author scrapbook    
  adam gussow  

the author's highschool yearbook photo, 1975
  I grew up in a small town called Congers, about 25 miles north of New York City. Apple farms and vacant lots, a backwater. I raised snakes, hunted for butterflies, thought of myself as an ugly duckling. At the age of 16, after years as a "good" kid who did all his homework, I suddenly fell in love with the sound of blues harmonica and got Evil. I smoked pot, drank beer. The J. Geils Band was everybody's favorite at The Rockland Country Day School; my big triumph, as valedictorian, was to step away from the lectern after giving the required speech and blow "Whammer Jammer" through an amplifier, backed by the blues band I'd just formed. Dazed and confused is putting it mildly. But I was determined to master my instrument.  
Princeton was next, class of '79. I majored in English--a survivor of remedial writing--and found a Great Love. In 1984, after five stormy years, she left me for a guy I knew. The three of us were English grad students at Columbia at that point. I went nuts. Dropped out, flew off to Europe, blew harp in the street, came home and poured out a Kerouackian road-novel to console myself. (I was a terrible fiction writer.) In 1985, still dazed, I ran into Nat Riddles, a New York blues harmonica player who took me under his wing. I followed him around all summer as he worked Astor Place and Wall Street with a small combo he called "El Cafe Street." He showed me how to tongue-block and warble, how to get a smooth rich vibrato instead of the wimpy white-boy sound I had. I'd never heard of Big Walter Horton before Nat got ahold of me.  
Nat Riddles, my harp-teacher
Courtesy of Beth Horsley

the author and Mr. Satan at work in Harlem, 1991
Courtesy of Cynthia Carris
  After my apprenticeship with Nat, I busked the streets of New York for about a year with a couple of manic young guitar players. In June of '86 I flew over to Europe with one of them, worked the Beaubourg in Paris, the festival in Avignon, cafes on the Riviera. Drank wine, chased fun. I put away my harmonicas when I got back to the States--l'd finally gotten the whole streetthing out of my system--and got a straight job tutoring writing at a community college in the South Bronx. One day, taking a shortcut through Harlem, I passed the most amazing blues guitar-player I'd ever seen. He was keeping time on a hi-hat cymbal, stomping and crashing. His singing was terrifyingly intense. Amazed, I got out of my car, stood awkwardly as people flowed by, helplessly drawn into his groove. Finally I asked somebody who he was. "Who, him?" the guy said. "That's Satan. Everybody in Harlem knows Satan."

I came back the next day with my stuff and sat in. Satan and Adam. Pretty soon we were a team.
Mr. Satan and I worked this spot on 125th Street next to the Studio Museum for three or four years, season after season. Summer brought the lemonademan, hauling his wheeled dolly with the sloshing ten-gallon drum; he'd ladle us large sweet styrofoam cups for a dollar apiece. (We'd pay him with crumpled dollar bills and change people had thrown into Mr. Satan's tip bucket.) In winter we'd bring along a broom and sweep the snow away before setting down our amps. We were crazy about making music outdoors. Harlem loved us right back. Mr. Satan was a legend--the Mississippi-born guitarist who'd backed up Marvin Gaye and Etta James in a former life. "Go 'head on, devil!" people would yell. I was--well, the white boy who played with Satan. People knew me, and were amazingly friendly. The guy with the sunglasses in this picture is Mr. James Gants, a freelance blues singer who sometimes sat in with us. He'd sing "I Feel Good" and throw in all of James Brown's fancy moves.  
the author in Harlem, with friends of the band
Courtesy of Cynthia Carris

a street fair on Broadway, 1989
Courtesy of Jack Vartoogian
  New York City was a tense place, racially, during the late 80s. White punks attacked three black men in Howard Beach, chasing one of them onto a highway where he was hit by a passing car. A black kid named Yusuf Hawkins was shot by Italian hoods in Bensonhurst. Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" upped the ante, with Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as its soundtrack. Mr. Satan and I managed to forge our highly public interracial relationship in the midst of all this mayhem--offering ourself as the in-your-face alternative, the tension-releasing black-and-white musical frenzy. There was certainly money to be made. We'd work Times Square, Morningside Heights. Sometimes we'd work streetfairs: four long hard sets in the hot sun. This shot was taken two weeks after Yusuf Hawkins was gunned down. We made $150 apiece. Harlem was raging at the time; I was beginning to wonder if maybe I ought to call it quits on 125th Street. "Hell no," Mr. Satan barked. "We gonna get bigger than you know, Mister."  
Just as our street days began winding down, success came calling. In June 1990, the day this picture was taken, we opened for blues guitarist Buddy Guy in front of 5,000 people in Central Park. "We are stars, Mister!" Mr. Satan cried, showing me the necklace he'd made. (He's a remarkable artist, salvaging bits of wood from trash cans, cutting them with a jigsaw, assembling them into brightly-colored mandalas and medallions.) We went into the studio, finally, and recorded a demo that later became our first album, "Harlem Blues" (Flying Fish, 1991). Then Bo Diddley's manager discovered us one night at a women's bar down in Greenwich Village, where we had a Sunday night gig. Next thing I knew we were a featured attraction at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, touring England and Scotland with Bo. On the road to success at last.

We've been all over the world by this point: Finland, Australia, Winnipeg, the Mississippi Delta. Released two more albums, made the cover of Living Blues magazine. Nothing quite matches those old Harlem street-days, though. Making money is fine, but having people throw money at you because you've touched them is something special.
Miss Macie and Mr. Satan, 1990
Courtesy of Cory Pearson
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    Copyright © 1998 Adam Gussow.