Satan & Adam
Suffering from emotional turmoil after the bad break-up of a long-term relationship, Adam Gussow finds himself alone, living in New York City, and drifting through life without a purpose. All of that changes one day as he strolls through the Harlem area of the city, a center for the African-American population. He stumbles across a weathered black man, furiously playing his electric guitar while keeping a beat on a hi-hat cymbal set. Mustering up his courage, Gussow respectfully asks if he can join in with his harmonica, promising the guitarist, “…I won’t embarrass you”.
From that chance encounter sprang a musical partnership, and an even deeper friendship, that spans more than three decades. The film director uses vintage B&W footage along with color film, mixes it with interview segments with people who played prominent roles in the duo’s career, and gives viewers an in-depth look at an unlikely partnership that took Satan & Adam around the world.
Right from the start, Gussow knew that Satan – Sterling Magee – was special. In one segment, he recalls, “He threw me all over the place. His groove is incredibly strong. I held on for dear life”. Later he learns that Magee once recorded for the Tangerine Records label, owned by Ray Charles, and then backed-up James Brown at the Apollo Theater. The acclaimed bass player Jerry Jemmott talks about working with Magee in the King Curtis band, when the guitarist “…played rhythms that were off the hook!” Magee was originally from Mississippi, where he was raised in the church. Later, the love of his life died suddenly, leaving him devastated and broken. Eventually he found solace in making music on the streets, becoming a community fixture as he sang about his outlook on life based on love, compassion, and respect for all.
Adding Gussow to the mix gave Magee a chance to expand his audience, but not everyone was so accepting. More than a few Harlem residents objected to the “white boy” coming to steal Mr. Satan’s music. In the 1980s, New York City was a boiling cauldron of racial tensions. At times, Gussow was given thinly veiled threats about what could happen should he keep coming around, but he refused to be intimidated. For the Princeton graduate who grew up in a small town north of NYC, making music with Magee becomes a journey on the wild side of life as a street musician. Gussow’s mother notes that her son bonded with the guitarist in a way that he never could with his own father.
The film traces the duo from their street performances, where they caught the attention of the film crew working on U2’s Rattle & Hum documentary, earning a brief spot on the soundtrack, to European tours arranged by their high-profile talent agent, recording several albums for the Flying Fish label despite Magee’s previous bad experiences with the recording industry, and then a prized spot at the 1991 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that brought them even more attention. In 1998, Gussow’s book, Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir was published, receiving much critical acclaim.
But the film also delves into a relationship that was always on the edge, a bonding of two souls searching for peace, needing each other, struggling to reconcile two totally different backgrounds and racial identities. Miss Macie, Magee’s wife, is a constant presence, bringing an additional level of tension into play. When the couple decides to move to Virginia to be near her mother, the nine hour trip for gigs takes it’s toll on Magee. One day, he left for Virginia and never came back.
The final chapter in the film chronicles the search for Magee, who eventually is located in Florida, recovering from several health issues. Local friends and musicians take an interest in getting Magee back to playing music. Gussow finally leaves New York City for Oxford, Mississippi, where he is a professor of African-American literature. The footage of him being reunited with Magee is an emotional high point that will stick with you.
Kudos to Director V. Scott Balcerek for a masterful effort in telling the Satan & Adam story in all of its complexity, in a straight-forward fashion that thoroughly engages viewers without any appeals to maudlin sentiments. Blues fans definitely need to see this film, which is now available for viewing in limited theater release, and will be on Netflix on June 1. Highly recommended!