Something in the Way He Moves

Beatle Bob has been on a one-man dance marathon, bop-bop-bopping all over town. But why?

It is approaching midnightwhen Beatle Bob bounds down the stairs into the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill. Inside the University City club, tables and chairs are askew and beer bottles litter the floor. The pulsing music of Blue Mountain, an alternative-country/rock group, has driven the college-age crowd to its feet. They stand transfixed, eyes riveted on the stage, heads bobbing to the beat. It is the climax of the concert, the moment at which chaos and euphoria come closest to merging.

Once Bob's lanky silhouette is recognized, the crowd begins to cheer. Weaving his way through the packed house, Beatle Bob reaches the foot of the stage within seconds and begins whirling like a dervish, flinging his mop-top hair to and fro. The audience erupts into a frenzy, causing the musicians to play even harder. The Oxford, Miss.-based band then summons him onstage in the middle of its upbeat ode to former President Jimmy Carter. As guitarist Cary Hudson sings, Beatle Bob hunches his shoulders and sways his 6-foot-3-inch frame in a herky-jerky manner. The jangling, distorted guitar chords cause him to bop around like a marionette. There is nothing smooth about his spontaneous choreography. Except for his well-coiffed hair, everything about Beatle Bob is angular, including his dancing shoes. On this evening, he is dressed in a red-checked polyester sportjacket that could easily date back to the days of the OPEC oil embargo, when he first developed his solo dancing style.

Beatle Bob's style is an amalgam of 1960s pop dances and a few twists of his own. There is, of course, his trademark "bowling move," which involves sliding one foot behind the other while simultaneously executing a windmill arm sweep. As part of another motif, he will slow the pace and emulate a kung fu or tai chi artist. He uses the same techniques, with slight variations, to cavort to every conceivable musical variation. He could be shuffling to the sounds of a honky-tonk piano or a baroque string quartet. It would make no difference. Beatle Bob goes where the rhythm flows, be it a lowdown juke joint or a symphony hall; music is music and dance is dance and the two are one.

From the other side of the footlights, his concert appearances are deemed a symbol of success by fledgling and established bands alike. Musicians understand that Beatle Bob has the power to infuse a show with energy just by being there. His enthusiasm for music is rare for someone 47 years of age. "You get a feeling that Bob, in many ways, is the same human being he was when he was maybe 13," says Blue Mountain's Hudson. "I don't think he approaches it as a job, but he seems to approach it as a vocation. His real vocation in life is to dress up and go to shows, and who's to say that's wrong? It's his art. It's his self-expression. He's kind of a catalyst. (Instead) of waiting for somebody else to get it started, he just goes right up front and goes into his dance. It makes the rest of the crowd feel a whole lot better about coming up closer to the stage and starting to dance themselves. When you're the first person to get up front, you have to be willing to play the fool."

Many in the audience at Blueberry Hill weren't born when Robert E. Matonis embarked on this nonstop routine. For more than 20 years, he has been a source of perpetual motion in St. Louis nightclubs, forging a theatrical persona that eclipses many of the acts he goes to see. In the last three-and-half years, he hasn't missed a night prancing around town. Sometimes he pops in on two or three acts in a single evening. Over the last decade, music-festival appearances have helped spread his legend coast to coast. He is more prominently recognized on the national level than St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon and St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall combined. In this sense, he is the unofficial ambassador of the city: Beatle Bob at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Beatle Bob at festivals in Toronto, Los Angeles and Austin. Beatle Bob captured on video by CNN. Beatle Bob posing for Interview magazine.

He has attained his unique identity not just by shunning conformity but by embracing popular culture to the extreme. He is a public spectacle, the uninvited actor who makes cameo appearances, the unpaid entertainer with a legion of admirers. Yet much of his life remains shrouded in mystery. Thousands of St. Louisans have viewed his antics, but few people know him outside the character he has created for himself. The vacuum has been filled with apocryphal tales spread mainly by insiders in the local music scene. Beatle Bob dances alone. This itself is enough to fuel rumors. He is the fan who, through sheer enthusiasm, can steal a show; the beguiling huckster who bypasses the box office and talks his way backstage; the rogue whose alleged pilfering has led some local record stores to bar his entry. On any given night he materializes, seemingly out of nowhere, and then vanishes, leaving a wake of speculation about where he lives and how he earns his living.

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