St. Louis is a day away from welcoming Guns N’ Roses back to town for the first time in 26 years. But will Guns N’ Roses — and more importantly, frontman Axl Rose — welcome St. Louis back… to the jungle?
That’s where the two parties left off more than a quarter century ago. The band’s July 2, 1991 concert at the then-brand new Riverport Amphitheatre (now known as Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre) in nearby Maryland Heights, Mo., erupted into a violent and bloody riot, injuring 65 people — including 25 police officers — and resulting in dozens of arrests and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.
Rose himself was charged with four misdemeanor counts of assault and one misdemeanor count of property damage. He was found guilty and fined $50,000. He and the band also faced numerous civil suits stemming from the incident.
Now, 26 years later, one would presume that all such legal matters have been put to bed. A generation has passed and both the city and the band — as well as their fans — seem willing to let bygones be bygones.
But while it’s possible to forgive that evening’s transgressions, or simply get beyond them, it’s unlikely that anyone who was in the thick of the chaos and destruction of the concert’s aftermath will ever forget. I know I won’t.
At the time, I was an arts editor at the Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly. I attended the show with a colleague, staff writer Thomas Crone. Neither of us were covering the show, per se, but habit forced me to bring a notebook and a pen, just in case something newsworthy happened.
Good call, Dan.
The show — which lasted for nearly a full concert before the trouble started — was terrific. GNR was firing on all cylinders back then, with Axl, Slash, Duff McKagan and even Izzy Stradlin in the fold. The band played through “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Mr. Brownstone” — by then, already hard-rock classics — from Appetite for Destruction, an album currently celebrating its 30th anniversary.
But the real appeal of the show was a handful of soon-to-be classics from the then-forthcoming Use Your Illusion albums, which wouldn’t be released until that September: “You Could Be Mine”; “November Rain”; and the band’s epic cover of Paul McCartney‘s “Live and Let Die” were all performed that night.
It was nearly 90 minutes and 15 songs into the show, during the performance of “Rocket Queen,” when things went sideways.
Rose became furious with a fan in the first several rows, yelling, “Take that! Take that! Get that guy and take that!” Before security could act, or even know who or what he was talking about, Rose exclaimed, “I’ll take it, goddamn it!” and dove into the crowd. His objective was later revealed to be a camera being used by an audience member.
This was during the pre-smart phone era, recall; not everyone in attendance at a concert had ready access to a camera like they do now, and there actually was a reasonably-lucrative trade in grainy, poorly-lit concert photos shot surreptitiously with less-than-adequate equipment.
So it was a problem, albeit a microscopic one compared to the melee that ensued.
It took a while for Axl to get fished out of the group of people he’d leapt into, which — Oops! — just happened to be a motorcycle gang called the Saddle Tramps. Their leader, Bill “Stump” Stephenson, was the one with the camera.
Back onstage, Rose said, “Thanks to the lame-ass security, I’m going home!” He trashed his mic and stalked off. “We’re outta here,” Slash shrugged, and the band filed out in Axl’s wake.
No one was quite sure what had just happened or what might happen next. Time froze. Eventually, the lights came up and egress music began playing, but by then the audience’s blood pressure was up. Debris rained down on the stage and GNR roadies only exacerbated the situation. One of them — a man dressed in multicolored tights, wearing metal bracelets and holding a walking cane — taunted the crowd, grabbing his crotch and making jerking-off motions.
Meanwhile, violence had broken out everywhere. Rapt by the cinematic unreality unfolding all around us, Crone and I watched from our seats in the eighth row. Here are a few mental snapshots:
? A man, naked to the waist, with a gash on his shoulder and blood running down his face, broke free from the donnybrook down front and ran up the aisle.
? Another man, his head taped to a stretcher, was carried out.
? Police, summoned to the venue by a disaster-level “Code 1000,” ringed the stage, and some from the crowd unwisely chose to challenge them. One was tackled and beaten on the knees, further enraging the audience, which chanted, “F–k you, pigs.”
? Two young men in front of us stomped their seats to pieces. One of them flung the flat portion toward the stage, Frisbee-like, where it crashed into the forehead of a security guard, who later required numerous stitches. The bros laughed and high-fived each other.
? A fire hose was rolled out onstage, the idea being to blast anyone who dared try and break the cops’ perimeter. Unbeknownst to them, there was almost no water pressure. One man jumped onstage and stepped into the ineffective stream, then pulled down his pants and waved his penis at the cops.
Eventually, the police retreated and turned the venue over to the rioters. Video screens were ripped down, newly-planted trees torn out, and fires started out on the lawn.
Taking temporary shelter at the soundboard, I found a technician who stuck out his hand and, by way of introduction, said, “Hello, I’m unemployed. And you know why? Because Axl Rose just f–ked up.”
Together we watched as revelers swung from cables underneath the 60-ton sound-and-light rig, which lurched sickeningly from side-to-side. “If that rig comes down, there will be massive death,” the tech said.
A member of the security crew contracted by the venue was standing behind us, content to stay out of the fray. “This is a joke,” he said. “We’re staying here, covering our ass. People are animals.”
That was true on both sides of the law. Outside the venue, a large number of police queued up, ready to retake the venue and maybe bust some skulls.
Tapping his baton into his hand, one of them said, “Good thing I watched my LAPD video again tonight.”
This was only a few months, remember, after the release of the video showing the brutal beating of Rodney King. It seemed clear that was what he was referring to.
“Did you hear what he just said?” I asked Crone.
It went in the notebook and into the story I later filed for the RFT.
Back inside, the police methodically stormed the pavilion, working bottom to top. We watched from the upper end, and when they approached us, I held up my ID and yelled to them that we were not rioters, but rather press.
“F–k you, cocksucker,” one of them yelled back.
“We’re reporters,” I tried again as they neared.
“That’s nice,” another one said as he viciously jabbed Crone in the kidneys with his baton and the rest of them unceremoniously dumped us down a flight of stairs. As we hobbled off to find a place to recover, there was a whiff of some sort of chemical agent in the air. Cops denied using tear gas, but it could have been any one of a number of variations on that eye-burning, throat-constricting theme.
And with that, our evening came to a close.
A few months later, Axl immortalized the event, more or less, via a small notation in the liner notes of Use Your Illusion: “F–k you, St. Louis!” it read.
At the time, the feeling was pretty much mutual.
But time passes. Things change. Axl is back again with Slash and Duff and the boys — not a full reunion, but at least a regrouping of the GNR principals, which is what fans have wanted all along.
The band is even on a roll right now; its Not In This Lifetime Tour stands as the top-grossing tour so far in 2017.
And now, at long last, they’ve come back to St. Louis. They’re not playing what was once Riverport, however — probably to everyone’s relief. Instead, they’re downtown, playing the Dome at America’s Center, the usually-empty former home of the now-Los Angeles Rams.
Will the band open the concert with “Rocket Queen,” a nod to the previous show’s calamitous end? Will Axl address the situation? Will GNR and their fans alike just let the past go, pausing if only for a minute to think about the wasted years of bad blood between the band and the city, and for that matter, between the band members themselves?
Worst of all — (gulp) — will anything untoward happen again?
Whatever the outcome, I’ll be watching and listening, notebook — and, this time, a camera-equipped smartphone, too — in hand.