As the day turned to night at Tower Grove Park on Thursday, August 4, more than 100 people gathered to celebrate the life of Hunter Brumfield III, a.k.a. Toast, who committed suicide on Sunday, July 31. Standing amid the faux-Greek ruins at the center of the park, the ragtag bunch -- which included musicians, artists, winners and losers -- laughed, cried, drank beer and played folk music in honor of an artist who burned a wide swath through the St. Louis creative community.
Hunter Brumfield III was a hurricane: a charismatic cad with a twinkle in his eye, a song in his heart and a way with both the words and the ladies. Depending on whom you ask, he was a great rapper, bassist, drummer, DJ, graffiti artist, lover, poet, breakdancer, bookworm, conversationalist, drunk or folk guitarist. He loved KRS-One with as much passion as he loved William Blake, loved Woody Guthrie and John Coltrane alike. He lived a romantic, freewheeling life, all the while flirting with death.
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, on June 5, 1974, Brumfield was raised in Nashville, Los Angeles and Chicago, and moved to St. Louis as a sixteen-year-old. Music was in his genes, says his stepfather Kenneth Thomas: "He was playing drums when I met him at age eight. And he picked up instruments quickly. He learned a new instrument nearly every year." Brumfield is survived by his sister, DeDe Tumbrink, and his father, Hunter Brumfield Jr.
Brumfield became MC Toasty Toast when he was a teenager in Chicago, and he started visiting St. Louis with the Chicago hip-hop crew the Mighty Ghetto Rangers. Through them he befriended writer William Upski Wimsatt, who had just finished writing his landmark hip-hop screed, Bomb the Suburbs.
Looking like the fourth member of the Beastie Boys, Toast arrived in St. Louis for good, joined the Midwest Avengers and helped a nascent, nearly non-existent hip-hop scene stir to life. "A lot of people don't realize that Toast had a musical life before he started playing rock," says John Harrington of the Midwest Avengers. "It was like a whole eight years of him being in the hip-hop community that they don't know about. In the underground hip-hop community, Toast was it. And he was the whole package: MC, graffiti artist, breakdancer, DJ. He was the real deal."
He eventually landed with Sky Bop Fly, an area rap/funk band. Then, nearly as abruptly as he appeared in the rap world, he sold his turntables, bought a bass and fell in love with rock & roll. It threw his rap friends for a loop, laughed a fellow member of the Avengers at the park. "When I knew Toast, he believed that white people couldn't play music."
He was embraced with much enthusiasm by the south-city rockers. "He was comfortable among anybody," says Chris King, editor of the St. Louis American and member of Three Fried Men. Hunter was their drummer, and he played a gig with them the Friday before he died. "That's why it was always hard for me to remember that he was mentally ill, because he was so socially graceful. He could be disgraceful, too, but if you put him in any situation, he'd always find someone to talk to, always seemed to be interested in what they had to say, always had something pertinent to add."
Brumfield also spent three years as bassist for the Highway Matrons, where he prevailed as the most charismatic member of an incredibly magnetic band. As a local utility man, he saved countless gigs; as a drunk, he ruined nearly as many. He had a voracious appetite -- or, as Fred Friction described him at the Tower Grove memorial, "He was a horny little rat dog."
His romance with the rock & roll lifestyle didn't end with the fun. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he went on wild emotional roller coasters. Nearly all of his close friends recall instances in which they had to talk him out of committing suicide. He had tried a number of times before, says King, who discussed the subject with him. "I asked him if he was suicidal," he recalls. "And he said, 'Well, actually, this very day I spent all day wondering, How will I kill myself when I kill myself?'"
Fred Friction reportedly once found Brumfield dangling from a rope, pulled him down and revived him by shoving a lit cigarette in his mouth and dumping a beer on his head. Harrington recalls staying up all night with him talking about suicide; his fiancée and musical partner, Lindy Woracheck, talked him down at other times.
As an amateur Amazon.com reviewer, he praised James Brown, Leadbelly and N.W.A. He wrote a single-sentence description of himself under Amazon's "About Me" section: "I am not afraid to die." King says that when Brumfield was out in the Northwest, he even slept under the bridge where Kurt Cobain was homeless as a teen. "He very purposely did that," says King. "To be a rock & roll suicide, he probably glamorized it a little bit."
Brumfield spent the night before his death at a friend's wedding, where he was a groomsman. He sang during the reception. The next afternoon when he was alone at his apartment in south city, he wheeled a barbecue grill into his bedroom and opened the gas valve. He then called Woracheck and left a message. He was in a state of delirium, she says, and told her that he was sorry and that he loved her. "He was taking really long pauses between his words, like he was barely there."
He left a handwritten three-page note. "It was a real formal-sounding letter, not very emotional," says Woracheck. "He spent the first page-and-a-half explaining the pain he was in. He said that he knew people were going to judge him, but he was resolved to do it." He then dispersed his musical instruments.
A legacy of journals, recordings and hints remain. Like Kurt Cobain's MTV Unplugged performance, Brumfield's final recordings are on acoustic guitar, with Woracheck accompanying him on the musical saw. They sound like an extended suicide note. He starts with Charley Patton's "Down the Dirt Blues," which begins with the lines, "I'm going away to a world unknown/I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long." Brumfield, whose mother died last year, will be buried next to her in Houston, Mississippi, in the same cemetery as Patton.
At Tower Grove Park, one by one, friends and family stood to talk about Toast. Friction, who played drums with Brumfield and singer/guitarist Mark Stephens in the Highway Matrons, used to be roommates with him. Once when Friction was taking a bath with a girlfriend, Brumfield walked in. Rather than politely exit, he stood there until Friction finally invited him in. "He was out of his clothes in three seconds flat."
"I've got a bathtub story, too," Stephens, another one-time Toast roommate, adds later. He stumbled in on the scrawny Toast in the tub playing with his rubber ducky. He was singing the words to local band Otto's Revenge's song "I Wanna Live Like Clint Eastwood." "I walked in and he was in the tub singing those lyrics -- 'I want to live like Clint Eastwood.' I looked at him and said, 'Brother, you've got a long way to go.'"
As musicians in the background sang "You Are My Sunshine," others recalled the wild Hunter, the thoughtful Hunter, the generous Hunter. They described a master musician and conversationalist, a charismatic superstar, a poet and a music lover.
Somebody should write a book. In a perfect world, Toast would have stuck around to pen it himself.