By Matt Hanson
Following the stories of these unique, gifted, and sadly overlooked individuals can be as gripping as the music they made together.
Satan & Adam, directed by V. Scott Balcerek. Streaming on Netflix and elsewhere.
In the early ’80s, Adam Gussow was an Ivy Leaguer on his way to a teaching gig in The Bronx when he happened to pass an intriguing street musician, on a street corner in Harlem, right in front of the frosted glass door of The New York Telephone Company office. He was a one-man band simultaneously playing guitar and percussion, singing the blues with a ferocity that stopped Gussow in his tracks. Inquiring as to who this talented fellow might be, a local informed him that it was Satan. Come again? “Everybody around here knows Mister Satan.” Gussow was impressed by the bluesman’s chops and eventually worked up the courage to ask if he could sit in, charmingly promising that “I won’t embarrass you.” After pondering this for a minute, Satan accepted the offer. The unlikely duo started jamming, and it worked. The rest is history, lovingly and heartbreakingly documented in the new Netflix film Satan & Adam.
Of course, the obvious contrasts between these two bluesmen are the first thing you notice. Gussow is a brainy middle-class kid from the New York suburbs with Dutch Reform and Jewish ancestry who had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Literature and, after a bad breakup, decided to drop out of Columbia to play on the street with Satan full time. Gussow is also a talented harmonica player, but he hadn’t played much publicly before sitting in that random day in Harlem. The music clicked instantly, the passersby dug it too, and Gussow decided that the life of academia wasn’t for him. He would be Satan’s accompanist for the next several years.
“Satan” was the preferred moniker for Gussow’s partner/friend/mentor, whose Christian name was Sterling Magee. We get some of Magee’s backstory in the film, but there’s still a layer or two of mystery around him. In his former life as a sideman, Magee backed up a very impressive series of musicians, including the likes of George Benson, King Curtis, and even James Brown at the Apollo Theatre (tellingly it is within eye-shot of the spot in Harlem he later claimed for himself). Rumor has it that Ray Charles liked his playing but didn’t want to risk being overshadowed. The film attempts to explain the origin of Satan’s self-chosen sobriquet, but many of the explanations are vague — as they probably should be. Suffice to say that his moniker has less to do with diabolism and more to do with a deep personal loss, an immersion in the Bible, and an idiosyncratic aesthetic vision not unlike, as one critic puts it, that of a George Clinton or Sun Ra.
The political implications of these two pairing up are made clear. Harlem in the ’80s, as Al Sharpton explains, was economically depressed and edgy but culturally fruitful. The neighborhood has a tradition of being on the front lines of American artistic excellence in any number of ways, but seeing a nerdy white boy backing up a bearded eccentric black man playing music that is usually identified with the Southern African-American experience was a novelty that few failed to miss. At one point Gussow points out, with characteristic humility and frankness, that being in that deeply Other social space put him at risk. But the music he made with Satan undeniably clicked, despite the improbability of the two ever meeting otherwise, which provided plenty of reasons to keep their partnership intact.
For years, the two played at the same spot in Harlem and occasionally elsewhere around NYC, gaining something of an underground following in the process. U2 stumbled across them during their Rattle & Hum tour and were sufficiently awed to include one of Satan’s shorter ditties on one of their records. Satan and Adam laid down some killer records that reflected their amazing tightness as a unit and their street-honed chops. Better yet, they were prominently featured in the blues tent at New Orleans’s prestigious Jazz Fest a few times. They toured all over America and Europe together. Gussow wrote some books and articles about his experience, and Satan certainly appreciated being the bandleader for once, although he was justifiably deeply skeptical about a music industry that he had already seen rip off innumerable black artists. It was Satan who doled out the money after the shows.
For nonmusicians (like me) a band “getting discovered” can sound like a dream finally coming true; a golden ticket allowing scuffling artists to finally ride off into the sunset. But, as any musician will tell you, going on the road can be a huge grind. There’s the lack of sleep, the weird hours, the bad food, the pressure to perform, and the forced proximity to hangers-on. Satan and Adam lasted an impressive length of time playing great music together, but eventually even this dynamic duo succumbed to burnout. Satan’s troubled youth eventually gave way to a troubled old age. Despite the slow drain of time he still manages to find some moments of peace, embracing the joy and triumph that can only come when he plays his music.
Satan & Adam doesn’t end on a sour note, but some of the most dramatically weighted moments focus on the two men’s alternate life trajectories long after their partnership dissolved. There’s a special poignance in seeing how each reckons with the remembrance of blues past. The stereotype would have it that blues music is about feeling bad, drinking too much, or cavorting with shady company. But for those who love the genre this is only the tip of the emotional iceberg — seeing these two play the wonderful old standards initially made famous by luminaries like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Ma Rainey demonstrates how songs we tend to take for granted continue to generate deeper emotional resonances — particularly when you know what it means to the musicians at that moment. Following the stories of these unique, gifted, and sadly overlooked individuals can be as gripping as the music they made together.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in The American Interest, The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.