Quoting one of his Swami Salami cartoons, which have been appearing in the Woodstock Times since 1985, Michael Esposito said, “‘I came, I shopped, I left.’ That’s my motto. It simplifies the whole idea of coming to this physical manifestation. ‘Shopped’ is a loaded word, and people can make of it whatever they feel. I liked that cartoon.”
While performing his particular style of “shopping,” Michael’s occupations have included musician, painter, builder, priest, and bicycle repairman, as well as cartoonist. In the 1960s, he played in a rock band, the Blues Magoos, touring the country and appearing on TV shows. A decade later, he lived as a renunciate at Church on the Mount, up on Meads Mountain Road. For years he’s been riding and repairing bicycles. These days, he avoids making plans.
His freewheeling life began, ironically, at West Point, where his father was head of the mapmaking department. Michael was born in 1940, in the midst of World War II, and Lieutenant Colonel Esposito was sent to Europe under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “I had a wonderful childhood at West Point,” Michael said, “growing up in an orderly existence. I was in a rock band by the time I was 13.” His two older brothers became cadets, but Michael contracted rheumatic fever, which left him 4F, so his father sent him to art school.
“My father taught military art and engineering,” Michael explained. “He made these colossal maps, hand-drawn, of all the battles the U.S. had been in. He was a good painter and played the ukulele very well. He was Italian through and through. ‘Esposito’ means ‘little one left in the doorway.’ Catholic churches had a box on the doorstep. If a mother couldn’t take care of her baby, she’d put the swaddled baby in the box, and the nuns came out and took the baby in. My grandfather didn’t even speak English. He lived in Brooklyn. He came to dinner and didn’t say a word.”
Michael studied art at the University of Syracuse under a professor who had designed the Planters Peanuts logo. “I was in awe of him,” said Michael. “If he didn’t like what you were doing, he’d just rip it up. I was into making company logos.” At college, he also joined a rock band, The Daiquiris.
When he graduated in 1962, his teacher wangled him a job at an advertising agency. “I had two suits that I wore to work,” Michael recalled. “But I had no time to play music or make art. After two weeks, I gave someone the suits and went to Greenwich Village.” There he played in a band called The Escorts with Felix Cavalieri, later leader of the The Rascals. Michael performed at folk clubs with Happy and Artie Traum, joining them on their first album. Bob Dylan sometimes dropped by the studio. They all told him, “You gotta go to Woodstock.”
Michael became lead guitarist of the psychedelic rock band the Blues Magoos, playing at the Night Owl on MacDougal Street five nights a week for two years. “The owner would come out at least once in every set,” he remembered. “He’d say, in front of the audience, ‘You guys are too fuckin’ loud!’ and go back in the kitchen.” When their record We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet made it to #5, the band went on tour with The Who and Herman’s Hermits. “The kids came to see the Hermits. First they had to sit through The Who smashing drums and rolling them into audience, then us with a theremin, just making noise.”
The Magoos’ TV appearances included The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Hullabaloo, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and a memorable night on The Jack Benny Program. Benny’s sense of humor led him to sandwich the band between performances by Liberace and Astrud Gilberto. If you search Youtube for “Magoos on Jack Benny,” you can see a clip of the band singing “Tobacco Road,” then plunging into the mind-bending, high-volume sounds they were known for. Afterwards, Michael explains the music to their host, who claims to understand it already. He tells Benny, in part, that they are trying to “create the electrical sounds of the universe using the newly attained music of inner space,” in an “attempt to weld the music, performers, and audience into one being.”
“Then I was right!” crows Benny.
In 1967, while Michael was working on an album with Happy and Artie, they finally lured him to Woodstock for a weekend. “I went back down to the city,” he said, “got my stuff, came up, and never left.” The Magoos replaced him with a studio musician. They still tour, sending back a small royalty check each month. Michael settled into a life of playing bass with guitarist Marc Black and other Woodstock musicians and fixing bicycles at Ciro’s bike shop.
He also spent time with rockers and folkies who came up to visit their manager, Albert Grossman. “There was nothing to do late at night, so we’d go to this garage on Sled Hill. We made a stage, people would bring their own booze, and we’d play music for each other. Eventually it was taken down, and people saved pieces of lumber for posterity. I had a bench from there in my bike shop. Someone wanted to buy it, so I gave it to them.” Artist and designer Lou Pollack, Michael’s partner since 2002, saved a piece of the green bench. She crafted limited-edition earrings out of wood that had been sat upon by Janis, Jimi, and other stars.
In 1972, Michael made another about-face when he moved into primitive quarters at the Western Orthodox church perched high on Meads Mountain Road, administered by the legendary “hippie priest,” Father Francis. Michael cooked meals in a tiny kitchen and warmed up by burrowing into an Army sleeping bag. “I was in love with St. Francis, and I felt I was living St. Francis’s life. I had one robe, which I wore over sweatpants, and I had a walking stick and a Bible. I had given away all my guitars, a priceless collection. Giving everything away was like taking a really great shit.”
Father Francis made Michael a priest so he could help out at the altar, handle the sacrament, and marry and baptize people, but “he still did those things most of the time. I was mostly a handyman, fixing things and hanging out, totally absorbed in studying the Orthodox church and reading St. Francis. I didn’t go to any school, just lived with an old man who was a university in himself — a university of knowledge and character.”
A year after Father Francis passed away, Michael was drawn back to the world of music and bikes. He moved into town and started playing guitar again. When Ciro died, around 1980, Michael inherited his tools and opened his own bike shop, the Old Spokes Home. He bought a patch of land on Glasco Turnpike, where he camped out while building a house. “People left stuff by the road for me. Six beautiful chestnut beams, eight inches square and 12 feet long. English leaded windows. A stained glass window. Every time I came back from town, there would be something new.” Similarly, people still leave old bikes in front of the bike shop, and he recycles them for parts.
In the 1980s, Michael started drawing Swami Salami. “I had this vision of a guru from India getting off the bus at the village green and meeting Rocky and Jogger John. He’s befuddled by everything — the stock market, the weather, automobiles — I do a lot of automobile humor.” He stopped driving in 1977 and rides a bicycle around town.
In the timeline of his life, Michael said there have been “no great events since 1985. I didn’t travel anywhere. I met Lou in 2002, when she had a residency at Byrdcliffe.”
“He’d always wanted a residency,” said Lou, “so he moved in with me.”
Living with an artist brought back his painting fever, and for a decade, he made ten paintings a year. He had a show at the Fletcher Gallery, and over time he’s sold or given away all but 30 canvases. Meanwhile, he’s moved multiple times, either upsizing or downsizing, while continuing to fix bikes, play music whenever Marc Black is in town, and draw Swami Salami. He is glad to have the comforts of civilized life, but he keeps things simple.
“When I go out in the morning on the bike, I have a sense of freedom. You’re just taking your self with you. I don’t take thought about what I did or what I’m going to do. My spiritual practice doesn’t involve books or ideology, but when I step out in the morning, I have no baggage. If you wake up and start making lists, you’re already heavy. I like to get up, see the air temperature, what it smells like today, the light on the mountains. Then I can come back and deal with my life. If I make a plan, I hold my breath until it’s over. I don’t like that feeling. When is it ever going to get here so I can be free? Today Jogger John bought a radio from me at the bike shop for $10. I didn’t expect it. I have no sense of what’s going to happen next — I like that.”
Michael Esposito will perform with The Marc Black Band on Friday, December 29, at 8 p.m. at the Colony in Woodstock. Go to https://colonywoodstock.com for tickets. The Old Spokes Home is open spring through fall and is located behind The Golden Notebook on Tinker Street.