This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Bob Reuter wore his crown as the unofficial “King of South St. Louis” slightly askew. He wrote, performed and lived like a man possessed, probably because he was at times. He readily confessed to lapses of “debauchery” that included drinking, heavy drugs and sometimes contemplating suicide.
Mr. Reuter was volatile, homegrown royalty, but possessed unvarnished talent as a blues-turned-rock guitarist, vocalist, writer and photographer, having come by the latter through a brush with death. After three decades of music-making, he was stopped in his tracks in the late '90s. A rare blood disease cost him his day job as a house painter as well as his nighttime music gigs.
During his convalescence, Mr. Reuter added photography to his creative repertoire.
“When Bob took up photography seriously in the late 1990s,” said Terry Perkins, a local music critic who writes regularly for the Beacon, “he brought the same artistic vision to his black and white imagery that he brought to his songs.”
He soon began exhibiting professionally, a growing collection of brash and eclectic St. Louis characters and landscapes, even as he returned to his music with a vengeance, albeit sometimes from a seated position. He never picked up a paint brush again.
Mr. Reuter, who was gaining increasing recognition for his multi-tiered artistic career, died Saturday (Aug. 3), from a fall down an elevator shaft in a building in the 1100 block of St. Charles Street. The longtime south St. Louis resident was moving into a downtown loft when the accident occurred. He was 61.
After nearly 50 years, to his delight if not surprise, Mr. Reuter’s musical career was gaining momentum.
Last year, Paste, a national digital music and entertainment magazine, named Mr. Reuter’s latest band, Alley Ghost, one of the "Ten Missouri Bands You Should Listen to Now." The band was formed by Matt Wilson after his visits with Mr. Reuter following his second brush with death, quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2009. Mr. Reuter grabbed the name from alley graffiti.
“You know, I swear to God, I always knew that if I got recognition, it was going to be late in life,” he told the Riverfront Times after receiving the Paste honor. “I didn't plan on it being this late.”
He thought late-in-life success would be “around 37.”
“He went out totally at the top of his game,” said Tom ‘Papa’ Ray, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl. “He had never been more successful or talked about as a musician.”
Recognition may have been a long time coming, but it was a steady climb upward. He began performing at 14. By his mid-20s, he was with his first band, Kilgore Trout Revue. There would be many more, including 41 Lee (formed with his best friend, Frankie), Kamikaze Cowboy, Palookaville, Thee Dirty South and Lost Monkey. The Dinosaurs, which Mr. Reuter described as “a bar band caught up in the spirit of punk rock,” once imploded on stage as Mr. Reuters and another band member got into a fist fight.
Perkins called The Dinosaurs Mr. Reuter’s “first real band.”
“I remember going to hear Bob at the clubs in the late 70s, playing with The Dinosaurs and being impressed by the energy and rawness he brought to the music,” Perkins said. “I was especially impressed by Bob’s talent as a songwriter, his ability to capture the hardscrabble reality of life on the edge, something he knew plenty about growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in North St. Louis.”
The city was segregated, with lines drawn in concrete. Blacks and whites stayed on “their” sides of Grand and Natural Bridge. The toxic effects lingered.
“Look, we all have feelings on the races, it's what you do with them that matters,” Mr. Reuter told the RFT last year. “I was really slow in changing. I would use the n-word and it got to be a habit. My band (Alley Ghost) finally called me out on it.”
In a 2012 Chattanooga (Tenn.) Pulse article, Mr. Reuter said his musical influences included Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Jerry Lee Lewis – and “about a million Black guys!”
Mr. Reuter spent the 90s in Syracuse, N.Y., following his future and former wife there.
“The fact that I had kind of burned every bridge back in St. Louis was a big part of what sent me packing,” Mr. Reuter wrote on his website. “Anyway, there I was in this ice-and snow-packed college town, not knowing anyone including the woman I found myself living with.”
He still had his music.
While in Syracuse, he played with Serious Journalism and The Syracrucians. He began releasing his own records when he returned to St. Louis.
Light fuse and run
While recovering from the blood clots he developed in 1997, Mr. Reuter took photography classes at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. He had a natural “eye” and relied upon natural light and natural settings to memorialize St. Louis images exclusively in black and white film. Some photographs are dark and brooding; some whimsical; others are surprisingly beautiful reminders of decaying city enclaves or poverty-stricken lives. Some are joyous portraits of the musicians he loved. All capture the soul of its subject.
The best of a bulging portfolio has been frequently exhibited and is now part of two books. Light Fuse and Run, which seems to describe his approach to life, was published in 2011. Portraits Along the River: Working in the City of St. Louis has text by Thomas Crone (who also writes for the Beacon). The book, published in 2004, is a diverse representation of 50 people on their jobs in the city.
He could “gauge barometer of people’s feelings” in everything he did, Crone said. (Crone's longer personal reflection on Bob Reuter)
“At times his life was sort of on the margin – the blue collar guy who pushed himself hard at times,” Crone said. “His personal struggles were represented in his work.”
The struggles are well documented in his memoir, Tales of a Talking Dog, published last year through Saint Louis Projects. In the wake of his death, the company, which describes Mr. Reuter as “… a damn fine writer and beloved curmudgeon,” has announced that it is gearing up for a reprinting to benefit Mr. Reuter’s estate.
The book was his chronicle, he told the RFT, his much-needed introspection. He wrote unsparingly, often in the foul language that horrific experiences occasioned.
“Before I (examined my life), I was killing myself,” Mr. Reuter said. “I was drinking and doing drugs heavy because I didn't want to think about it. And it just hit me that I had to examine my life or I was going to commit suicide.”
Mr. Reuters excised his demons through other mediums, including a book of poetry titled Where the Dark Ones Run.
His acerbic personality, wry humor and musical wit was on full display each Friday afternoon during his radio program, Bob's Scratchy Records, on KDHX (88.1 FM). The show aired from 2-4 p.m., considered to be an early time slot by man accustomed to keeping vampire hours.
“I don’t know any photographer, songwriter, singer, band leader or radio DJ who is in his 60s that has so many people in his fan base young enough to be his child,” said Ray, also a KDHX host.
Against the grain
His creativity was not born of deprivation, but an even stronger incentive.
“No, you don't have to be suffering and poor,” Mr. Reuter said, “but if you really are going to be a creative person, you are going to have felt a fair amount of pain in life.”
Mr. Reuter was born Aug. 14, 1951. He graduated from De Andreis High School in 1969; the school closed in 1976.
“He was a wonderful, profane, pure product of St. Louis,” Ray said, “who went against the grain. He grew up in pretty hardscrabble circumstances, but unlike many people, he never moved out.”
He stayed, but he may have been born too soon.
“He seemed like a guy who would fit right in with Jack Kerouac’s ‘Beat Generation,’” said Perkins. “He could have hung out with Kerouac, Neal Cassady and the Beats.
“Recently, he seemed to have found a balance in his life that seemed to make him happy, especially with his band, Alley Ghost,” Perkins added.
His survivors include an adopted niece, Angelique Norton.
A memorial service is currently being planned with the help of a member of Alley Ghost, guitarist Chris Baricevic, who heads Big Muddy Records. Baricevic is also working to set up a fund for disadvantaged artists, as Mr. Reuter had desired. As Baricevis posted on Facebook: "There will be a service to honor Bob's life and work. It is in the planning stages. I thank you for your patience as we sort through this.
"There will also be a memorial fund set up to offset costs. Additional money will be used to begin building a foundation for disadvantaged artists. This is not yet fleshed out and again, I thank you for your patience. If you are interested in giving any money towards this please contact me directly."
Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.