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The 40-Year Mystery of Smutty Smiff and the Missing Rockabilly Bass

The moment he saw the standup bass in the Jersey City pawnshop, Stephen Ulrich knew whose it was. It wasn’t just the jet-black paint job with the …

The 40-Year Mystery of Smutty Smiff and the Missing Rockabilly Bass

The moment he saw the standup bass in the Jersey City pawnshop, Stephen Ulrich knew whose it was. It wasn’t just the jet-black paint job with the pink and blue trim that caught his eye. It was the word “SMUTTY” written across the bottom in big pink letters.

Mr. Ulrich, a guitarist and composer, remembered seeing that bass onstage on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, when a band called the Rockats — particularly their bass player, Smutty Smiff — changed his life. “I was really struck by Smutty,” he said. “He was larger than life and wasn’t like anybody else I’d ever seen. He kind of rearranged my molecules.”

Smutty, his arms fully tattooed, his black pompadour bouncing, didn’t just play the bass, he climbed it, surfed it, humped it, spun it and threw it about — all while thumping out the notes that held the Rockats’ songs together. A Rockats show wasn’t just music; it was performance art.In fact, the Rockats’ frenetic energy and style inspired Mr. Ulrich to start a career in music himself.

Standing in that pawnshop, Mr. Ulrich wondered why Smutty would have hocked his big, beautiful bass, and he asked the pawnshop owner, Manny Vidal, how much he wanted for it.

“It’s not for sale,” Mr. Vidal said.

Mr. Ulrich posted a photo of the bass on Facebook and was hit with hundreds of comments. Many came from rockabilly fans, others from collectors interested in buying the bass.

But one comment was different. It came from Barry Ryan, the rhythm guitarist for the Rockats. He knew something that none of the other commenters knew.

“That bass was stolen along with a van full of gear from Holland Tunnel Diner 40 years ago,” Mr. Ryan wrote.

Later that day, Mr. Ulrich’s cellphone rang. “Smutty Smiff here,” said the voice on the other end, in a thick Cockney accent. “I heard you found my bass.”

Originally from Essex, England, the Rockats rocketed toward stardom in the late ’70s, kicking off the rockabilly revival and joining the legendary CBGB/Max’s Kansas City scene. The band moved into the loft that Blondie had rented on the Lower East Side. Because of his charisma and androgynous good looks, Smutty would become a favorite of Andy Warhol, who would invite him to lunch at the Factory, and of Robert Mapplethorpe, who would photograph him. The Rockats would share the stage with the Pretenders, Kiss and the Clash, during their infamous run at Bond’s International Casino in 1981.

Smutty Smiff at Club 88 in the late 1970s.Credit…Gary Leonard/Corbis, via Getty Images

That same year, the Rockats recorded “Live at the Ritz” for Island Records, featuring the black bass with the pink and blue trim, which was made of fiberglass. For years, Smutty had been standing on his wooden basses and breaking them. At one show with Iggy Pop, Smutty’s foot went through on the final note when he jumped on it. But this one was durable and lightweight. The name “Smutty” was added by an artistic fan named Glenn.

In the frigid winter of 1982, Smutty and his bandmates played a gig at a club in Passaic, N.J. After the show, their roadie, a Jersey guy named Rick, dropped them all in Manhattan, then drove back through the Holland Tunnel to go home and park the white van in his garage. On the way, Rick decided to stop at the diner right outside the tunnel. Since it was so cold, he left the van running. It was the middle of the night. It was freezing out. No one was out walking around in the desolate area near the Holland Tunnel.

When he returned moments later, the van, naturally, was gone.

A couple of days later, the police called: The van had turned up, abandoned and empty. Not only was Smutty’s bass gone, but so was Mr. Ryan’s Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar, a white Fender Telecaster, several amplifiers and a custom-made set of fuchsia Premier drums designed by Jerry Nolan, the former New York Dolls drummer who had played with the Rockats.

A few weeks later, in February 1982, the owner of the Peppermint Lounge in Midtown held a benefit concert to help raise money for new gear. Johnny Thunders from the Heartbreakers played. The cover was $5 and enough fans and friends came out that the Rockats were able to buy new instruments, including a pink wooden bass for Smutty.

That’s the bass Smutty would play during the band’s appearance the following year on American Bandstand, the high point of their career. Their new manager, Tommy Mottola, convinced them to veer away from rockabilly and head in a Top 40 direction, changing their name from the Rockats to Secret Hearts. “We sold out,” said Mr. Ryan, the band’s guitarist. “We failed and we were done.”

Smutty Smiff, still rocking in Iceland, his home of the last 13 years.Credit…Kristin Bogadottir for The New York Times

Several hours after Mr. Ulrich saw the bass, the phone rang at H. Schoenberg pawnshop. It was Smutty, calling long distance from Iceland, where he now lives. At 62, he is a family man, married with 10- and 14-year-old sons, a 23-year-old model daughter and a mortgage. He works at a homeless shelter with IV drug addicts and is the host of a radio show called Devil’s Jukebox. Every once in a while, he’ll play a gig.

When a pawnshop staffer answered, Smutty, trying to suppress his anger, gave them his birth name, Stephen Dennis Smith, for fear that Mr. Vidal wouldn’t take his call.

But Mr. Vidal took the call.

Smutty told him the story of the stolen bass, and how he wanted it back.

But Mr. Vidal has his own story.

He was 19 around the time Smutty’s bass was stolen, and had been a bass player himself. One day he was walking to his girlfriend’s house in Hoboken carrying his Fender Precision electric, having just played with a church band. “There were these garages right there where all these guys used to hang out,” he recalled. “So one of them stops me and says, ‘Hey, check this out.’”

In the garage was Smutty’s bass. Mr. Vidal had never seen the Rockats and had never heard the name Smutty Smiff. And though it was just a 10-minute PATH train ride away, the Manhattan music scene was not a part of Mr. Vidal’s world. He stayed close to Hudson County, including the downtown Jersey City neighborhood where he had grown up, and the storefront church where he and his bandmates played Spanish gospel music every Sunday. They once took the chords and bass line from Kiss’s disco hit “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and reconfigured it for church services. “The guy in charge kept turning down our volume,” he recalled.

Mr. Vidal didn’t have a lot of money, but he wanted to learn stand-up bass, so he traded his Precision for the standup. 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 pawnshops can be a magnet for stolen goods, Mr. Vidal said he works closely with the Jersey City Police Department, reporting each item bought, asking for photo ID and Social Security number from each seller, everything recorded in a nationwide database. When a hot object pops up, the police get involved. “These days, only a stupid thief would come to a pawnshop,” said Mr. Vidal. “They would get caught immediately.”

Mr. Vidal is now a burly 58, his mustache and goatee gone gray. He insists he had no idea that the standup bass, which was in his possession long before he entered the pawnshop business, was stolen. In 2010, he moved it from his home to the prominent display at the shop, where it still stands, a skeleton in a sparkly top hat posing next to it — just over two miles from where it was stolen.

“If I knew it was stolen, would I really leave it out there with SMUTTY written across it?” he asked. He’s never offered to sell it and has a special attachment to it.

On his phone, he keeps a picture of his wife, pregnant with their daughter, Priscilla, the bass looming behind her in their apartment. Priscilla, now 31, said she, too, has a strange attachment to the bass, which is featured in the family’s online ad for the pawnshop.

“I understand the connection Smutty feels,” Mr. Vidal said. “Believe me.”

When Smutty demanded he return his bass to him, Mr. Vidal asked him for compensation for holding onto it for so long and for the money he lost when he traded his own Precision. “It cost me a bass,” Mr. Vidal said. He figures the Precision would be worth around $4,000 today. He has kept Smutty’s bass in good condition all these years. “I think the strings are still the original strings,” he said.

Stephen Ulrich, a musician and composer, recognized the bass almost 40 years after it had disappeared.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

For Mr. Ulrich, the guitarist who discovered the bass, the whole experience has been like a plotline from the crime shows for which he’s written the music. His compositions, often performed with his band Big Lazy, have been described as noir and twang and have been used in “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the hipster detective comedy “Bored to Death” and the radio show “This American Life.” He wants to help Smutty get his bass back, but he also doesn’t want any trouble, he said, and was alarmed when his Facebook tribute to Smutty morphed “immediately into a ‘Sopranos’ episode,” he said. “I just want it to have a happy ending.”

Smutty offered Mr. Vidal a couple hundred dollars to return the bass. Mr. Ryan, who lives in Hoboken, was ready to drive over and pick it up. Mr. Vidal countered with $700. The price now stands at $500. But Smutty said he does not have $500 just lying around.

Smutty is in the middle of recording a new album with the Rockats — with Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums — and would like the bass back in time for their tour next year. Uninterested in getting the police involved, Smutty is trying to work out a compromise with Mr. Vidal, and is setting aside money from his next paycheck, just in case.

But he’s not happy about it. “I can’t hand over money I don’t have,” Smutty said. “And why should I have to buy my own bass back? He said his daughter really likes it. But it’s my bass, and I really like it, too. I actually own it and it’s got my name on it.”

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