Micael Priest, whose posters were part of the iconic artwork that defined Austin’s legendary music venue Armadillo World Headquarters in the 1970s, died in his apartment on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, a friend confirmed Wednesday afternoon. He was 66.
Priest had been struggling in recent years with complications from diabetes, according to a friend who posted Wednesday on Priest’s Facebook page.
Born Oct. 21, 1951, Priest arrived in Austin in 1969 and soon became well-known here for his drawings, especially those he did for shows at the Armadillo. Working alongside fellow artists such as Jim Franklin and Kerry Awn, Priest documented the parade of generation-defining musicians who played the ‘Dillo.
Among Priest’s works were the poster for Willie Nelson’s first Armadillo appearance in 1972, and the one for the venue’s final show on New Year’s Eve 1980 with Commander Cody and Asleep at the Wheel.
In 2014, American-Statesman columnist John Kelso (who died last year) visited with Priest and wrote the following piece about him.
By John Kelso
Austin artist Micael Priest lives in a high-rise overlooking Lady Bird Lake. Although the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center for old folks and the disabled isn’t exactly the Four Seasons.
“We do have 1970s-vintage motel heaters and air conditioners, but we also have the 1970s-vintage roaches,” said Micael, 62, who lives in a small, spectacularly cluttered room on the third floor.
Not that he’s complaining. For a man not doing all that great, he’s doing pretty well. He likes the neighbors.
“One good thing about living in that tower: Most of the people living there are from the generation that said ‘howdy’ and waved,” he said.
If you ever caught a show at Armadillo World Headquarters, you probably know Micael Priest. He’s one of the guys who created all those magical music posters for the legendary music hall. If not for the ’Dillo, who knows if this city would have become a live music mecca?
During the ’Dillo’s existence, from Aug. 7, 1970, to Dec. 31, 1980, Priest cranked out hundreds of concert posters. Among the faces he brought to life were Frank Zappa, the Pointer Sisters, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Steve Fromholz, Commander Cody, Mose Allison, Kinky Friedman, Doug Sahm, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marshall Tucker, the Ramones and on and on.
Micael rubbed elbows with some of the big names in music. His favorite? Captain Beefheart, Micael said: “Because he managed to capture that very authentic sound of the old Delta Blues man. And he had a 4½-octave range, from his deepest voice to his highest voice, with no holes in it.”
Zappa, on the other hand, was a perfectionist and hard to deal with, Micael said. He was so opposed to drug use that he wouldn’t let his sax player take aspirin for a headache, “although he lived on a constant diet of cigarettes and coffee.”
In his craft, Micael was both fast and good. Eddie Wilson, who founded the ’Dillo, recalls his favorite Priest poster, done in 1972 for a Willie Nelson show. It was Micael’s first work for the ’Dillo.
“I told him, ‘Micael, this is a very important poster. I want you to do an old cowboy standing in a bar, crying in his beer, and in the background I want a jukebox throbbing, “Hello Walls.”’ And the next day he walked in with that very poster,” Wilson said. “The jukebox was just pulsating, and ‘Hello Walls’ was coming out of it like a thought bubble. It was just perfect.”
“If I had known this was going to be my most important work, I could have retired in 1972 and gone with a line of work that paid money,” Micael quipped.
Micael obviously never got rich off his artwork. “The ’Dillo paid me $70 a gig,” he recalled. “Plus they let you get in free with a date, and you got staff prices on beer and food. That’s what we lived on.”
When I first met Micael in the 1980s, he was living in a modest rent house on Gibson Street in South Austin with a bunch of other hippies. Micael called the place the Lost Boys Ranch, or, better still, the Home for Unwed Fathers. Later, Micael lived in a friend’s garage for seven years. Then there was his rent house in Mexico, but that didn’t pan out.
“I never could get my truck across the border,” he said.
Micael moved into the Johnson tower two years ago with some fanfare. “My truck blew up when I pulled in here, and my glasses blew off and exploded,” he said. A piece from the truck takes up a large chunk of his living space.
“This is the cabinet where I used to carry my posters around in the truck so they wouldn’t get messed up,” Micael said.
Micael, who has Medicare, suffers from various ailments. His hearing is iffy. He says awhile back he fell on his face, busting up some dental work. “I’m just about out of teeth; Medicare doesn’t do eyes or teeth, so I have to pay for those,” he said. His knees are shot. That 10-pound beard can’t be good for his back. And, with no ride, he has to walk to his favorite Mexican restaurant on East Cesar Chavez with the help of a fancy walking stick, carved for him by a friend in Chicago.
Micael still has a lot of his posters, not that they’re helping his economic situation. He says he can’t sell the originals. “They’re a nonrenewable resource,” he explained. “And if I put a check in the bank they’ll stop my (Social Security) checks, unless they change the rules. And I can’t imagine those Republican (wachamacalls) changing the rules unless it’s in their favor.”
Fortunately for Micael, his rent is cheap, by Austin standards ($294 a month, he says), and Meals on Wheels shows up with food. Not that it’s like dining on the cote du boeuf at Qui.
“It’s a hair better than prison food, but it’s a whole bucketful worse than school cafeteria food, in which, you will remember, thanks to Mr. Reagan, ketchup is a vegetable,” Micael said.
But Micael still gets around town with the help of friends, although he isn’t happy with what growth and prosperity have done to the city.
“We may be stupid and lazy, but at least we know how to spell Austin, and it isn’t spelled Austonian,” he said. “I don’t know what’s across the highway from me, but it’s not Austin. It’s precisely the same thing I moved away from when I left Dallas and Houston.”