There is something that runs through this place where we live. It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. It's there in dive bars of south city, but also on the floor of a Missouri River casino. It's in Wash Ave and the empty two-lane highways that roll over low, gorgeous hills. It's Nelly and the Ozarks, pork steaks and throwed rolls. And you can feel it even beyond state lines in Sauget and East St. Louis. Capturing all that is an impossible task, but we decided to start by giving it a name, Missouriland. This week, we begin the exploration, guided by Reuben Hemmer. His frequent travels, camera in hand, helped inspire this new, recurring RFT feature, so it seemed right for him to kick it off in grand fashion with a special cover story on one of Missouriland's fascinating characters, Stump Stephenson of Riverport Riot fame. Even (especially?) if you've somehow never heard of Stump, you're going to want to read this and check out the gallery of photos Reuben has collected in recent months.
In the future, we'll have more photographers, more guides and more of the poignant and weird in this place. There's plenty of Missouriland to see. Read on below. —Doyle Murphy
It's a sunny summer afternoon in St. Louis, and the Saddle Tramps are partying hard.
Tucked away in the mostly industrial Patch neighborhood of south city, the local motorcycle club has pulled out all the stops to give area two-wheel enthusiasts a celebration to remember, providing an opportunity for them to showcase their custom choppers while knocking back beers and enjoying some live music. A cover band is on hand to deliver the hard-rocking hits, and anticipation has been building all day for the start of that most proper of South Broadway celebrations: a wet T-shirt contest.
In the heart of all of the humidity and exhaust smoke, the band launches into Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" to the delight of the adoring audience. The group's vocalist, a man wearing a pierced fedora and using a battle axe for a microphone stand, easily commands the attention of the crowd throughout the duration of the 1975 hit, as well as some similarly classic tracks from Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. The more the band plays — and the more the man sings — the more pumped the crowd of bikers gets.
I didn't realize it at the time, but there's a good reason for their enthusiasm: As it turns out, the man with the microphone is nothing short of south-city royalty. I'd come to the event to take photos, and yet I didn't know that I was in the presence of one of the key figures in one of the most infamous events in St. Louis rock & roll history.
Soon after, the band wraps up, the hoses are drawn out and the crowd gathers together for the main event. The chosen administrator of the wet T-shirt contest is none other than the lead singer, and it's evident this is not his first rodeo.
I was able to take numerous photos of the lively contestants and attendees, but one particular photo stuck out. The shot consisted of the singer's eyes laser-focused on the desired target, with a joyful contestant dancing under the arc of the hose water.
A month or so later, I used the wet T-shirt contest photo for a gallery opening at the Granite City Art and Design District. A coworker of mine brought a biker friend to the opening, and when he came across the photo his eyes lit up with recognition.
"Do you know who that is?" he asked, to which I shook my head. "That's Stump, man!"
Delighted to finally learn the name of the singer who'd so enthralled me, and even more to learn his name is Stump, I asked him, "Who is Stump?"
"Stump Stephenson," he replied. "That's the dude who Axl Rose tackled in '91! You know the Riverport Riot? That's him!"
I could not believe my luck. I have always been fascinated by the story of the Riverport Riot, and have long thought that the person Axl Rose tackled seemed like such a character. I wanted to learn more about Stump, and, importantly, I wanted to let Stump know there was a photo of him hanging up in an art gallery.