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Second Set: A night with the guy who started the Guns n' Roses riot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2012 - Around a day or two prior, I landed a last-minute ticket to the July 2, 1991, doublebill of Skid Row and Guns n’ Roses at Riverport Amphitheatre. The invite was compliments of Daniel Durchholz, a fellow rock critic and staffer at The Riverfront Times. We attended a few shows together over the years, but none had the same memory-making qualities.

“We were in the (lucky?) 13th row, and watching everything unfold from that vantage point was like something out of a dream,” Durchholz says today. “I remember specific scenes from the riot like they were yesterday. In one of them, the guy in front of us stomped his seat to pieces, took a piece of it and frisbeed it toward the stage. It traveled in this huge arc, seemingly in slow motion, and cracked a security guard smack in the forehead. He was a big guy and it didn’t knock him down, but it staggered him. It was almost like a cartoon.”

The situation that put all that action into motion can be summarized quickly, though the impact had repercussions on a lot of the night’s players, ones that would last for years.

So this, more or less, happened on that wild evening: Stump Stephenson was near the stage with his friend Go-Go, photographing the show, as he’d done at dozens of gigs over the years. Of course, the camera wasn’t cleared and when Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl W. Rose saw an avid Stephenson snapping pics during the track “Rocket Queen,” he said a few words, then launched himself into the crowd. The energy set loose in the front of the stage slowly spread throughout the sold-out, 20,000-seat venue, especially after band members stormed off stage, obviously not intending to come back for the balance of the set.

As that realization hit, the scene Durchholz describes above began to unfold. The house lights came on. Cups began flying. Minor fights broke out in the stands, even as most of the anger was directed at the stage, itself. A line of security guards attempted to hold the space, but the fans’ target, the stage, was eventually subsumed. Fans not only took that stage, they took everything on that stage, at least anything that could be carried. Durchholz recalls the flying chair (and though I’d forgotten that moment, his description brought back that exact image, clear as can be). But my best recollection of the same night was the vision of a fan running through the crowd, clearly carrying GnR drummer Matt Sorum’s drum stool, which he held above his head as he rushed toward the lawn; he looked like a running back in that moment, sprinting, untouched, toward the end zone.

With the scene unfolding around us, Durchholz and I, as members of the press, decided to stick around. In time, police from multiple municipalities arrived, settling into riot control formation. They’d sweep through the remaining audience, a chunk of which was committed to mayhem, with the balance of us just looking on, slack-jawed. In the process, I took a nightstick to the side/back. While I recall the moment hurting, the adrenalin of the evening probably made it seem all that much more dramatic, so I made a meal of it and told that story, daily, for at least a month.

“Inside the venue, we were at the back of the pavilion,” Durchholz remembers “when cops were trying to clear the place. They were coming at us with nightsticks and I yelled, ‘We’re press, we’re press!’ They replied ‘That’s nice, m’f’kers,’ jabbed you in the kidneys and pushed us down the steps. You clearly got the worst of that. The cops denied using tear gas to clear the place, but I think it was just a problem of semantics. It was pretty obvious they used pepper spray or something like that.

“The next week,” he adds, “I was on one of those local Sunday morning public affairs shows with KTVI’s Don Marsh. The guests were Mayor Schoemehl and I. At the end of the mayor’s segment, Marsh introduced us and said, ‘Dan was at that riot the other night.’ Schoemehl said, ‘Wow, that thing really was out of control.’ And for some reason I said, ‘Yeah, it wasn’t that bad until the cops went nuts.’ He made a gesture like Rodney Dangerfield straightening his tie and said, ‘Whoa, I gotta go!’”

By the next day, in pre-Internet days, mind you, Durchholz was working up his notes into pieces that would land across the country.

“In many ways, Axl made my career,” Durchholz. “It’s too long a story to go into here, but the story of that night led to other opportunities, some of which I took. I owe Axl a lot. Thanks, Axl!”

View from the pit

Of course, Stump Stephenson’s life changed after that night, too. Multiple lawsuits over his photos were the negative aspect of the experience, with years of court dates following the actual brawl between Stephenson and Rose, which only lasted a minute, maybe two.

But it also gave him a storied reputation that can’t be denied. I knew of it. For years, I’d heard that Stephenson lived in South City, maybe even popped through some of the same taverns I frequent. A few weeks back, a mutual contact, Stephanie Ferguson, put out the call that I was looking for Stump, having exhausted a few other lines into him. A date was arranged. On a night when the Cardinals were still in the playoffs, Stump and I met inside the full barroom of Frank’s First Alarm, a Patch neighborhood staple that’s as authentic a South City tavern as you’ll find.

We retired to the back of Frank’s, with its glazed bricks and pool table. His friend Mark kept an eye and ear on our conversation.

“I’m a happy father of three,” Stephenson says. “A single dad. A chopper-ridin’ rock’n’roller.”

Confirming the frequently reported, Stephenson says he’s been a member of the Saddle Tramps motorcycle club “since 1988. My family’s been in the club since I was a kid. It’s a family, the club. It’s definitely part of what I am.”

Motorcycles have been a part of life even after the injuries he suffered during the riot. Recent surgeries have followed, but he’s still deeply ingrained in the culture. Part of that’s through working, at times, with the locally based Full Throttle magazine; with them, he’s done writing and photography and has been featured, himself, as the man of the month and for owning the bike of the month. Hitting the trifecta, he was also involved in the photo shoot for the babe of the month.

In recent years, Stephenson extended his lifetime interest in rock’n’roll into fronting the South Side 5; though the group’s been on-hiatus for a little bit. He says, “We’ve taken some off for my knee surgery. And now I’ve going to have a second. But the guys have been jamming on new songs. The guys are always jamming.” He shows off a framed photo of the band, taken at the old Rock Island, when his group opened for a GnR cover band, Paradise City. Strangely enough, I was at that show, taking a flyer on it for no particular reason other than people-watching, though I didn’t then know the opening band’s singer’s connection to the memorable night of July 2, 1991.

A known man

Others, though, know plenty about Stump’s story. Over the years, he’s been interviewed on British TV and has talked to reporters the world over. The story of the riot is exhaustively covered in John Nieman’s fantastic history “In Concert: KSHE and 40+ Years of Rock in St. Louis.” Bulletin boards dedicated to GnR tell all sorts of versions of the story. He’s struck up casual friendship with Ice-T and, once, when working for the club Pop’s, he drove around Sebastian Bach, the former lead singer of Skid Row.

In a thin slice of the world, Stump’s a known man.

It also appears that he’s got a lot of interests, many of them intersecting with bikes, rock’n’roll and all the affiliated aspects. When we meet, he tells me about a show the next night, with two tribute bands playing the Family Arena stage, including one dedicated to Bob Seger. “I’m a friend of the owner of Family Arena,” he says, putting four tickets in my hand. Even though I know I can’t go to the show, these tickets go out en masse, so it’s not going to cost anyone anything. And, somehow, I don’t want to upset Stump.

Our interaction is interesting. Asking him a question about Nieman’s book, he says the story’s on pages 216-219. (Yes, it is.) He travels with a copy of the South Side 5’s disc; he has me take a snap of that, as well as the picture of Paradise City. Then we jump into a photo together, with his friend Mark taking my camera for a couple posed rounds. What he doesn’t have with him, but hopes travel with soon, is the actual photo he took in the seconds prior to rock’n’roll history being made; the money shot is of Rose onstage, angry and focused on Stephenson, moments away from taking flight.

Over our time together, I learn little bits about Stump Stephenson’s life (he’s a huge KISS collector), but I’m not sure that I ever ask him the exact, overall, macro meaning of July 2, 1991. Seemingly, I got lost in the moment. See, there was this show. I was at it. The concert became, though, a random act, one of the five most-amazing things I’d ever live through. And here was the catalyst, in the back of Frank’s, my regular low-key, South Side lay-low. Whoa. Weird!

It seems, though, that he wanted to get this out, so here are his summary words: “I would like to thank all my true friends, who stood by me during all that shit and my family for keeping me grounded.”

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