It should have been just another concert, just another stop in the Midwest as the massive Use Your Illusions tour chugged its way around the world. Instead, it now features in Top Ten lists of worst concert disasters and further damaged the public’s view of Axl Rose. Even people uninterested in rock music had heard the news: Temperamental Singer Incites Riot. It was everywhere that summer. Another notch in the belt for those who had preached against the danger and wickedness of rock n’ roll with Axl Rose as their poster child.
For years, this incident has been boiled down to its most basic parts. Details have been lost in the retelling; distortions and poor generalizations have sprung up in their place. Let me be clear: I don’t condone the way Axl handled the situation; it was rash, stupid, and dangerous. However, in researching the events of that evening, once again I find that I can identify with his reasoning and that, while Axl’s actions escalated the tension, most of the blame should not be on him.
The basic gist of the story is this: In the middle of a song, Axl spots a fan with a camera. Cameras were not permitted, Axl calls to the security guards to take it. “Hey! Take that! Take that! Now, get that guy and take that! … I’ll take it, g********!” They weren’t moving fast enough for Axl’s liking, so with a spectacular leap, he took matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, the band kept playing, providing a pretty cool soundtrack to the scuffle on the floor. After a minute, band security hoisted Axl back up onstage. He snatched up his hat and microphone and delivered a line that has gone down in GNR lore:
“Thanks to the lame*** security, I’m going home!”
With that, Axl slammed the mic to the ground and stalked offstage. The band glanced around and then decided it was best to follow him. Around 20 minutes after their exit, the already-agitated crowd transformed into a horde of barbarians and literally tore the place apart. Not even an announcement that the band would return was enough to quell them. Seats were torn from their hinges and hurtled onto the stage. People set fires, slashed things with knives, kicked in the drums and speakers and fought with each other. The concert promoters and police realized the danger of the mob finding the band, so they were put on the floor of a van and escaped from the venue across the state line into Illinois.
The general reaction is, “All that over a stupid camera?!” It’s especially hard to wrap our minds around that now when seemingly everyone has a camera on their phone and modern concert footage shows hundreds of little glowing rectangles held up towards the stage.
So when this incident gets reduced down to Axl Rose vs. Camera, he does come off looking like a lunatic. No sane person goes ballistic over a camera. And when we leave the story there, it’s easy to mock and to laugh and to think that we can sum up the whole complicated person of Axl Rose by this one event. I admit, it colored my perception for years.
As irrational as his behavior may appear at times, Axl is not crazy, nor is he stupid. So what was the real reason that Axl got so upset? To get a better understanding of the vibe that night, it helps to watch the concert in its entirety. That, combined with interviews after the event help us to create a more accurate picture of what went down. We need to be able to see what Axl saw.
The place allowed bottles and knives and whatever else inside… And they [public] think I did it just because I wanted to stop somebody from taking my picture. The camera was the last straw, the final thing. I was sick of it, at that point, with the security in the front. There was a weird space in my mind the entire night. I was thinking, “Something isn’t right up here. Why is there this weird attitude, this passiveness, in the security?” There was no feeling that they were on the same team as us. Their feeling towards the crowd wasn’t right. A young boy and a girl were getting shoved over here while rowdy bikers are being allowed to do whatever they want. What is going on? I was very confused… One thing that is not being said in the press is that Earl Gabiddon [Axl’s bodyguard and head of GNR security at the time] was on the headset and he warned these guys [venue staff] in the front that either the cameras go or the show is off. He warned them four times. He was doing his job. [Musician, “There’s a Riot Going On,” Sept 1991]
Having that information, the puzzle pieces begin to fall together. But there is more that further explains the depth of what occurred. Axl did not attack an innocent fan. As it turns out, the man with the camera was a member of the Saddletramps Motorcycle Club called Stump. Pulling out a camera wasn’t Stump’s only transgression of the night; it was just his last.
All through the concert, Stump and his buddies were on the front row, heckling Axl. If you watch the full concert video, you can see some of these things happen. During the fourth song of the set — “Dust n’ Bones” — Izzy takes the lead, while Axl dances around with a tambourine and chimes in on background vocals. This early in the concert, something was already striking him as odd: at 11:56 on the recording, he looks at the crowd and throws his arms out as if to say, “What’s that about?” About a minute later, we can hear Axl calling out to someone in the audience, throwing his arms out again, but we can’t hear what he is saying over the singing. All during the song, we can see Axl looking hard at the crowd. As he sings the closing notes, he leans down towards someone in the front row (15:48) and takes a small card. ” ‘You have people yelling and screaming during the whole show,’ says Rose, ‘but this guy just wouldn’t stop, and he was loud — almost as loud as my monitor. He’s holding up a card and I’m like, “Okay yeah, that’s great.” But he still won’t stop yelling.’ … ‘I read his card, ‘ says Rose, ‘and I said, “Okay, you’re Stump from the Saddletramps — was that worth interrupting the show for?” Rose says he asked what he was supposed to do with the card and that Stump told him to ‘remember it.’ ” [Rolling Stone 22 August 1991] With obvious annoyance and disgust, Axl flicked the card onto the drum riser while he got himself a drink.
Two songs later, Axl, trying to be a good guy and connect with his fans, shakes as many hands as he can reach while still singing. There are a few audience members who, not content with a handshake, try to pull Axl into the crowd. Of course, we can’t tell from the video whether one of these is Stump or not, but just the fact that rowdiness like that was permitted begins to explain the vibe of that night.
Despite that, there were lighter moments: Axl grinning and making jokes with Izzy during “Patience;” Slash sitting atop the piano during “November Rain” in just his shorts and socks; Axl laughing at him afterwards as he scurried offstage “to find shoes.”
But things began getting tense again. ” ‘During “Jungle” — I don’t stand during “Jungle” — I just stood there and watched a security guy shove a young kid and walk about four feet into the aisle just to act tough and show the crowd that he was a man. Then he turned around to me with a smile of pride on his face. I looked at this slob while he was looking at me with this pride on his face going, “See what I do to your fans?” ‘ ” [Musician Sept 91] Although, the video doesn’t show what Axl saw, we can see him standing and staring intently into the audience for about half a verse before he snaps out of his inner thoughts and resumes running around. The remainder of the concert appears to go off normally and Axl is in full Rocket Queen character, when suddenly his eye is caught by Stump raising a camera. We know what happens next. When Axl disappears from view (despite the ostentatious black fur coat) it seems to corroborate his story that he wasn’t fighting — he was on the floor, hanging onto Stump so that he couldn’t get away. The band unperturbedly plays on as Axl’s bodyguard Earl lifts him to his feet. Axl is obviously still angry, pointing and yelling, and when a venue staffer leans in to say something, Axl cuffs him upside the head before being returned to the stage. Again the video seems to corroborate his story that he didn’t hit anyone except the venue security guard who was jawing at him.
” ‘When I got back onstage, says Rose, ‘I’d lost a contact, and I couldn’t see. My first thought was, “I’m out of here. I’m paying these guys’ [venue staff] salary, I don’t need to be treated like that by them.” I went backstage,’ Rose continues, ‘and found a new lens. It was getting crazy and we decided we were going to go back out and try to play, because we didn’t want people to get hurt.’ ” [RS 22Aug91]
But by that time, it was painfully obvious that it was too late. The rioters destroyed the band’s drum set, projection screens, monitors and amps in addition to the damage inflicted on the venue itself and each other. 500 police were called in, 60 people sent to the hospital, 15 sent to jail, and damages were estimated around $500,000. Izzy’s Marshall stack was later found 2 miles away, abandoned at a bus stop.
A year later, Axl was arrested in New York as he was returning from a European leg of the tour and was charged with four misdemeanor counts of assault and one misdemeanor count of property damage, issued by the St. Louis county prosecutor. The week following his arrest, Axl appeared in court in St. Louis where he plead guilty to the charges and was put on two years probation, and donated $50, 000 to child abuse organizations and, later, reached a settlement with Stump for injuries sustained when Axl jumped on him. Guns n’ Roses were banned from ever playing St. Louis again. When the Use Your Illusions albums came out in September 1991, that night was commemorated with a nice “F*** you, St. Louis!” in the liner notes. In an interview with Kurt Loder taking place between his arrest and trial date, Axl said, “We lost $1 million worth of equipment in that show and I don’t see anyone else taking any responsibility for anything. And I’m saying, Yeah, I jumped offstage, and yeah, things went haywire after that, and maybe I could have handled it better or whatever, but no one was really handling anything at that point. So I took matters into my own hands with what I could do… but I don’t see anybody else in St. Louis really taking responsibility for anything that happened.”
Although Axl paid his dues twenty years ago, the St. Louis riot remains one of those incidents that he’ll never live down. Understand again that I am not trying to exonerate him or justify his actions. Plain and simple: Axl screwed up. But he owned up to it and made restitution. The blame for the riot itself, however, rests solely on the shoulders of the crowd. As for all the silliness of “Don’t approach Axl with a camera or he’ll punch you out!” — notwithstanding a couple of other “camera incidents” (news crews/paparazzi hassling him in his hotel and the airport), the vast majority of the time, Axl is fairly gracious about having his picture taken, although by his own admission, he doesn’t particularly enjoy it. Axl puts up with a lot more than he is given credit for, and just like any human being, he appreciates being treated with respect. Besides, it has been 20 years since that night in St. Louis; we can stop flogging him now.