By Jon Scorfina for the St. Louis River Front Times July 9
Spending a day with Bob Reuter is an emotional experience. Synonymous with his KDHX show Bob’s Scratchy Records, every Friday from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., Reuter does not just have a passion for collecting vinyl, but sees the pops and scratches between the grooves as being part of the meaning of life. His gut-wrenching worldview exudes from his voice and has recently won him Best Male Vocalist in the RFT music showcase with his band Alley Ghost. Even more so, it has ultimately manifested itself in the upcoming documentary film about his life “Broken and Wonderful,” playing at the St. Louis Filmmakers showcase. Between homes, Reuter stores his records in the back of Tom Huck’s art studio, where we met on a hot afternoon and discussed 45s, Bob Dylan and the Columbia Record Club.
LCS – When did you first start listening to music, and what was the first record you remember buying?
Reuter – I started consciously listening to music when I was six or seven years old. My older sister had a collection of forty-fives. She’s eight years older than me. When she got out of high school, she figured she was too old for rock n’ roll, so she gave all her records to me. I was just thrilled.
Those were the first records that I got, and for a long time, I just played them. The most thrilling record there was “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard. At one point I left it sitting on a metal space heater and it warped. It was horrible. I felt like a relative had died.
I didn’t buy a new copy of that for like 15 years. I just felt like, “well, that’s gone.” Like I couldn’t get another copy of “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
I’m kind of embarrassed by the actual ones I first bought. I wish it could be something really cool. It was just a weird concept. There was a record store right by my school, and I had never bought a record. The concept of being able to go into a store and actually buy a record was real foreign to me. I didn’t know how to do that (laughs). I wasn’t sure how much they cost. I think it was like 99 cents for a 45… I’m really dodging it here, but the first 45 record I actually bought was “Let’s Limbo Some More” by Chubby Checker. It wasn’t even “Let’s Limbo” it was “Let’s Limbo Some More,” a bad follow up. I don’t have a copy of that now. It was kind of like (laughs) some guy losing his virginity to an ugly girl that he doesn’t really like because he has to get his feet wet, or something wet.
Maybe I’ll start lying and say it was something else.
What would be your ideal record to say was your first?
“Good Golly Miss Molly.”
When I first started buying records in earnest was when the whole British invasion hit, and [I bought] the Beatles and any [other] rock ‘n’ roll band from England. Then I had a backlash from that where I bought all American artists. That was real important. Who was as cool as these British groups? Well, Bobby Fuller was. At that time the Beach Boys were. The Sir Douglas Quintet was. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The Young Rascals.
Also, my brother-in-law was in college, so it was compulsory to have a few folk albums. I stole a few of his albums. Those were the first albums I ever had. He didn’t even notice they were gone. That’s the part that really gets me. It was Pete Seegar doing “We Shall Overcome.” It was a concert he did live at Carnegie Hall. It was the closest to rock n’roll that he ever did because they were rebellious songs, like “I Ain’t A Scared of Your Jail Because I Want My Freedom.” Also, he had a Leadbelly album on Capitol. It was a much better recording than all the recordings I had heard prior to that. It can of blew my mind and still has an effect on me. People back in the day use to tell me I sounded like Leadbelly when I sang. That was the first none rock ‘n’ roll thing that sounded like rock ‘n’ roll to me.
Back when I didn’t quite know how to buy records on my own, I lived in north city and I wasn’t big on riding the bus across the city. I was 11, and there was this big record store in midtown. That was when record stores were more like department stores. I think it was called Musicland. My mom was a clerk in the library, and I used to sit there and wait for her to get off work. I would read Down Beat magazine, and I had read all these articles about Bob Dylan. So I got on the bus and made this journey by myself to this record store. This record store clerk at the time -- and you should have seen the clerks -- it was this really nerdy guy with a short sleeve white shirt and tie and horn-rimmed glasses. That sounds like it’s cool now, but it very definitely wasn’t cool then.
I said, “Do you have anything by Bob Dylan?”
He looked at me real puzzled and went, “oh, you must mean Bobby Dye-land”
He pulled out this forty-five of “Like a Rolling Stone.” It was like at the beginning of The Simpsons (Sings the opening theme) like God’s in the room or something. I picked up that record, and I heard the music and looked at the picture of Bob Dylan. I remember him sitting at the piano with that crazy-ass hair, the Ray-Ban sunglasses and the harmonica around his neck. For the time, I’d never seen anybody look like that. I’d never seen a white guy look like that. It almost didn’t register on me until I played it ten times. It wasn’t catchy like the way pop songs are catchy. It was something completely different. I just listened to that record non-stop. I’m not talking about the album; I’m talking about the forty-five.
I got hooked up in the Columbia Record Club. It was like for a dollar you got six records. They would send you a record every month, and if you didn’t pick one they would send you a record at random. One month I didn’t pick one, and they sent me a copy of an album. It was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, where he’s walking down the street with his girlfriend. I was like, “Whoa, he doesn’t look quite as wild as on the 45. What’s up with this?”
I put it on and dropped the needle and listened to it. “Holy Fuck, Dylan’s gone acoustic!” It just blew my mind. He didn’t sound like rock ‘n’roll, he sounded like a folk musician. What’s up with this? So I did the inverse of what everybody else did.
Do you prefer 45s or albums?
45s. I think because to me they sound punchier, like it’s recorded better. I’m not very technical. It just sounds like they have more punch to it. To me the recordings on albums seem a lot thinner, because they have to take up more space. Forty-fives are heavier vinyl. You can have a forty-five from the ‘40s or ‘50s and it will look all scratchy, and you put it on and it sounds really good. It doesn’t sound like there’s a million scratches on it. You take something that was pressed in the ‘80s and it looks like it’s in mint condition, and it just sounds like crap. You can hear scratches all over it. It’s in the quality of how they printed them. They weren’t doing it to last. Those earlier 45s can look like someone strapped them onto their feet and went skating down the sidewalk and they still sound cool. Especially for rock, you’re not going to hear the scratches anyway. They just kind of give it more texture.
Why did you name your radio show Bob’s Scratchy Records?
That was purely a defensive move. If I was listening to radio prior to that, and I’d hear some one play a record that was scratched, it was real obvious that it didn’t sound like everything else. Usually it was some hippie crap that you needed the quiet to hear what it was, but like I said, in rock ‘n’ roll the scratches don’t matter. I knew that I was going to get some assholes who would go, “That sounds all scratchy.” I figured I’d just jump pass that by calling the show Bob’s Scratchy Records. It’s like a bald guy making fun of the fact that he is bald before anyone else could do it for him. Okay, well just get this out of the way right now.
Sometimes if it’s like a really cool song, and there’s a lot of scratches, I’ll go, “I want you to just pretend there is a giant pan of bacon frying in the background while this is going on.” I hope that covers it.
Do you think the pops and scratches that you hear on records gives anything to the music as well?
Oh god, yeah. I have a couple of records, one is Still A Fool by Muddy Waters, and the other is Bo Diddly doing “Back in my love life.” Both of those versions I have are really scratchy. Nothing major, just a bed of scratches. Then I’ve gotten a clean copy of those songs and they don’t sound nearly as cool. They sound a little too antiseptic. When you here the scratches, it’s almost like your smelling the cigarette smoke, and it’s burning your eyes. You can smell the alcohol in the air, and it’s hot and you’re getting sweaty. Whereas when it’s all clean sometimes it sounds like your sitting in a laboratory. It’s the difference between Sonny Boy Williamson playing for a bunch of collage kids in England rather than playing in a juke joint in Chicago.
Can music sound as good on a digital format?
To me it can’t sound as good, and it’s maybe just me, but I know there are some other people like me. Like on NPR, they have those shows where you have a guy who sounds like an English teacher. He’s going, “Now we’re going to bring you down to the delta and listen to the recordings of Blind Jimmy Shoeshine.” They play it and there’s not a scratch on it. It just sounds so scholastic that all the emotion is totally removed from it.
For rock ‘n’ roll and dirty music… what do you want an antiseptic version of dirty music for? That just seems like it defeats the purpose to me.
A lot of these classic rock n’ roll albums are being remastered -- for instance all The Beatles albums, the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street -- do you have any incentive to go out and re-buy those deluxe editions?
No. That to me is just a trick on white folks. People get hypnotized by that shit. You know the latest ad campaign tells them they got to have this, and they’re so bored and empty in their lives that it’s like, “oh this is exciting because they tell me it’s exciting.” That’s fine. I’m glad they found something, but I just think it’s sad. To borrow a line from Marshall Crenshaw, “I never bother with the usual things.” I want to find something that’s got more mystery to it.
For the kind of music I listen to, I just want it rough and raw. One thing that really draws me to music is sometimes, if I’m feeling really bad, and my heart’s feeling broken, I wanna go to the Record Exchange and go up into that big giant 45 room. Just hunt through that shit. Look for certain labels. I have an idea of what kind of label is going to have something I’m interested in. If I find one of them, I look to see who is the artist, who is the writer. If there is any kind of information, like if it’s recorded in Louisiana. To me there is something healing about finding some cool record recorded down in Louisiana by somebody nobody’s ever heard of, and this guy’s pouring his heart out. He’s like this mysterious shaman from the past and he’s carrying this message, and somebody else has felt like this before, and I feel more connected with the earth somehow. That’s what I feed on.
Most of the time the records that are holy grails to me are ones that are just filled with mystery. “Wow, who in the hell was this? What made them do this? Did they really think that this was going to sell, or did they just in their heart of hearts know that they just had to get this pressed up and put it out there?” All they really knew was that this was something that they had to spew out, and it’s going to be there for fucking ever. I come along 50 or 60 years later, and I found it. I hope that somehow they know that I found their record, and I’m playing it on the radio.
You started that story explaining that there is a passion of the hunt. Do you think current generations of music fans, though they might have the instant gratification of getting it online, might be missing out on the hunt?
That’s like a real double-edged sword, isn’t it? You have access to almost anything you can imagine at your fingertips nowadays. It does seem like it loses some of its value. I didn’t start getting into computers until probably around 2000, but all the sudden it dawned on me that there are 17 year old kids who know about records that came out in 1967. If you were a record freak in 1967, you had to be extremely hip to know about something. These kid today, they know about stuff that’s totally obscure, that you not only would have to have been extremely hip, but you would have had to have friends in every city to find out about that.
You used to go into a record store for a new record. They would cost like eight dollars for an album. You would go in and you would look at the covers. You would stare at that cover and spend practically the whole afternoon looking at record covers. You couldn’t play them at that time. You just had to make a good guess. “Does this cover look like it’s going to be worth my money? Eight dollars!” Sometimes it paid off. Sometimes you were just a chump. There was some mystery to it even then. I don’t see how it can have the same value, because you can just go to a computer and get a taste of it. You can get it for free, whether you want it or not. I don’t see how it can have the same kind of value.
See the cool thing is, the kind of shit that really means something to me, you still can’t get on the computer. Generally, if you don’t find it online, it means that no one ever really noticed it. When I have a record like that that I think is really cool and I realize that nobody really noticed this record, I really feel like I got something.
If you could give a young music lover who’s never bought a record a few words of wisdom to get them to go out and buy a record, what would you tell them?
You know (long pause)… part of it that gives it it’s value is…. It’s amazing the number of 45s you find that have a little piece of tape on them with a girls name on it, or written across the record -- very rarely a guy’s name. You know, these girls had sleepover parties and they all brought there 45s so their’s wouldn’t get mixed up with everybody else’s. Just the story of you’ve got the same object in your hand that someone who lived back then, and maybe this was something that was really important to them. You really have a little piece of somebody’s life, or history of this country, or the real culture. Not only is it this object that was owned by somebody that [it] was so important to, but it’s something that was recorded by somebody that what they were saying was real important too, or who they wanted to be was real important too. Sometimes having that in your hand and putting on the turntable and dropping the needle and listening to it can actually make your life better. It’s like finding some sacred object that has some of the secrets of life there. You get to share and be part of that, and maybe when you’re gone, that will be left for somebody else to find.