Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Satan & Adam

For a musical art form to survive, it must be performed live, for real people, so it can actively engage with the world around it. Starting in 1986, the veteran bluesman known as Satan (born Sterling Magee, not a fan of organized religion) and Adam Gussow very definitely kept the blues alive. Playing on the streets of Harlem undeniably strengthened their attacks and gave them ample opportunity to pick-up on all the life going on around them. Satan’s vocals started to incorporate rap elements, while Gussow developed jazz saxophone influences on his mouth harp. V. Scott Balcerek chronicles the duo’s life and times in his twenty-three-years-in-the-making documentary, Satan & Adam, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

It is probably the second most famous creation story in blues, after Robert Johnson’s meeting at the crossroads. On that fateful day, Gussow asked to sit in with Satan, who was already quite recognizable for playing solo electric guitar, while accompanying himself on drums with the foot pedals. Satan was curious enough to agree and was pleasantly surprised when the kid managed to keep up. They started playing together so often, they became a regular act: Satan & Adam.

Initially, they busked on the streets, but they started to get respectable, recording an album, holding down a regular weekly bar gig, and signing with a manager. Frankly, their story was so attractive, it was probably inevitable they would get at least fifteen minutes of fame. They were after all the first interracial performers to appear together on the cover of Living Blues magazine. However, the music was so good and so honest, they maintained a loyal (and rather sizable, by blues standards) fan base, even after the music media moved on.

Balcerek managed to capture a fair amount of those glory days and he was also there for the quiet years of separation. Balcerek’s treatment is somewhat vague on the particulars, but Satan had something like a nervous breakdown and moved to Florida, where his Evangelical family forced him to temporarily give up the blues and the “Satan” moniker. In his nonfiction collection, Journeyman’s Road, Gussow more-or-less suggests he had to learn to let Satan go and get on with his own life.

As poignant as those sentiments were, it turned out the music wasn’t ready to let them go. In fact, S&A has the best third act of any music doc since Searching for Sugar Man. It was maybe more like a fourth or fifth act, but for their fans, it was utterly shocking good news, sort of like Harper Lee publishing Go Set a Watchman, but more satisfying.

It is that combination of pain and joy that makes Balcerek’s film such an immediately indispensable document of modern Americana. This film is blues to the bone, including the clear-eyed manner it addresses issues of race. As is often the case with jazz, the music we call the blues is frequently intertwined with racially charged questions of authenticity. Yet, without white (and increasingly foreign) audiences, there would be little market for the music. Of course, the first listeners Satan & Adam won over were “pre-gentrification” Harlem residents, who just responded to what they heard. If you respect the music, you also have to respect young players keeping it alive, regardless what they look like. (That is why it is so odd to see Al Sharpton turn up as a talking head in the film, because probably nobody else who has done more to foster racial tension in New York, through his involvement in the Tawana Brawley hoax and the Crown Heights Riots.)

Regardless, it is impossible to miss the appealing symbolism of Satan & Adam for music journalists and fans alike. Fortunately, Balcerek delves even deeper, really getting at the essence of friendship and music. The blues is rooted in the African American Delta experience, but it speaks to us on a universally accessible level. Balcerek presents Satan and Gussow in a way that we can similarly relate to. Satan & Adam is a terrific film that will move your feet and your soul. Very highly recommended, it screens this Wednesday (4/25) and Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.