It was many a roadie’s worst nightmare: On Oct. 17, 53-year-old Francis Stueber died in his hotel room, nearly 2,300 miles from home, according to Kiss and his fellow backstage crew. The longtime guitar tech had been with the band for more than 20 years and was a beloved figure in the Kiss Army.
Having tested positive for Covid-19, Stueber died just two days after being quarantined in a Detroit hotel room. According to the Wayne County Health Examiner’s office, the father of three died of the virus.
My dear friend, buddy and guitar tech for 20 years, Fran Stueber died yesterday suddenly of Covid. Both on and offstage I depended on him for so much. My family loved him as did I. He was so proud of his wife and 3 boys as they were of him. I’m numb. pic.twitter.com/RvwUGpFt0X
— Paul Stanley (@PaulStanleyLive) October 17, 2021
“We are profoundly heartbroken at the loss of Francis, he was a friend and colleague of 20 years, there is no way to replace him,” the band tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “Millions of people have lost someone special to this horrific virus and we encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Please protect yourself and your loved ones.”
But three crew members — who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fear of retaliation — say not enough was done to protect them. They place the blame for Stueber’s death squarely on tour production. The trio told Rolling Stone that the tour didn’t take strict enough safety measures, which they say sickened several tour workers and potentially cost Stueber his life.
“Every day during the shows, we weren’t tested. And there are so many unknowns,” one crew member tells Rolling Stone. “Did we superspread this, did we spread this thing from city to city? It’s horrible that Fran passed, and it’s horrible if this is our protocol just for us to tour. Is this going to be the normal, to stick someone in a hotel. and if somebody dies, ‘Oh, well, off to the next guy?’ ”
Stueber’s death marked an unexpected, tragic loss of one of the band’s most beloved crew members — and a wake-up call when it comes to touring during a pandemic that is still very much in play. In the wake of tragedy, members of the tour seem eager to place blame: Some of Stueber’s fellow roadies point to what they perceived to be lax Covid-19 safety protocols as the culprit; while the band reveals that workers concealed sickness and even faked vaccine cards in some cases. Either way, as the pandemic continues to imperil the live-music business — and artists fight to get back on the road to work — situations like these beg the question: How much is enough when it comes to keeping bands on the road and their teams safe?
Stueber’s wife, Catherine, did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment, but his sister Mary Stueber-Grass tells Rolling Stone: “He was a hard worker, he loved what he did, and he loved meeting people.… I’ve gotten messages from around the world from friends, fans — anyone who he’s met — sending pictures and memories. He was so full of life, and we’re all devastated.”
“There’s So Many Unknowns”
According to a production executive who spoke with Rolling Stone, the crew workers’ assertions about the lack of safety measures are not strictly true. There were protocols in place, even if they were later found lacking. The band required that all the crew submit vaccination cards and wear masks backstage, and catering was separated between local workers and the touring crew. Those who tested positive would be sent to hotels to quarantine, and their bus mates were also tested, the executive said. But the roadies RS spoke to said masks were not always properly worn and tests were not given regularly enough.
That production exec also said that a team of four people, including the executive, presented multiple options to Kiss management when they were designing the tour, including options for how frequently to test the crew. The band’s team elected to only test if someone showed symptoms, a policy similar to ones employed by acts like Green Day. The tour was originally slated to have a designated Covid-19 compliance officer, the executive says, adding that management decided to nix that position a day before the tour started, and those responsibilities fell onto the production team.
“Our End of the Road World Tour absolutely had Covid safety protocols in place that met, but most often exceeded, federal, state, and local guidelines,” the band says in its statement. “But ultimately this is still a global pandemic and there is simply no foolproof way to tour without some element of risk.”
Kiss production manager Robert Long confirms that daily testing was not implemented — and that production presented the band with options for how frequently to test when determining Covid protocols before the band made its decision — but says that he did nothing to discourage testing, despite some roadies’ claim to the contrary. “I never told anyone we didn’t want to test them,” Long tells Rolling Stone. “If you wanted a test, we’d supply it. If you wanted to get tested, if you felt symptoms, if you think someone might be sick, please raise your hand. We had thermometers on every bus, sheets to write down temperatures every morning, mask boxes, and sanitizers everywhere. People were getting tested every other day, we ordered tests regularly. I’m not going to not test people; I take this shit seriously.”
Still, the crew members Rolling Stone spoke with say they were unsatisfied with the way production handled outbreaks. “I couldn’t believe how unsafe it was, and that we were still going,” a second roadie, who said they’d never work for the band again, told RS. “We’d been frustrated for weeks, and by the time Fran died, I just thought, ‘You have to be fucking kidding me.’”
“It Was Impossible to Police the Crew”
Publicly, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have both been staunch advocates for vaccinations and mask mandates. Simmons told Rolling Stone in August that the band was requiring vaccines and masks for its crew, and, last month, Simmons told Good Morning Britain that anti-vaxxers need to “get over yourself.” The band even took a brief hiatus when both Simmons and Stanley tested positive for the virus in August.
When it came to the crew’s safety, however, frustrated roadies say protocol was lacking. They said Stueber was reportedly one of around 13 crew workers on Kiss’ nearly 70-person tour team who had caught the coronavirus since the tour resumed in September, and until Stueber died, none of the crew’s Covid-19 cases caused any concert postponements. Some crew members had mild symptoms, some more noticeable, and some were asymptomatic; Stueber is the only one who has died.
Four different workers on the tour described Stueber as noticeably ill with a cough and breathing troubles in the days leading up to his death, starting around a week before he was quarantined. But he wasn’t given a test until just a couple of days before he died. Workers say tour management was vocal about not wanting to test to avoid the complications of a positive test, which Long, the executive, and the band dispute. “People [who tested positive for Covid] were sent into mandatory quarantine paid for by the band and denied their efforts to travel while potentially infected,” the band says. “Medical care was offered at every step of the way.”
Even so, when it came to testing, it was largely on the shoulders of the staff to opt in, which some chose not to do because a positive test would put them in quarantine at a hotel in a random city. Moreover, frustrated crew members say that the band seldom notified other workers about a positive Covid test. Instead, they say, the worker would inexplicably disappear from the tour. “If a dude tests positive and is on a bus with 12 other people in close quarters, shouldn’t all those other people also be told, tested, and quarantined until it’s clear they don’t have the virus?” a third Kiss roadie says.
The production team refuted that claim, adding that they notified all workers on the same buses as crew members who tested positive, as well as those who worked alongside them.
Criticism of the production team among lower-ranking crew members isn’t wholly universal. A fourth roadie — who says he got Covid-19 and quarantined at the same hotel where Stueber died — acknowledged that protocols were rocky, but said the production team itself was responsible and that “certain individuals” on the tour were less willing to follow regulations.
“Production did a really good job to the best of their ability going into it,” the crew member says. “Individuals from a bunch of different departments were sometimes more lackadaisical about it, some took it upon themselves not to wear a mask. People were getting sick, but these were people not doing what they’re supposed to.”
Kiss also pointed out that they had little control over the day-to-day actions of the crew. “While the protocols were in place for the tour, it was impossible to police the crew minute by minute of their lives,” the band says. “If certain crew chose to go out to dinner on a day off, or have beers at a local bar after the show, and did so without a mask or without following protocols, there is little that anyone can do to stop that. Particularly when many of our tour markets did not have any state or local mask mandates in place.”
They also revealed a troubling discovery they claim they made post-tour: “We are now aware there were crew members who attempted to conceal signs of illness, and when it was discovered, refused medical attention…. Furthermore, it has recently been brought to our attention that certain crew members may have provided fake vaccination cards which, if true, we find morally reprehensible (as well as illegal), putting the entire tour in harm’s way.”
“It Was the Wild West Out There”
According to the fourth roadie, Stueber tried to tough it out on the way to the hotel where he was set to quarantine. “We’d told him he should probably think about going to the hospital, but he said he was fine,” he said, noting that the tech was having a hard time breathing even while sitting in the vehicle. “On a personal standpoint, I wish I pushed it a bit more to get him to call 911, but he’s the only one who could’ve known how bad he felt.” Just a few days later, Stueber was dead.
It’s hard, in the end, to determine where the blame lies. Some crew members point the finger at production — specifically the band, management, and Live Nation. Some take aim at individuals they believe acted without regard for themselves and others. While Live Nation has required its own employees to be vaccinated and is requiring proof of vaccination or negative Covid-19 tests for attendees at its own venues, it’s left individual tour travel practices and protocols up to the artists.
Live Nation declined to comment on record for this story.
“Between Live Nation, [Kiss’ manager] Doc McGhee, Kiss, whatever the hell else, it was the Wild West out there,” one of the roadies says. “You’d think they’d see to it that a band they signed would go through with the protocol they were supposed to do. I don’t know who dropped the ball.”
Kiss, for their part, point out that crew members, in the end, operated based on their own free will. “We had the option to outright cancel the remainder of this tour, but chose to start the tour up again so the touring crew who had been out of work for more than 18 months could get back to their jobs,” they say. “If anyone had felt that it was just too unsafe, we would have absolutely understood their desire to not work on this tour and stay home and stay in a safer environment.”
Still, having lost a longtime friend and co-worker, the roadies RS spoke to are naturally looking for answers — or at least some form of accountability. “Out of greed, we watched our friend die day after day,” the third roadie adds. “And nobody did anything.”