Sam Moss celebrated


They’re gathered on the ramp that runs the length of Elliott’s Revue on Winston-Salem’s Trade Street, huddled in glum conference and nursing beers as midnight approaches on Friday, Jan. 18. Doug Williams and Dave Seward, respectively the bass player and drummer for the Sams, cast appraising glances at the stage, where a band called Mindgap is winding up its set. Their guitarist, a dazzling talent and their heart and soul, Sam Moss, is seven months gone. And so they gather, almost reflexively, to celebrate his birthday for the first time without him.

The pain, it seems, has hardly diminished, but as in an Irish wake or the second line of a New Orleans jazz funeral, joy and celebration will inevitably overtake the sadness tonight, filling the void left by the passing of the man who bound them together. Muted conversations quicken and rise to a crescendo, friends lean in close, eyes glisten, and smiles and laughter accompany reminiscences.

People who knew Sam Moss, who died last May of a reported suicide and would have been 55 this month, unfailingly speak of him with deep love, describing him as a generous friend, a paragon of ineffable cool, hands-down the best guitar player in town and someone whose passion for music created a focal point of community – a church, if you will. That he carried a mile-wide contrarian streak and kept irregular business hours at his guitar shop only seems to have deepened and complicated their love.

When he died, the condolences poured in from North Carolina bands and players both locally respected and internationally semi-famous: Peter Holsapple, Hobex, Snuzz, Easybake, Blues World Order, Jeffrey Dean Foster and the Skellingtons, to name a few. As if to pay tribute to both Moss’ greatness and his wicked sense of humor, the active Sams MySpace site lists one final upcoming show: Madison Square Garden on Feb. 13, 2008.

As the ceremonial moment approaches, I feel as if I have made a terrible blunder and revealed myself to be a coarse asshole. Whether I should have contacted Moss’ band members in advance to get their blessing, spent more time in emotional preparation or both, I can’t say. The truth is I didn’t know Moss before he died, either personally or by reputation. I didn’t know the halo of light before he let it go out, and so cannot belong to the community of grief.

I realize I had forgotten what it’s like. It was the day after my 17th birthday when I lost my dad to a tractor accident. No reporter showed up to ask how I felt about it, but if one had, who knows how I would have reacted. All I can say for sure is that the blow made all feelings permissible. Friendships were everything and nothing mattered outside of the circle. A piss in the snow on a cold, clear January night in the Kentucky countryside never felt more satisfying. You better grab joy because life is fleeting.

When I approach Williams on the ramp, introduce myself and lay out my journalistic agenda, he nods impassively. Talk about recollections of Sam? He shrugs and asks me if my timeframe is open ended. Well no, I’d planned to record this particular moment. “Lots of people in this room knew Sam,” he says. “I hope you’ve already been trying to interview them.”

Neither of us knows what to say next.

And still later, a mutual friend awkwardly and reluctantly tugs at the elbow of KD Rouse, the Sams’ singer, and asks if she’s willing to talk to me, the hapless reporter. Rouse turns her back; the friend is overcome by emotion and soon has to leave.

“That was the highest compliment Sam could pay you,” the friend says, “was to say, ‘fuck off,’ or flip you the bird.”

A little after midnight, Moss’ friends gather on the little stage at Elliott’s Revue. Little plastic glasses of champagne pass from hand to hand.

Proprietor Mike Chamis says, “I’d like to propose a toast to Sam Moss. Happy birthday, Sam. Now, I’ve got something real special for you. I hope you enjoy it.”

With that, the Sams song “Bird” blares over the sound system: nasty, jagged guitar riffs like teeth tearing flesh, and yet a sound that carries a raw, joyous quality. From the first handful of notes, you know Sam Moss was a guitar player with a singular style. This song and others were recorded at Williams’ commercial studio, and Seward says this is the first time these tracks have been heard publicly. The moment encompasses the room. No time but now. It’s transgressive rock and roll that takes no shit.

Mickey Hundley, a young man wearing a black sweatshirt with the hint of a baby face, strolls through the back portion of the room, his beer down to dregs. He describes himself as an “appreciator” of Moss.

“Seeing him play was almost a spiritual, a religious moment,” he says. “There are very few guitar heroes. Clapton is one. He was a small-town version of that. His playing was electrifying at the same time that it was laid back. He was that good that he made it look easy. It wasn’t.”

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