In 1991, few bands could rival Guns N' Roses in either record sales or in reputation for mayhem. The LA band's 1987 debut record, Appetite for Destruction, sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and in the summer of 1991, GNR was touring the world in advance of its most ambitious project, the double album Use Your Illusion I & II, set to be released that September.
The North American leg got off to a rocky start as the band was two hours late to the stage at the kick-off show in East Troy, Wisconsin. But the negative press that trailed GNR — delayed start times, frontman Axl Rose's combative on-stage rants, scuffles with fans and security — only burnished its reputation as legitimate rock & roll bad boys.
The St. Louis date of the Use Your Illusion tour would be only the third event at the brand-new Riverport Amphitheater (now Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre). Local concert promotion heavyweights Contemporary Productions were 50 percent owners of the Maryland Heights venue and had sole rights to its booking, which filled a longstanding need for presenting concerts too big for spaces like the Fox Theatre beyond the cavernous (now demolished) Checkerdome.
For the band's July 2 Riverport date, 17,000 tickets were sold, nearing capacity for the 20,000-seat venue. After an opening set by Skid Row, Guns N' Roses took the stage to the strains of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." The band played for nearly 90 minutes before chaos broke out.
Rose, reportedly agitated by the contraband camera snuck in by hard-rock fan and Saddle Tramps motorcycle club member Bill "Stump" Stephenson," leapt angrily into the crowd. After a few moments, Rose returned to the stage, blamed the "lame-ass" security, threw his mic down and left. His bandmates, seemingly confused by the melee, followed suit.
What happened after has long since passed into St. Louis concert lore and become a defining moment in GNR's legend. The "Riverport Riot" left more than 60 people injured, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to the brand-new venue and saddled Rose with arrest warrants, lawsuits and hefty settlements.
On the 25th anniversary of the aborted concert and its aftermath — and as a reconstituted Guns N' Roses tours the United States — the Riverfront Times presents an oral history of the Riverport Riot from those who saw it firsthand: the promoters, security guards, radio DJs, music critics and teenage fans who were there when the house lights went up and the shit went down.
"You know that movie Escape from New York? I guess they filmed a lot of it here or something? So that was kind of my first experience of knowing where I was. Do you know where you are? Do you know where you are? All I know is when I was here and I was seventeen, I was in the middle of the fucking jungle baby!"
— Axl Rose introducing "Welcome to the Jungle," July 2, 1991
On June 14, 1991, Riverport Amphitheater hosted its first concert. Built on a flood plain in a then-undeveloped part of west St. Louis county, the venue is the jewel in the crown of Steve Schankman and Irv Zuckerman's Contemporary Productions. The company has been booking concerts since 1969.
Steve Schankman, co-founder of Contemporary Productions: We opened Riverport in June, and the first show was Steve Winwood and Robert Cray. I think that went off without a hitch. When Mannheim Steamroller played, we got an incredible amount of wind; it was The Wizard of Oz visiting St. Louis. And we weren't set to have that kind of weather, so all the stuff on top of the pavilion was starting to blow over. I mean, they left roofing up there and metal stuff. They hadn't gotten it cleaned up yet. The foundation was settling, trees were just planted, so everything was a lot more vulnerable that early on.
The Guns and Roses show would be only the third concert at Riverport — and everyone was geared up for something big.
Walter Wright, B & D Security: I was running security for the barricades. Everybody had known the hype of GNR — they were the biggest thing out there. You had heard of him starting late, being temperamental. There was a lot of hype, but it was no different than Metallica or AC/DC.
Schankman: When it was booked, it was in January, so we weren't seeing the problems he was having in other venues, coming on stage late. So I asked the manager who was there, I said, "What is it gonna be like tonight?" He said, "He's calming down but don't plan on him being onstage on time. You think you're gonna see him at 9 o'clock but he's not gonna be there at 9 o'clock."
"This is something that a lot of you may already fucking own since it sold three to five million bootlegs. Impatient motherfuckers!"
— Axl Rose introducing "November Rain," July 2, 1991
Anticipation was high for the show, which found Guns N' Roses at both its creative peak and on the precipice of forces — drug addiction, combative personalities, unprofessional behavior — that would eventually scuttle the band's interpersonal dynamics. None of that mattered to its many fans.
Jon Feraro, fan: I remember how good of an album Appetite for Destruction was. It blew the doors off everything else. It was incredible. All the bands you saw on MTV were wearing makeup and super poppy — bands like Poison. GNR came along and just killed the glam show. Their rock was so powerful and dirty and good.
Thomas Crone, then-staff writer, Riverfront Times: They were the biggest band in the world.
Guy "Favazz" Favazza, KSHE DJ: I had officially started at KSHE two weeks before. I had been an intern for 6 months. I had bought tickets with my high school friends, and we were dying to see 'em.
Schankman: It was just another show — there was a list of shows for the summer printed out, and here was GNR. I didn't know what GNR was — I thought it was a record company. I mean, Irv Zuckerman, who was my partner for 30 years, he did all the booking. That was his department. I ran all the operations.
Feraro: We were stoked and stoned and super ready.
Scott Bahan, fan: I was sixteen in 1991. It was my first official concert I went to on my own. I was starstruck by the whole thing. I thought Axl Rose and Slash and those guys were larger than life, and they looked that way with these two huge screens that they had on each side of the stage. We were out in the grass. I was taken back by the spectacle of the whole thing.
Crone: It was a very dude-heavy crowd too, as might be assumed. It was just dude after dude, shirtless and hanging out and sort of loud. It was a loud crowd; people were ready to rock.
Favazza: It was an awesome show. I was a big Slash fan. I was sitting on his side. I can't say I really had an inkling what was going on.
Axl Rose, for the most part, seemed like himself — or as much himself as Axl Rose can ever be. According to the professionally shot video of the show, widely accessible online, Rose makes no overt complaints to the crowd about cameras or security issues.
Schankman: He looked a little agitated to me, but I'd never met the guy.
Dan Durchholz, then-Riverfront Times music writer: Most of the concert went off fine without incident. It was almost over when it all went down.
Favazza: He was kind of a jerk on stage, I thought. He told a story about being molested in St. Louis. I remember that part and have seen that online. He was just setting the stage.
Rose told the crowd, "St. Louis! I'll tell you a little something about this city. I was seventeen, and I left Indiana because I had a disagreement with one of the juvenile detectives. I had about 35 bucks and I took a bus to St. Louis. That was cool. I had about a half a joint and I went down by the Arch and smoked half a joint. And then I went out by whatever freeway I was closest to and I hitched a ride with some air conditioning repair man in a van. It all seemed pleasant and safe enough and nothing really much happened. I was, like, exhausted and beat and never been out of my fucking town on my own in my life. And we went to some fucking hotel and I crashed out and this guy crashed out, and I woke up and this guy was trying to fuck me. I don't care — you can be male, female, you can be a fucking dog — I don't care what you are, man, that shit ain't right. It took everything I had not to slash his jugular vein."
Schankman: Show goes on, and I'm walking the audience, and during "Live and Let Die" everything was fine. I walked all the way up to his protruding stage. He brought his own thrust that went into the fifth or sixth row. The audience was tame as could be. We were extra-precautionary and brought in more security than usual, only because it was a hard rock show. We'd do the same for Metallica. Do the same for Lollapalooza.
Wright: It didn't seem uncontrollable at all. Most of the evictions were alcohol-related. Back then, the '80s/early '90s, a lot of times you did let the crowd release a little bit. We weren't having a particularly hard time keeping the crowd out of the aisles.
Bill "Stump" Stephenson, a longtime rock & roll concert-goer with a penchant for shooting shows without permission, had worked his way to the front of the stage.
Bill "Stump" Stephenson, concert-goer and contraband photographer: I handed him a card saying "Welcome to St. Louis," with my motorcycle emblem, which I had done in the past, and they always gave me a thumb's up. He just kind of read it and threw it to the side.
Schankman: By the way, Stump came to all those shows. We never had a problem with Stump. My thought is maybe Axl had a problem with Stump. He had been to St. Louis before, and rumor has it that the Saddle Tramps [motorcycle club] and Rose had some confrontation. Rumor — I cannot confirm that. But seeing him taking a picture was like an insult.
Durchholz: I'm not a believer in any sort of supernatural bullshit or anything like that, but there was something in the air that night, this general ugly feeling. I can't put a name to it; it felt like something was gonna happen. I don't know if it was the weather, I don't know if it was the band, I don't know if it was the crowd.
"Hey! Take that! Take that! Get that guy and take that! I'll take it, goddamn it!"
— Axl Rose during "Rocket Queen"
In the middle of "Rocket Queen," Rose stopped singing to point out Stephenson and his camera. He then jumped into the crowd. The entire exchange, from Rose's exhortations to his diving into the crowd, took nine seconds.
Wright: People still brought in small point-and-click cameras. I didn't know anything was going wrong until he stopped in the middle of that song.
Stephenson: I had taken pictures throughout the show. It was during "Rocket Queen." After I took the picture he just started hollering and pointing down at the crowd.
Wright: At first we weren't sure who he was pointing too; he was already leaving the stage in mid-air. He landed on Stump and pretty much knocked him out.
Stephenson: I moved a little to the left, a little to the right, and he was following me with his hand and finger. I turned and handed the camera to my friend, who was in a row behind me. When I handed the camera off, as I'm turning back, he was already in flight, coming at me. He hit me blind-sided and we went over the chairs.
Wright: That's where he turned around and slapped one of our guys. A couple of us grabbed Axl and threw him back onstage to get him out of there. He made his rant about lame-ass security, and then he left.
Bryan Pollard, fan: It was a great show up until then. It was so out of nowhere. In the middle of "Rocket Queen," he jumped in and started grabbing cameras. He realized he was trying to fight a St. Louis biker gang.
Bahan: I didn't feel that it was complete, or that I would have been satisfied. Nobody was ready to go home; people were still ready to indulge in it, be a part of it. And they were playing my favorite song when it started — oh man, "Rocket Queen"!
Joe Stickley, fan: One thing that was disappointing was that it was during "Rocket Queen." On my way to school when my dad would drop me off, I would listen to that song. I always loved the end, that ballad part. I was bummed because we never got to hear the end.
William Sawalich, fan: Our seats were toward the rear of the covered section. After the lights went up and we all — or most of us — started filing out, pretty bummed out. We'd been hearing stories from this tour of these long, epic, three-hour shows. So to have it cut short was even more of a bummer since our expectations were higher than usual.
Durchholz: He claims that there were glass bottles thrown at him. He said that was the last straw, with the guy taking pictures of it.
Schankman: What people didn't have were guns, knives and cans, which they claim were thrown at them onstage. We confiscate that kind of stuff. I'm not saying there wasn't one can or one bottle — you'd be surprised what women do; they'll sneak something in in places we can't even talk about, and we certainly can't look at.
Pollard: He kinda figured out that you don't want to jump into a crowd of really drunk hoosiers in the middle of heat wave.
Stephenson: The medics come out and duct-tape me all down flat, with my back down, my neck down, my arms down. I had obviously been laying there for a while because I started seeing debris fly by. I said, 'You either need to flip me over face-down or loosen my hands so I can block my face!'
"Well! Thanks to the lame-ass security, I'm going home!"
— Axl Rose, July 2, 1991
After Rose left the stage, confusion settled over the crowd. The band had played thirteen songs over 83 minutes before Rose jumped into the audience. A representative of the band promised that Guns N' Roses would return if the crowd settled down, but once the house lights came on, patrons knew there would be no encore.
Schankman: All of a sudden we hear from Robin Tate. Robin Tate was my VP of production. Robin is calling Cindy [Schroeder, Contemporary's box office and house manager], and we hear that Axl has left the stage. Well, that's not unusual. Maybe he's gone off and is gonna come back on. I can hear him telling her he's not gonna come back on.
Favazza: You just figured they're gonna come back. When the lights came on, that's when the show was over. From what I remember, when the lights came on, that's when the shit started flying. I couldn't believe people were acting the way they were.
Feraro: It was just silent, then it was like a plane taking off — there was this build to the crowd, for lack of a better term. The tour buses started pulling away, and you could see the facade of the backdrop of the stage. It was the whole train, but all their equipment was on stage. The crowd started chanting "bullshit" and it escalated from there.
Once fans realized that the show was over, hundreds rushed for the front of the stage. Many were successful in breaching the barricades and reached the stage.
Durchholz: The cops or fireman had brought out a firehose to spray the audience from coming on stage, and the water pressure was not sufficient to deter people from coming. This guy pulled his pants down and waved his dick at the cops as they sprayed this soft stream of water at him.
Schankman: The problem with water is that when you've got pyro, we shut the water system off. Nobody turned the water system back on, so all you got was a little spurt.
Wright: It's not like it was a total mob scene — it was probably on 1,500, 2,000 people that were really hardcore going at it. We had a lot of security that we started calling down there. Maryland Heights Police and a few of us got onstage to stop people from getting on stage.
Stickley: There were SWAT teams, there were shields and there were physical altercations. I remember crouching under the picnic tables 'cause things were moving fast. I remember people pulling the seats out — it was amazing to me to see people pulling out entire sections of seats. And then my next memory is walking out and hearing a lot of the rational-minded people exclaiming that this was bad and we're not gonna get another show, that GNR is never gonna come back here.
Pollard: By then I'd already gone to punk shows, so I wasn't too scared of chaos breaking out. But right then they started throwing full rows of seats, I realized that I didn't want to explain to my girlfriend's parents why she had a concussion, so we started to head out to the truck.
Crone: Once people got access to the stage, it was wild; it was like they were wrecking a pirate ship and hanging off the sails. People were literally hanging off the video boards and trying to climb the scaffolding. It was very striking.
Bahan: I remember watching people hanging from the cables and hearing the rip of the screens on each side. Just sheering from the weight.
Pollard: It was like the fall of Rome. You could see there were fires on the lawn. There were people fucking in the grass.
Stickley: I remember people rolling up entire sections of sod.
Wright: Doing it in-town, these [security] guys were making $7 an hour. It's a hobby, getting paid to see a free show. We had to start finding our employees and accounting for them. We found security shirts on the ground — people had just taken them off — and we found people in their cars.
Sawalich: In the parking lot, I reconnected with a friend I'd seen on the way in. He had an armful of piano keys and a microphone cover. "Some guy was selling the piano keys for $5 each!" he said. I think he had six of them. He said the guy threw in the microphone cover for free. For some reason I was compelled to smell the microphone cover. It totally smelled of stale cigarettes. How rock & roll is that?
Pollard: It still amazes me to this day the amount of actual gear they walked out with. GNR just grabbed the vintage guitars they had and that was it. People were rolling out four-by-twelve cabinets and monitor mixing boards. That part was just hilarious. It was some sort of white trash Fellini film.
Durchholz: It's funny how much like a film the whole riot played out in front of me. It had aspects of unreality; I couldn't believe what was happening in front of me.
Crone: Almost anything that was available to be moved was moved. I remember chairs being passed forward, almost like an ant colony, with chairs riding atop hands up to the front of the stage, and then they'd get thrown. If anyone had a beer in their hand, it was flying. Everything was coming forward.
Wright: I had one guy take twenty stitches in the head from a seat someone had thrown as a frisbee.
Bahan: Some guys in front of us, we watched them break the chairs, the seats of the chairs. They broke pretty easily; I didn't weigh anything, maybe 115 pounds or whatever, but I said, "Let's take a chair to commemorate." So we both took the chair we were standing on — you kicked at it once or twice and it broke.
Feraro: We went to a party that night — one of those bonfire things that every high schooler used to attend. People had seats from the amphitheater and people were sitting on them around the bonfire. Almost like, "Hey, this is a trophy. I have this and you don't." Everyone else was sitting on the ground.
Favazza: The guy that took the picture, Stump, he brought one of the chairs to KSHE, and he signed it to us. We had it up on the wall for a long time.
Bahan: I get home at 3 o'clock in the morning; my parents have no idea where I am. I remember my dad waiting on the sidewalk. I jump out of the truck and I have my chair with me. So my dad is hot; he is pissed. I've never seen him that upset before. He points at the chair and says, "What the hell is that?" I said, "Dad, there was a riot, you gotta turn on the news. There was helicopters and cops and shit everywhere!" He didn't want to have any of it: "What the hell is that?" I said, "Dad, this chair is from Riverport. I think this gonna be an important part of my childhood, my life — an historical event just happened!" He said, "Throw it in the garbage can right now!" I didn't want to throw this away.
"We have tape of one guy on stage with a knife. And we lost a million dollars worth of equipment in that show, and I don't see anybody else taking any responsibility for anything." Axl Rose, interview with MTV's Kurt Loder, July 12, 1992
On-site security was overmatched by the crowd, and for the first time in St. Louis County history, a Code 1000 was called, summoning all available police officers to Riverport. An estimated 400 officers from 30 police departments descended on the venue.
Wright: The police told us to leave the stage and leave the area and get our staff to safety. We got a few guys hurt — five or seven of our guys ended up going to hospitals. We tried to get people to the medical building. A few of us went backstage with the police.
Favazza: I will never forget all the police cars going the other way. We all looked at each other like, "Holy shit." That was my lasting visual — sirens, lights going past us. Quite honestly, it was scary. That crowd was a bunch of drunk assholes. They love their rock, but GNR brings out the rowdy, rowdy crowd.
Schankman: Here's what we're lucky about: We had 400 police officers — Code 1000 means from anywhere you can hear it, you gotta come — and not one gun was pulled. I didn't see anyone hit with a stick. They practiced incredible restraint.
Durchholz: We were there watching them sweep everybody out. The cops rushed toward us — I may have watched too many movies from the '40s, but I yelled "We're the press! We're the press!" The cop replied, "Fuck you, cocksucker!" and shoved us down the steps. One of them jabbed Crone in the kidney with a baton. I had to take him to a first aid tent to lay down for a while. These guys were not in the mood for Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen to be on the scene.
Crone: I was probably not as hurt as I thought I was, and also maybe hurt more than I thought, if that makes any sense. My adrenaline was on such a rush that I don't even know how hard I got hit.
"For the last few days, I'm watching CNN and reading this shit in the St. Louis papers about how I incited a riot, and they're talking about 'And in the band they have a recovering heroin addict...' What the fuck does that have to do with St. Louis?" — Axl Rose on-stage in Dallas, Texas, July 8, 1991
The riot became international news. MTV News quickly appeared at the venue and interviewed show-goers, and press clippings from USA Today, Entertainment Weekly and other outlets spread the story.
Durchholz: I just burned up my Rolodex and called everyone I knew — MTV News, Rolling Stone. That's a bit of the way of how the story got out. I wound up telling the story in other media before I could tell it in the paper I wrote for.
Feraro: We happened to be where MTV was interviewing people. My brothers put a VCR tape in and maybe a couple months later, my mom accidentally taped over it with a soap opera. I was so pissed.
Favazza: After that, the guy that was on the air [that night, on KSHE] — Jim Ellis, who's dead now — Axl called in to give his side of the story. Good old Jim didn't record it. I don't think Jim realized what had happened an hour or two beforehand.
Schankman: Next thing we heard was him reporting on KSHE how the promoters didn't know what they were doing. I promoted my first concert in '69 — this was '91. I had probably done 10,000 shows. I think I know what I was doing. But I can't control an act jumping off the stage.
"I'm saying, yeah, I jumped off-stage 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 it into my own hands with what I could do ... because I had been pretty much pushed to the limit by their lack of security. But I don't see anybody else in St. Louis really taking any responsibility for anything that happened." — Axl Rose, interview with MTV's Kurt Loder, July 12, 1992
After the dust settled, nearly all the blame fell on Rose. Contemporary filed a lawsuit claiming destruction of property. Stephenson filed suit too, seeking more than $2 million in damages over injuries to his back and ear. Twenty additional personal injury claims were levied against Rose by other show-goers.
Durchholz: The thing that touched off the powder keg was Axl's reaction to that specific moment. If he hadn't reacted so strongly to Stump taking a picture of him — if it hadn't happened in that way, I don't think it would have unfolded as it did. I lay the fault of the whole thing at Axl's feet.
Pollard: It certainly turned me off of arena shows, to sit outside and get sunburned for someone to get sand in their pussy and leave the stage.
Bahan: I was grounded for the whole rest of the summer. That was the last time I ever saw that girl. I always say that Axl Rose, he took it all away from me: I lost my girl, I lost my freedom, and I lost my innocence. I broke property and brought it home, all to be thrown in the waste basket. I did go back out the next day and took the bolts off it. I kept those.
Schankman: There was no doubt in my mind. I know exactly whose fault it was. We didn't start the problem and we certainly didn't start a riot. The big damages were the millions of dollars we sued them for, which had to do with defamation of character. He kept spouting off in all the trade magazines that we're a new facility and the security didn't know what they were doing. So the real loss was in that. And it got settled several years later for an undisclosed sum, but it was seven figures.
Wright: I would lay most of it at the feet of Axl for being an artist and leaving the stage. He had professionals that should have handled that for him. I think at the time they were touring with four security body guards and his security was really good back then. At the same time, on the road when you work for someone like that, you don't question them a lot.
Feraro: He's had other riots he could have prevented, where he's walked off the stage. He's been a dick in his shows. It's like, "Come on, man. Because someone threw a bottle you're gonna incite a riot over it?" The guy is a huge, epic tool. He is very talented at controlling, not only entertaining — the guy has a lot of power in his performance. That just doesn't go into his performance; that's in his presence. People are fixated on him. He draws huge reactions from people in the audience.
Schankman: He's not Axl Rose, he's Bill Bailey. He's putting on a show, he has a costume on. And I think it was entertaining. I was entertained. I don't think there's anything wrong with his talent.
"Fuck you, St. Louis!" — liner notes to Use Your Illusion I & II, 1991
On March 24, 2016, Guns N' Roses released a teaser video promoting an upcoming reunion tour. It included a promised show in St. Louis. Later promotional materials for the tour made no mention of the city.
Favazza: They owe us a show; they were gonna come here up until a few months ago. The day the shit broke, we had been promoting the fact that GNR was coming — they had it on their video teaser. They were gonna play the [Edward Jones] Dome, and we were all ready to announce. Some people never believed that GNR would ever play here. I was texting Richard [Fortus, St. Louis native and longtime GNR guitarist] back and forth. He said Axl would do a show here; they said they want to make it the last show on the tour, just to make it up and close that wound.
Schankman: It took its toll on me; I couldn't watch that video for awhile. What I was scared about was the next city. I didn't want other promoters — we're all very close — I didn't want other theaters going through what I went through.
Durchholz: It was one of the first shows at Riverport. I think that added to a lot of the drama surrounding it. St. Louis has never had a venue like that, and was this the new normal now? Obviously it wasn't, but I think it gave everyone pause. I think it gave the guys at Contemporary who had built Riverport heart attacks. Is this the kind of of thing that was gonna happen?
Stickley: I think I was more sad than anything. I wanted to see the show and at that age, even more than now, I looked up to rock & rollers and it just seemed in bad taste even then. I also look back now and think, these adults who were rioting were most likely intoxicated. Back then I didn't have any concept of what it meant to be inebriated to the point that you would do things you wouldn't do normally.
Schankman: I think it hurt his career; I think it was the beginning of the downfall of his career. I think he had to pay some of the money to his insurance company. The settlement was a multi-million dollar settlement. It could have gone either way; we could have gone down, but we went up to become one of the biggest amphitheaters in the country.
In October 1993, After three weeks of trial, Stephenson and Rose settled for an undisclosed sum; Rose was quoted in the Post-Dispatch calling it a "very minimal figure."
Stephenson: I asked my lawyer, "Is this done and over with now?" and he said, "Yeah." So I grabbed my book up with my photos of [Axl] — I said, "I'm going over to get my autograph 'cause he owes me an autograph." I walked over to the table and all the news media people were around him. I set my book down in front of him and said, "I think you should autograph this picture." He just looked at me, like, "Are you crazy?" It's people like me that buy your albums and come to your shows and put you where you're at. I think you got a little bit away from where you came from.
Durchholz: Let's think about the absurdity of how it looks from the modern perspective: A guy in the audience had a camera. Now, there's no way to stop people from taking photos.