Tone, taste, and tenacity
“Too weird to live, too rare to die”
– Hunter S. Thompson
He often comes to visit, nine years on, always late at night, a pillar of my dreams.
The imagery of this visitation is 3-D vivid. It never changes – a mute home movie on perpetual repeat.
The dream is neither sad nor disturbing, nor is it happy or celebratory. It’s a cosmic screen grab, a subconscious commemoration of the last time I saw Sam Moss – friend, co-conspirator, musical Magi – seven days before he took his life at age 54.
This recurrent postcard from the void stands as a mysterious reflection of a most remarkable man and the enduring gift of his rarified mojo.
The cat had, and evidently still has, limitless reach.
The dream is set in Rubber Soul, a now defunct Winston-Salem club and a favorite Moss haunt. My band at the time, the Liquorhouse Soul Revue, was performing. Moss had played guitar in the Revue years before; whenever we played the club, he would sit in.
It had been months since I had put eyes on Moss. The rumbling of concern among his friends had since grown pronounced. He was drinking heavily. He was facing legal trouble. There were rumors of financial and romantic atrophy. His band was in flux.
Unease was in the air. I was looking forward to seeing Moss.
It would be great to hear him play guitar; the world needed to hear him smile.
The first set ended. No Sam. The evening grew late. Still no Sam. The band wound into the closing song.
I glanced up during an instrumental break and there he was, standing amid the throng. He was dressed in a white MC5 T-shirt and worn jeans. His clothes were hanging. He was wearing sunglasses. His trademark mane of curls framed his face, moon-tan skin taking on the blue hue of the stage lights. He clutched a cocktail, listing to starboard as a wide grin split his face.
He looked translucent, wraith like. I beckoned him onstage. He shook his head no. He pulled his sunglasses down to expose glassy eyes, arched his left eyebrow, leaned back, pointed, and grinned mischievously.
He then adopted a Crucified Christ pose.
He placed one foot on top of the other, thin arms straight out from his sides, head cocked heavenward … and disappeared from view, engulfed by the dancing crowd.
His visit lasted all of 15 seconds. What just happened? We finished the song, and I went looking for him.
He was gone. The entire moment was like a mirage that left me a little rattled.
Days passed. Then on the seventh day … Requiescat in pace.
Sam Moss had done his job for 40 years.
He had done it far better than most, a master of his craft. He had also struggled mightily since the death of his beloved wife, Diane “Dido” Foster, to cancer.
He was tired. He was found in his living room, as if asleep, handgun by his side. There was no mess – in the Moss way, he knew exactly how to efficiently and neatly make his exit.
Nor was there a traditional note, per se; Sam Moss was not one to trade in cliches.
In the basement, a Silvertone guitar, hand-painted by his friend Faye Hunter, sat on a stand, bathed in soft light. Scrawled on the guitar was a slogan: “You have to stand for something, or you will fall for anything.”
It is a noble man who would rather break than bend.
In retrospect, Moss’ appearance at Rubber Soul was a classic Sam Moss moment: an immaculately timed entrance, a charismatic performance, and a spectacular curtain call – all without playing a note.
And in the showbiz tradition, he left us wanting more.
The day of his exit – May 5th, Cinco de Mayo – is now known among his confidantes and friends as “Cinco de Mosso.” It is a day given to camaraderie, the sharing of memories, and to acknowledging the liberation of a true original.
He is forever “THE” Sam Moss. Accept no substitute.
Curious thing: The word “death” is rarely used among those who knew and loved Sam Moss.
He “beamed up,” “augured in,” “made his exit,” “left the building” or “transitioned.”
But Sam Moss never “died.” The word is far too final.
As time has passed, it often seems as if Sam just packed up and left town, leaving in his wake a wealth of fond memories and a remarkable legacy carried by those who Sam touched during his time as a musical and cultural sherpa.
“I am still struck by how he was so knowledgeable, so charismatic, yet so clearly an enigma in that he was different things to different people,” said Rob Slater, a guitarist who befriended Moss when they were attending West Forsyth High School.
“Sam was a casually intentional iconoclast,” he said. “He was magnetic even as he danced on the edge – but he always knew where the edge was.
“He always filed a flight plan.” Slater remained a close confidante throughout Moss’ life, even stepping into Moss’ vacated role as guitarist for Peter May & The Rough Band.
He marvels at how the voraciously well-read Moss could swing from demonstrating the finer points of myriad styles of music to authoritatively discussing all manner of literature; the theories of theology (he was the son of a preacher); firearms (he was a fiercely responsible gun owner); the finer points of various cuisines and libations; his love of aviation (he was a pilot who once owned a small plane) and the Kennedy Assassination (a particularly passionate obsession).
“To say Sam was a Renaissance man isn’t quite it,” Slater said, laughing. “He was just — Sam – a one-of-a-kind person and a great bunch of guys, a person who consumed things he loved to shape a personality that was part Orpheus, part Madison Ave.
“He would walk around a room with a cocktail, wearing a T-shirt and a tie with a scarf and sandals, and he would be teaching you something no matter where he was or what he was doing. The air of mythology about him was totally unaffected.”
For nearly 40 years, Sam Moss was the absolute authority concerning all things guitar in the Triad. In the 1980s, his retail store, Sam Moss Guitars, became Winston-Salem’s hippest guitar store and a musical hangout/petri dish.
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was a friend and colleague. And if a famous band was in town, chances were great that said band’s guitarists could be found in Moss’ shop.
Moss singlehandedly introduced vintage-guitar collecting to the region. His 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul, dubbed “The Mossburst” (now residing with a collector in Japan) is considered by many collectors to be the most beautiful vintage Les Paul in existence.
He was also quick to discover and validate the latest new “good wood”; for instance, Moss was the first regional dealer to carry Hamer and Reverend guitars.
But it is as a player that Moss is best remembered.
Moss stood out in a city overflowing with such atypically great and stylized guitar players as the late Charles Greene, Mitch Easter, Michael Greer, Ed Dodson, Herb Stephens, Kent Schuyler, Gino Grandinetti, Tom Bowman, Fred Benton, John Tatum and the late Larry Cunningham, among others.
“He was a musical guru,” Slater said.
“He quickly became synonymous with guitar. He was never, ever a guitar effete. All he had to do is play, and he could shut anybody up – and do it with grace.”
Moss rode herd over some stellar bands through the years – Sweet Rye, The Rhythm Method, Kingfish, The Sids, Lesbian Truck Payment Experience, The Rough Band, The Sams.
It was no surprise that the musical styles of these bands ran the gamut – as a musician, Moss was perpetually open to new ideas, sounds, approaches and experiences. He didn’t care about hits or hipness, age or gender; if a musician played from the heart, learned their instrument and had something real to say with it, then he or she would get the Moss “blues approved” seal of approval.
Lauren Myers was a blossoming drummer, guitarist and songwriter when Moss, who was considerably older than Myers, took her under his musical wing. She was delighted when Moss happily agreed to make music with her in Lesbian Truck Payment Experience.
“Sam was incredible, honest and original,” Myers said. “He taught me in a way that I could learn—. He taught me lots of ‘tricks’ to get the right sounds with my limited ability. He was one of the best teachers I ever had because he knew I would get it, despite my lack of experience.
“Sam loved to bitch at me about not practicing enough, or being upset with a song.” She laughed. “The only way to stop him was to do what he said.”
As a player, Moss was a lightning bolt – hot, bright and blue, a blazing convergence of focused vision and raw emotion that forged new ways to make a guitar behave – and misbehave.
For Moss, taking a guitar solo was about living in the moment, a race to the ignition point where soul searching embraced the unknown in ways thrilling and mesmerizing.
If Moss could imagine it, then he could play it. He loved the chase, the tug of war between enthusiastic assimilation and unorthodox deconstruction, adjustment and refinement, expectation and surprise.
For him, playing guitar was the perpetual search for good noise. Accordingly, the passion and invention that he brought to his playing could be startling.
Drummer Bob Tarleton first met and played with Moss in Kingfish, one of Moss’ best and most far-reaching bands.
“When Sam walked in, he seemed like a nice guy with a bubbly personality,” Tarleton said. “But once he hit that first solo, I was blown away. And I stayed that way, to the point that he changed the way that I play.
“He could play in any style, but there was something magical that hooked you that was pure Sam. He went for it. There were times when his playing left me speechless.”
To friends and fans, Sam Moss was the quintessential guitar player, a master of his instrument, a musician of exquisite tone, boundless technique and considerable energy who loved to make music.
If you heard Moss play, if you even had a conversation with him, you came away from the experience better and more learned.
He was a remarkable person. He often talked in “Samese,” a dialect all his own, filled with colorful nicknames, that soon began to creep into the everyday conversation of those around him. He was a quietly loyal and generous friend. He delighted in sharing his latest cultural find; if he engaged you in conversation about an album or a book, he was likely to try and give it to you, never taking no for an answer.
After all, the first three letters of Samaritan are —. At the same time, he could be difficult.
He had no use for people fawning over him. He could be a bear; his grumpy days at Sam Moss Guitars are legend. And as darkness began to engulf him, he waved away any attempts at assistance or expressions of concern.
He was Sam Moss. It was his world.
Those who knew him respected that, even as worries mounted.
Nine years gone, the influence of Sam Moss remains ingrained in the musical and cultural fabric of Winston-Salem and in the hearts of all who knew him. The darkness has faded, the bad times are buried.
Questions why have been replaced by the acceptance that things ended the way that Sam wanted.
The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits.
“I miss him every day,” Myers said. “His fake British accent, his advice, his kick-ass playing, and most of all, the love I knew he had for me.
“I miss him, but I still get an occasional glimpse—”
The note that Sam hit will sustain forever.
All you have to do is listen.
The Big Winston Warehouse, located at 772 North Trade Street, is hosting an Alive After 5 “Cinco de Mayo/Cinco de Mosso” show on May 5th in downtown Winston-Salem. Bar opens at 5 p.m. The Luxuriant Sedans will perform “Cinco de Mosso: A Concert for Sam Moss” at 6:30 p.m. Admission is FREE and is open to the public. Come celebrate Cinco de Mayo and raise a glass to the memory of Sam Moss for Cinco de Mosso. !