Mister Satan's Apprentice
A Blues Memoir
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Preface to the New Edition
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WHEN I SAT DOWN in the fall of 1995 to write the memoir that would become Mister Satan's Apprentice, I felt the pressures of what journalists were fond of calling "America's racial divisions" weighing on me like a clear and present danger. O. J. Simpson had just been acquitted in the killing of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend...
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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....
PART ONE: NEW LIFE
1. If That Don't Bring Her Back
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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...
2. Everybody in Harlem Knows Satan
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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. Never make the mistake of taking the No. 2 or No. 3 express subway north past Ninetysixth Street, or the A train...
3. Young Man with a Horn
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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..
4. No Bad Fella
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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...
5. White Boys
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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...
PART TWO: PRETTY GIRLS
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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..
7. Downhearted Blues
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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....
8. "La Belle Dame sans Merci"
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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...
9. Sweet Harlem Summer
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TIHE 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...
PART THREE: BIG RIVER
10. Labor Day
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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..
11. Going Someplace
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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...
12. Catfish on the Raft
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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 emigre and king of the Long Island bar mitzvah circuit. To him, / 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...
13. A Gentle, Fumbling Thing
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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....
14. Ball of Fire
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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...
15. Back Down Yonder
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THIS TIME , HAPPY tobea 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...
PART FOUR: HOT TOWN
16. Do the Right Thing
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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, Pd always thought of June, July, and August as a succession of berry seasons: mulberries, wineberries,...
17. Billed Out
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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's hard to get me out of Harlem," he'd insisted more...
18. Angel Sound
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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...
PART FIVE: HARLEM BLUES
19. The Same Old Mess
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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...
20. What We've Been Trying For, All These Years
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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...
Epilogue: April 1998
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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,...
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About the Author
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Adam Gussow is a writer and blues harmonica player. He is associate professor...
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Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2009