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Book Review
"Mr. Satan's Apprentice" by Adam Gussow
Pantheon Books, 416 pages $25
Reviewed by Tony Glover
Satan and Adam are definitely an attention catching pair. How did a 50 year old Harlem street musician team up with a 32 year old PHD candidate blues harpist to record 3 albums and play festivals and clubs here and overseas? The answers lie in the pages of this "blues memoir", penned by Adam Gussow, a record of the evolution of a lovelorn college student into a busker on the hard-edged streets of Harlem.

Gussow was born in a small town outside of NYC, began playing with a band in college and eventually found his way to a New York blues bar where he met a storied musician, Nat Riddles, who became his mentor on harp and in blues life-styles. Riddles disappeared after being shot several times and later turned up, battling cancer. In the meantime Gussow had met a serious longtime lover and began the tussling of negotiating romance in the days of feminist ideology strongholds.

One day on the streets he heard a bearded, manic guitar player working with a portable amp and high-hat cymbals, sounding like a cross between "Robert Johnson and Parliament Funkadelic, a Mississippi flood roaring down Broadway." Mr. Satan (aka Sterling Magee) had worked in Noble Thin Man Watts band in the sixties and with King Curtis, doing backup behind people like Little Anthony And The Imperials, Etta James, and Marvin Gaye. He cut some singles on Sylvia and Tangerine, then decided he preferred working out on the streets to being in clubs.

Adam sat in with him first in 1986, riding behind his energetic rhythm-driven picking, blowing through his own Mouse amplifier. "The difference between watching him play and playing with him was the difference between sitting through a screening of Twister and being sucked skyward by a category five. This was hanging on to a lion's tail." The two decided to team up and split the take in the tip jar. Some five years later--after Adam had done a stint touring as a musician with the Broadway show "Big River"--they cut their first album, featuring fractured covers of staples like "Sweet Home Chicago", "C C Rider" mixed with Mr. Satan's original pieces. Their most recent CD, LIVING ON THE RIVER came out in 1996.

Adam mixes a couple of time periods, alternating back and forth between his youthful days as a beginning harpist/young lover with his older, more weathered persona--a strawberry blond working regularly on 125th Street, dealing not only with the varying moods of Mr. Satan, but the vagaries of street corner winos and passing junkies. The book covers the first 5 years of their partnership, up to their first recording.

Gussow has also written for Harpers, Village Voice etc, and he's an erudite narrator, not afraid to write with the naive voice of his youth when recounting that era. He also has a knack for putting the experience of playing into words that manage to capture the feel of it--to the extent that that's even possible. The book dwells as much on Adams love life as it does on the music--and of course the two are intertwined for any musician. The result is an enjoyable and entertaining account of a young man's odysseys in love and music.

This review is copyright 1998 by Tony Glover, all rights reserved.

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Copyright 1998 by Ray M. Stiles. All rights reserved.