Almost since the first day the word “musician” became a job description, and certainly since the early days of mass media, there have been musical acts that have combined spectacle with their music in an attempt to gain an audience. On Oct. 4, one band planned on taking spectacle to a new low.
Hell On Earth, a St. Petersburg, Fl. heavy metal act, gained attention from media outlets across America and as far afield as Scotland when they announced that a terminally ill patient would “euthanize” himself on stage during one of their shows. Suddenly, a band unknown to the world – and indeed virtually unknown in their own Tampa Bay-area music scene – was answering phone calls from MSNBC, Fox News, and the BBC, and appearing on Good Morning America.
Gina Vivinetto, in an Oct. 3 column for the St. Petersburg Times, called the band’s frontman, Billy Tourtelot, a “crafty huckster.” She explained that the Times generally dismisses the band’s hoopla about their on-stage shenanigans as “ridiculous PR.” Unfortunately for the Times, as the local media outlet, it was inundated by calls from around the world from people looking for back-story on “the suicide concert band.”
The city of St. Petersburg also came under fire when news of the planned on-stage suicide broke. Faced with outrage both locally and internationally, the city moved to sever links to the band’s internet site, from which the suicide was to be broadcast. David Hundley, owner of the State Theatre in St. Petersburg, cancelled the performance when the suicide was announced, but the band insisted that the show would go on.
The city then passed an ordinance making it illegal to “conduct a suicide for commercial or entertainment purposes, and to host, promote and sell tickets for such an event.” The penalty for participating in commercial suicide was set at up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Hardly much of a deterrent, when you consider Tourtelot and his band received worldwide publicity for little more than the cost of a few well-placed fax messages.
Whether or not the band actually played on Oct. 4 is not known for certain. Tourtelot stated that the concert was to be postponed until Oct. 11; however, an internet radio host in Chicago claimed that he had footage of the staged suicide. St. Petersburg police and emergency services reported no suspected suicide deaths on either the Oct. 4 or 11.
One thing that is certain is that the band has not been able to find work since this incident. Although Tourtelot claims that since being visited by “two government officials dressed in black suits,” he has abandoned plans for a suicide concert, venue owners fear they will be held liable if anything should happen on their property.
“The sheriff’s office told me that the Brass Mug could be liable,” Heather Mullis, owner of the Brass Mug bar in Tampa told the St. Petersburg Times. “I thought they were going to do a regular show, but when it started being implied that this could happen in my bar, I couldn’t risk it.”