Smutty Smiff gets his bass back

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Smutty Smiff gets his bass back
Smutty Smiff’s rockabilly bass at a pawnshop in Jersey City, N.J., on Sept. 22, 2021. After being stolen in a van decades ago, the bass is being reunited with its rightful owner, who was a member of the Rockats, pre-eminent rockabilly band of the early-1980s downtown New York music scene. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

by Helene Stapinski

NEW YORK, NY.- The bass is back.

For a story that was 40 years in the making, the mystery of Smutty Smiff’s stolen rockabilly bass had a lightning-fast resolution this week.

To recap: On a freezing winter night in 1982, a tour van with all the instruments of the Rockats, the preeminent rockabilly band of the downtown New York music scene, was stolen outside a diner near the Holland Tunnel. Among the missing gear was a very distinctive fiberglass bass with a giant “SMUTTY” printed on the body. This past summer, a musician noticed it on display in a Jersey City pawnshop and posted a picture on Facebook. And then, after decades of peace — at least for Manny Vidal, owner of H. Schoenberg Pawn Shop in Jersey City, New Jersey — all hell broke loose.

After the story of its discovery appeared in The New York Times, Vidal faced a wave of online criticism and decided to return the instrument to its rightful owner, the Rockats’ tattooed legend, Smutty Smiff.


Because Smutty lives in Iceland, band guitarist Barry Ryan planned to meet with Stephen Ulrich, the man who found the bass, and Vidal at the pawnshop Thursday afternoon, sign a release and transport the bass to a storage facility he keeps in Jersey City.

Vidal, who had originally asked for $500 compensation for the found bass, was taken aback by the response online. Several angry people called his pawnshop, shouting at him to give the bass back after the story appeared on the Times’ website Monday.

“It was like being at a Yankees-Red Sox game,” Vidal said. “All this hate. People should wait until the end of the game to see how it played out. And enjoy the game. Everyone is so quick to judge.”

Not everybody was so negative. Dozens of readers and Rockats fans stepped forward to start a GoFundMe campaign to donate money or to buy the bass outright for Smutty and have it shipped to Iceland, where he lives with his wife and family. The owner of a nonfungible token company contacted Smutty about selling autographed rock ’n’ roll memorabilia. Others offered to fly Smutty in from Iceland so he could be personally reunited with the standup bass. Among those willing to pay for the bass was Paul Schindler, an entertainment lawyer who worked with the Rockats decades ago and is now offering Smutty free legal advice and help in publicizing the band’s new record release and tour.

“It’s kind of restored my belief in humanity and karma,” said Smutty, who called from the homeless shelter in Reykjavik where he works. “I’ve heard from hundreds of people I haven’t seen or talked to in 30 years. Though I did feel bad for Manny. I told him I had no hard feelings toward him. He’s a good guy.”

The Rockats are completing a new album for Cleopatra Records, with Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums, which should be out early next year. Because they are planning a tour and will be playing in New York, Smutty decided to keep the bass in the metro area, rather than lug it back and forth to Iceland.

“Whenever we played here, Smutty always had to scramble to find a bass to use,” said Ryan, who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. “It doesn’t make any sense to send it to Iceland.”

Smutty plans to visit the pawnshop when he is in town and shake hands with Vidal, whom he called regularly over the past several weeks as the drama unfolded. On Monday, Smutty told Vidal not to hand the bass over to anybody but Ryan. “So many people have been calling him and telling him they’ll come and pick it up for me,” Smutty said. “But I don’t trust anyone. Next thing you know, someone will be demanding $5,000 or you’re not getting it back. We are talking about Jersey City here.”

Smutty has every reason to be suspicious. On Tuesday, he said, someone hacked into his Facebook account and encouraged a well-meaning former roadie for the band to set up a GoFundMe page to raise $3,000 to send the bass to Iceland.

After the Rockats’ gear was stolen, Vidal, who was 19 at the time and not yet working in the pawnshop industry, came across a man with the bass, with its unusual pink-and-blue trim, in a garage in Hoboken. A bass player himself, Vidal said he traded his own Fender Precision electric for it, unaware it was stolen. He kept it for nearly 40 years but never tried to sell it.

Ryan, whose Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar was stolen along with the rest of the Rockats’ gear in 1982, plans to tell Vidal to keep an eye out for his instrument. “If you see my Gretsch, give me a shout,” he said, “and we’ll start this story all over again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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