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

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.”