Calling from Home

Singer/songwriter Bob Reuter gives voice to St. Louis' unique character

Aug. 17, 2000, Way Out Club, 9:45 p.m: A brutal electric screech, and the jukebox jerks into silence. The ceiling lights shudder, click off. Customers slide off their barstools to watch lightning slice the olive sky. Foreheads glisten, bodies get sticky, rain slams against the windows like a mean drunk. The storm has cooled things off, but not quite enough to let us forget there's no air conditioning. Behind the bar, co-owner Sherri Lucas lights a few candles and goes back to taking drink orders. Everything is dark and warm, damp and green. "It reminds me of Key Largo," Bob Reuter says, sounding pleased.

Originally scheduled to open for guitarist Marc Chechik, Reuter had planned to play an electric set with Jason Hutto (of the garage-punk band Sexicolor) on lead guitar. But because the power shows no signs of kicking back on, the two bands opt to merge and play one long acoustic set instead. Reuter, Chechik, fiddle player Mary Alice Wood and alternating drummers Dave Melson and John Baldus move their equipment off the stage, pull up stools and gather in a corner of the club close to the bar. Reuter and Chechik trade off lead vocals, with Wood adding modest, mournful harmonies. Even without amplification, Reuter's craggy voice and acoustic guitar ring out bright and true over the chatter of patrons and their clinking glasses. For more than two hours, the band-that-wasn't-supposed-to-be-a-band plays a glorious mix of originals and covers (Dylan, Hank Williams, the Stones) in the muggy darkness while a nervous dog paces the floor in front of them. "Ever seen a Midwest tornado run down a side street just like a train?/Stops all the cars on the Daniel Boone Expressway, and I can't find nothing to stop all this rain." Reuter sings these lines from "It Don't Matter" with a rueful smile. Toward the end of the evening, he launches into "Go Home," which he wrote for an upcoming compilation of original closing songs by local musicians. He hops up to stand on his stool, barking like an auctioneer. "Go home," he bellows, "'cause you can't stay here!" The doorman stands behind him and hollers out the chorus. Nobody leaves.

Down in America (Magoo), Reuter's new album -- and the last with his longtime backing band, the amazing Kamikaze Cowboy -- is a weird American hybrid, an intensely personal alloy of influences collected and culled over Reuter's 49 years. "I took a little bit of everything I've been through," Reuter explains a few days later during a conversation in his McKinley Heights kitchen. "The neighborhood I grew up in (near Fairgrounds Park, in North St. Louis), there was a lot of country from white people who moved up from Arkansas and such -- a lot of refrigerators in the backyard, cars up on cinderblocks -- and a heavy black element, so I got the R&B, Stax and Motown and all that. At first I was playing garage punk, which moved into more of the Cream rock-type stuff, and I bailed on that. I started playing folk music that quickly turned into country music, and then, in 1977, I threw out every country album I had because of punk music; I had to rebuy them all later.

"1985 or 1986, that was the beginning of what I'm doing now," he remembers. "I don't feel as connected to what I was doing before, although I can't deny it. The punk music I played gives what I'm doing now an edge, the arty period gives it the touches that are more interesting, but what it all comes down to, I think, is when I was about 7 years old, my sister listened to all rock & roll and my mom listened to show tunes. I think it's mostly a combination of those two."

Whatever its origins, Reuter's music resists easy genre tags. It's pricklier than the standard singer/songwriter fare, more melodic than most indie rock. It's rough and tender country-soul, combining a loose, ragged eloquence with a documentarian's precision, a photographer's sense of the moment.

No other songwriter has described St. Louis' unique character, its dusty-brick particularities, with Reuter's devotion and grace. Much as Springsteen's canon immortalizes New Jersey, everything on Down in America conjures up images of St. Louis: the gospel-steeped organ that sneaks in just as Reuter makes a reference to Hall Street; the metallic throb of summer cicadas on "After the Party" (one of many brilliant touches from producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Martin); the CD booklet, which displays Reuter's severely gorgeous black-and-white photographs of broken warehouse windows, a fireworks stand, a shadowy figure in a cowboy hat striding across an empty lot on Texas Avenue. Nelly may have put us on the map, at least as far as the Billboard charts are concerned, but Reuter commemorates a different side of St. Louis, its beautiful decay, its romance and ruination.

One of the album's highlights is "After the Money from Mama Was Gone," a shuffling talking-blues waltz pieced together from memories of North St. Louis: "Boys they come down from Baden, looking for pussy and beer/Walking like James Brown, trying not to fall down/Now most all them boys have all disappeared." When Reuter wrote the song, his life "was at a place that felt a whole lot like North St. Louis. Physically, it was 1969 when I left, but I think I stayed there mentally well into the '80s. It's definitely with me all the time. I think I carry a lot of scars from everyplace that I've been; that swagger or whatever from the boys who come down from Baden, well, that's sort of gone. I take pride in what I am, but there's no value in holding on too tightly to anything -- which I guess is a contradiction. Life is painful. It's grieving a lot of stuff. I think that's the kind of thing that builds character. I've got character out the ass," he laughs.

Reuter's songs, like his photographs, are generous but honest portraits, sympathetic without being sentimental. "Charlie Floyd," an aching coming-of-age ballad, was written as a birthday present for a former girlfriend's son: "He was 14 when I came into the picture, and he didn't care for me because I was his mom's boyfriend. I tried to stay open to him because I was raised by my mother, he was raised by his mother, and I had an idea what he was going through. When he graduated from high school and turned 18, I didn't have any money, but I wanted to give him something, so I wrote that song for him. It was just taking a shot; it was all I had. I could've made him a card, I guess, but I wasn't so good at that. I thought, 'Well, he might not like it now, but in 15 years he'll look back and think that was pretty cool, maybe.' But he liked it right away, and that was pretty thrilling."

"Those dreams still come every night/Like a scream locked up on the inside," Reuter sings with a stinging sweetness, channeling adolescent angst through middle-aged lungs. "When you're a young man and there's no older man around to give you an idea of what being a man is supposed to be, you tend to just grope and act out a cartoon caricature of what you think a man ought to be," he says. "That time around 17 or 18 is just so hard because you're part boy and you're part man, and you're trying to figure it all out, and you're trying to be as masculine as you can, and there's this chemical thing going on -- you're ready to explode. Merle Haggard once said that's why at 18 they either try to put young men in the army or in jail, because they don't know what else to do with them."

To his credit, Reuter doesn't pretend to know, either. Although his songs are mostly autobiographical, they never seem self-important in that tedious, worldly-wise way so common among the coffeehouse claque. Working in the earthy medium of everyday experience, he caresses the mundane until it gleams, illuminates. Like the short stories of Raymond Carver, which Reuter cites as an influence, these songs recount the sweaty epiphanies of working-class people, their unarticulated desires and disappointments, with compassion and a total lack of condescension.

"I think what I do stops short of romanticizing -- but just barely," Reuter remarks. "It's like when I take pictures of people in bars; I don't take pictures when they're falling down drunk. I take pictures of everything up to that. I don't like making fun of anybody -- people get enough of that in their lives. I like to elevate the everyday things, because there's beauty in that. I love those moments when somebody's in a bar and in their mind, they're like somebody from a movie -- I like to capture that, before they fall back into who they really are. Right when they're riding high, even if afterwards they fall on their face. I like those moments where people are almost living their dreams."