Mister Satan’s Apprentice

Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir

ADAM GUSSOW
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt5w1
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  • Book Info
    Mister Satan’s Apprentice
    Book Description:

    Mister Satan’s Apprentice is the history of one of music’s most fascinating collaborations, between Adam Gussow, a young graduate school dropout and harmonica player, and Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, a guitarist and underground blues legend who had originally made his name as “Five Fingers Magee.”

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7056-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. PROLOGUE: 1969
    (pp. 3-6)

    I didn’t believe in god, I’d have said, if anybody had asked me. I took the question personally because of my name. A bearded old man in the sky, watching over an eleven-year-old kid? The best thing about being half-Jewish was not having to waste time going to church or synagogue. My mom and dad never took us, or made us say prayers.

    Katydids were the closest I came. Thech-ch-chsound they made, floating through the window of my third-floor bedroom late at night, the last two weeks of August. Like a huge starry bath that cradled and held...

  5. PART ONE: NEW LIFE
    • CHAPTER ONE IF THAT DON’T BRING HER BACK
      (pp. 9-28)

      Nobody actually knew what had happened to Nat. One moment he was the crown prince of New York’s downtown blues scene, double-parking his cab in front of Dan Lynch’s Blues Bar on Sunday afternoons, striding indoors with a harmonica in hand to blow chorus after squalling chorus at the weekly jam sessions; the next moment he was gone, fled South to his father’s or sister’s in Norfolk or Newport News. He’d been shot in the chest on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Second Avenue, just down the block from Lynch’s. That was the only fact everybody seemed to agree...

    • CHAPTER TWO EVERYBODY IN HARLEM KNOWS SATAN
      (pp. 29-43)

      Stay out of harlem! was the first thing Helen and I had been warned when we moved into neighboring Morningside Heights back in 1980. Her fellow English grad students at Columbia—white folks, all—were adamant.Nevermake the mistake of taking the No. 2 or No. 3 express subway north past Ninetysixth Street, or the A train north past Columbus Circle.Alwaystransfer to the No. 1 local. Forget to do that and you’d end up in the middle of ...Harlem!Mortal danger.

      This was said with a nervous laugh, repeated like a mantra, taken as self-evident common...

    • CHAPTER THREE YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN
      (pp. 44-58)

      I was so focused on getting to the New York Telephone office the next afternoon that I almost sped right by him. He was working a new spot—across the street from the Apollo Theater, in front of a shopping mall called the Mart 125. He had company: a bony old guy slapping at a washtub bass, yelling fiercely.

      I flew around the block and parked on 126th Street, behind the State Office Building. Copeland’s Soul-Food Kitchen, the Seville Lounge. I bounced around the corner—harp lines zinging through my head, tugging me—and past several women with dreadlocks sitting...

    • CHAPTER FOUR NO BAD FELLA
      (pp. 59-68)

      Nat was living in hampton, it turned out, with an older woman named Esther. He was ecstatic when I returned his call, as though my voice were a priceless gift. I was flattered and slightly unnerved. He was my master. He was summoning me. I grabbed my Panama hat and Mouse and harps, jumped in my car, and burned South for a long weekend.

      The drive down to Virginia takes eight hours and always starts with the same endless flat stretch of Jersey Turnpike. I propped my boom box on the front seat and replayed the tape I’d made that...

    • CHAPTER FIVE WHITE BOYS
      (pp. 69-94)

      A few days after I got back from Virginia, New York suddenly turned sour. My Mouse and Panama hat were stolen, I got hassled on 125th Street. Then, just before Christmas ’86, a gang of young Italian guys with baseball bats chased three black guys out of a pizzeria in a place called Howard Beach. One of the black guys ran across a highway and was whacked by a car, dead as a stray dog. The New York tabloids love nothing more than a nice juicy race-hatred story with bruised black bodies and fists raised in outrage. My Harlem honeymoon...

  6. PART TWO: PRETTY GIRLS
    • CHAPTER SIX ROAMING
      (pp. 97-118)

      I knew that sooner or later, if I stuck around Harlem, a woman was bound to come along. I hoped she would. I was always secretly happy to see black men dating white women and a little jealous of white guys who’d found companionship across the tracks. Catchphrases like “across the tracks” were part of the problem. Where were the tracks, finally, except in our minds? I was a principled amalgamator: anything to dissolve the myths and misunderstandings that kept us from enjoying each other’s company. I’d read Malcolm X; I understood his rage at white slaveowners who had raped...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN DOWNHEARTED BLUES
      (pp. 119-137)

      Mister satan wasn’t the only guy with a new girlfriend that spring. I’d lucked into one of my own as March blew through. Robyn was thirty-three to my twenty-nine—shrewd, tender, with a hoarse sweet voice that caught at me and held. She’d grown up in New Orleans and Guyana. She disliked Harlem; the men up there “challenged” her. Her previous boyfriend had been a blue-eyed blond. It pissed her off when black guys on the street gave him shit.

      A mixture of American and West Indian black, Scotch, Indian, and Chinese, Robyn was proud of her French last name....

    • CHAPTER EIGHT “LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI”
      (pp. 138-160)

      In retrospect, that was the high point. Things started to come apart a couple of weeks later.

      We were in my car—it was late afternoon, I was driving Robyn home down the West Side Highway after lunch at All-American Burgers near Columbia. Cheeseburgers were our shared passion. Usually we had them late at night after too much tequila at Dan Lynch; we’d careen down Second Avenue past St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie and Veselka, kicking at windblown newspapers, the perfect chocolate-and-vanilla swirl of a Village couple—ignoring the looks we drew but sensing them anyway, faint shivers of resentment, indulgence, and sexual...

    • CHAPTER NINE SWEET HARLEM SUMMER
      (pp. 161-184)

      The summer of ’87 was in full swing and raw sweet Harlem was waiting with open arms. Morning birds trilled in the trees outside my bedroom window. Nat’s spirit had lingered: I was drinking nothing these days except ginseng tea, and practicing hard. Listening. Trying to hear the silence behind my notes.

      Technique was important, of course—you had to be able to throw down—and harps wouldn’t give you full power at high speed without a fight. Ten holes, blow and draw; twenty tiny brass reeds, each requiring a slightly different positioning of tongue and jaw in order to...

  7. PART THREE: BIGRIVER
    • CHAPTER TEN LABOR DAY
      (pp. 187-202)

      Next thing i knew, Labor Day ’87 had come and gone and I was on the bus with the pit band, bound for Hartford, Connecticut. Huck, Tom, Widow Douglas, Pap Finn, the King, the Duke, Silas Phelps, Aunt Sally, plus Jim and the rest of the singing slaves were already up there. Our leg opened in three days. The trumpet player running out muted scales in the seat next to me was Richie Vitale. Dressed entirely in black— shirt, pants, socks, shoes—with a shaved white head and tinted glasses, he was short, spare, so hip it hurt. He flipped...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN GOING SOMEPLACE
      (pp. 203-220)

      Then we were in hartford, all of us: conductor and pit musicians, overseers and slaves, older women down in Wardrobe who smoked cigarettes and purred as they folded freshly laundered costumes, a bearded stage manager named Starling who gazed hungrily over the tops of his half-moon glasses at any young man in tight jeans with a nice butt. Two massive eighteen-wheelers were idling behind Bushnell Memorial Hall, ready to swallow Huck’s servo-driven plywood raft and Jim’s four-foot rubber catfish. A busand-truck tour is a circus. Ringleader Mark Twain was there with his walrus mustache and creamy white suit; the guy...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE CATFISH ON THE RAFT
      (pp. 221-235)

      At this point in the tour a guy suddenly fell in love with my sound. He was the replacement sax player: Arkady Kofman, Russian Jewish emigré and king of the Long Island bar mitzvah circuit. To him, I was the real blues.

      Arkady had joined our pit band in Spartanburg after Ann Patterson, a hawk-mouthed altoist from Texas by way of Venice Beach, had finished her promised two weeks and flown home. Ann was quietly professional; Arkady was the unquiet kind. Rick had warned us before he arrived.

      “The guy’s a madman,” he said. “Killer sight-reader,monsterchops, plays three...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN A GENTLE, FUMBLING THING
      (pp. 236-246)

      Just as the show had become routine, I got a nasty cold sore on my lower lip. Every six months this particular curse hit, a harp player’s nightmare: first the faint scratchy tingling erupting into a small cluster of pus-filled blisters, then, after two or three days, a scab easily ripped off by anything more than the gentlest playing. Gail was cool; Westlake was not. I’d told him I could do everythingexceptthe Boys’ Song, the Entreacte, and the Chase for the next couple of days, during our stay in South Bend. He smiled tightly.

      “You can’t sit those...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN BALL OF FIRE
      (pp. 247-274)

      Later on, after we’d been through the cycle a few more times, I’d learn to have a sense of humor about Mister Satan’s annual Countdown to Apocalypse. This first time all I could do was drive down to Shakespeare Flats, heart pounding, wondering what I’d find.

      We had a surprisingly cozy visit, the three of us. He pulled me into his tiny overheated back room, heady with cigarette smoke and a jangle of women’s perfume. Miss Macie was lazing back on the bed, Kool in hand. He’d anointed himself, I gathered—blended half a dozen different scents from bottles guys...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN BACK DOWN YONDER
      (pp. 275-290)

      This time, happy to be a mercenary, I packed light.

      My old familiar show costumes were waiting in Utica—freshly laundered and folded, two complete sets of handmade rags designed to make me look like either a lovable waif (St. Petersburg Boy) or a mud-spattered roustabout (River Rat).Poor,above all. There was something strangely comforting about slouching around backstage in the same silk-lined Wookie-fur pants I’d worn all fall, as though the pants and I had earned our right to a second go-round. Gail and I, on the other hand, failed to reconnect as anything more than fellow showbiz...

  8. PART FOUR: HOT TOWN
    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN DO THE RIGHT THING
      (pp. 293-309)

      The new york summers of 1988 and 1989 blur together in memory, or rather melt: an endless bruising string of steambath busking days and fan-raked nights under my rooftop apartment’s simmering tarred ceiling. Growing up in the suburbs, I’d always thought of June, July, and August as a succession of berry seasons: mulberries, wineberries, blackberries. Summer in Harlem began and ended with the Lemonade Man—a young man, invariably, pulling a dolly through the strolling crowds on 125th Street. His large plastic garbage pail was a sloshing potpourri: several huge blocks of ice and bags of smaller cubes, composite lemonade...

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN BILLED OUT
      (pp. 310-326)

      One thing mister satan and I did as the streets began to heat up was set our sights outside the neighborhood. Harlem was the source of our sound and would always be home; the open road, in whatever form, remained a teasing possibility, a vacation from the racial pressure cooker. “It’shardto get me out of Harlem,” he’d insisted more than once, but he’d told me stories that suggested otherwise. Such as the time he’d jumped in his’ 59 Cadillac at six o’clock one morning—in Harlem, this was—and showed up at his mama’s front doorstep in St....

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN ANGEL SOUND
      (pp. 327-352)

      Mister adam’s First Annual Countdown to Apocalypse ended not with a bang but with a long-distance call to Mister Satan— a fit of inspiration—on New Year’s Day 1990. Miss Macie came on; I heard a toilet flush in the background.

      “It’s Gussow,” she called out.

      “Miss Macie,” I said, “how do you think Mister Satan would feel about going into the recording studio again, if I paid?”

      She snorted. “Bobby Robinson ain’t done a damn thing in months.”

      “Well, you can hardly blame him after what those two recording guys did, losing Mister Satan’s voice and—”

      “Satan’s ready,”...

  9. PART FIVE: HARLEM BLUES
    • CHAPTER NINETEEN THE SAME OLD MESS
      (pp. 355-367)

      Margo was a musician herself, it turned out—former keyboard player with an all-woman rock group named Isis—and her offices were across the street from Carnegie Hall. I subwayed down and took a meeting, demo in hand.

      Talent Consultants International was my introduction to the world of professional artistic representation. Margo had a staff of six, walls covered with Bo Diddley and Ron Wood Gunslingers Tour ’85 posters lovingly autographed to her by Bo and Ron and Mick, and several framed gold records. I found out about the gold Mercedes later. I never begrudged her. She was a tough...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY WHAT WE’VE BEEN TRYING FOR, ALL THESE YEARS
      (pp. 368-392)

      Mugh later, a couple of years after Nat had died, I was able to cry and get out what I felt for him that way. My eyes still fill, at unexpected moments. When I'm cruising alone down certain stretches of the Jersey Turnpike and remember my last pilgrimage to Richmond. When I walk through Astor Place and remember his finger-in-the-air lectures—backed by Charlie Hilbert on guitar—about how blues wasAmericanmusic, the best we had to offer, and Thank you darling for that lovely tip.

      When I first heard the news, though, tears wouldn’t come. Crying wasn’t useful....

  10. EPILOGUE: APRIL 1998
    (pp. 393-396)

    It had taken us four and a half years to rise from the sidewalks of Harlem to our first festival stage. We’d refer to those later, fondly, as “the street days.” The street days waned during the summer of ’91 and ended the following summer when Mister Satan, playing solo, was attacked one afternoon by a couple of kids brandishing the latest Harlem fad, “SuperSoaker” water-rifles. Our uptown tips had already thinned, a function of the success people rightly assumed we’d been enjoying elsewhere; the cops had nailed us the last couple of times we’d ventured down to Times Square....

  11. THANKS
    (pp. 397-398)
  12. PERMISSIONS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 399-404)
  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)