Mister Satan's Apprentice

The life of the musician on the road is by law supposed to be about geography blurrily shooting past and an endless stream of faces, few of them remembered. But it's quite a different experience in Adam Gussow's Mister Satan's Apprentice, in which the musician parks himself by the road and the audience keeps moving. Ex­street musician Mister Satan seemingly remembers everything, all the faces pushing past the kitty, and beautifully captures the voices of a steady flow of characters— from nationalists angry at a white man playing the blues in Harlem to corner pontificators. Everybody from cops to U2 to Ann Douglas walks past and throws something into the hat. Even Malcolm Cowley and Bo Diddley make appearances, for if Gussow and his guitar-playing teacher Mister Satan play the blues, it's a New York blues, with Dan Lynch's as the delta, and unexpected juxtapositions, multicultural roots, and the city's exploding race relations all shaping the squall.

Details

Mister Satan's Apprentice
By Adam Gussow
Pantheon Books, 416 pp., $25
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The harp-blowing Princeton Ph.D. candidate Gussow hooked up with guitarist Mister Satan in the mid '80s, forming a roadside attraction that lasted three records and uncountable traffic jams. One fine thing about the book is how the strengths and weak spots of this interracial team are expressed through incident— the parade never stops for Gussow to pontificate. It's best not to philosophize when in the presence of a true oracle. Mister Satan was an underground blues guitar legend in the '60s, and when he's not stomping his foot on a wooden board as he plays, he's raving about numerology, the secrets of the squared circle, and how God stands for Growth of Death. His strangely hopeful voice of doom is raised against a particularly doomy era in New York: the years when Howard Beach and the death of Yusef Hawkins fractured any number of cross-racial alliances. The book doesn't romanticize such alliances (it has a funny way of fessing up to the Huck and Jim angle), just makes them feel as capable of altering one's path as any street-corner commotion.

 
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