Arch Madness

A rough guide to St. Louis

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 22, 1980, Kenneth Swyers jumped out of a Cessna at 20,000 feet and screamed toward the Mississippi River. He popped his chute, and in an instant he was floating toward his target. Oh, to be the first parachutist to land atop the Gateway Arch.

Swyers drifted, moving ever closer to his target, and soon he landed. But glory was fleeting. Witnesses say he stumbled and grabbed at the big red warning light. Swirling gusts captured the daredevil's chute, and he lost his balance. With no traction, he slid headfirst down the stainless steel structure. At the halfway point, the frantic 33-year-old pulled his backup chute, but it withered and failed. Swyers landed with a thud and died on the spot.

But what a view he surely had for one brief and shining moment, 630 feet above St. Louis. At his back was East St. Louis, where citizens changed the course of American music. And below him, the glowing red-brick of downtown, this birthplace of potions and legends, home to blues and booze, ragtime and rock. Here, writers honored the river, architects built sturdy and high, and the westward masses paused to make a quick buck.

Dan Zettwoch
Dan Zettwoch

St. Louis may no longer be on the best-seller list of American cities, but there was a golden time in the previous century when the Lou hosted some of the nation's greatest minds. They've scattered like dandelion seeds, but if you dig, you can still see their traces. Let us begin our journey to some of the city's lesser-known historic sites.

For example, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was inspired by a St. Louis man named William Prufrock, whose furniture store once stood two blocks south of the Old Post Office. Published in 1915, the famous poem analogized the city as "like a patient etherised upon a table," with "streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent."

Today the spot at 1104 Locust is a parking lot. Welcome to St. Louis.

Ike and Tina Turner, on Broadway in East St. Louis.

Washington Avenue is lined for blocks with century-old warehouses and runs through the former garment district, meandering past the club district where in 1944 Miles Davis first played professionally. Just before Washington intersects with the Mississippi, it morphs into the Eads Bridge which Walt Whitman admired in Specimen Days. The bridge ends in East St. Louis, due north of the Casino Queen, which Wilco honored on its debut album. There it turns into Broadway and skitters past the hotels where stayed the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Funkadelic.

Downtown East St. Louis in the '30s, '40s and '50s was a veritable Havana of the Midwest, replete with roaring clubs, indiscreet speakeasies, and yes, even a thriving economy. Then seemingly everyone left, and it became a symbol of an America in decay.

Broadway winds east from downtown, and within a few blocks the vibe is considerably more country than city. Many of the theaters, clubs and restaurants, long neglected, have crumbled and died.

But the Four Aces lives on, a brick single-story at 1312 Broadway that still houses a liquor store in the front and a bar in the back. The other half of the building is devoted to a stage, a dance floor and rows of tables and chairs. The Disco Riders, a 32-member motorcycle club, own and operate the club, and on Saturday nights host dance parties.

Perched on a stool in the dimly lit bar, Dorsey Patterson, a member, says, "We got an old trunk in the basement, don't we?"

"Yeah, it's still down there," answers fellow Disco Rider Herschel Davis, clad in black leather from head to toe.

"It says 'Ike Turner' on it. We should get that out and clean that up," adds Patterson.

In the mid-1950s, the Four Aces was called the Manhattan Club. It was here the teenaged Annie Mae Bullock met Ike Turner, then in his early twenties. Turner used to tool around in a Buick Dynaflow crammed with young girls and musical instruments, recalls East St. Louis poet laureate Eugene Redmond. Turner would inevitably land at the Manhattan, where he'd practice and perform.

Annie Mae would someday become Tina Turner. "She was a teeny-bopper and a groupie," Redmond remembers. The future superstar used to hang around the Manhattan while her future husband was practicing. "Ike was known to run through women," he laughs. "Leon Thomas [who later gained fame as the yodeler on Pharoah Sanders' glorious "The Creator Has a Master Plan"] gave him the name, 'Ike Turner, the Woman Burner.'

"We watched Ike," adds Redmond. "He was fast."

Later, the couple had a much publicized dissolution amid a storm of drug abuse and violence. Redmond says he never saw Ike punch Tina at the Manhattan, but they sure argued a lot.

"There was always tension because there were always women in Ike's face -- or Ike in women's faces. I never saw him hit her, but I saw him shake her a couple times and bark at her a lot of times."

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