Journal from the Rock in Rio festival -- Our take on the Brazilian music festival featuring Prince, George Michael, and others

My first day in Rio, I had my pocket picked on the beach in front of my hotel. The second day, I had my eyeglasses broken by a gang of heavy-metal headbangers. The third day, I was almost crushed to death by 100,000 screaming Brazilian teenagers. Had Rock in Rio II gone on any longer than it did, the ”peace festival” probably would have killed me.

Billed as the biggest rock & roll extravaganza in years, the $20 million, nine-day concert was supposed to be the most ambitious music festival since, well, the first Rock in Rio in 1985. From Jan. 18 through 27, some of music’s most famous names — hard rockers like Billy Idol and Guns N’ Roses, bubble-gum popsters like Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block, superstars like Prince and George Michael, old-timers like Santana and Joe Cocker — jetted into Brazil to play at the world’s largest soccer arena, Maracanã Stadium on the outskirts of Rio. Almost 800,000 Brazilians turned out, paying $10 to $30 per night; critics from around the world flew in; MTV dispatched its top VJs. It was rockin’ Rio’s moment in the sun, its big chance to shine — and it rained half the time.

At first glance, Brazil doesn’t seem an ideal setting for the biggest rock & roll party of the year. While the country is blessed with beautiful beaches, mountains, and people, it also suffers from one of the worst recessions to hit South America in years. Inflation is hovering at 1,800 percent. Unemployment is over 40 percent. Mugging tourists is fast becoming a favorite national pastime. The Gulf clash also presented problems: One day before the festival opened, the world declared war on Iraq, touching off a gasoline panic all over Brazil (filling stations started closing at 8 p.m. to cut down consumption).

But despite all of the above — or maybe because of it — Brazilians flocked to the festival by the tens of thousands. English-language pop is big here in the land of the samba, although Brazilians’ musical tastes do sometimes veer in unexpected directions. Artists hugely popular in the U.S. were all but ignored by the fans at Rio II, while more obscure groups were sometimes treated like the Beatles incarnate. For instance: George Michael (whose latest album went top 10 in the U.S.) drew only about 30,000 people, while the Norwegian group a-ha (who haven’t had a U.S. hit since 1985) filled the stadium with more than 100,000 fans.

The festival’s biggest smash, however, came as a surprise to nobody: Guns N’ Roses, whose first two albums sold 17 million copies (and whose fans await the next, due this spring, as if they expected the second coming of Elvis), took Brazil by proverbial storm. Their concert on Jan. 20 attracted the largest — and craziest — crowd of them all.

I got to the show at 8:30 p.m., three hours before their set was scheduled to start, and discovered that the gates of the stadium had already been locked shut. Later an unconfirmed story of a shoot-out between two Brazilian cops earlier in the evening repeatedly surfaced. The details were fuzzy, but supposedly one of them had tried to lead a group of ticketless fans into the stadium and the other had blocked their way. They argued, guns were pulled, and allegedly one officer was shot five times.

It took me over an hour to finagle my way inside: One look around and I was almost sorry I did. The stadium was crammed with enough bodies to populate a small city — well over 120,000 people.

Walking through Maracanã Stadium was like playing a gigantic game of Twister — with every step I found myself tangled in somebody else’s arms or legs. People were drinking beer, making out, dancing, clapping hands, fainting, waving lit matches in the air, and in general having a blast. If there’s one thing Brazilians do well, it’s party, and this bash was definitely smoking. Strangers offered me drinks, slapped my back, invited me to dance, and made fun of my rumpled Brooks Brothers shirt. A Brazilian girl, about 15, with killer bone structure and a perfect Colgate smile, took my notebook from my pocket and wrote a note in English: ”My name is Claudia. I love all people! I love American people! I love everybody!” Then she kissed me on both cheeks, Brazilian-style.

I was about 30 feet from the stage, standing on the soccer field, when Axl Rose came bouncing out into the spotlight, two silver crosses dangling from his neck. As the first 90-decibel chords of ”It’s So Easy” blasted into the air, the crowd lunged forward, and I found myself pinned against a wall of human flesh. People were shouting and laughing and crying in Portuguese. I was panicking in English. Then I saw a team of medics shoulder their way through the crowd and lift a limp body over their heads. I squeezed my way behind them and followed their path to the stadium’s infirmary. The place looked like a scene out of M*A*S*H: There were drunken bodies strewn on tables and chairs. A young man stood at the door, covered in blue paint. He calmly raised his hand and made an announcement in Portuguese. A nurse translated it for me: ”I have fallen from the sky!” he said. ”I am part of the sky!” Then he collapsed to the floor.

The slogan for Rock in Rio II (”Nine Days of Music and Peace”) was meant to echo Woodstock’s (”Three Days of Peace and Music”), but the truth is the festival didn’t even measure up to Rock in Rio I. That 10-day musical spree drew about 1.5 million people, the largest audience for a rock festival ever, and was a critical hit. Most of the critics this time were hostile: Many found Rock in Rio II poorly organized and musically lame. Prince showed up almost two hours late, prompting parts of the crowd to taunt him with offensive cries of ”Viado! Viado!” (Portuguese for ”faggot”). The much-touted Wham! reunion turned out to be little more than George Michael’s earlier solo set with his former partner Andrew Ridgeley gamely singing along. ”This whole thing has been a disaster,” said one critic. ”It’s been a mess.”

”This concert is not as ambitious as the first,” concedes the man who put both together, 43-year-old Roberto Medina. ”We built a special stadium for the first Rock in Rio. We built a whole city for that concert. That is not possible again. There is too much politics in Brazil to do that today.”

Elegant, with delicate manners and a full head of graying hair, Medina is often described as a Brazilian Donald Trump, but he prefers to be My hero”). In fact, he’s more like a character from a James Bond movie. Last year, a local criminal cartel known as the Red Phalange kidnapped Medina; he was released only after the police struck back by abducting the head kidnapper’s mother and brother. ”After that, I could have left Brazil and moved to the United States,” Medina says, savoring coffee with precise, small sips. ”But I have a desire to help my country, and this festival does that.” He frowns. ”On one side of the world people are fighting. Here they are singing. That is an important message to the world.”

Medina expects to make about $1 million from his important message, but that’s half of what he originally projected. Most of his profits will come from licensing: Coca-Cola paid $3 million to link its name with the festival, and Tampax spent untold sums distributing paper fans at the stadium’s entrance (”Nada Pode Te Incomodar No Rock In Rio,” they read: ”Nothing Can Make You Uncomfortable at Rock in Rio”). He’ll also collect rent from hundreds of shopkeepers peddling souvenirs.

The performers were paid well — Prince got more than $1 million — but not all of them seemed to enjoy the festival very much. Prince sequestered himself in the Rio Palace Hotel, dialing room service with strange orders (one night he had 200 towels sent up to his rooms). George Michael divided his time between the pool at the tony Copacabana Palace and his dressing room at the stadium (where yellow ”Do Not Enter” police ribbons had been taped across his doorway, presumably to keep lesser performers from bothering him). About the only musicians who really embraced the true spirit of the city were the members of the surprise hit funk/metal band of 1990, San Francisco’s rambunctious Faith No More: They spent their days bodysurfing on Ipanema Beach, and their nights exploring Rio’s notorious sex shows.

Medina is already drawing up plans for part III: Renamed World Festival, it’ll take place simultaneously in varied locales across the planet — Los Angeles, London, Italy, Australia, and, of course, Rio. ”This is my dream,” he says with childlike optimism. ”It will be the best thing I have ever done. Next year, you will come back to me and we will talk about the biggest rock & roll festival in the history of the world. You wait and see.”

All right — but I’ll remember to pack a spare pair of eyeglasses.