The 40-year-old mystery of Smutty Smiff and the missing Rockabilly bass
Several hours after Mr. Ulrich saw the bass, the phone rang at pawnshop H. Schoenberg. It was Smutty, who was calling extensively from Iceland, where he now lives. At 62, he is a father, married with sons aged 10 and 14, a model daughter of 23 and a mortgage. He works in a homeless shelter with IV drug addicts and is the host of a radio show called Devil’s Jukebox. Every now and then he will play a concert.
When a member of the pawnshop responded, Smutty, trying to suppress his anger, gave them his birth name, Stephen Dennis Smith, lest Mr Vidal take his call.
But Mr. Vidal took the call.
Smutty told him the story of the bass volley and how he wanted to get it back.
But Mr. Vidal has his own story.
He was 19 when Smutty’s bass was stolen and was a bassist himself. One day he was on his way to his girlfriend’s house in Hoboken with his electric Fender Precision, after playing with a church orchestra. âThere were these garages where all these guys used to hang out,â he recalls. “So one of them stops me and says, ‘Hey, look at this. “”
In the garage was Smutty’s bass. Mr Vidal had never seen the Rockats and had never heard the name Smutty Smiff. And even though it was only a 10-minute train ride from PATH, Manhattan’s music scene was not part of Mr. Vidal’s world. He stayed close to Hudson County, including the downtown Jersey City neighborhood where he grew up, and the storefront church where he and his band mates played Spanish gospel music every Sunday. They once took the chords and bassline from Kiss’s disco hit “I Was Made for Lovin ‘You” and reconfigured it for church services. âThe manager kept turning down the volume,â he recalls.
Mr. Vidal didn’t have a lot of money, but he wanted to learn standing bass, so he traded in his Precision for stand-up. The new bass moved with him from place to place over the years, first to Elizabeth and then to Roselle. In 1986, Mr Vidal was working in Jersey City at a toy store when the owner of the pawnshop next door offered him a job there. Mr. Vidal learned the trade and eventually bought the business.
Because pawn shops can be a magnet for stolen goods, Mr Vidal said he worked closely with the Jersey City Police Department, reporting every item purchased, requesting photo ID and a social security number to each seller, all recorded in a national database. When a hot object appears, the police step in. âNowadays, only a stupid thief would come to a pawnshop,â Vidal said. âThey would get caught immediately. “