A Riot At Polaris

When a full fledged riot breaks out at an Ozzy Osbourne concert, you tend to think this might be national or at least regional news. And yeah, I’m sure it made the eleven o’clock TV report, probably appeared in the papers the next morning. But nobody I ask the following day heard anything about this, be it my folks down in North Carolina or coworkers here in C-Bus. I guess we’ve gotten this jaded to spectacle that nothing short of a bomb threat would break into the public consciousness. Then again, some reports allege this is exactly what happened.

The date is June 17, 1997 and the eagerly anticipated Ozzfest is rolling into town. Though only third to last, right before the man this tour is named after, and then a newly reformed original lineup of Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson has actually been more of an item in the days leading up to the event, with Christian picketers protesting his arrival for weeks. They’re still holding signs and shouting slogans about the self-proclaimed Antichrist Superstar as we’re pulling into that long lane leading back into Polaris Amphitheater.

A handful of us leave from our house in two separate cars, and throughout the day we will randomly acquire a much larger mob out on the lawn, a bunch of people we collectively know. Among these figures would be former classmate Jon Weirick, whom I haven’t seen in some four years, as he joined the navy immediately after graduating. Anyway he is either dating or trying to date or something one of the girls working the window down at one of the concession stands, which seems a trivial point at the time but will come into play later, as the show careens out of control.

The vehicle I’m in arrived a couple of hours after the first, and as such I miss opening act Powerman 5000 on the main stage. I’m assuming this was no great loss. Beyond the concourse’s most distant fringe, a second stage showcases a number of smaller acts all through the day. Alan and I witness a bad Alice in Chains ripoff band called Drain S.T.H., all the way from Holland, but are unable to talk anyone else in our posse into checking them out. They’re a four piece chick band and sound okay at best, though in appearance at least each member is a knockout, especially the drummer. At some point, Alan, Damon, and Paul also check out a group called Coal Chamber over there, and I’m surprised when they return and even a notoriously picky Paul is raving.

“They had this one cool riff, didn’t you think so?,” Damon says, turning to look at Paul, who nods his head in approval.

“Yeah, they were alright. That one riff was cool.” I can’t believe my ears – this is Paul Radick saying these words about a band that has been around no more than a couple of years, “the chick they had was incredible,” he adds.  Ah, so that was it…

Meanwhile, on the main stage, Fear Factory is okay, while Type O Negative doesn’t fare so well. I think they’re better suited to smaller venues, though their lead singer, Pete Steele, has among the deepest voices in history, we’re talking Barry White deep. He keeps swigging straight from this bottle of vodka or rum or something throughout their set, I can’t tell, and we get a kick out of their Cinnamon Girl cover, Damon especially – being a big Neil Young fan but not a Type O one, it’s surely the only song of theirs that he recognizes. But overall, I think Type O suffers from the all important issue of perception, at least among those of us who’ve escaped their teenage years. They seemed pretty badass to me, too, when they first came out, really heavy and dark. To view them live, though, you instantly become aware that this is all one big joke to the dudes on the stage. At least to my twenty-something self, I mean, a few moments watching them play makes this fairly obvious – and adding another layer to the comedy would be those in the audience who are still in their teens, mostly of the goth persuasion, nodding somberly and shooting one another meaningful glances to the music. Trust me, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about this group’s angle or ideology or whatever, they are plainly clowning.

Not so much Pantera. I’ve never been a huge fan of theirs, though many of my friends are. They’ve always just sort of been on in the background here and there, and I considered them decent, nothing more. But this show literally blows me away with its intensity. They and Type O Negative experience a complete reversal and then some today, in my personal ledger, and this is I guess one major reason why you should take in as many concerts as possible. I emerge from this now a huge Pantera fan, although there is one additional factor feeding into this assessment, which we will discuss here shortly. As far their set it concerned, though, by far they receive the greatest crowd response of any band to take the stage this day – kids moshing, one big sea of bobbing heads and moving bodies. It’s an amazing performance through and through. My only complaint, though there are a whole slew of other guilty parties, is that Vinnie Paul Abbott, Pantera’s drummer, has his bass drum sounding like someone flicking a piece of paper with an index finger. Lots of heavy bands do this, and I’ve never quite understood why this is the sound they’re all shooting for, because it’s actually incredibly thin.

As intense as Pantera is, gaining a new fan in me and undoubtedly countless others (hell, even Paul has to admit they weren’t that bad), Marilyn Manson winds up being equally terrible. Talk about today’s great disappointment. I smuggled in a pocket tape recorder, using it first to dub a couple Type O songs, only to decide they hadn’t sounded too hot and rewinding the tape. When Manson came on, I hit RECORD again, figuring I’d capture their show. After getting the first two songs off without a hitch, I start to wonder, though, if I might not run out of tape trying to get them, Ozzy, and then Black Sabbath all three committed to tape. As it will turn out, however, this is not going to be a problem, not by any stretch.

Halfway into the third number, Mr. Manson himself wigs out for some reason and intentionally knocks a monitor off the stage. Their lead guitar player looks over, sees what happened, and walks away, out of sight. The band tries in vain to continue for a few bars, but then stops, and one by one leave as well.

Looking back on what came next, I think Brian “Marilyn Manson” Wagner and the boys already knew what was bound to go down. This is Manson’s pissy little stunt because he’s well aware he will soon be upstaged otherwise – not in a musical sense, which he is apparently quite willing to live with, but in the controversy department. He considers himself the king of controversy, and it bugs him that Ozzy has a stunt up his own sleeve which is going to trump a bunch of silly picketers.

Damon’s loving this, as is Paul. Shannon, who is Damon’s girlfriend, and a big Manson fan, has been saying all day that they’re going to prove more popular with this crowd than Osbourne or Black Sabbath. Given a level playing field she may have been right or at least had a decent argument, but we’ll never know. Whatever the case, I do think their best angle would have been to get out there and play one killer set instead of contriving some goofy quote unquote temper tantrum, which is immediately forgotten about, and fails to upstage Pantera much less Ozzy.

Nearly everyone in the crowd starts shouting, not for Marilyn Manson to return, but for Ozzy to appear. “Ozzy!  Ozzy!  Ozzy!,” the chanting rages on. This must have hit a nerve somewhere, as the band comes back on and dives into Sweet Dreams, one of their two hit songs and a cover, at that. But partially into this tune, someone throws a plastic bottle on stage, it hits Manson in the elbow, he takes out the drum set with his mic stand and that is it, end of show.

Though there are at least a good twenty of us hanging out together on the lawn, Jon Weirick for the most part has been wandering around with one of his buddies all day. He swings by again at around 8 o’clock, and warns us, saying,  “dude, Ozzy’s not playing.”  I think he’s joking, as does everyone else.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

He’d just been down to visit his girl in concessions, and they were closing up shop. Though numerous conflicting reports will later emerge, ranging from a simple cold to, yes, the bomb threat rumor – which is total b.s., for the record, which you can establish just by using a little common sense – the explanation Jon gives us is both perfectly believable and seems to best fit the facts.

“Ozzy’s too fucked up to play,” he says, adding,  “I’m getting out of here before the riot breaks out.”

So he and his buddy hightail it out of this amphitheater altogether, as many in our group shoot them condescending smirks. Sure, whatever, guys. But then we start to wonder, as the evening drags on, why it’s taking Osborne so long to emerge – and remember, he’s supposed to have another full set with Sabbath after his own. Boos begin to circulate throughout the crowd. At one point I’m shaking my head with what I’m sure is a rueful, can you fucking believe this? expression, as it begins to sink in that Jon may have had some legit insider information, and I happen to make eye contact with Shevan, whose face has morphed into the same disbelieving expression as mine.

Ooh, but wait – what is this? Yes, there are some musicians taking the stage now! Sweet! It’s some kind of hodgepodge amalgamation, featuring various cats from Type O, Machine Head, and Fear Factory, as well as a major coup in Phil Anselmo, the singer from Pantera, commanding center stage with the microphone. Granted, we are still running seriously behind the theoretical schedule, but this is bound to be better than sitting around staring off into space.

“Ozzy’s running a little bit behind,” Phil explains, “so you do you mind if we play a few of his songs to pass the time?”

The crowd erupts with approval. Clearly, Weirick didn’t know what he was talking about, as the Ozzman will probably come waltzing out midsong or something any moment now. They rip into one song, and then a second, as Pete Steele even drifts out to lends his pipes. “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, Pantera’s shredmeister on the guitar, graces us with an encore appearance as well. Then, what do you know, having apparently “calmed down” from that vewwy stwessful incident, the imperceptible one which nonetheless made him so “angry,” here’s Marilyn Manson reemerging as well.

“I’ll bet those guys from Type O Negative and Pantera told Manson to get up and sing or they were gonna kick his ass,” Damon jokes.

But this is actually not a good omen at all. They’re breaking into Crazy Train, and this is the point that I realize Jon had definitely been on the money with his assessment. The first two tunes this ad hoc council performed were obscure ones, but there’s no way they’re attacking what is arguably Ozzy’s biggest solo hit if he intends to play this song shortly himself. Not only that, but, well, it’s right about this time that Paul points out to us that all security personnel have completely vanished. They were lining the front of the stage and elsewhere, and now they are gone.

I’m not sure if the security figures were whisked off premises completely or moved to more strategic posts. True, they were technically hired for protecting the bands and the property, though what will soon transpire is likely out of their league. After Crazy Train is finished, all the musicians leave the stage, too, except for Phil Anselmo. And while Pantera’s set had been a revelation itself, what he does increases my respect for the guy even more, adding another dimension to it. His phrasing is debatable as it kind of sounds like he might be attempting to snow us with the whole bomb threat angle himself, but still, I admire the effort. Some nerdy looking manager type idiot in a suit comes running out across the stage, and attempts to take the microphone from Phil, but he has something he wants to say.

“I’m gonna be straight with you all,” Phil tells us, “Ozzy said there’s no way he’s coming in here tonight.”

Suit Boy finally wrestles the mic from Anselmo, as they are in all seriousness physically battling for it, but not before Phil sneaks in one final utterance. “I’m going some place where it’s safe,” he concludes, and walks away himself.

And just like that, it’s over. Boos everywhere. A crowd of people start tearing down sections of the fence behind us, and then the mob mentality seizes this gesture wholecloth, as tons of people join the fray. The next thing you know, giant chunks of fence are on the ground, then piled up and set ablaze.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Paul insists, though the rest of us are glued to a show nearly as interesting as the one Ozzy would have put on. “Come on, let’s go!”

Somewhat reluctantly, we march towards the doors. Part of me knows he’s right, we need to reach some semblance of safety ourselves, but part of me also wants to stay and watch. Most of us begin to drift toward the exit, though our party does splinter. As we are walking, a short, attractive brunette pulls up to my immediate left, topless, keeping pace with us as a disbelieving grin covers her face, at least. Quite a sight, though it’s far from the only set of bare breasts we have seen during the course of the day, and as incredible as this sounds we’ve got a lot more compelling scenes to take in right now anyway.

Our pace slows, owing to the masses in front of us, and there’s nothing to do but absorb this carnage. Paul’s mighty pissed, as he sat through an entire day of music he mostly despises to miss the two headliners anyway, but from a journalistic standpoint if nothing else, I find this fascinating and am almost happier it turned out as such – presuming we can make it out in one piece, that is.

A Saturn that some radio station had put on display is completely overturned near the gate, concession stand windows are busted out, the glass littering our path, and fires are erupting everywhere. Things are escalating well beyond a few snicker inducing pranks. And amidst all this chaos, we have somehow lost Aaron, Shannon’s younger brother. She’s starting to freak out, saying we should go back inside and try to find him.

“No, let’s wait by the car,” I suggest, “he’ll find his way there, if he hasn’t already.”

So now a mini-standoff emerges, between those of us who’ve even managed to hang together thus far. Shannon’s persistent about going back in, but Paul’s leading the impatience camp, pretty much adopting the fuck this, every man for himself point of view. Finally, Shannon does manage to side with us, and we make it back to the car, where Aaron is already waiting. It’s a considerable relief to us all, everybody except him, maybe, as the look on his face basically says, “what the hell took you guys so long?”

Not that we’re getting out of here anytime soon. I flip on my radio as the six of us who’ve made it this far stand around or else stretch out on the hood. Cops have begun throwing tear gas into the place, so it seems we escaped the melee just at the right time. Additionally, a number of choppers circle the sky above, and the word we’re getting from the radio is that someone had called in a bomb threat, which is why Ozzy had refused to even come near the place.

At first this sounds reasonable enough, in light of the wording Phil had adopted, plus in regard to all the picketers, a bunch of holy rollers who’d been protesting the show for weeks due to the presence of Marilyn Manson on the bill. So maybe one of those Christian kooks had done it. But when you examine the reactions of everyone involved behind the scenes at Polaris, and the musicians themselves, this explanation doesn’t hold any water. What, in the official rock star handbook, everyone has somewhere agreed that the most famous dudes get to exit first, while lesser acts goof around onstage playing cover tunes? And if 20,000 concertgoers go up flames themselves, too, oh well, this is all part of the show? Roger Waters might be correct in considering us sheep for attending these things, but still, that’s extending the metaphor a bit too far.

So, no, I’m not buying the bomb threat angle. It may have happened, but this isn’t why Ozzy failed to appear. Tony Iommi himself will later explain that Osbourne had “lost his voice,” and while I believe this probably is true, my gut feeling is this is only part of the story. I’m going with Weirick’s version of events, as this seems too great a coincidence to ignore. Yeah, he lost his voice, alright…it’s a little known virus called Drugs And Alcohol which seems to hit rock stars especially hard at times.

Finally, traffic lets up to the point that we’re able to start moving. Osbourne and Black Sabbath will announce and perform a makeup show some two weeks later, for which we all enjoy free tickets. Ozzy still sounds like hell, so that summer cold must have been a doozy. Amusingly enough, you can spot all the brand new sections of wood in the fences, though, can for years distinguish them from those which survived the riot.