By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Bob Reuter is a living legend. With a music career that spans nearly five decades, he's found a renewal of rock & roll energy in Bob Reuter's Alley Ghost. He writes unapologetic songs incorporating folk and garage rock, defined by an unmatched grit and fire in the belly. His creative endeavors run the gamut: radio DJ, photographer, writer, storyteller and, most of all, rock & roller. At 60, he is about to embark on a tour after this week's release of the new Alley Ghost album, Born There, on Big Muddy Records. We caught up with the King of South St. Louis to talk about the record and his love for this city.
Josh Levi: How significant is this album for you? Is this your first vinyl release?
Bob Reuter: It's fucking gigantic. I've done 45s before, but this is the first album. I swear to God — I've been playing for like 47 years, OK? Which is longer than the rest of my band have been alive, and this is the best band I've ever been in. It's just really cool. I've been waiting since I was fourteen to have vinyl of my own.
You said Alley Ghost came together four years ago or so. How did it start?
It started with me going into the hospital to get heart surgery. Mat [Wilson], who was a big fan of the radio show, just started visiting me. Chris Baricevic, who runs Big Muddy, said he wanted to do an album with me. I was playing with these guys who are about my own age, and they were called Thee Dirty South, and Chris — always tactful — he said, "OK, but we don't want you playing with them guys. We wanna back you up, and the idea is to bring you to an audience of younger kids who wouldn't have ever known or cared who you were." And immediately I went, "OK!"
You've been playing music for 47 years. How does this Alley Ghost material differ from your work as a solo singer-songwriter? Do you write most of the songs?
Yeah, they're all my songs. I still write now, but we play songs that I did back in the Dinosaurs, which was 1978, '79, and we do a couple that are older...it's all played with that same feeling of being alive that I used to have in bands in 1966. That sort of punk-rock attitude. Whether it's like more of a folkish song or whatever — it's still played with that kind of insane attack.
After your heart surgery, how did that affect your process or feeling toward what you're doing? Did it inspire you to keep playing music?
Definitely. It just pushed me on and kept me going. And when we were recording this album, some of the songs like "White Boy"...you know especially for the bridge of that where I'm singing, "They say get up, white boy! Get off your ass!" Every time I hear that now, I start laughing and think, "OK, I defy any other 60-year-old to do that."
You have a sense of civic pride, and at the same time, kind of a battle. What is your current relationship status with St. Louis?
I love St. Louis. I think it's the fucking Garden of Eden at its best moments. I was talking about it just [recently] on the radio. It rains here an awful lot, and I love thunderstorms. I was at Whole Foods, and this gal was trying to make conversation, and she goes, "Is it raining outside?" And I said, "No, not yet."
"You think it's going to rain?" And I said, "I hope so!" She goes, "Why?" And I went, "'Cuz I like it when it looks outside how I feel inside," and she just looked at me and didn't say anything else.
The song "Born There" — that's just sort of condensing all my negative feelings about growing up. I loved where I came from, but the older I got, the more I realized, "Oh. It was really fucked up!" I grew up in north city, and we thought the whole world was us against them. We thought that everybody who lived in the suburbs, it was us against them. And after I went to college for a couple years, it was a real shock to talk to kids who lived in the suburbs and not only did they not feel it was them against us — they barely knew we existed!
Paste recently named you one of the "Ten Missouri Bands You Should Listen to Now." How does it feel to be getting that sort of recognition this late in your career?
You know, I swear to God, I always knew that if I got recognition, it was going to be late in life. I didn't plan on it being this late. I thought late in life would be...37, but I've gone along. I played back in the '90s when Cicero's basement was the main thing. Played alongside and even toured with Uncle Tupelo and saw them sort of rise up and get national recognition. I remember Pokey LaFarge first came to town wearing a clown suit, and who would've ever thought that he'd be the toast of the Newport Folk Festival? I feel like I've already hit the big time. I feel like I'm already a success. Just reaching this level after all this time. I don't have to get any bigger.
Speaking of your musical past, Chris recently released the Dinosaurs material on Bandcamp. It's kind of garage rock, but it has proto-punk elements, punk energy.
You know what's strange about that? When it was out, this was 1978. This was when the radio was playing the hell out of Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac, and everyone just thought we sucked shit. And I was like, "OK, we suck shit, but I like what we're doing." I just acknowledged that human beings didn't like it, and now I've waited long enough, and I find this generation who likes stuff that sucks shit.
What was the climate of that rock & roll era of the late 1970s? Did people think it was weird?
Yeah, they did. They thought that it was insane. We would play ungodly loud. We used to ingest as many drugs and as much alcohol as we could and see how long we could still be standing up. We used to play down in Gaslight Square. It was the very tail end, at a place called the Tarot Club. The drummer would play with his back to this door that was boarded up, and people would be kicking the hell out of it from the other side. A guy walked up once. He was wearing a trench coat, and he had combat boots, and he just put his thumb over one nostril and he just blew his nose on the floor in front of us. We had just gotten out of high school, and we thought, "So this is bohemia, huh?"
What do you like most about St. Louis?
That you're totally free here to be whatever you want to be. You know, if you live on either coast — not just New York and LA — you have this thing in your head. You're either in or you have access to a big media center, so maybe if you play your cards right, you could hit the big time. Well, nobody here has any illusions of hitting the big time. That is such a gift because then you're free to do what it is that you love doing. There's less to do here. You have to make your own fun here. And I love the fact that it's all crumbling around us. I don't know what it is I love about that, but I do.