Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bob Reuter: Living Ghost - An Interview

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bob Reuter: Living Ghost

I have less patience for bullshit. I don’t suffer fools gladly.

Amazing photographer. Iconic musician. Legendary radio show host. Crotchety old man. Bob Reuter is a lot of things. He has a lot going for him in his life- a life that he regards with a little more reverence due to a decade of health troubles. But when his time is up, he hopes to be remembered for it all.

Reuter- a staple in South St. Louis- has the kind of life that many dream of but few get to live out: doing what he loves for a living. Though he is unemployed due to health issues, Reuter isn’t just content to lay around the house sucking off the government tit. Between being strapped to a guitar, behind a microphone or spending time in the dark room, he finds plenty to keep him going, and he is gladly taking us along for the ride.

A lifelong St. Louisian, Reuter, 57, grew up in North St. Louis in the 50s and 60s. He turned to music as a child to escape the rough neighborhood’s violent calling.

“I grew up in a bad ass place- North St. Louis City. Well, I was never gonna be a real tough guy… woulda wound up dead for sure. But I COULD rock your ass with a guitar - I COULD be a MUSICAL bad ass! Music was a survival thing.”

Living in a crowded house with extended family also taught him to escape into his own mind when privacy was in short supply.

“My family was pretty screwed up- no real privacy- I'd go inside my head, that interior world to get away.” He would daydream about “songs on this big black plastic radio we had. And at the time, they were songs of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and some other mad men.”

It would be this music that Reuter would carry with him well into his adult years. If you tune into KDHX 88.1 FM on Fridays at 2pm, you’ll hear Bob spinning the music of that era, something he’s been doing for seven years now. And if you go see him perform, you’ll hear the influence of it in his own music. Music that has garnered the multi-talented Reuter the designation of Best Male Singer/Songwriter by the Riverfront Times in 2009.

PTSTL: Where does the music you make come from?
BR: From deep down in this landscape and deep inside of me. It involves red brick buildings, the river and the flight path of jets on the North Side landing at the airport. It involves my whole life story and comes from the most primitive of sources.

Do you draw on your own musical knowledge for your radio show? Or do you rely on friends and listeners to suggest artists and music?
I'm constantly searching and I do that based on what I already know. I try to stay away from "the usual things" when possible. I hunt for the roots of the roots of stuff and of course it's got to fit this need I have for a slamming back beat or some other kind of primal chord I've got inside me.

What has been the high point of your musical career at this point?
Hmmm. Playing at CBGB's on south Grand a couple of months ago. It was a Monday night and we didn’t even go on till 11:00pm but the place was packed like 19 year olds to about 23, a lot of which were singing along with a song I wrote in 1978- long before they were born- "Rock and Roll Moron" as the name of the song and it features the line, "You can’t close the door on, this rock and roll moron!" It was on a 45 we did it in a band called The Dinosaurs. As I was singing the song I almost felt like I could be in a movie- I kept seeing the faces of all my dead friends! I was really grateful.

What were the nature of your recent health issues?
Quadruple bypass about a year and a half ago. I had lost my license and had to ride my bike for a year. I kept getting out of breath really easy and didn't seem to be able to build up any resistance. The clinic I go to ran a bunch of tests and finally determined I needed the operation. It was fucking gigantic in my life. Scared the fuck out of me. Still kind of does. It's one of those things that makes you feel like you're closer to the end than to the beginning of your life. Makes you think more about what you do- 'bout what's right. It colors everything! Made me feel a certain amount of grief, a certain amount of feeling sorry for myself... Now, a year and a half later I feel like I'm getting in pretty good shape for a guy in my shape! I'm eating good and all that crap. Makes me feel like there's a whole lot more I wanna do- whole lot more I wanna say before it's all over- hell yeah!

Have your health issues played a role in the kind of songs you write these days?

Only in the sense that the feelings are deeper than they'd have been otherwise. I dig deeper into the primordial ooze. I have less patience for bullshit. I don’t suffer fools gladly.

What was your first band/project?
We were called The Group and then the Cough Medicine Company (see the cheap drug reference slip in?) It was 1966 and we played garage rock- still in high school, but we played for college frat parties. It was a kind of education!

What are your thoughts on new media as it relates to spreading music to a wider audience?
Not much. The real stuff will always be confined to a relatively small group of hard core freaks. It only spreads out as it gets more and more watered down, till finally it's getting played by sports enthusiasts in the suburbs and then sold at Wal-Mart.

Who are some of your favorite St. Louis artists/bands from the past and present?
One of the first was a band from 1966 called the Acid Set who played at a teen club called Castaways out on Airport Road. They always seemed like they were grown men from San Francisco or something, but they were from North County. Public Service Blues Band was another really cool band, though they didn’t own their own instruments and they'd have to borrow some to play gigs. I think they opened for Cream one time. Oliver Sain and Black Cat named Cecil Davis who had the Cecil Davis Review were ass kicking soul groups when I was in high school. The Aardvarks were cool. They were like this town's version of the Beatles. More recently I loved the Vultures and the Reactions- two very young bands that broke up way too soon. The Highway Matrons were amazing. They always seemed like they dropped down from some other planet or something!

What was the inspiration behind your recent project, Bob Reuter’s Alley Ghost?
Well, I was approached by the kids of Big Muddy Records. They had this idea of bringing me to a wider audience- younger kids who would love my songs, they thought, if I was presented in a little bit different way. The average age in the band is about 23 but in their hearts they're, like, twice that. These boys eat, sleep and drink music- the real stuff. I'm honored they got it in their heads to back me and I'll be eternally grateful to them!

What do you think about the current state of the St. Louis music scene?
Well, it's big. There's probably whole chunks of little scenes that aren't even that aware of each other, but in general I'd say it's really good. Wide ranging and rarely does anyone expect to "hit the big time" so that frees them up to do what's in their hearts instead of what they think they're "supposed to do" in order to "make it!"

If there was one musician you would like to play with, any musician at all, whom would it be? (Time and mortality not being an issue)
Sun House, Skip James, Bob Dylan, Al Wilson (AKA Blind Owl) of Canned Heat, Keith Richards, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker.

What is your favorite St. Louis venue?
Right this minute, Off Broadway I think. Good sound, comfortable room… Steve and his wife Kit, the current owners- good people.

How do you feel about being an inspiration to St. Louis musicians?
I hope that's true! I'd like that a lot.

What is it about the South St. Louis that it produces so many artists and musicians?
Cheap rents, crumbling old buildings and "like minded others" I think. A lot of kids from small towns in Missouri tend to wind up here cause they can be who they really are, which they couldn’t do in their small towns. We make our own fun in a lot of ways.

What is your favorite thing about St. Louis? Least favorite?
I think St. Louis is the fucking Garden of Eden. At any rate it is what it is- it's home, the only life I've ever known. The St. Louis Cardinals, the parks and trees... What I like least is people who live here and say they hate it. I think they should leave for a little while and come back.

Reuter is also just as passionate about his photography as he is about his music. His grainy, black and white photos evoke a feeling in the observer of fleeting moments perfectly caught on celluloid. Even with his portraits, he captures the raw in-the-moment-ness of his subjects in such a way that the photo ceases to be a simple two-dimensional object, but rather a living, breathing work of art. His use of light and shadow gives each of his shots an instantly nostalgic and noirish feel and his subject matter represents the underbelly of St. Louis in all her glory.

He has shot his fair share of local personalities- musicians, beautiful women and other people of interest, but he has also been called upon to shoot nationally known artists such as Black Diamond Heavies and Jay Farrar.

When did you first realize that you had a knack for photography?
In 1997 I was diagnosed as having blood clots up and down both legs. I almost died. I NEARLY died. I lost my house ‘cause I couldn’t house paint anymore. The state tested me and said I'd be good in the ARTS. They wanted me to study Graphic Design but I wasn’t that good at making all my lines straight an' shit. Then I took photography as an elective and I felt like I had found my home. They said that they wouldn’t support me doing that ‘cause they said my legs weren’t good enough to be a photographer and I said, "OK, see ya later. Rather see ya than BE ya! Smell ya later!"

Digital or film?
Film and paper in the dark with poisonous chemistry!

What is your favorite subject to shoot?
People. Misfits and such- rock and rollers, artists, pretty young women. Anyone who goes against the system in their way.

Any formal training in photography?
Yeah, I took some classes, but mostly I learned from doing it and talking to other shooters in the dark room over at Forest Park College.

What is your favorite photo that you have taken?
Many that I've taken of my first muse, a rock and roll girl and artist named Shanna Kiel - she touches something moves me deeply and she always comes out looking a little bit different each time

What, if any, legacy do you hope to leave when your time is up?
A large body of work- songs, photos, stories, drawings, whatever!- a lot of which you can check out on my Web site. But I know this one friend of mine- our guitar player, Matt's girlfriend Jen- would probably say, "Well, he was crotchety!"

Current Links:

Historic Link:

All photos by Bob Reuter.

Next week: Gravity Plays Favorites

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