The Riotous Life of Stump Stephenson

There is only one Stump Stephenson.
There is only one Stump Stephenson. REUBEN HEMMER

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.

So I tracked down the man himself at a biker rally in High Ridge, Missouri, where his band Southside 5 was performing. I approached Stump just before he took the stage and informed him about the photo, to which he replied, "You mean to tell me there is a photo of me hosing down babes at a wet T-shirt contest hanging up in an art gallery?" I happily confirmed.

Quite a few Mike's Hard Lemonades later, Stump opened up about his world of outlaw bikers and rock & roll. For the past six months, Stump has let me document his performances, recounted bits and pieces of his life, and ultimately gave his side of the story about the Riverport Riot. So much media attention regarding the event focused on Axl Rose and Guns N' Roses, yet Stump's story is arguably just as interesting. From owning a fleet of limos to falling out of a hot-air balloon, from hosting Bible studies to spending decades photographing rock concerts, Stump has lived several lifetimes.

click to enlarge Stump, the head wet T-shirt administrator, hosing down contestants at a Saddle Tramps bike show. - REUBEN HEMMER
Stump, the head wet T-shirt administrator, hosing down contestants at a Saddle Tramps bike show.

So, with help from my stepbrother and lifelong southsider Sam Burke, I've compiled photos and interviews detailing Stump's life in south city, his version of the Riverport Riot and how that fateful event still affects him 30 years later.

Sam Burke: Where on the south side did you grow up?

Stump: I was born at the old St. Anthony's hospital, and I have lived all over the state streets. From Cherokee to River Des Peres, I've probably lived on twenty different places all over the south side.

How did growing up on the south side influence your upbringing?

We're a little more rough-edged than the county people like Ladue or wherever. Ya gotta be a little more rough out here. Cherokee and Broadway were some wild places then. Thankfully I have plenty of friends and family all based here, and we all look out for each other. We still had to do what we could to survive, though. If anybody knows anything about St. Louis back in the day, they knew "Concert Don" was the dude. He was a scalper, and I bought my first concert ticket from him, front row for Kiss. I mowed lawns all summer just to buy it. I was only thirteen at the time, and got hooked on rock & roll from then on. A few years later I came out of a Journey concert and saw Concert Don hanging out, and wondered why he was still camping out. Don told me, "How do you think I get all of those front-row tickets?'" Which I replied, "I'll be right back!" From then on I was scalping tickets until computers came along. We would change out hats and disguises; it worked out great. I did get busted, though, by a cop in a KSHE shirt. I came across him again later on and yelled to everyone, "That dude's a cop!" and I never saw him down there again. These were all harmless things we had to do on the south side to make do. I call myself a "fair thug" — wouldn't do anything to hurt anybody.

So much of St. Louis is represented in your home. I noticed some old Busch Stadium chairs and other memorabilia in your backyard. What's the story behind that?

Oh yeah I have so much, mostly from whenever those places got knocked down. I also got AstroTurf from the '82 World Series. I jumped off that wall and with a buck knife carved a big ol' piece of that thing and put it right in my backyard. It was much different back then. Do you remember the Super Jam events they used to put on? Back at them old crazy Super Jam events dudes would just be up there with rope tied together, drop that shit down and pull you up.

What got you involved with the Saddle Tramps?

I graduated high school in '84, and I knew I wanted to be a Saddle Tramp of a rock star. Outlaw rock & roll biker, that is my goal. My family has been in the club forever. There's a lot of politics involved — once you put that patch on your back, you're representing 60 years of integrity. Contrary to all of the "Sons of Malarkey" stuff you see on TV, there is so much good we do. You never hear about our Toys for Tots rides, but once someone gets a DUI or gets in trouble with the law, it's all over the news. In the last ten years or so motorcycles have also become a fashion thing. You see businessmen are riding Harleys; it's not a dangerous outlaw thing anymore. It makes me wanna get a suit and a briefcase, you know, the whole nerd pack, just to do something different. It's funny because I'm considered an older dude now. I don't like it! I don't like sitting at the end of the bar, man. I'm a ruffian and a knucklehead, you'll see!

click to enlarge Stump and his band Southside 5 performing a Babies Born Addicted benefit concert in High Ridge. - REUBEN HEMMER
Stump and his band Southside 5 performing a Babies Born Addicted benefit concert in High Ridge.

Prior to the events of Riverport, had you taken photos of Axl Rose before?

Oh yeah, man, when they opened up for Aerosmith before, and I had Axl posing like a Penthouse model. He was all cool with it. I've been taking pictures as long as I have been riding motorcycles, concerts from all over. Mostly it was never an issue, but I knew that in some places photography wasn't allowed. I would carry a dummy film with me just in case; it was all part of the cat-and-mouse game. If you would film me and my buddies running around at these concerts you'd get Beavis and Butthead. Have you ever seen that movie Detroit Rock City? That is so my life!

In your words, what happened that night at Riverport?

Riverport was brand new at this point, and I was just as excited to see this place as anyone else. It was no different than any other day, so me and Beavis and Butthead got our film, then hopped on our bikes and headed to the concert. We got in the front row, and I always try to give the band a Saddle Tramps card with my name on it and stuff. Sometimes they read it; I've had Motley Crue pull me on stage, I've had Whitesnake bring us backstage, but this was the first time I ever had someone look at my club card and act like a little bitch. He threw it down, and all I thought was, "Well, you're not gonna get your picture with the Stump." I blew it off as the concert went on. They began playing "Rocket Queen" when I took the photo, and all of the sudden I realized Axl was screaming and pointing right at me. I started moving around, but his finger kept following me. At that point I thought, "Oh shit, he's on me." I immediately yelled for my friend, and I handed him the camera because there was no way they were getting this film. As soon as I turned around, boom! It all happened so fast. It also seems like an eternity. It was so surreal, because of all the celebrities why couldn't it have been Gene Simmons or a Spice Girl, you know? Instead it was a Rocket Queen in spandex and feathers. It was so crazy, man. Security was also confused, because usually they're protecting the band from the crowd, but it was the other way around. After me and him tussled around on the ground for a little bit, someone snatched him off of me. Once I sat up, I realized my back was really screwed up. Knocked the wind all out of me. At this point in time I was looking for my knife, and my cousin just looked at me and said, "No!" I then looked up at the jumbotron and saw myself on the jumbotron. I'm a short dude, so it was wild to see myself so big ... never seen myself like that before. The rest of that night was so weird, man, time was so elusive. Things really started to kick off. What I remember is being taken on a gurney as the riot was really beginning. I was seeing bottles and cans and chairs being thrown around, and all of the sudden I see a bush on fire go right over me. A burning bush. That's when I knew this whole thing was of biblical proportions. I laid up in the hospital watching it all on TV; they were covering it immediately because it was a full-scale riot. My mom later told me that she knew it was me once they mentioned "camera, concerts." "I knew it was you!" she said.

click to enlarge Stump'S framed courtroom sketch of Axl Rose and himself are part of a vast personal collection of rock & roll memorabilia. - REUBEN HEMMER
Stump'S framed courtroom sketch of Axl Rose and himself are part of a vast personal collection of rock & roll memorabilia.

What was it like having court with Axl Rose?

It was wild, man, I was in court for three weeks with him. They were more focused on the motorcycle club than anything, because some other Saddle Tramp guys got in trouble, and some other stupid shit. It was a feeding frenzy on that. I'm squeaky clean, and they were trying to affiliate me with the thugs in the club. They subpoenaed a bunch of felons that don't even like Guns N' Roses, and I was ready to get beat up by my own people. Then people started making comic books about me and shit. It was crazy — it didn't even look anything like me! It was all based on attacking the club, and Axl had his lawyers follow me down to Daytona Bike Week. They tried to say I couldn't be hurt because I was riding my motorcycle all over the beach and hanging out at strip clubs. What those dipshits don't know is that I experienced trauma, and my doctor told me the best thing to do was clear my head. That beach and those strip clubs were therapeutic! They were just waiting for me to mess up; it was all a front for the feds. Stupid questions about the club, constantly. They were trying to equate it to the Altamont Concert where the Hells Angels stabbed a dude to death. I mean, shit, we had St. Louis Cardinals doing cocaine in '82, but what do we do, take away the World Series? Doesn't make the whole team bad. It was all generalization. I was cracking up because they were trying to say the Saddle Tramps had a black-market, underground-concert photo ring, and we were trying to sell them to Rolling Stone or some shit. I even told them I wish that was the case; I would have paid to shut the fuck up so I could be making some money. It was ridiculous. I even looked at Axl and said, "What would I gain from selling photos of that guy?"

What did they bring up about the concert?

They tried to show me some sign that said "No Camera, Weapons or Outside Alcohol" and asked if I saw that sign. I was straight-up honest with them: I saw a sign, but not that sign! The sign they brought into court looked like a billboard off of 270. I let them know I had everything on me but a gun — whiskey down my pants and all. This is rock & roll, man. They also had me and Axl sitting side by side when they showed footage of the concert. It was kinda weird: When they played "Rocket Queen" I couldn't help but rock out in my chair. My lawyers were looking at me like, "Would you stop it?" But I can't stop it, I'm a rocker! This is kick ass! The jury is watching us, and Axl's looking at me all crazy.

What was it like with friends and family at this time?

It was mostly all good, man, but you find out who are your friends and who ain't your friends once you're on MTV and start making a buttload of money. Motherfuckers from high school you haven't heard from in forever start calling you, chicks in Beemers and Corvettes that would usually run a red light to get away from us would pull over. It's all about how you perceive and take it, though.

Were you happy with your settlement?

Looking back in retrospect about everything, man, if I would have been a little older and mature about things I would have done some things differently. As far as the settlement goes, I was just caught up in the glitz and glamour of everything. The money really didn't even matter. We first attempted to sue for $1.1 million, and when you start thinking, ya know ... even if I don't get that I'm still getting a sizable amount. All I can say is: Don't go up to Ladue shopping with a Lemay pocket, you know what I mean? You get disappointed. I honestly didn't mind getting screwed either way; I was enjoying the media. It's all good, though. I have great friends and family that supported me. My mom walked around a radio station with a banner saying, "I'm the Mother of Stump, the One that Axl Thumped, Needless to Say, I am Here Today, Because on Axl I Want to Dump!" So I was feeling the love. One of the most profound moments was the Rolling Stones put together a giant "flip off" to Axl Rose at the Admiral. We all rode down there, had the crowd split like the Red Sea. There were a bunch of us flipping off Axl. A helicopter was there to get a bird's-eye view. It was incredible; you could feel the support.

How have all of these events changed your outlook on life?

It may not have changed my outlook, but it has changed me. I mean, it's 30 years later, and the media still calls me on July 2nd. Would I say I'm mad about it? No, I'm not gonna lie. I like the attention, and it helps my band. It keeps my band promoted. And now I'm gonna be in the Riverfront Times! This is also the publicity Axl hates too. "There he is again, being good, minding his own business and making music."

click to enlarge Stump admiring art by local artist Janie Stamm at the Granite City Art and Design District. - REUBEN HEMMER
Stump admiring art by local artist Janie Stamm at the Granite City Art and Design District.

Do you have any hobbies or interests that people may not know about?

Well, I know I'm not very subtle. I'm pretty exposed: choppers, guns, music, explosives ... but I do like to think I have a great interior decorator's eye. A lot of my gal pals call me up and ask me to do their living room.

These days Stump's life has slowed down, but only by a little. He is still representing the south side hard, living on the shores of the River Des Peres. His house could be a rock & roll museum, filled with countless amounts of music memorabilia, and an entire amphitheater built in his backyard for his annual "Call the Cops" party. There is even a VIP cabana for injured bikers featuring spare crutches, wheelchairs and a prosthetic leg. His band Southside 5 recently opened up for Tantric, and the group stays booked nearly every month.

But in between playing music and riding motorcycles, Stump's main focus is now on family. "I'm a proud dad," he says. "I love my daughters, and without my family or my kids, who knows where I would be?

"In the grave or in jail," he muses after a beat. "Probably for doing something fun, though."

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About The Author

Reuben Hemmer

Reuben Hemmer is a registered nurse living in St. Louis, Missouri. The influences of his upbringing have produced an insatiable curiosity for the human story and a powerful fascination with people and culture. Inspired by the beauty, pain, and honesty of the Midwest, he attempts to objectively document the complexities...
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