Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir

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9780679450221: Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir
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I sent my baby a brand-new twenty-dollar bill
If that don't bring her back, I'm darn sure my shotgun will.


--John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson

Nobody actually knew what had happened to Nat. One moment he was the crown prince of New York's downtown blues scene, double-parking his cab in front of Dan Lynch's Blues Bar on Sunday afternoons, striding indoors with a harmonica in hand to blow chorus after squalling chorus at the weekly jam sessions; the next moment he was gone, fled South to his father's or sister's in Norfolk or Newport News. He'd been shot in the chest on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Second Avenue, just down the block from Lynch's. That was the only fact everybody seemed to agree on. The guy who shot him was either a drug dealer or a jealous lover or pimp connected to Doreen, Nat's brilliant white girlfriend, a prostitute and junkie. Nat had either been yelling at Doreen or slapping her around or both. The shooting wasn't supposed to have happened--Nat was too smart, too generous, too self-disciplined--and yet it seemed fated. Everybody who knew him was shocked; nobody was surprised. Nat Riddles would go get himself shot, and disappear.

He'd be back. He always came back, after the stories people told had had a chance to swell and ripen. Some Sunday afternoon when the jam session was flying high he'd shoulder back through the swinging doors of Dan Lynch, flash his dazzling smile, bear-hug ten or twelve dear old friends, yell out to Chuck Hancock on the bandstand, kiss Karola and Diana at the bar--"I love it!" he'd say as a cold Heineken found its way into his hand, "I love it!"--and stand there beaming as Chuck's alto sax screamed, honked, and snarled. Nat was back! He'd been president of the student government at Long Island University, a Tae Kwon Do adept, a trophy-winning disco dancer, a graphic artist at Pratt. He'd freebased cocaine in the days before crack. He was perpetually on the verge of becoming the blues world's Next Big Thing. A young black harp-player with the Sound. White guys who loved blues couldn't get enough of him. "Nat!" they'd yell. "Hey, Nat!" He called all waitresses "darling" and made the older ones melt where they stood. He was my master. One of two.

We met on a cold April night in 1985. The lovelorn neighborhood harmonica player--recent dropout from the graduate English program at Columbia--had just made his big-stage debut on the steps of Hamilton Hall, where three hundred sitters-in protesting the university's investment policies in South Africa were being entertained by various campus bands. A Marine Band harp blown through a large outdoor P.A. system ruled the world. I was bopping home down Amsterdam Avenue, lost in the sound of my own notes decaying as they spiraled up and collected under the walkway between the Law School and Philosophy Hall. Bird was my model: sweet, angular, endlessly unfolding lines.

A yellow cab heading uptown passed me, slowed, then hung a U-turn and pulled up to the curb. The driver leaned over and rolled down the passenger-side window. He was older than me but not much, and black. He smiled as if we knew each other.

"Was that you?" he asked.

"You mean playing just now?"

"Yeah."

I shrugged. "I was noodling."

"It sounded nice. I thought I oughta see who the hell you were."

Still leaning on his elbow, he flipped open a tool kit sitting next to him on the front seat. The trays were cluttered with harmonicas, cables, a ball microphone.

"You play?" I said.

"I've been accused of that more than once." His smile was a promise, an effortless seduction. He selected a harp, cupped it beautifully with enfolding hands, and stared at me as he played, eyes narrowing slightly as he bore down. I stood at the open window, struck dumb. The gods had blessed me with another visitation. I blinked in the glare outside Plato's cave. The records I'd been listening to--Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, my old high school collection--were mere shadows of the true and beautiful.

"Shit," I said.

"You like that?"

He shut off the engine, got out of the cab, came around front, set his open toolbox on the hood.

"You've got the music in you," he said, selecting another harp. "All you need are a few of the subtleties."

We stood on the corner of 118th Street and Amsterdam in the cold wind for forty minutes while he recapitulated the stylistic evolution of American blues harmonica. John Lee Williamson--the first Sonny Boy, not to be confused with Rice Miller--was our honored forefather. You wanna build a mansion, you gotta pour some concrete. Little Walter and Junior Wells were blowing straight John Lee stuff before amplifiers came along and shook everything up. Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds is an awesome motherfucker and blows some shit that would spin your head. Not to mention Sugar Blue, the baddest street blues harmonica player ever to come out of New York.

"Man," he said, "Sugar used to walk the streets with his head down, practicing, and he was always high. I mean always. And he was the only player I've ever seen who could stop a street full of people dead with his playing, just like that. Set his little amplifier on the sidewalk, plug in, and go. Diddleyotten rebop, wabba dabba doo-bop! They wouldn't throw no change, either. I'm talking bills--ones, fives, tens, fluttering through the air. A whole blockful of people, man. Taxicabs would pull over, women--beautiful women, gorgeous women, luscious women--would stop dead in their tracks. That was Sugar. I ain't tellin' you no lies. He was always practicing, too. Every time you'd see him he'd be walking down the street with his finger in his ear, figuring things out."

The cold finally chilled us. He gave me his card before he went. Nat Riddles, Harmonica for All Occasions.

He showed up at my apartment for our first lesson in one of those ten-dollar Panama hats the tourists buy down on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. He knew how to wear it. Without apparent effort he'd nailed the precise angle where Superfly meets Bogey.

"I like it," he said, glancing around the large living room. I had lots of space now that Helen was gone.

He tossed his hat on the bed, set down his tool kit. He inspected my record collection. No Big Walter Horton?

The windows were open--a warm May afternoon--and occasional yells and honking horns floated up from the street as I slipped a tape into my boom box and we took out our harps and went at it, face to face. His sound was a groaning joyous stridency swelling between his hands, explosive but contained. Mine was Little Cricket fidgeting before the Dancing Master. When he tapped his foot, Time shuddered. I leaned forward--hungering, imitating, holding back. He could have flipped me off my chair with one shoulder-feint.

"Open your hands," he admonished.

My vibrato was spirited but lightweight, ungrounded. His was rich, slow, dark, controlled, powerful, effortless.

"Are you really doing it just with your throat?" I asked.

He gazed at me and played a soft quivering low note.

" 'Cause I can get it, you know." I played my staccato, chattering version.

He said nothing. His note grew softer, more liquid. He continued to gaze at me. He lifted his chin slightly so I could see. His Adam's Apple quivered softly, effortlessly. His throat was very dark and smooth and beautiful.

I stared. He kept the note going--soft, humming, deadly. My eyes fell.

"I'll work on it."

The note burned into me, silencing me. Somebody yelled in the street down below.

"I can't do it, Nat," I murmured, pleading.

We moved onto tongue-blocking. Chicago-style blues harmonica--Big Walter, James Cotton--depended on a forceful tongue-slap against the wooden comb to produce octaves alternating with chords. Maximum control, big sound. Nat was somehow able to articulate in multiple dimensions at once, vibrato behind double-tonguing punctuated with throat-pops.

"Naw, man." I laughed when he described his technique. "You can't be doing that."

He waved his hand. "There's nothing I do that DeFord Bailey wasn't doing fifty years ago."

"You got this stuff off records?"

"Off records, whatever. From guys like Bob Shatkin and Lenny Rabenovets. We've got some awesome harp-blowers in this city, man, guys who were doing it and doing it properly long before I came along."

"I've never heard anybody play like you."

He smiled. He had a corroded wire retainer around one of his front teeth. "They're out there, believe me. Chicago ain't shit next to Brooklyn and the Bronx."

He made a fluttering, feathery sound in the middle register. I tried and couldn't get it.

"Flutter your tongue," he said.

I fluttered my tongue. A pale imitation.

"It's like eating pussy," he said.

I laughed. "Do you ever meet women--you must meet women who'll say, like, that guy must . . ."

"Oh, they know. They'll come up smiling and say, 'I know you. You're a harmonica player. I know about you guys.' "

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 b...

Revue de presse :

"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."
--Arnold Rampersad, author of Jackie Robinson

" 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."
--Andrew Solomon, contributing writer,
New York Times Magazine

"Gussow is one of the best blues harmonica players of his generation and now he makes his mark as a writer. His book is an important contribution to the literature of blues in America. Any serious student of blues harmonica who hears Adam play can never hear the instrument in quite the same way again, and everyone who reads his memoir will see the blues in a different light. Gussow writes like he plays the harp--lyrically and with deep feeling."                            
--Charles Sawyer, author of
The Arrival of B. B. King

"Offers fascinating and engaging insights into Harlem street life during the volatile 1980s, the dynamics of New York's blues scene, and the mind and music of one of the most brilliant and idiosyncratic performers in modern blues. Above all, Gussow's intimate memoir allows his readers to experience the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, of his own dialogue with that most complex and crucial of American issues: relations between the races."
--David Nelson, editor of
Living Blues

"Intellectual by day, blues-playing Harlem street musician by night, Gussow tells a great American coming-of-age story."                
--Elaine Showalter,  professor of English, Princeton University, and author of
The Female Malady

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