by Jon Scorfina
The number of chain record stores nationwide has dwindled. However, St. Louis has become an unlikely safe haven for indie record shops as well as for DJs who prefer to spin the black circle instead of scrolling their iPods. In this weekly column, we'll focus on personal portraits of St. Louis' record aficionados and the rooms where they store their treasures. Meet the last collectors standing. (Know a collector who deserves the spotlight? E-mail us.)
Spending a day with Bob Reuter is an emotional experience. Synonymous with Bob's Scratchy Records, his KDHX 88.1 radio show that airs every Friday afternoon from 2 to 4, Reuter doesn't just have a passion for collecting vinyl -- he sees the pops and scratches between the grooves as being part of the meaning of life.
His gut-wrenching worldview exudes from his voice (he recently won Best Male Vocalist in the RFT Music Awards). Even more so, it's ultimately manifested itself in the upcoming documentary about his life, Broken and Wonderful, which is playing at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Currently between homes, Reuter stores his records in the back of Tom Huck's art studio, where we met recently on a hot afternoon and discussed 45s, Bob Dylan and the Columbia Record Club.
Last Collector Standing: When did you start listening to music, and what was the first record you remember buying?
Bob Reuter: I started consciously listening to music when I was six or seven years old. My older sister had a collection of 45s. She's eight years older than me. When she got out of high school, she figured she was too old for rock 'n' roll, so she gave all her records to me. I was just thrilled.
Those were the first records that I got, and for a long time I just played them. The most thrilling record there was "Good Golly, Miss Molly" by Little Richard. At one point I left it sitting on a metal space heater and it warped. It was horrible. I felt like a relative had died.
I didn't buy a new copy of that for like 15 years. I just felt like, "Well, that's gone." Like I couldn't get another copy of "Good Golly, Miss Molly."
I'm kind of embarrassed by the actual ones I first bought. I wish it could be something really cool.
It was just a weird concept. There was a record store right by my school, and I had never bought a record. The concept of being able to go into a store and actually buy a record was real foreign to me. I didn't know how to do that (laughs). I wasn't sure how much they [would] cost. I think it was like 99 cents for a 45 ... I'm really dodging it here, but the first 45 record I actually bought was "Let's Limbo Some More" by Chubby Checker. It wasn't even "Let's Limbo," it was "Let's Limbo Some More," a bad follow-up. I don't have a copy of that now. It was kind of like (laughs) some guy losing his virginity to an ugly girl that he doesn't really like because he has to get his feet wet, or something wet.
Maybe I'll start lying and say it was something else.
LCS: What would be your ideal record to say was your first?
BR: "Good Golly, Miss Molly." When I first started buying records in earnest was when the whole British invasion hit ... the Beatles and any rock 'n' roll band from England. Then I had a backlash from that where I bought all American artists. That was real important. Who was as cool as these British groups? Well, Bobby Fuller was. At that time the Beach Boys were. The Sir Douglas Quintet was. Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. The Young Rascals.
Also, my brother-in-law was in college, so it was compulsory to have a few folk albums. I stole a few of his albums; those were the first albums I ever had. He didn't even notice they were gone -- that's the part that really gets me.
It was Pete Seeger doing We Shall Overcome. It was a concert he did live at Carnegie Hall. It was the closest to rock 'n' roll that he ever did because they were rebellious songs, like "I Ain't Scared of Your Jail Because I Want My Freedom." Also, he had a Leadbelly album ... It was a much better recording than all the recordings I had heard prior to that. It kind of blew my mind, and still has an effect on me. People back in the day used to tell me I sounded like Leadbelly when I sang. That was the first bar none rock 'n' roll thing that sounded like rock 'n' roll to me.
Back when I didn't quite know how to buy records on my own, I lived in north city, and I wasn't big on riding the bus across the city. I was 11, and there was this big record store in midtown. That was when record stores were more like department stores. I think it was called Musicland. My mom was a clerk in the library, and I used to sit there and wait for her to get off work. I would read DownBeat magazine, and I had read all these articles about Bob Dylan. So I got on the bus and made this journey by myself to this record store. This record store clerk at the time -- and you should have seen the clerks -- it was this really nerdy guy with a short-sleeve white shirt and tie and horn-rimmed glasses. That sounds like it's cool now, but it very definitely wasn't cool then. I said, "Do you have anything by Bob Dylan?"
He looked at me real puzzled and went, "Oh, you must mean Bobby Dye-land."
He pulled out this 45 of "Like a Rolling Stone." It was like at the beginning of The Simpsons (he sings the beginning of the show's theme song), like God's in the room or something. I picked up that record, and I heard the music and looked at the picture of Bob Dylan. I remember him sitting at the piano with that crazy-ass hair, the Ray-Ban sunglasses and the harmonica around his neck. For the time I'd never seen anybody look like that. I'd never seen a white guy look like that.
It almost didn't register on me until I played it ten times. It wasn't catchy like the way pop songs are catchy -- it was something completely different. I just listened to that record nonstop. I'm not talking about the album, I'm talking about the 45.
I got hooked up in the Columbia Record Club. It was like, for a dollar you got six records. They would send you a record every month, and if you didn't pick one they would send you a record at random. One month I didn't pick one, and they sent me a copy of an album. It was The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, where he's walking down the street with his girlfriend. I was like, "Whoa, he doesn't look quite as wild as on the 45. What's up with this?"
I put it on and dropped the needle and listened to it. "Holy fuck, Dylan's gone acoustic!" It just blew my mind. He didn't sound like rock 'n' roll, he sounded like a folk musician. What's up with this? So I did the inverse of what everybody else did.
LCS: Do you prefer 45s or albums?
BR: Forty-fives. I think because to me they sound punchier, like it's recorded better. I'm not very technical -- it just sounds like they have more punch to it. To me the recordings on albums seem a lot thinner, because they have to take up more space.
Forty-fives are heavier vinyl. You can have a 45 from the '40s or '50s and it'll look all scratchy, and you put it on and it sounds really good; it doesn't sound like there's a million scratches on it. You take something that was pressed in the '80s and it looks like it's in mint condition, and it just sounds like crap; you can hear scratches all over it. It's in the quality of how they printed them -- they weren't doing it to last. Those earlier 45s can look like someone strapped them onto their feet and went skating down the sidewalk, and they still sound cool. Especially for rock -- you're not going to hear the scratches anyway. They just kind of give it more texture. LCS: Why did you name your radio show Bob's Scratchy Records?
BR: That was purely a defensive move. If I was listening to radio prior to that and I'd hear someone play a record that was scratched, it was real obvious that it didn't sound like everything else. Usually it was some hippie crap [where] you needed the quiet to hear what it was, but like I said, in rock 'n' roll the scratches don't matter. I knew that I was going to get some assholes who would go, "That sounds all scratchy." I figured I'd just jump past that by calling the show Bob's Scratchy Records. It's like a bald guy making fun of the fact that he's bald before anyone else could do it for him ...
Sometimes, if it's like a really cool song and there's a lot of scratches, I'll go, "I want you to just pretend there's a giant pan of bacon frying in the background while this is going on." I hope that covers it.
LCS: Do you think the pops and scratches that you hear on records add anything to the music?
BR: Oh god, yeah. I have a couple of records -- one is "Still a Fool" by Muddy Waters, and the other is Bo Diddley doing "Back in My Love Life" -- both of [the] versions I have are really scratchy. Nothing major -- just a bed of scratches ... [but] I've gotten a clean copy of those songs, and they don't sound nearly as cool. They sound a little too antiseptic. When you hear the scratches it's almost like you're smelling the cigarette smoke and it's burning your eyes. You can smell the alcohol in the air, and it's hot, and you're getting sweaty. Whereas when it's all clean, sometimes it sounds like you're sitting in a laboratory. It's the difference between Sonny Boy Williamson playing for a bunch of college kids in England rather than playing in a juke joint in Chicago.
LCS: Can music sound as good in a digital format?
BR: To me it can't sound as good, and it's maybe just me, but I know there are some other people like me. Like on NPR, they have those shows where you have a guy who sounds like an English teacher. He's going, "Now we're going to bring you down to the Delta and listen to the recordings of Blind Jimmy Shoeshine." They play it, and there's not a scratch on it. It just sounds so scholastic that all the emotion is totally removed from it.
For rock 'n' roll and dirty music ... what do you want an antiseptic version of dirty music for? That just seems like it defeats the purpose to me.
LCS: A lot of these classic rock 'n' roll albums are being remastered -- for instance, all of the Beatles' albums, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. Do you have any incentive to go out and rebuy those deluxe editions?
BR: No. That, to me, is just a trick on white folks. People get hypnotized by that shit. You know, the latest ad campaign tells them they got to have this, and they're so bored and empty in their lives that it's like, "Oh, this is exciting because they tell me it's exciting." That's fine -- I'm glad they found something, but I just think it's sad. To borrow a line from Marshall Crenshaw, "I never bother with the usual things." I want to find something that's got more mystery to it.
For the kind of music I listen to, I just want it rough and raw. One thing that really draws me to music is, sometimes if I'm feeling really bad and my heart's feeling broken, I wanna go to the Record Exchange and go up into that big giant 45 room -- just hunt through that shit, look for certain labels. I have an idea of what kind of label is going to have something I'm interested in. If I find one of them I look to see who's the artist, who's the writer, if there's any kind of information, like if it's recorded in Louisiana. To me there is something healing about finding some cool record recorded down in Louisiana by somebody nobody's ever heard of, and this guy's pouring his heart out. He's like this mysterious shaman from the past and he's carrying this message, and somebody else has felt like this before, and I feel more connected with the earth somehow. That's what I feed on.
Most of the time the records that are Holy Grails to me are ones that are just filled with mystery: "Wow, who in the hell was this? What made them do this? Did they really think that this was going to sell, or did they just, in their heart of hearts, know that they just had to get this pressed up and put it out there?" All they really knew was that this was something that they had to spew out, and it's going to be there for-fucking-ever. I come along 50 or 60 years later and I found it; I hope that somehow they know that I found their record and I'm playing it on the radio.
LCS: You started that story explaining the passion of the hunt. Do you think current generations of music fans, though they have the instant gratification of getting it online, might be missing out on the hunt?
BR: That's like a real double-edged sword, isn't it? You have access to almost anything you can imagine at your fingertips nowadays; it does seem like it loses some of its value. I didn't start getting into computers until probably around 2000, but all of a sudden it dawned on me that there are 17-year-old kids who know about records that came out in 1967. If you were a record freak in 1967 you had to be extremely hip to know about something. These kids today, they know about stuff that's totally obscure ... You would've had to have friends in every city to find out about that [in '67].
You used to go into a record store for a new record. They would cost like eight dollars for an album. You would go in and you would look at the covers. You would stare at that cover and spend practically the whole afternoon looking at record covers. You couldn't play them at that time [in the store] -- you just had to make a good guess. "Does this cover look like it's going to be worth my money? Eight dollars!" Sometimes it paid off, sometimes you were just a chump. There was some mystery to it even then.
I don't see how it can have the same value [now], because you can just go to a computer and get a taste of it. You can get it for free whether you want it or not. I don't see how it can have the same kind of value.
See, the cool thing is, the kind of shit that really means something to me, you still can't get on the computer. Generally, if you don't find it online it means that no one ever really noticed it. When I have a record like that that I think is really cool, and I realize that nobody really noticed this record, I really feel like I got something.
LCS: If you could give a young music lover who's never bought a record a few words of wisdom to get them to go out and buy a record, what would you tell them?
BR: You know ... (long pause) ... part of it that gives it its value is, it's amazing the number of 45s you find that have a little piece of tape on them with a girl's name on it, or written across the record -- very rarely a guy's name. You know, these girls had sleepover parties and they all brought their 45s, [and they wrote their names on them] so theirs wouldn't get mixed up with everybody else's. Just the story of "you've got the same object in your hand [as] someone who lived back then, and maybe this was something that was really important to them."
You really have a little piece of somebody's life, or history of this country, or the real culture. Not only is it this object that was owned by somebody that [it] was so important to, but it's something that was recorded by somebody [and] what they were saying was real important too, or who they wanted to be was real important too. Sometimes having that in your hand and putting on the turntable and dropping the needle and listening to it can actually make your life better. It's like finding some sacred object that has some of the secrets of life there. You get to share and be part of that, and maybe when you're gone, that will be left for somebody else to find.