Critical Mass - Belleville is Not St. Louis - Part 1 of 2

The mid-1990’s were a crucial time for your kind writers on this website. We were transitioning away from college life in Carbondale, IL and Kansas City, MO and deciding what to do for the next stage of life. We both decided to give St. Louis a try with nothing but youthful love for each other in our hearts. Bored and broke in Belleville seemed a stifling proposition at the time.

Let’s go be bored and broke somewhere else, no? Seemed to make perfect sense at the time.

I moved to Dutchtown and she to North Hampton (~$275/month). We fell in love with St. Louis. It was sooooo different back then (1994-ish). The neighborhood corner bars were still open and full. The K-SHE and good country music hoosiers were still around. Smoke-filled, AB-only, mini-bowling machines and tasteful juke boxes aplenty, we drank Natch Light, smoked Parliament Lights and tried to blend in the background and listen and not get our asses kicked.

Never felt welcomed though, in a fun way. Always a distant adventure. Not boring.

St. Louis living on the dime was easy. We had no money, really…no money…week to week. It was simple and easy and fun…but maybe not comfortable.

We had no central air in our apartments (sob). Consistent home temperature is a luxury I will work to the bone to maintain throughout my life. How much historical strife, murders and other horrors could have been averted with just a little better temperatures in the domicile?

We walked to shaved ice vendors to buy sno-cones to cool off. It was our #1 respite from the heat. St. Louis summers are hot friends, and the brick oven apartment buildings were unforgiving.

Winter was friendlier. No forced hot air or temperature control, we taped our windows with Saran wrap, aware of all the worst gangway drafts. We experienced radiator heat for the first time, as did her cats, perched perennially atop. Renting was cheap…but the grim reaper of reality arrived when the oil was out in the furnace…more real bills, less Natch Light/smokes. Oil, not gas or electric…oil. It was a always a negotiation on how much to fill up when the delivery truck arrived. This month we’ll take a half…the landlord was aloof on this transaction.

It was on us to decide how much luxury we wanted/needed.

But the summers were most memorable. Our neighbors sat on the front porches and mean mugged us at first, and then became our watchers and eventually acquaintances/neighbors. “You locked your doors, right?” “Yep, thanks man.” Didn’t know if that meant they were watching protectively or more of an “I’ll take your shit if you don’t wise up” kind of thing. I choose love in retrospect…and I think I’m right.

Having the windows open almost constantly during the summers meant you hear the sounds of your neighbors and the street life. We were loving St. Louis, it was like dirty 1970s New York to us small towners. It was worlds away from our suburban upbringing and it was fun.

TV was different on the west side of the river, too. Her parents got her basic cable (probably because they felt sorry for us) and we tuned into World Wide Magazine on the regular. The possibilities were endless. This place was certified weird in every way we wanted back then. Hullaballoo, a million weird bars, weird music clubs downtown, old school businesses everywhere to buy clothes, shoes of all kinds, novelty stores…the best. Old school interactions with store owners who lived above their business…it still existed. I’m not embellishing.

This stuff is all gone now. Some call it gentrification. I say it’s just generational shift…time marches on naturally. Amazon you know. Kleb’s clothing, Trautwein’s Shoes, corner guzzling bars with regulars, K-SHE hoosiers….all gone. Hell, cities change on the regular. This is what makes us fun and unpredictable, not Kirkwood.

Somehow we missed another local cable access show called Critical Mass maybe by just a few years. Anyhow, thanks to the kind VHS recorder’s of history and YouTube up-loaders, we just recently started mining out youth via Critical Mass. It was a show hosted by DeDe Schofield and is an essential time piece, from it’s production, to the content, to the commercials during the show.

I stumbled across this show on YouTube trying to find old footage of a band called Chicken Truck (later the Bottle Rockets) which I had red and yellow cassette tapes from the 1980s that I can’t seem to find and am trying to rediscover. This is what you do when you get older.

I watched all the Critical Mass content and spent hours watching bands I’d only read about Thomas Crone and others write about from Belleville in the RFT. I have to admit, I never really connected with most of these 1980’s local rock bands back then or now, but man was it fun to waste time over.

But, that doesn’t mean the hustle wasn’t alive in the local music scene. And, Critical Mass is a document of the time that seems so far gone. Just validating that Euclid Records once was even in St. Louis before they moved to the staid suburbs was important. It was a meaningful place to us at one point in time, so was West End Wax. The judgmental purchases I made in these places made me stronger.

One particular Critical Mass video struck me. And, it’s a topic I’ve written about here, will talk about ad nauseam in person, and feel to my core: St. Louis is a unique place. It isn’t like the suburbs in the county that most colloquially call “St. Louis”, it isn’t the Metro East. It is it’s own place.

Those small towns in the region, including Belleville, have their own vibe and sense of place, but St. Louis was and still is pretty different.

And people and bands that recognize a sense of place, identity and honesty are still nearest to my heart. Uncle Tupelo was one such band from Belleville, that never claimed St. Louis as their home, even when they hit it big. They were a Belleville band (at first) and that meant the world to me as a Belleville kid. I mean this, as a person growing up in Belleville. Seeing a band or an artist being able to talk about their place honestly and break out and get recognized as important meant the world to me as a high school kid.

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Part 2 of this post will break down one interview on Critical Mass that I can’t shake and is somewhat validating in that I’m not alone in thinking all the small suburban towns surrounding St. Louis should be celebrated as distinct entities and not St. Louis.

Let the place you live and are be the place that defines your experience. Don’t sugar coat it.

St. Louis is it’s own thing.

Watch the first 3 minutes of the following video to see what public access TV and some local commercials looked like then. There are many others that have great spots for West End Wax (once in CWE) and other local businesses from that time.