistic background for creating Swami Salami came from along with my experiences in Woodstock. Swami Salami was in the Woodstock Times for about 32 Years. It was our local social-political cartoon.
What is Swami Salami’s origin story?
I started drawing Swami in Woodstock in the 70s and 80s, mostly because of all the Gurus who were in town. We had Guru Bawa, Guru Rajneesh, Guru Muktananda. And there were teachers, like Dr. Kaushik from India and his two young American disciples. I became part of one of their “Beige People” for a while. We wore beige colored clothes and sandals. We always sat cross-legged on the floor or in a chair and we paraded around town in our beige outfits. These experiences led to my inspiration for Swami Salami.
How did you come up with his name? Did it have anything to do with cured meat?
No. Haha… the name for Swami Salami came from “swami” meaning master in Sanskrit. “Salami” was a play on the greeting “Salam” as an abbreviation for “Assalamu alaikum,” which means “Peace be upon you.”
Describe your creative process.
I just drew him. Originally, he had longer legs. Eventually, he turned into this guy with tiny little legs. Over the years he morphed into a cuter character.
What was your first Swami drawing?
I think I first drew Swami Salami for T-shirts for a Mark Black gig or something. I might have had him with a guitar. Mark always wants me to do some art before each gig. Anyway, Mark and I were in a band with Peter Blum called “Older Than Dirt”. We’d play at people’s homes as a casual pick-up band for parties. I don’t remember the gig, but I created a poster with Swami Salami for our band and Peter kept adding it weekly to the Woodstock Times (where he used to work, now known as HV1). Eventually, he ended up in the Editorial Section on the top before the ‘Letters To The Editor’ section. Every week I would drop a new one in the mail and Swami had a 30-year tenure.
What inspires your Swami Salami themes or topics?
I don’t really have a proactive process, it’s more of a happy accident. An idea will usually wake me up at two in the morning and I’ll jot it down on a piece of paper. Sometimes it comes to me when I’m walking or riding a bike. Swami Salami basically comments on the absurdities of the world around me.
What do you hope is your legacy to the world and your community?
To be a creative, benign and compassionate presence. To be there, to be present. I’m not a community organizer, but I played probably every benefit with Mark and Betty for 10-15 years. We played everywhere. It has to do with the energy. So here’s the saying I want to leave you with: “People may not remember what you say or do but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”
What do you think we have to do to keep the Woodstock “soul-vibe” going?
That’s the legend, that Woodstock has a vibe, right? Yeah, when I got here, Woodstock had an aura. It has an aura mainly because of who lived and worked here for over 100 years. Skilled craftsmen and artists have always been attracted here. Albert Grossman (Dylan’s manager) was attracted to Woodstock and brought his whole tribe up here, including famous sculptors, painters and musicians. I’ve gotten to know a few of them personally.
Which living person do you most admire?
Leah from the Garden Cafe. Because she is so strong. She’s like a horse in a woman’s body. I mean, she works so hard. And just always laughing and dancing. She dances while she works. And the more crowded and hard it is the more she dances. I really admire that. Just watch her for a couple of minutes. See how she is… Yeah, she’s in the back. And she’s doing boxing with her daughter. And I say, “This is no way to run a restaurant.” And she’ll laugh. That’s the way she is, totally silly. She feels free!
What is your advice to newcomers when they move here?
My advice is to ask yourself, “Why am I here?” It’s not because you want a cheap place to live, that’s for sure, though it was back then. I remember when it was cheaper than subsidized housing. Some people come here to sniff around for Dylan or climb on his roof as if the magic will rub off and they’ll be able to write a good song. Others come here because the “Colony of the Arts” is a sacred place and they want to pay homage. The ones who stay are those who put their energy back into the community. These are the things that make it my hometown.
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Photos by Juliet Lofaro | @julietlofarophoto
The top photo of Michael Esposito by David Jeffery
The top photo was by local photographer, David Jeffery. I have a copy of it in my bedroom. As soon as I saw the link to this article, I was hoping to see this award winning photo.
inside + out
Hi Elizabeth, thank you for reading Michael’s interview and for your comment. Yes, we agree, that is an amazing photo of Michael by David Jeffery. We love it!
Loved reading this article about Michael. One correction: Love Has No Pride was written by Libby Titus (now married to Donald Fagan) and Eric Kaz.
inside + out
Hi Carol, thank you for reading Michael’s interview, and so glad you enjoyed it. Our editorial team would like to share our gratitude for your feedback. We updated that right away.