Even by its own standards, the MTV awards show in 1989 generated an unusual amount of controversy.
Comedian Andrew Dice Clay is predictably banned for life by the network after reciting an expletive-filled series of Mother Goose rhymes; Neil Young's This Note's For You clip wins Video Of The Year award despite being previously banned by MTV itself; and backstage, Motley Crue's Vince Neil loiters with intent, eager to kick Izzy Stradlin's ass after an incident in which the Guns N' Roses' man had allegedly assaulted Neil's wife.
Guns N' Roses attend the show, but only to collect an award of their own, picking up the inaugural Best Heavy Metal Video prize for Sweet Child O’ Mine, beating out stiff competition from Aerosmith, Def Leppard and Metallica.
Duff McKagan and Steve Adler accept the award, the bassist dedicating the prize to Metallica and referencing the "screw-up on the Grammys" that saw Jethro Tull beat out Metallica in the Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Recording category earlier the same year. And Axl Rose? He's nowhere to be seen.
That all changes as the evening reaches its climax. Host Arsenio Hall introduces the final act, Tom Petty, whose solo album Full Moon Fever had been released that April. Petty starts up with the slow, ringing riff of the album's opener, Free Fallin', and sings a verse. And then, slowing emerging from the shadows with that familiar swaying gait, mic stand draped in scarves, it's Axl. And the crowd goes wild.
Initially it's a fairly subdued performance, but Axl opens up when the chorus arrives, giving full throttle to one of rock's most singular voices, one that immediately erects a giant neon 'Guns N' Roses' sign over the song being performed, no matter who wrote it. Axl takes verses two and three, the pair combine on the final verse, and it's all mic-sharing and mutual respect as the song climaxes.
It's almost as if they'd practiced. And they had. Two weeks prior to the show, Axl had joined Petty onstage at the State Fair in Syracuse, New York, where the guitarist's set had climaxed with Free Fallin' and Knockin' On Heaven's Door.
This time it's different. As the credits roll the band launch into the Elvis Presley classic Heartbreak Hotel, with Axl now in full-shriek mode. It's ragged, and very apparently not as slick as it might be, but it's undeniably exciting.
"I thought it was a kind of shaky performance," Petty later said. "We didn't get a lot of rehearsal time."
And that was that.
Well, not quite. Off-camera, as Petty departs the stage, Vince Neil races in from the wings and decks Izzy Stradlin. And Petty's soundman Jim Lenahan, who doesn't know Izzy but knows that Izzy is part of Petty's entourage, decks Neil.
Neil leaves out the latter part when he tells the story in The Dirt, but it's still worth repeating. “All my blood rushed into my first,” he recalls. “And I decked him. I decked him good, and right in the face. He fell to the ground like a tipped cow. I said, ‘The next time you fucking touch her, I’ll fucking kill you!'”
Just another normal night out at the MTV awards.