Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir

Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir

by Adam Gussow


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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 Satan” Magee, a guitarist and underground blues legend who had originally made his name as “Five Fingers Magee.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780816667758
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: 09/10/2009
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 588,524
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Adam Gussow is the author of Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition and Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York. Associate professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi, he continues to tour with Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee.

Read an Excerpt

1974. I'd seen my first naked woman's breast in the spring of junior year at the Rockland Country Day School, a couple of months after turning sixteen. Eric Balch and I had gone skinny-dipping with Laurie Stillman during ninth period in the lake down below the back woods. The Day School was in Congers, two miles from our house. Seth and I were the townies. The rich kids from Upper Nyack and Sneden's Landing drove Mercedes's and BMWs, skied on Rossignols and Nordicas, took Christmas vacations in Aspen and Sun Valley; we rode our bikes. Congers had nothing going on except the same old shit: vacant lots, lakes, and Dr. Davies' Apple Farm up on Route 9W. And now, amazingly, sex.

I'd gotten a good enough look--two gumdrop-sized nipples, brownish aureoles, a heartstopping twin jiggle--to last me all summer. I'd gotten buzzed on the quart bottle of Schaeffer we'd passed around, too. Drinking beer at school! This flirtation with evil was unprecedented; it stunned everybody and thrilled me. Adam was doing this shit? The Day School was 120 kids grades six through twelve, most of whom were tripping or smoking pot or both. I was a holdout--for no good reason--and about to crack. My reputation was so spotless that the druggies often brought me along as insurance during reefer-jaunts into the back fields, in case Mr. Goldstein, the bearded stuttering art teacher, came snooping.

"Oh," Mr. Goldstein would say, noticing me dawdling just outside the circle of red-eyed kids, "it's you, Adam. I . . . I . . . well, never mind." And he'd turn and go.

I was that good. It was humiliating. Plus my nickname: Lips. Glenn Alynn, a pudgy, spit-spraying ski bum in thegrade below me, had started it. My lips weren't any bigger than his, but he'd managed to convince everybody through sheer repetition. Lips! Hey Lips! I already knew I was ugly, with my squinty eyes and big butt; I'd never had a girlfriend and obviously never would. The nickname just made it worse. One day, despairing, I went to the headmaster, Mr. Downs, and asked him to make Glenn stop. Mr. Downs gazed at me.

"Lips?" he said.

"That's right. I could take it at first, but it's gotten ridiculous."

"I can't make people stop calling you names, Adam," he explained, trying hard not to smile.

School had always been this kind of nightmare. Public school was worse, one reason I'd transferred to the Day School back in ninth grade. You get skipped into first grade early because you can read, you're smaller and weaker than everybody else from then on, you get hairy balls a year later in junior high. If it wasn't bullies slapping me around and getting girls to laugh, it was the fact of being hopelessly uncool. Doing my homework, not doing drugs, knowing nothing about rock music, not getting invited to the big weekend parties at Ellen Kurz's where everybody got wasted to the sounds of "Sympathy for the Devil" and had orgies they'd whisper about Monday morning. Sex was the problem. Everybody else at the Day School was getting some. I wanted some. A girlfriend, at least. A kiss or two.

The fall of senior year I decided to act. Skinny-dipping and beer drinking had broken the ice; it was time to kill off the hopeless brainiac reject I'd been. One gray October afternoon I drove over to the Nanuet Mall, walked into Allegro Music, and asked the sales guy if I could take a look at one of the Hohner Marine Band harmonicas. He unlocked the display case and handed me a small cardboard box. The only other musical instrument I'd ever owned was the white plastic flutophone I'd screeched "Claire de Lune" on back in fifth grade. Harmonica had been calling to me, recently. My dad would cycle through the same two or three records while daubing away in his attic studio; I'd overhear Bob Dylan wheezing on his and whooping "Honey jes allow me one more chancccce. . . ." The big hit on WABC during the summer of '74 was the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' "If You Wanna Get to Heaven," driven by a pesky little harmonica: "If ya wanna get to heavennnn . . . you got to raise a little helllll. . . ." Not to mention The J. Geils Band Live Full House album played at deafening volumes in senior class homeroom every morning, with Magic Dick blowing his face out on "Whammer Jammer" after Peter Wolf egged him on. Eric Balch and I knew all the words and acted them out:

We gotta get it crazy tonight. You gonna get it crazy tonight?

I'll get down to it.

Ah said you are gonna get it craaaaaazy?

I'll get down to it.

Ah said you gonna moogoomoogoomoogoogonna get it all down get it all night get it all right get it out of sight and get it down, baby?


Whammer Jammer, lemme hear ya, Dickie!

All that was waiting for me, down the line. I pried the chrome-plated grail out of the small cardboard box as the sales guy watched, cradled it lovingly, cupped it the way I imagined the pros did. You weren't allowed to play the thing until you'd paid for it. The sales guy fanned the bellows on a harmonica-tester to show me it worked. I shivered, thrilled. Eric would flip when he found out.

I picked up an instructional book, too, the only one that looked halfway cool: Blues Harp by Tony "Little Sun" Glover, with a picture of a wild-eyed black guy in a headband on the cover, wah-wahing through his cupped hands.

Nat had plans for me. First thing we had to do was baptize my Mouse. I'd bought it right after Helen moved out and hadn't worked up the nerve to wail through it outdoors. I drove him downtown after my first lesson to pick up Charlie Hilbert, his guitar man. Charlie lived in a dingy fifth-floor walkup with a huge German shepherd named Snapper. Snapper went berserk on the landing--barking, roaring, howling--as we trudged up. Charlie was a smallish white guy with a goatee and a nasal New Yawk accent. He yelled at and whapped Snapper to shut him up. Snapper whimpered lovingly as Nat pulled his ears. Charlie had two beat-to-shit Mouses, which we grabbed and tossed into the back of my car along with his guitar case. Somehow I'd managed to fall in with real blues guys!

We drove down to the Village and set up against the north wall of Cooper Union's Great Hall: Charlie in the middle, our three little Mouses in a row. Nat had on the Panama hat and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Blind Lemon Riddles, he joked. I gazed at the people strolling by. You were impossibly exposed out here--vulnerable, alive, naked to the world. The groove floated between Nat and Charlie like a taut, durable rope. Where should I grab hold? I was a third dancer with two left feet. Didn't I tell you he could blow? Nat said later as we packed up.

A week later I was wandering through the Village with my new girlfriend, a Bahamian woman named Andria, when we came across Nat and Charlie. They were working the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue of the Americas, squatting on their upended Mouses--Charlie hunched over, Nat sitting tall with legs spread. Nat's lizardskin loafers were new and looked sharp with his white Panama. He was preaching to a small crowd, telling them how the blues was American music, Southern music, and how he and Charlie were from the South--Charlie from southern Staten Island and he, of course, from the South Bronx.

"If we don't have the blues," he laughed, "don't nobody have the blues. Ain't that right, Charlie?"

I leaned against a trashcan with Andria in my arms, swooning at the evening's luck. Nat supported his cupped harp and bullet microphone with a near-vertical arm, pivoting fluidly from his waist, working the groove like a slow-motion boxer. Each phrase he blew came from deep and led with flawless logic to the next.

"Another mule kickin' in my stall," he sang, winking at me. "Adam knows all about that."

Andria and I got drunk around the corner in the BeBop Cafe and floated back an hour later bearing a pair of ice cold Heinekens from the deli next door. Nat saw the brown paper bag with protruding green bottleneck coming at him and stopped blowing.

"For me?" he said, touching his chest. "Awww, you guys are just too much."

He handed me the mike while he drank. It was round and light and bigger than I expected, harder to cup.

"Don't be playing like no white boy, now," he admonished, putting on a black Southern accent as he waved his beer. "Noooo. Show the peoples how well Uncle Nat done taught you, son."

My hands got cold, my mouth went dry. Somehow you push through. Then the notes start to come and you're playing, it's a Friday evening in the Village and you're bathed in blinding light, struggling to hold the groove even as it sags away from you, your new master and new lover looking on. Old hurts flame through your heart, vaporize in a hot rush. People toss money. Where else would you rather be?

What People are Saying About This

Arnold Rampersad

A fascinating and, indeed, almost unique contemporary American memoir. The story Gussow tells -- wonderfully complicated by questions of race and class, innocence and experience, sorrow and joy -- is simply unforgettable.

Andrew Solomon

Mister Satan's Apprentice tells of playing the harp through some rough, sad days; but it does so with upbeat enthusiasm. Between evocations of good jams and bad gigs, Gussow tells how a half-Jewish Princeton student became a fixture of the Harlem music scene; how art transcended barriers of race, class, and ego; how he got from optimistic apprenticeship to a nearly spiritual mastery. Like the music, Gussow's euphonious prose soars.

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