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Back to the jungle: Guns N' Roses returns with St. Louis guitarist Richard Fortus

Back to the jungle: Guns N' Roses returns with St. Louis guitarist Richard Fortus


When St. Louisan Richard Fortus got the call to audition for Guns N’ Roses in 2002, the rock guitarist was touring in Europe with Latin pop singer Enrique Iglesias.

“Enrique was huge, and it was great,” Fortus says. “We were doing three nights at Albert Hall in London. He was at the peak of his game, and the band was killer, but I didn’t want to continue touring with Enrique.

“There’s a big difference between pop music and playing in a rock band. ... I was eager to get into a rock band again.”

Fortus, 50, lives in unincorporated St. Louis County with his wife, Stephanie, and two daughters, 11-year-old Paisley and 9-year-old Clover.

Fortus has played with Rihanna, the Psychedelic Furs, Thin Lizzy, Love Spit Love and the Eyes/Pale Divine (which he founded). He says the call came from his friend Tommy Stinson, who at the time was bassist for Guns N’ Roses.

“I was excited — I was always down to do anything with Tommy,” he says. “And they were like a dream band. They flew me to LA and had a car waiting to take me to the audition. I hung out with Axl (Rose), talking and listening to music, then flew to Ireland to pick up the rest of the (Iglesias) tour.”

Fortus was offered the gig and told rehearsals would begin in two weeks, but he explained that he needed to finish the tour with Iglesias.

“(Rose) was tough about it, but he said, ‘OK, we’ll wait,’” Fortus says. “I’ve been playing as a side man for so many years. Your commitment is really very important. Without it, it’s easy to get a bad rep.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fortus has been with Guns N’ Roses ever since, including on the current “Not in This Lifetime” tour, which comes July 27 to the Dome at America’s Center. It will be Fortus’ first St. Louis show with the legendary band.

Since it began in April 2016, the tour has grossed $230 million and counting.

“It’s bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Fortus says. “Doing multiple nights at a stadium is a mind-(expletive). It’s hard to get your head around that level of craziness. Fans are just so rabid for it.”

He’s also looking forward to recording his first album with Guns N’ Roses.

“Everyone is excited about it. There’s a really magical thing now with the band. It feels like a new band,” Fortus says of the lineup, which since 2016 has included Guns N’ Roses veterans Slash and Duff McKagan. “It feels like the best version since I joined, and it’s the most fun for me. There’s so much excitement around it.”

There’s also a lot of excitement surrounding the St. Louis show in particular. Guns N’ Roses last played here in 1991, when its “Use Your Illusion” show at Riverport Amphitheatre (now Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre) was marred by a two-hour melee that ensued when Axl Rose dived into the audience to tackle a spectator who was photographing the show. The band abandoned the stage, and audience pandemonium ensued, resulting in at least 75 injuries, 13 arrests and at least $200,000 in damage to the brand-new venue. Police estimated that 3,000 of the 15,000 fans participated in the riot.

Rose was charged with four counts of misdemeanor assault and one count of property damage. A judge ordered him to pay $50,000 to five St. Louis charities. He also faced civil suits from individuals and the amphitheater.

“It was a series of unfortunate events that led to what happened,” Fortus says. “I would imagine (Rose) must be apprehensive, though he never expressed that to me, so I don’t know. But I know some people here are apprehensive. People lost jobs because of what happened. Some people are like, ‘(Screw) that guy, I’m not giving him my money.’ I get that.”

But he says there aren’t a lot of great rock bands left. “I wouldn’t want to miss it. There’s not another show like it, and it’s going to be an event. And it has been a long time.”

It has been just as long for Guns N’ Roses. “Everyone was traumatized. It was no little deal for them — not just another night at the office.”

One big question is whether Rose will mention the Riverport riot onstage.

“Knowing Axl, I would imagine so,” Fortus says. “But I have no idea. If nothing else, he’s gonna make a joke.”

On the night of the 1991 show, Fortus says he was playing with the Eyes at Kennedy’s on Laclede’s Landing.

“I remember people coming in from the riot with pieces of chairs. I didn’t realize the scope of it until later. I would have been there if I wasn’t working.”

During his time with the Eyes (which became Pale Divine), Fortus discovered the music of Guns N’ Roses. He’d been “hearing about this band from LA who was different from the rest of the glam metal coming out of LA.”

Though it wasn’t his thing, he liked it.

“I was into older rock ’n’ roll — the Who, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, art-rock stuff, David Bowie, King Crimson, Genesis and later the Clash, which changed everything. When I heard the Clash, I had to unlearn how to play,” he says.

Fortus, a self-described “punk-rock kid,” says he found inspiration in everything — Van Halen, Judas Priest, Parliament-Funkadelic. “I was ravenous.”

He started playing professionally in the mid-1980s with Pale Divine. “It was exciting to build something on your own, clawing your way up, trying to make great music and putting on great shows. It was really very focused and very driven. We did everything ourselves, building at a grass-roots level.”

Fortus remembers playing a pair of sold-out shows at the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo., when he thought he’d made it to the big leagues. He had no idea of what was to come.

“I remember walking onstage and everybody singing every song and thinking I’d made it,” he says. “But everything is so incremental. It wasn’t meteoric by any means.”

Next was a stint with Love Spit Love, the ’90s rock band fronted by Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, whom Fortus calls the biggest supporter of his career. To this day, Fortus sits in with Psychedelic Furs when they’re in the same city, including an April show at the Ready Room.

His time playing with Thin Lizzy (2011) was a highlight, giving him a chance “to play with the cats who really inspired you as a kid. As a guitar player, being able to play with them was just massive. Even though it wasn’t with Phil (Lynott, founder member and vocalist), it was still with Brian (Downey) and Scott (Gorham).”

In his downtime with Guns N’ Roses, Fortus has worked with a newer rock band called the Dead Daisies.

The “Not in this Lifetime” tour comes at an interesting time for Fortus. In December, he married Stephanie Howlett, a criminal defense lawyer he met through a mutual friend.

Going out on the road isn’t as tough as it sounds, since it’s all they know.

“To be honest, it’s harder to be away from the kids,” Fortus says. “Stephanie and I have been together for two years, so not a whole lot is different. Being on the other side of the world is hard, but it’s easier now. Stephanie is here in the house when I’m gone.”

Stephanie Howlett Fortus says that’s how their relationship has been since they met. “Would I love to have him home? Yes. Am I glad he’s having this experience? Yes. I wouldn’t wish it away from him. I don’t miss out on anything.”

She says she enjoys experiencing the rock-star lifestyle with her husband. But, she says, “we’re at a place where we both enjoy just being at home.”

Though Paisley is aware of her big-deal dad, she finds it a little weird when strangers approach.

“I just think of him as Dad, not a famous rock star.”

What Guns N’ Roses “Not in this Lifetime Tour” with Deftones • When 6 p.m. July 27 • Where The Dome at America’s Center, 901 North Broadway • How much $35-$250 • More info

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