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Nothing undermines the Canadian myth of politeness and boring civility like our propensity to riot.
And I’m not talking about civil disorder attributable to political unrest, student protests, and labour tensions. I’m talking about our tendency to get loud and shirtless and stupid every time a hockey team advances to the next playoff bracket. In 2008, while living in Montreal, I remember sitting in a downtown bar surrounded by people draped in multiple layers of multi-coloured t-shirts and hoodies, looted from an American Apparel after the Habs beat the Bruins in game seven of the Stanley Cup quarter-finals. In its dumpy, idiotic way, it felt historic; part of a tradition of Canadians (and perhaps Montrealers especially) seizing on any excuse to break some glass and flip over some cop cars. At the time, it reminded me of another riot, also coursing through the streets of Montreal—one that belongs not the annals of sports fandom, but to the anarchic spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
On July 17, 1992,
Guns N’ Roses
—two of the biggest American bands of the era, if not ever—set out on a co-headlining tour. GnR was promoting their mammoth, seven-times platinum-selling, sort-of-double-album
Use Your Illusion I & II
, which cemented their status as the most popular hard rock act on the planet. Metallica, meanwhile, had burst into the mainstream with their self-titled fifth record (a.k.a. “The Black Album”), which saw the band turning from thrash metal heroes to radio-friendly rockstars. “Both of them touring, with each other, at the same time?” says Patrick Emond, who was a student at Montreal’s Concordia University at the time. “It was like, ‘Sold. I’m done.’ It’s not a concert you’re going to get nowadays. Who in the world at that high a level is going to share a tour with someone else at that high a level? It would be, like, Beyonce, and then someone else four steps down the food chain. And the tickets would be like $500.”
Emond remembers lining up in the parking garage of a local mall, camping out overnight to get tickets. He remembers saving a day’s wages for the $35 ticket. He even remembers one of the old full-page ads taken out in the local newspaper to promote the show. “It was so deliciously ironic,” he says. “The tagline was something like, ‘The Concert They Said Would Never Happen!’” They said it would never happen. And when the concert tour rolled around to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on the evening of August 8, 1992, with openers Faith No More in tow, it didn’t happen. Not quite, anyway. Montrealers were promised the biggest rock concert of the year. They got a riot instead.
It went like this: early into Metallica’s set, a piece of pyrotechnics malfunctioned, singing singer/guitarist James Hetfield. “It happened so quickly, that nobody realized what really happened,” remembers Emond, who was 20 at the time. “Next thing we know James Hetfield is running off stage. Then the band keeps playing on for five, ten seconds. Then they get a signal or something and go off stage. Everybody’s like, ‘Okaaaaaay. What just happened?’” The band left the stage and, Emond recalls, drummer Lars Ulrich came out to explain that the show would be cut short, as Hetfield had to be taken to the hospital to have his burns treated. Metallica’s unplanned exit meant that Guns N’ Roses would have to take the stage early. But they refused. At the time, frontman Axl Rose was in the full throes of the arrogant rock decadence that would become his brand. Before hitting Montreal, Rose had already: puked on stage, been hit in the testicles by a lighter thrown by a “fan” during a performance of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and diagnosed with vocal damage. He was also, some fans remember, dabbling in the occult.
“What we heard in the media at this time was that he was seeing somebody who told him, ‘Don’t play in a city where the first letter starts with an M, like Minneapolis or Montreal,’” remembers Jean-François Blais, who was 21 at the time of the infamous Montreal concert. “Montreal was the only place he was playing in the area, so the producer didn’t want him to cancel. So he played. He decided to give the show. But he was not really happy to give this show.” After what Blais recalls as a “fuckin’ long” break, Guns N’ Roses took the stage. But it was obvious that Rose didn’t want to be there. “We were all taking drugs, LSD,” Blias recalls, referring to himself and the group of pals he rolled to the show with. “So when Guns N’ Roses arrive on the stage, the band looked a little bit weird. Axl Rose was singing songs on the edge of the stage like he was totally bored to be there.”
"The story I heard afterwards,” says Emond, “was that was they didn’t have time to get the monitors the way he wanted it. He wasn’t happy with the sound, so he pretty much storms off stage. You could tell his attitude that he wasn’t really into it. When a lead singer, a frontman is into it, you know: they’re running all over, they’re having a good time.” After just a few songs (five, Blias estimates; newspaper reports peg the set ending after something like 55 minutes), Guns N’ Roses left the stage. “We were really high, in bad seats, very high up,” Blias says. “But we can see backstage. I saw a car come. A limousine came to the back of the stage. Then the car backed out of the Olympic Stadium. Then I told my friend, ‘Fuck! Guns N’ Roses are gone! The shows over! There’s no more songs! They’re gone!’”
Shortly after, the screens at the Big O flashed with the statement, “The show has been cancelled. Please check the media for news.” And that’s when things went sideways. “This was the show we’ve waited however many months for—or even years for!” says Patrick Emond, his rage and annoyance still palpable, over the phone, some 24 years later. “Not only did we only get part of Metallica, we barely got any Guns N’ Roses because Axl was having a hissy fit!” Emond’s disappointment and anger was shared by many of the 50,000-plus fans in attendance. Some fans called for the heads of Guns N’ Roses, chanting, “Kill them! Kill them!” Others threw beer bottles and tore up stadium seating. On the floor, in what might have been the mosh pit, some ripped-off fans piled t-shirts and other merch into piles and set them ablaze, lighting up the stadium with ad hoc, if pricey, bonfires. Soon, the Olympic Stadium was in the throes of a full-blown rock ’n’ roll riot. Blias refers to the scene of violence, property damage, and destruction, in densely accented Quebecois english , as “the mess-up.”
Soon, the chaos poured out of the arena floor and into the corridors of the stadium, and then into the streets. “We waited until the Olympic Stadium was empty,” says Blias . “Because we knew if we left we would be in big, big trouble. Because we were all on drugs. We waited maybe half-an-hour. When we got out, there was a big open area, and there were all these bottles of beer that people were launching. It was really dangerous. There was a car on fire. Like a Chrysler car that they had turning on a platform. It was turning, but it was on fire!” More stuff was smashed. A young woman, swept by a charge of rioters, was pushed through a glass case. Souvenir stands and concession booths were looted. “People were bee-lining for the souvenir stands,” Emond remembers. “Because duh. If you’re going to riot, you might as well loot. But none of my friends were really the, ‘Okay let’s go light stuff on fire and steal a dozen Expos jersey’ types.”
Some 300 cops were dispatched to the Big O to contain the riot and cordon off the nearby Metro stations, in addition to the 400 security guards already in attendance (double the typical deployment for a concert of this size). “When we got outside of the Olympic Stadium, then we saw the police,” says Blias. “There were three police cars, tipped over, on fire. There were people everywhere. I told my friends, ‘We have to get out of here.’” Police estimated that something like 10,000 Guns N’ Roses fans—or ex-fans—took part in the riot. By the time things wound down around 1 a.m., in the early morning of August 9, 1992, twelve people had been arrested. Charges ranged from theft and disturbing the peace, to assaulting a police officer and possessions of prohibited weapons. Subsequent Canadian dates were cancelled with the show in Toronto rescheduled to September. Some disappointed fans consoled themselves by trekking to the Kingwood Music Centre at Canada’s Wonderland to take in a comeback concert by sleepy prog-rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. There were no reports of unrest or upheaval.
In hard-rock-loving Montreal, the experience left a sour taste. While Metallica made good on a reasonably priced makeup concert at the Montreal Forum, Guns N’ Roses weren’t so gracious. It probably didn't help that the concert’s promoter refused refunds for tickets to the concert-cum-“mess-up.” “Guns N’ Roses was no longer my go-to band,” remembers Emond. “For awhile I wanted nothing to do with them. Their cassette went to the back of the box.” And yet, for someone who wasn’t there, who has only heard about this rock riot in whispers and read about in the archives of old newspapers, the whole scene seems weirdly romantic. Perhaps especially so with the mostly reformed Guns N’ Roses—including Rose, guitarist Slash, and bassists Duff McKagan currently touring together for the first time since 1993 on their “Not In This Lifetime” tour—making its first Canadian stop in over two decades this Saturday. Chances are it’ll just be another bloated, expensive, very fun cash-in reunion tour. But there’s that outside chance, that danger, that something might spark off.
On “Get in the Ring,” the hilarious call-out track from Use Your Illusion II, Axl Rose howls, “You may not like our integrity! We built a world out of anarchy, yeah!” It’s the sort of dumb lyric that would easily pass as self-aggrandizing arena rock pompousness, had it not proved true. Guns N’ Roses did build a world out of anarchy. And on the evening of August 8, 1992, those simmering anarchic undercurrents, catalyzed by beer and good old fashioned dissatisfaction, boiled over.
Fans not only ripped apart a stadium, but they also burned t-shirts and scraped with police. They turned against the band themselves. It was like the spirit of riotous, anarchic rock ’n’ roll turning against rock ’n’ roll itself. It wasn’t about integrity. It was about the lack of it—about the utter arrogance and entitlement of rock music itself nd Axl Rose specifically. As a former fan, Patrice Lapointe put it to the Toronto Star at the time, “They’re spoiled. They made too much money too fast and now they don’t give a damn about their fans.” “Those guys better not show their faces in this city again,” Lapointe told the newspaper. “We’re going to kill the bastards.” Guns N’ Roses has never played Montreal since the disastrous Big O show in 1992. And they appear to have no plans to play a much-belated make-up show. Not in this lifetime, anyway.
John Semley is a writer in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.