Satan & Adam Chronicles: The Ballad of the Blue Bomber (Part One)

Between March 2002, when I purchased the Honda from Max Tarnishovsky in New York City, and May 2013, when I sold it to Stacey Boone in Oxford, Mississippi with 372,000 miles on the odometer, I racked up a total of 210,000 miles. It felt like a lifetime but was only eleven years.

For seven of those years, I was driving a shiny, sapphire-blue jewel. Fourteen years earlier it had begun life as a standard-issue four-door 1992 Honda Accord LX, black with a light grey interior. Take away the fancy paint, the chrome rims and fat wide Nankangs, the Thermal exhaust, the cold-air intake, some Iridium plugs, a fancy shift knob, and the JCKRBBT license plate, and that’s still all it was. But I’d individuated it. I’d taken a commodity and tricked it out.

The car had soul. It wasn’t just about the paint; it was about what went on down below. When you punched the low gears hard, the exhaust note rose in pitch, swelling with basso aggression and a touch of high-midrange edge. Other drivers knew you were coming through. Downshifts were even more satisfying, because engine braking spun up the revs with a rich, roaring vroooooooom! that let everybody know you were on the way. Sherrie used to joke that she could hear me up on Woodlawn Drive, long before I made the turn down and around onto Meadowlawn.

People noticed the car. I’d get into conversations at gas stations. Black guys, in particular, seemed interested. I was flattered by this. I knew I was working a loud color and major chrome, the latter courtesy of WheelWorkz up in Memphis, but it was still my maiden voyage into the DIY sport tuner world. So any nod I got was a nice thing.

One day a black guy literally forced me off the road. I was heading out of Oxford on Old Taylor Road, a twisty and dangerous section, and suddenly the car behind me started flashing his lights, like a state trooper making a speeding stop, except I wasn’t speeding. I slowed; he slowed, too. I pulled onto the shoulder; he pulled ahead of me, slanted onto the shoulder, and jumped out. He was younger than me — in his early thirties, I’d guess.

“You want to sell the car?” he asked.

“Nah, man,” I laughed. “I like my car.”

“It’s a nice car. You got it done up real nice.”

We talked briefly — I was always happy to prattle on about my car — and then he jumped back into his beat old midsized Pontiac and took off.

Stuff like that happened often enough that I finally realized the obvious: I was a white guy driving a black guy’s car. Or else certain white guys and certain black guys — and certain Hispanic guys, like Egardo, who’d got me started on this whole adventure back in uptown NYC — shared the same sense of automotive style. So it was really our car, not just my car, although I happened to own it for the time being.

For an English professor, I’m a hands-on guy; I grew up with a screwdriver in my hand, feathering the gas/air mix on Briggs & Stratton carburetors and slapping old tube amps on the side to make them behave. So I’m not surprised by how clueless I was, at least initially, about the transformative power of the new web-based media technologies. I first stumbled across YouTube in 2007, the year after Shaun was born. It offered thousands of user-generated videos in a wide range of areas, including jazz and blues. The moment it popped up, curious, I searched my own name. I found one brief clip of a harmonica blowoff between me and Dennis Gruenling, a terrific younger player and friend. We’d gone head to head six months earlier at the instructors’ concert that capped off a blues harmonica jam camp up in St. Louis; Dennis had set a videocam on the table in front of us. The clip showed him at his best and me at my not-quite-best.

I was struck by the fact that somebody else had determined how I would be seen by the world. I decided to change that. But first I had to figure out how to upload. 2007 wasn’t like now, when anybody brandishing a military assault rifle knows how to stream themselves shooting up a synagogue on Facebook Live. Nobody I knew, except Dennis, was sharing stuff on YouTube. But I had a new MacBook and an old Sony camcorder. I went outside on a cold clear February morning and shot some video of my dazzling blue car, glinting in the sun. I walked around it and talked about it. I opened the front door, slid in, started it up, vroomed it. I showed the odometer, which had 261,983 miles. Then I came back inside, dumped the video into iMovie, layered in Chet Atkins’s version of “St. Louis Blues,” and saved it as “Mississippi Blues Car.” I signed up for YouTube and uploaded it, using something called Belkin that showed up in the MacBook’s Air Port. I wasn’t sure what Belkin was, but we didn’t have home internet access and when I pressed “upload,” something seemed to be happening. Suddenly, after a ten-minute wait, I had a video on YouTube.

I filmed my first six harmonica instructional videos in our little rental house. My skin was grey in the low-contrast backlighting; I violated every best practice that YouTube has subsequently evolved. But I spoke directly to the camera, creating a sense of intimacy, and I made clear that I was going to be “giving it all away” — all the carefully guarded esoteric knowledge that made blues harmonica playing at the professional level feel like a private club. I titled my videos “Blues Harmonica Secrets Revealed,” and I numbered them sequentially, beginning with “(Gussow.000),” which made it easy for someone who’d arrived late to catch up.

I uploaded forty videos in forty days. I shared the lessons I’d learned from Nat Riddles, the harp licks I’d evolved at Mr. Satan’s side. I pried the coverplates off a Marine Band harp and showed people how to gap and tune brass reeds. I jammed along with “Watermelon Man” and paused to discuss overblows and melodic choices, then veered into Jungian archetypes, talking about the way in which every good blues harmonica improviser incarnates the warrior, lover, and painter. I quickly accumulated ten subscribers, then a hundred, five hundred. Blues harmonica was a global phenomenon now; although I hailed from New York, I was broadcasting from Mississippi — and of course Sterling Magee had born in Mount Olive, Mississippi. I made our partnership a touchstone of my ministry. “This is Adam Gussow from Satan and Adam” I’d say at the beginning of every video.

One day when Shaun had just been put down for a nap, I started to film a lesson in the study.

“Not when the baby’s sleeping,” Sherrie shushed me, kind but firm.

So I took the camcorder out to the Honda and filmed there — sitting in the passenger seat, talking to the camera up on the dashboard, telling stories about Paul Butterfield getting drunk at the bar in his black leather jacket one night back in 1985 when Bill Taft and I played our first indoor gig at the Mills Tavern down on Bleecker Street. It started to drizzle on the windows as I talked; there was something cozy about that space. It reminded me of hanging out in my old Datsun with Nat and other harp players after the jam sessions at Dan Lynch, back in the East Village — trading licks, telling stories, talking harp.

The car became my soundstage for YouTube. I filmed more than eighty videos in that old blue car.

My YouTube ministry gave me a chance to tell the Satan and Adam story to a new generation of blues lovers who were unfamiliar with the journey we’d made from Harlem’s streets in the 1980s to a national touring career in the 1990s. I did this partly as an on-camera raconteur and partly by digitizing and uploading clips from old videos that had been lying around the house: our brief appearance in U2’s Rattle and Hum (1988), me in a white cowboy hat, the two of us jamming on 125th Street; a Swatch watch commercial from the same period, the bearded guitar master and his white boy grooving on a brownstone stoop on a cold sunny day; Satan and Adam at the Philadelphia Folk Festival (1993), kicking and stomping on the Friday night stage to the roars of thousands after the release of Harlem Blues (1991), our first CD.

All that had come crashing down in 1998 when Sterling Magee had a nervous breakdown and disappeared down south. My heart attack had followed two years later. Sterling and I had wandered in the wilderness — broken, separated, out of the public eye.

It was during this period that documentary filmmaker Scott Balcerek, who had begun filming us in 1995, cold-called every Magee in Mount Olive and, through his cousin Joshua, finally located Sterling at the Boca Ciega nursing home in Gulfport, Florida, where he’d been placed by his sisters down there. Scott had flown me down in the summer of 2002, just before I’d moved to Mississippi, and filmed our reunion, which took place on an outdoor patio at the home. The change in Sterling’s appearance and demeanor was shocking. In the space of four years he’d been reduced from an explosively vital presence to a gap-toothed, over-medicated simpleton slouched in a chair. He had an acoustic guitar in his lap but was unable to strum it — unable even to pick up his own pick. I gently assisted him; Scott’s camera registers my stunned dismay. Was this how the story ended?

Against all odds, the forces of resistance began to reassert themselves. Scott’s documentary, Satan & Adam (2018), tracks this process. Sterling, discovered and embraced by the local blues community, soon began showing up at local jam sessions, shepherded by Kevin Moore, an earthy, bespectacled Vietnam-era Army vet and activities director at Boca Ciega who discovers Sterling’s previous life as a blues star with the help of Google search and senses that this particular resident has more to offer the world. Sterling’s incendiary guitar playing had disappeared, never to return, but his voice was intact, resonant and distinctive. When I got calls from Florida saying, “We need you down here!,” I was dubious. But I jumped in my car and drove down in May 2005, after final grades had been handed in.

Gulfport, a town I would revisit many times over the coming decade, was a cozy mix of greying Parrot Head retirees, Jewish lesbian couples from Brooklyn, and hippie eccentrics who sold art and trinkets on the sidewalk. Sterling, famous bluesman on the comeback trail, had become a local celebrity. And there he was, standing with Kevin and several other men just outside the Neptune Grill, where I’d been told to show up at this particular Friday cocktail hour.

“Hello, Mister Adam Gussow!” he roared happily as I thrummed into a diagonal space and jumped out. His back was slightly bent and his upper teeth were still missing, but he was standing tall, a Kangol cap cocked at a rakish angle.

“Look at you!” I said, amazed. “The one and only. You’re looking good, Mr. Magee.”

“Just as sure as you are handsome. I see you got you some wheels.”

Kevin chuckled. “Mister Satan is ready to go.”

“Yes!” he shouted.

He was set up against the back wall inside. Although his percussion gear and Ampeg Super Stud guitar had disappeared after the breakdown, Kevin and the local blues community had been hard at work — purchasing two new hi-hat cymbals, reverse-engineering the wooden sounding board from the Living Blues cover photo, raising money to purchase another Super Stud on eBay. I’d brought along the same pair of old tube amps I’d used during our road years. A third musician, introduced as Dave on Drums, was set up on Sterling’s far side: a big, gregarious, happy, sweating man with thinning blond hair slicked against his head, sitting behind an array of electronic drums. Jealous of my duo perks, I insisted that he sit out the first few songs.

And he did. Sterling and I sounded more like Satan and Adam than I could ever have imagined — even with his herky-jerk strumming and faltering groove. The go-kart was rolling again; the roomful of newly minted Satan and Adam fans were roaring as we kicked into “Sweet Home Chicago,” his voice shadowing mine on “….back to the same old place…..” But the fuel-air mixture wasn’t dialed in quite right, and those lawnmower wheels were cambered wrong. I knew that, even if our ecstatic fans didn’t. And Dave on Drums, it turned out, was the key to what happened next.

Between December 2005, when Satan and Adam played the “Rebirth of the Blues” ball as an enthusiastic but rhythmically unstable twosome at the Gulfport Casino, and November 2011, when his bad liver finally took him out at the age of 60, Dave Laycock became, as he jokingly called himself, the third member of the duo. He enabled the renaissance. I’d badly underestimated him at first, perhaps because I was prey to some ill-conceived idea about preserving the Satan and Adam sound, and because his groove was a crash-bang thing. It didn’t swing the way we’d swung for so many years. What I’d missed was his heart, which was warm and generous to a fault. He’d spent so much of his life on the road — he was touring nationally at 15 — that he appreciated everything, never complained, and always had a laugh ready. Like my cousin Bruce, he was a bodhisattva; he’d been put on Earth to keep things loose and bring everybody into harmony.

The Satan and Adam comeback tour made a test flight up to New York City in June 2007. It was the first time Sterling had been back to the city since his breakdown nine years earlier. Scott was there with his camera and rented car; he’d flown himself in from San Francisco and the three of them up from Florida while I drove northeast from Mississippi, 1150 miles in two days, amps and harps in the back. We descended on my mom’s house in Piermont — Sterling and me in the second-floor bedrooms, Kevin and Dave sprawled on the livingroom sofas, Scott at a nearby motel. Kevin had become Sterling’s roadie, heaving his gear around in a shoulder bag and duffel bag; he’d had a black t-shirt made up with the words “Satan’s roadie” stenciled on the back.

The reunion was surreal, an explosion of festive energy in the same big upstairs room where my dad had wasted away of pancreatic cancer a decade earlier. My mom and Sterling got along famously. He’d give her a big grin and a hearty “Hello, Mrs. Gussow!” like the southern gentleman he was — he never cursed, never complained, and of course he had treated her son beautifully all those years back in Harlem.

Later, before we drove into the city for our big gig at Terra Blues down on Bleecker Street, where we would find our old publicity photo still hanging on the wall, Scott showed us a trailer that he’d cut together. It was vivid and fast moving, a vortex of unexpected angles and swooping closeups that began with us kicking and stomping on 125th Street as a black woman clapped and black kids danced. Then came a rapid-fire assemblage of testimony. “It’s called co-acceleration,” I said, describing our groove as I relaxed in the studio. “That’s a great big ol’ mess that ain’t worth a damn,” Sterling interrupted, puncturing my pretensions. “It’s almost like he was challenging God,” said a dark-skinned Harlemite, remembering Mr. Satan with awe. “I had a nervous breakdown,” Sterling told the camera as he sipped a beer, the dynamism of Harlem fading into the quiet back streets of St. Petersburg. “Coming soon….Satan and Adam.”

We made Scott play it for us three or four more times. It was strange and exciting seeing yourself as a coming attraction. Somebody was finally telling our story. I’d done that in Mister Satan’s Apprentice, but Sterling’s breakdown hadn’t happened at that point and this was a whole other level of whirling filmic energy. We couldn’t wait for the movie.

In absolute terms, our touring was negligible: seven or eight gigs a year for the next four years, with another gig or two that I’d drive or fly to at the Peninsula Inn down in Gulfport, where Sterling held court at a weekly jam session. But we squeezed the juice out of it.

The run kicked off in July 2008, when Kevin and the band drove up to Mississippi for a couple of gigs — the first at my house, a delayed 50th birthday party, the second over at Red’s, a juke joint in Clarksdale. Kevin had one of those semi-beat midsize Pontiacs that can hold lots of stuff and cruise for days at 70. Shaun was a toddler at that point: babbling up a storm, bouncing around the house with his sippy-cup, but also intimidated by the strange men who were sleeping and relaxing in Daddy and Mommy’s livingroom. Dave had brought along a house-gift: a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, which got Shaun hooked on those cheerful melodies. Sterling, who’d gotten some new upper teeth by that point, was tickled by the fact that his harmonica player had a baby.

“You finally gone and got you one,” he laughed. “He’s gonna give you the blues now, all the money you be spending on diapers.”

“He’s cleaned up his act, Sterling,” Kevin added. “He’s got the wife, the kid, the house….”

“Yes!”

“Don’t forget my bluesman’s car.”

“Hey Sterling,” Dave called out, “I bet you had a nice car or two, back in the day.”

“You’re damned right. And a nice woman to go along with it.”

Clarksdale was a sixty-mile drive out through Batesville into the heart of the Delta. Red’s Lounge, just across the tracks on the black side of town, had recently been discovered by white blues tourists from around the world who hungered for a rough-edged juke joint that merited the word “real” without actually requiring them to confront armed black patrons. The owner, Red Padden, was grizzled, taciturn, and notoriously hard to read; his tough-guy schtick was either precisely calibrated or it wasn’t a schtick. We pulled up in our two cars; I got out and strolled towards the club, happy to see that somebody had put a poster in the window with our old publicity photo from the 1990s. Red was standing by his cast-iron smoker, near the door. I’d never actually met him, but I knew who he was.

“We’re your band for this evening,” I said, nodding at the poster. “That’s us. Satan and Adam.”

He glanced at me, then it. “That doesn’t look like you.”

We had a great night anyway. The room was dim and dingy, with tattered posters of Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings on the walls; we drank big cans of beer that Red sold us without comment. The audience was two-thirds European tourists and one-third local black folk. The old deathless groove, the soaring feeling of a song never wanting to end, came back in the middle of the second set on “Big Boss Man.” We’d broken through; Dave was part of it now.

There was no stopping us after that. We’d get a gig or two, a little weekend tour, and we’d rendez-vous at our designated motel, tacking in from our respective home ports. An outdoor festival in Greenwood, South Carolina, a club date up in Knoxville where the pretty girls danced to “Thunky Fing,” Mr. Gip’s hidden in the hills above Bessemer, Alabama. Gip’s, like Red’s, was that rarity in the modern American blues scene, the sort of black-owned establishment that was beginning to be hyped as a real-deal juke joint because it retained the visual feel and residual black customer base of a stop on the chitlin’ circuit — a relic from the days before white kids discovered blues. By now, of course, white adults had discovered these places; sometimes they booked the talent and curated the Facebook page. We didn’t care. We just wanted to play and get paid.

Sterling loved the road because it meant escape. Under Kevin’s supervision, he’d been granted a rare exemption from the protocols that governed federally-funded retirement homes. Kevin handled his meds, kept him in clean clothes — incontinence could be a problem — and allowed him a couple of beers a night, which had the predictable and wondrous effect of transforming him back into Mr. Satan: prophet, scourge, and inspired performer. Needless to say, Boca Ciega did not want any of their aged residents declaiming “I am Satan!” in the dining room. That was the kind of thing they snuffed out by any means necessary. But on the blues stage, it was just intriguing eccentricity. Kevin and I thought it was fantastic, a sign of soulful life. He’d give me a mischievous grin the moment Sterling started preaching. “Mr. Satan is back!”

There were all kinds of gigs. One weekend it was the King Biscuit festival over in Helena, Arkansas, with the crystalline blue skies that remain when the humidity blows away, the cotton has been picked, and fall comes to the Delta. The next time it was the elegant diningroom of the Kiawah Island Country Club in the lush, swampy country below Charleston. In the spring of 2009 the Jazz Foundation of America flew us up to New York to play the afterparty at “A Great Night in Harlem,” a three-hour all-star concert at the Apollo Theater. We stayed at a hotel out in Queens, near LaGuardia Airport; the promoters sent a stretch limo. Sterling was wearing a black trucker’s cap and shirt that Kevin had found for him, both of them spattered with yellowish-red flames.

“You first, Sterling,” Dave said, yanking open the long back door.

“Thank you, sir.”

Kevin was squinting through the viewfinder of his videocam. “Satan and Adam finally make it to the big time.”

The driver let us off on 125th Street, just down the block from the Apollo. Kevin took a photo of us with the famous sign in the background. Dave’s head is thrown back, his arms cradle our shoulders; it’s the high point of his life.

By the summer of 2009, energized by the Satan and Adam mini-renaissance, I’d transitioned into a one-man band, sitting in a chair like Sterling and playing a foot drum and tambourine pedal with my feet as I blew harp. I had a huge reservoir of buried memory to draw on: sitting and standing at Mr. Satan’s side on 125th Street back in the spring of 1987 after he’d added the second hi-hat cymbal. He hadn’t yet settled into the new configuration back then — his feet were “confused,” he’d laughed — but he was giving things a chance to figure themselves out. Here Mr. Satan’s wisdom and my father’s perfectly aligned. Some creative artists found the thing that worked well for them and stuck with it; others — the three of us — took risks, wandered into fresh territory, determined to explore and master the thing we couldn’t yet do. The process had its own internal logic. By August I was burning so hot that I got Sterling and Dave to let me debut my solo version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” at World Café Live, a club date in Philadelphia. They joined me on “Crossroads Blues” after I’d spun it up: Satan and Adam had exploded into two one man bands plus a drummer!

The energies that possessed me during that period were like nothing I’d ever experienced, yet they echoed Sterling’s earlier blossoming at exactly the same age, just past fifty. With Sterling’s and Dave’s help, I had finally come into my own sound. I recorded a solo album, Kick and Stomp, the following summer. My debut music video, which got several million plays on YouTube, featured “Crossroads Blues,” with its shout out to my aging blues master, guardian spirit of the crossing-point where transformations occur:

You can run, you can run….tell my good friend Sterling Magee

You can run, you can run….tell my good friend Sterling Magee

I’m standing at the crossroads….I hope he’ll wave to me

In 2011, after a final Satan and Adam gig at Hill Country Harmonica, a festival and teaching intensive I’d organized just north of Oxford, the magic carpet ride came to an end. Dave’s liver had been bad for a while; back in 2009 he’d been taken to the emergency room after spitting up blood in the control room on the day we began work on a new studio album down in Florida. On tour up in New England the following summer, he cratered at the motel, ashen-faced and weak, and left Sterling and me to hold down the gig; we barely made it through. By November 2011, he was dead.