I have lived in or near the largest city in Canada, Toronto, pretty much all my life. But in my 42 years, I have only been to Canada’s second-largest city, Montreal, twice. Once was in 1980 when my family travelled east to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and I remember bits of that trip (I remember it was 1980 because we saw The Empire Strikes Back in Halifax) but nothing about Montreal. The other time was shortly after I moved to Ottawa after graduating from the University of Waterloo in 1992. That one was more memorable.
I started listening to Metallica in about second-year university and by the time I graduated in 1992, I was a big fan. Faith No More’s album The Real Thing was one of my favourites during my university years, and while not a huge Guns ‘n Roses fan, I liked most of their music. So when I heard during the summer of 1992 that all three bands would soon be coming to Montreal, I was very excited. The radio ads said “seven hours of heavy metal!” I had moved to Ottawa in June to work at Corel, and Ottawa is only about an hour and a half away from Montreal. I called my girlfriend Gail (now my wife of fifteen years) and asked if she wanted to go. She’s not the metal fan that I am, but she liked Enter Sandman and a few GnR songs, so she agreed. Plus we decided to get a hotel room and stay over, so it was a mini-vacation.
We drove to Montreal the morning of the concert, which was on a Saturday. A friend of Gail’s lived in Montreal so we visited with her in the afternoon, and then walked down from our hotel to Olympic Stadium for the concert. I remember seeing an Expos souvenir shop near the door where we came in. The concert started right on time, with Faith No More opening. We were at the far end of the stadium, on the left side. I think we were on the lower level. The first thing I noticed when the show started was that the sound was terrible. Forget deciphering the lyrics, I couldn’t even figure out what half the songs were. Faith No More played for about 45 minutes, then they were done and we waited for Metallica. The tour was a “co-headlining” tour, and I don’t know if the order of the bands changed from night to night, but on this night Metallica was second and GnR third.
I don’t remember how long a delay there was before Metallica came on but I don’t think it was outrageous, maybe 30-45 minutes. I hoped that someone had fixed the sound problems, but alas, it was not to be. The first song they played was my favourite Metallica song ever, Creeping Death, and it was half over before I even realized what song it was. Sound problems aside, they put on a great show for about 45 minutes before it all went to hell. They started into Fade To Black, and about a minute into the song, after some pyrotechnics at the front of the stage went off, the music just… stopped. Dead air. Nothing. The smoke from the pyro cleared and we could see that the stage was empty. What the hell happened? Where’s the band? There was a lot of talking in the crowd, but the house lights didn’t come on, and nobody knew what was going on. It was several minutes before bassist Jason Newsted came out onto the stage and grabbed a microphone. He said that James (lead singer Hetfield) had been hurt by some pyrotechnics and he couldn’t continue, so they’d have to cut their show short. He apologized on behalf of the band but said that they would come back to Montreal and they hoped we’d come out and see them then. (Apparently they did come back the next year, with tickets under $20 each as a sort of apology.) On came the house lights, and a disappointed crowd waited for Guns ‘n Roses.
I’m guessing that the show was scheduled such that Faith No More and Metallica would each play for a pre-determined length of time, and enough time was set aside for two stage switches, so Guns ‘n Roses knew when their show was scheduled to start. GnR singer Axl Rose is not known for being flexible and… well, let’s just call a spade a spade. Axl Rose is known for being an asshole. I have no proof, but I have assumed since that day that Axl decided it was too bad Metallica’s show ended early, but GnR were scheduled to go on at whatever time, and that’s when they would go on. Those fifty-odd thousand people out there would just have to wait.
Two and a half hours after Metallica’s show abruptly ended, Guns ‘n Roses finally took the stage. After the high-energy Metallica show, we found that Guns ‘n Roses just didn’t have any energy. I have no memory of what songs they played, but Gail and I quickly got bored. Our feeling was “They made us wait 2½ hours and this is what they’re giving us?” After only about twenty minutes, I was bored enough to suggest that we take off. I was there to see Metallica anyway, Gail didn’t much care one way or the other, and we had discovered earlier that night that Blue Rodeo was playing a free concert across the street from our hotel. We were both big Blue Rodeo fans as well, so we left and took a cab from the Big O back to the hotel. We walked across the street and enjoyed the second half of the Blue Rodeo show.
While driving back to Ottawa the next morning, we listened to a Montreal radio station for a while. The DJs were taking phone calls from listeners who were all answering the question “If you could talk to Axl Rose right now, what would you say?” All of the callers had very negative things to say and we assumed that the majority of fans were as disappointed with the GnR show as we were, though maybe not enough to leave early as we did. After a while we lost the radio signal and turned it off, still blissfully unaware of what had actually happened. I didn’t find out until the next day, when I returned to work and my co-workers asked about the riot.
My response was “The what?”
As it turned out, Guns ‘n Roses played for a total of about 55 minutes before simply leaving the stage. Axl Rose later claimed that his throat hurt, and indeed a few shows had been cancelled over the previous couple of weeks for that reason. But on this night, to my knowledge, there was no announcement of any kind. The band just left the stage and the lights came on. The remaining crowd were less than impressed with this. The promised “seven hours of heavy metal” turned into maybe 2½ hours of music and over 3 hours of waiting. This displeasure resulted in people going down to the floor and throwing chairs, and then destroying whatever they could on the way out of the stadium. I saw pictures on the news of the very same Expos shop we had seen on the way in, which had been smashed and looted. When the crowd got outside the bad behaviour turned into a full-fledged riot, with the rioters looting stores and using Guns ‘n Roses T-shirts to set several fires including at least one car. The Montreal police had to use tear gas and shut down several subway stations. It even made the New York Times. This was the reason for the questions about Axl Rose on the radio the next morning, and it was big news in Ottawa as well, so everyone knew about it – except us.
Aside: According to an interview eighteen years later with GnR drummer Matt Sorum, the reason for the delay was that Guns ‘n Roses wasn’t even in the building. Actually they had not even arrived in Montreal yet. They were on their way from Toronto and were well over an hour away before they heard about the problems. (The text of the interview says that it had been 4½ hours, not 2½, but I don’t remember it being that long.) I’m not sure I buy this argument though. Opening act 1 was done and opening act 2 was on stage, and not only was the band not at the stadium, they weren’t even in the city? Good planning, people. Apparently the unexpected scheduling change caused other audio problems that contributed to the GnR show being cut short, but I’m not sure I buy this either. Sure the sound for the previous two bands sucked, but I have since heard from a number of people that concerts at the Big O always had bad sound. Plus, instead of the normal 45-60 minutes to switch stages, they had somewhere between 2½ and 4½ hours and still couldn’t it working properly?
The Montreal riot wasn’t the insanity that was downtown Vancouver after the Stanley Cup final, but I’m still very glad that Gail and I weren’t part of it. And we have two bands to thank: Blue Rodeo for being free, and Guns ‘n Roses for being boring.