The story of Satan and Adam is one rich in rebirth.
The duo, who got together in 1986 on the streets of Harlem share a gritty and spirited vision of the blues. They made their name busking on the streets, with Mister Satan on guitar and kickboard percussion and Adam Gussow on blues harmonica. But after many tours and three studio albums, they virtually disappeared. Adam, a native of Rockland County, N.Y., went on to teach, winding up in the English Department at the University of Mississippi and Mister Satan virtually disappeared. It turns out Mister Satan, whose real name is Sterling Magee from Mount Olive, Miss., had some personal problems that led to a nervous breakdown.
But the fate that brought them together in Harlem and then tore them cruelly apart has brought them back together. They’re wrapping up a short road trip tomorrow night (Saturday, Aug. 15) on Adam’s home turf — The Turning Point in Piermont.
This could well be our last chance to see the duo here in the Metro area, as the state-run home where Satan lives is tightening its rules. He is only allowed to leave for a few days at a time, making it all but impossible for them to arrange lengthy road trips.
Tonight’s show starts at 8 o’clock at The Turning Point, 468 Piermont Ave. Piermont, N.Y. (845) 359-1089. Tickets are $20.
In anticipation of Satan and Adam’s gig at The Turning Point, Adam spoke to Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? about the duo’s meeting, breakup and reunion. The full interview appears after the jump.
WYMMWIG: How did a white teenager from the suburbs became a blues harmonica player?
Adam Gussow: I always call myself a Congers native, but I was actually born in New York and moved to Congers when I was a year and a half. And began playing the harmonica when I was in high school there. It was a conscious decision in the fall of my senior year.
I was a student at the Rockland Country Day School there in Congers. And I don’t know, the harmonica had always appealed to me. My father had eclectic tastes and among the things that he played was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. When I thought back, trying to understand why the harmonica grabbed me in that particular period of time, I think, there was a lot of stuff out there with harmonica on it.
There was the J Geils Band with Whammer Jammer. That was the song that really got me. It was a big song at the Day School, everybody was listening to that band and I just decided that I was gonna start playing harmonica. I basically went to the Nanuet Mall. There was a music shop somewhere there on the first floor and I went in and asked for a harmonica. And they handed me a Hohner Marine Band. I got the wrong key for Whammer Jammer at first, so I ended up going back and getting the right key. And basically what I did was sit down with the records.
That’s where it really started. I got pretty good pretty quickly, to the point where I actually gave my valedictory speech and then stepped down from the podium and played Whammer Jammer. That was at the age of 17. So I started very young. And one thing led to another.
The first live blues show I saw was one of the most incredible shows a young blues harmonica player could see. It was the J Geils Band with James Cotton opening. In the spring of ’75 [around the time of his high school graduation] at the Rockland Community College. I still remember that night. There was my hero, Magic Dick, and there was James Cotton, and they’re both great harp players.
Q. But wasn’t it odd to be a white suburban kid playing this kind of music?
A. I had no conception of white or black in the blues. It never occurred to me. I just loved the sound. I didn’t have any politics in it at all.
Q. So tell me the real story about how you met up with Mister Satan, Sterling Magee.
A. It was a three-stage process. It was after I had left graduate school at Columbia University. I basically went to Europe in the summer of ‘84. A five year relationship with a girlfriend had just broken up and it hit me really hard. And I went off to Europe and I threw a couple of harps in my daypack. I had been mostly a guitar player, but lately I had been playing harp. And I went off to Europe and I played on the street, in Paris and Avignon, and I felt like it changed my life to just get out there. There was something very, very empowering and exciting about performing on the street. It’s like a calling, and I felt like I had been called.
Q. What kept you playing on the street when you got back to the States?
A. I met a guy named Nat Riddles, a black New Yorker, and he became my harmonica teacher in the summer of ’85. I followed him around the whole summer. He really modeled for me what it would like to play well on the street as a harp player. He really knew all the techniques. I decided I would follow in his footsteps and played on the streets. He disappeared, went down south. So I played on the streets in the fall of ’85, the spring of ’86, went off to Europe again, did 2 months in Europe, then I came home.
It was at that point that I was driving through Harlem and came across Sterling Magee playing on 125th Street in front of the telephone company building. At that point I didn’t know who he was, but I recognized him because I had seen him up by Columbia. I got out of my car and I asked somebody who he was, and they go, “Oh, that’s Satan. Everybody in Harlem knows Satan.” And at that point the words Satan and Adam went through my mind and I thought, I have to play with him just so I can say Adam and Satan played the streets of Harlem.
So I came back the next day with the amp I used over in Europe, I waited until he was on a break, and asked if I could play with him. He kind of looked me up and down and I said, I won’t embarrass you. I guess that was so appropriate from his perspective. He said, do you have your equipment? He said do you have your equipment with you? And I said my Mouse is in the trunk of my car, referring to the name of the amp he used, too. He says, well come on up. And there it is. Every show-business autobiography has the moment of arrival.
It was not the first time I played for a black audience. I had been playing in some jazz clubs in Harlem. I became a minor sensation. I was treated sort of like the great white hope. I was pretty good, I was good enough. And it was so unexpected to some of them. So when I got up there to play with Mister Satan, I was prepared to play this kind of music in front of a black audience.
It was a sensation, not me, so much, but the fact of me and this guy. Everybody knew how powerful he was, and they didn’t think I could last. They thought he was going to mop the street with me. But I held on. As a former marathoner I was crazy and had a lot of energy. We played a song and played it into the ground for about 10 minutes
That was October of ’86. I have a journal in which I wrote: “I played with Satan in Harlem today.”
After the first day I came back immediately.It quickly became a kind of informal partnership. There was a musical connection right away. We both had the attitude of street musicians. We didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Until 1990, when we made a demo, and called it Satan and Adam, we did not have a band name, we didn’t call ourselves anything. We were totally uncommodified for three years. There was something very pure about that. Then in 1991, with our first album, we suddenly arrived, and that was a big summer.
Q. How did “making it” change things for you? Did it give you big heads?
It didn’t give us big heads. When we first started to play indoor gigs, we began to work at a place called Chelsea Commons 24th street and 10th Avenue. I got an acid stomach starting on the first day we played indoors. A lot of it had to do with the anxiety of what’s it like to bring this explosive music indoors. Because we were loud. It was a lot of stress involved in coming off the street and trying to discipline or domesticate the wild street act that we were. I didn’t have those problems playing on the street.
One thing that happened, that changes is that we started to travel and I started to learn what it really means to pay your dues as a musician. He and I began to get closer. You gotta watch each other’s back, and you’d start telling stories. He had so much of that road wisdom. So that was really useful stuff.
And the idea of the show must go on. He really had that. There’s a sort of image people have of a blues musician who might drink too much, and get violent and go back on his word. He was a very morally upright kind of guy, despite the name. He had all the bourgeois values, sort of show up on time and give them good value for their money and don’t even talk about not going onstage.
The show has to go on. There is a lot to be said. That kind of toughening is a good thing I think for a performer. Y ou need to have an older performer who mentors you. I can say he mentored me.
Q. Now, let’s talk about what happened to end that good run.
There’s no big mystery. Our last gig for a long time, and what I thought was the final gig, was in April of ’98. He’d been living down in Virginia for awhile and I was commuting to Princeton where I was a PhD student. So we were going off touring on the weekends, and in the summer. It was kind of wearing for him. And I worried about him. I think it was about then his father died, and it made him suddenly question his whole 19-year, my name is Mister Satan thing.
It was like the worst sort of panic attack that led into a full scale episode. He ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a couple of weeks, and I had to say do you know who you’ve got. He’s not some random guy, he’s a blues player of some magnitude here. He got released, but we had to cancel a whole summers worth of gigs.
I had to learn to just let go. He ended up down in Florida, but basically he just disappeared. (1999, one gig) He looked tired.
I didn’t see him again until 2002. (Adam had a minor heart attack during that time.) It was a bad time
Then a filmmaker who was doing a documentary, told me, “I found Mister Satan.” And I said where? And he said he was in a nursing home down in Florida, in the Tampa area.
He flew me down and then filmed the whole thing. I walked into the courtyard of this eldercare home and there he was. He didn’t look like himself. He looked older and just different. And he couldn’t play a note. They put a guitar in his hands and he really could barely pick a note.
What’s remarkable is that, after all that, in the period between 2002 and 2004 suddenly I began to get these reports that he was starting to come back. And local blues people started coming to visit him.
And in 2005 we had an official comeback gig in Gulfport, Miss. In 2006 we played a few gigs. It was okay. We added a drummer, because he just wasn’t keeping the beat the same way.
December of 2006 was the first moment — we uploaded a YouTube video of a song I used to do, Thunky Thing, where it felt like the old feeling that we used to have when we played, where we really hit a groove and people were dancing. Then last summer we played a series of gigs and it went really well.
And the rest is history.
It may be true that Mister Satan isn’t the same player he used to be, but he and Adam still have amazing spirit together, as you can see in this video of Mister Satan talking and the duo (plus drummer Dave Laycock) playing at Kiawah Island, S.C., in June.
You’ll find many, many more Satan and Adam videos clicking here.