"It was 20 years ago today" may be the opening line of the timeless Beatles hit "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" -- but it also applies to a well-known weather-related event in Salt Lake City.
It was indeed 20 years ago today that a rare tornado ripped through downtown Salt Lake, wreaking havoc, damaging buildings and taking one life. In addition to windows being blown out at various locations downtown, some vehicles were overturned, trees were uprooted and part of the Delta Center's roof was blown off. The death occurred at the tents of the Outdoor Retailers Convention, where a booth worker was killed.
As it turns out, there was a concert connection to this event. Popular rock bands Journey and Foreigner, scheduled to play a co-headlining show at Franklin Covey Field (now Smith's Ballpark) that night, were each chilling at downtown hotel locations at the time of the tornado. Over the ensuing two decades, I've had the opportunity to interview several of the members of both bands, and when the occasion has presented itself, I've asked them to share their memories of that day.
I thought it would make a nice time capsule to revisit those today on the tornado's 20th anniversary.
The first band member I had the opportunity to discuss the tornado with was Journey bassist Ross Valory. I spoke with Valory in 2001, just two years later. And while his memories of the twister itself were non-existent, I found his answer to be the most humorous.
As I wrote at the time, "From his vantage point at a nearby hotel, Journey bassist Ross Valory stared disaster right in the eyelids. His own."
"I generally, on most rides, will stay awake and then when I get to the hotel, I'll have breakfast and go to sleep," Valory said. "I did. I woke up at some point to a few sirens and thought, 'Ugh, it's kind of stormy out there.' Then I woke up later in the afternoon, turned on the TV, ordered my coffee and proceeded to see this information on every channel available. I looked out the window and saw that just about two blocks away was where all the damage was done. And yours truly slept right through it."
In 2011, I discussed the eventful experience with then Journey drummer Deen Castronovo. Thankfully, his eyewitness account proved more detailed than Valory's.
"One of the biggest memories I have of Salt Lake, we were supposed to play, I believe, if I’m not mistaken, the Delta Center, and the first tornado ever, ripped the Delta Center’s roof off. I was in my hotel room watching it happen. And when I saw the tornado rip the damn roof right off — it was awesome! It was a bummer, but ... and the funniest thing was Foreigner’s bus, they were there as well, the windows got blown out of their buses. Yeah, they were sleeping on their bus waiting for their hotel rooms ... the windows got blown out, so they had to go up to their hotel room, so they got them in early. That’s the fondest memory, or the biggest memory I have of Salt Lake."
Let the record show that Castronovo was off in his memory of where the bands were to play that night -- as the show did occur at Franklin Covey, where it was originally scheduled.
In 2013, I had the opportunity to interview Foreigner's longtime lead singer Lou Gramm, who was prepping for a solo performance at Spring Acres Arts Park in Springville, and asked him if he remembered that specific day.
"I certainly do. I remember I was in the Holiday Inn and there was a farm equipment kind of event going on directly across the street," Gramm said. "They had a huge tent with tractors and all sorts of things in there, and the hotel was full to the brim. People were mingling in the tent and everything, and I was watching TV and I saw a little thing go across the bottom of the screen that said, 'Tornado warning.' And I looked out the window and off in the distance the sky was black — in the middle of the day, late morning. And I kept an eye on it, but I started watching the TV again, the next thing I knew I was seeing little particles of everything around striking my window. I knew exactly what that was. I grabbed my wallet and my keys and ran to the bathroom, you know, you’re supposed to stay in a room within a room? I did that, and just as I went walking in there, there was a knock on the door and it was the hotel management and the police saying to go down the fire stairs and meet on the loading docks at the back of the hotel. So I did that. But I peeked out the window before I left and I could see that there was a car tipped over, the tent was in little shreds, about 4x2 feet, flying all over the place. The farm equipment was just scattered. When I got to the loading docks I noticed there was dump truck, completely turned on its top. And our tour bus had a hole in the back window that went in one side and went out the other side.
"Were you surprised the show still went on that night?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "We got in our bus and within two blocks of the tornado it was calm and sunny and people were shopping and had no idea what was going on."
And then in 2017, I had the chance to chat with Steve Augeri prior to a solo show at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre. In 1999, Augeri was fronting Journey for his very first tour, having just replaced famed lead singer Steve Perry. It was Augeri's first-ever show in Salt Lake.
"I sure do," Augeri quickly responded when asked if he remembered the 1999 show. "In fact, it's engraved in my memory because I was looking outside the window, and the face of the Holiday Inn was torn off. The Holiday Inn was where Foreigner was staying, and I remember stopping in my tracks and being petrified and saying my prayers. So yeah, I'll not forget it. But I do remember shortly thereafter doing the show, the same day. ... So, yes, I do remember it, and I do remember the show and I just remember being thankful that we were all safe and sound and the show went on. The show must go on!"
Living in Provo at the time, most of my first-hand dealings with the tornado were from the immediate news reports. One of my first thoughts at the time was, "I wonder if this will affect tonight's show?" Once we were able to determine that the show would indeed go on, my wife and I, with our 34-day-old daughter, Brighton, traveled up to the concert. (Yes, we did take our just-over-a-month-year-old to her first concert. You've got to teach them to appreciate good music when they're young, right?) Being an outdoor stadium show, my wife and Brighton hung out in seats in the farther-away stands to protect young eardrums, while I trekked down to the field and worked my way in with the huddled masses down front near the stage.
The earlier tornado had been a surprise, but the biggest shock of the night came when Foreigner's Gramm walked on stage for the opening vocals on "Long Long Way From Home." Gramm had undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor, and his appearance was altered from weight gain during recovery so that he was nearly unrecognizable. I remember wondering where Gramm was as the guitar intro wailed, and then being briefly dumbstruck as to why a roadie was lurching to the lead microphone as the vocals were to begin. Turns out that was Gramm.
Gramm also lacked his typical balance, stamina and vocal power. He later wrote that he was kind of forced into doing that tour from a band standpoint, and physically, he should have never signed on for it.
Ironically, Journey's set was also a tremendous surprise from a vocal standpoint. And that's because the minute Augeri opened his mouth to sing the first line of "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)," it was drop-dead amazing how much he sounded like his predecessor, Perry. He immediately answered the question of whether a post-Perry Journey could possibly be successful.
Another takeaway I had from the show -- it was uncanny how much Augeri's appearance and stage mannerisms reminded me of Perry. In fact, I'm sure that because of the stadium environment and from people just not being up on every personnel change, that there were a good percentage of fans in attendance at the show who didn't even realize they'd just watched a different singer.
Something else that stood out to me was Augeri's sincerity when he thanked the crowd late in the show.
"Change isn't always easy to accept," he said. "Thanks for letting me perform for you tonight."
The great part of being in the music coverage business is having the opportunity to bring up your memories with those involved. So when I interviewed Augeri in 2018, I mentioned being impressed by what was his genuine sincerity at the time.
"When I said it back then, I meant it sincerely, 100 percent, if not 200 percent, because I'll tell you why," Augeri said. "When you take a factor, such as Steve Perry, and take him out of the equation and replace him, I don't care who it is, it could have been Pavarotti, it's just hard to swallow, certainly at first. In fact, it took years of work. It was the constant touring and the relentlessness of the band and myself, and eventually we broke down some of the barriers and folks were kind enough to let me into their hearts, or their world. And I'm glad to see that they did that for (current Journey singer) Arnel (Pineda) as well, and why shouldn't they? He's a tremendous talent. And so, on we all go. We all survive and go on forward."
A fitting comment when looking back at that memorable concert 20 years ago.