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Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir by Adam Gussow

The author of this occasionally fascinating memoir is the harmonica-playing half of Satan and Adam, a raw-sounding, energetic blues duo whose music throbs with the vitality of the Harlem street corner where they began their unlikely journey 13 years ago. Satan, a.k.a. Sterling Magee, is the guitar-shredding, percussion-pounding, streetwise “master” with whom the Ivy League blues wannabe serves his apprenticeship, and it is those pages in which their association (and sometime sunderings) are detailed that are the most compelling. Central to this pairing is Gussow’s angst about being a white man in Harlem, especially during the racially tense summer of 1989. Gussow viewed what they did “as principled opposition to antagonism,” and-with few exceptions-he passersby, i.e., their audience, felt the same. Comments like “It’s good to see y’all getting it together. Pepper and salt” and “He plays harder when you come down” did a lot to buoy Gussow’s spirits.

Gussow’s memoir is in large part a coming-of-age story with the protagonist looking for musical and sexual outlets in, respectively, Greenwich Village clubs-where he tries out his stock of blue licks gleaned from records-and (mainly) at Columbia where he was an English major. The book seesaws between such humdrum issues as, is he going to get laid, is he going to amount to anything-well, we know the answer to that-and fiery accounts of blowing with Mister Satan and becoming a “blues-playing, money-making organism, one harshly sweet flailing thing doing what it did best. Outdoors, under the open sky.” After four and one-half years of blasting the blues on the corner of 125th St. and 7th Ave., they get a CD out (1991’s Harlem Blues on Flying Fish Records) and begin a slow crawl up the ladder of success: touring Europe with Bo Diddley; the cover of Living Blues, numerous festivals here and abroad, two more CDs; yet, as Gussow recounts in his Epilogue: “Minor celebrity beckoned, then faded.”

What doesn’t fade after reading the book is Mister Satan’s powerful presence, his hard-won, straightforward philosophy. On religion (in reaction to a pair of nearby evangelists): “All that love-your-neighbor bullcrap ain’t done a damn thing but drive Christians around the world to start wars and tear the mess up! And for what? Love your neighbor? Hell, if you got to ‘kill’ me to ‘love’ me you might as well go on and hate my ass!” On blues (after observing that rap is just “misery and complaint”): “Our music ain’t about complaining ‘no’ kind of way. People got the blues-thing all wrong, talking about ‘My baby left me’ and all that mess. Hell, if you treated her right, with respect and admiration, she ain’t ‘gonna’ leave you for no other man.” Respect and admiration. The subtext of Gussow’s memoir is that those qualities would help heal humankind’s rift.

Originally Published