Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bob Reuter

" the heart of the city, where the alligator roams..." - Nick Lowe

Like a lot of people who say they're "from" St. Louis when meeting people from other places, I never actually resided within the city limits. I worked there for many years, though, at a job that took me all over the city. I spent a lot of time in the car listening to KDHX, St. Louis' community radio station and in a very real way one of its most important cultural institutions. Bob Reuter's Friday midday show, "Bob's Scratchy Records", was a highlight of the week whenever I got to hear it. On radio, he was a live wire, an open circuit, an improvisor, drawing on the traditions of "wild man" hipster DJs of the '50s and '60s spliced with ol' time "put your hand on the radio" preachers. There was no strict musical format. He'd play r'n'b, garage, gospel, country, rock, soul, blues, but much of it resided at the edges, the margins where musical boundaries, and even those of race, gender, and sexuality, became permeable and blurred into each other. His pledge drive shows, far from being a reason to tune out for a week, were required listening. You might get a little concerned as Bob would work himself into a frenzy to meet his fundraising goal, sometimes seeming to teeter on the edge of sanity. Even the playlists he'd email out were hugely entertaining (and educational), including photos and commentary for many of the artists.

When I read about his death at age 61, from a fall down an elevator shaft at the loft he was just moving into, it made no sense, came out of nowhere, seemed random and cruel. In recent years, he seemed to have attained a sort of elder statesman status in the hipper segment of the St. Louis community, earning respect for his photography, music, and writing without becoming respectable. When I heard the news, I thought of Bob Cassilly, another of the vital creative forces of St. Louis who died an untimely, accidental death in 2011. Two of the essential St. Louisans gone in two years time.

I didn't know Bob. I interacted with him briefly only a few times, by email to comment or ask a question about something on his show or when he was working the door at Frederick's Music Lounge, one of the great lost music venues (owned by another key Southside figure, Fred Friction). I saw him perform a few times, solo and with his band, but it was his radio presence and his work as a photographer that interested me most.

His photography, collected beautifully in the book Light Fuse and Run, is about as "analog" as can be. The pictures are the glorious sum of accumulated imperfections: Bob's own as a self-taught photographer, those of the medium itself, and the often rough-around-the-edges people and places he documented. It's noir, beat photography, sexy and dark, but not affected or touristic. Like some of William Eggleston's best work, the photographs are taken by a man deeply familiar with the places and people he's shooting but with enough distance to turn them into art. Just as I can't visit Memphis or Mississippi without seeing those places, at least a little, through Eggleston's color-saturated vision, Bob's gritty black-and-whites have permanently altered the way I look at and think of South St. Louis.

The last aspect of Bob Reuter's talent I came to know was his writing. I finally started reading Tales of a Talking Dog, published last year, after hearing of his death this week. Like many of my favorite memoirs - Harpo Speaks and Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways come to mind - it's basically a collection of episodes and anecdotes. The stories from Bob's childhood, growing up in a never-prosperous section of a city that was well into its steep decline, are funny, sad, strange, sometimes disturbing or shocking. Racial tension must've been pervasive, often breaking out into outright violence. The young Reuter was drawn to music and fascinated by the black culture that he was in close proximity to but in many fundamental ways totally excluded and isolated from. The colloquial writing style seems like an attempt to capture his own voice as a storyteller, and does so effectively, at least for someone who was familiar with that voice from the radio. His stories are pieces of a puzzle that can never be finished, as a life and a city can never be fully comprehended. I suspect that when I finish Talking Dog I might start another book that's been on my shelf for a while, "Ain't But a Place", the Gerald Early-edited "anthology of African-American writings about St. Louis". St. Louis is a complex, often strange place, requiring multiple perspectives to even begin to understand it. Bob Reuter contributed in a big way to that understanding and, even though he left too soon, we're lucky that he shared as many of his stories, songs and pictures as he did.