Great White’s frontman has struggled with fire’s legacy
HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — He walks with a cane now and, until recently, he wore a colostomy bag surgically attached to his waist, a humbling reminder of his near death in 2010, after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Jack Russell, 52, has fallen a long way since that night 10 years ago when he preened before a packed house in The Station nightclub, before his band’s pyrotechnics turned the place into a deadly inferno. In minutes, the front man for the fading ’80s hair band, Great White, became a vilified figure in a national tragedy, not just for his role in starting the fire, but for his seeming insensitivity: He talked about the band’s upcoming summer tour even while The Station burned before his eyes.
Russell had hoped to do something positive earlier this month for the 10th anniversary, headlining a concert to raise money for a permanent memorial at The Station site in West Warwick, R.I. But fire victims and their families would have none of it; he remains a pariah in their eyes. A statement from the Station Fire Memorial Foundation said simply, “We feel the upset caused by his involvement would outweigh the amount of funds raised.”
Rock fans apparently weren’t keen on Russell’s idea either. Only about 30 people showed up to see “Jack Russell of Great White” in the Saint Rocke concert hall on the Pacific Coast Highway near Los Angeles, raising an estimated $180, even after Russell announced he would donate the proceeds to the son of his guitar player, Ty Longley, who perished in the fire.
“It was supposed to be a tribute,” he later said, sheepishly.
That’s the way it’s been for Russell, who was never criminally charged in connection with the fire, but who never made peace with survivors either. In fact, Russell seems to have a penchant for antagonizing critics, like getting a facelift in 2006 because “the look in the mirror just doesn’t represent how I feel inside,” which some saw as insensitive to people disfigured by The Station fire.
“He never even apologized” for his role in the disaster, said Gina Russo, who survived the fire with horrible burns; her fiance was killed. “Everyone would look at this differently if Jack Russell would stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” she said.
Today, Russell acknowledges the disconnect, saying, “I never meant to hurt anybody.” But he prefers to remain publicly silent rather than debate whether he has shown enough contrition.
“It’s been almost 10 years and no matter what I say it’s never going to make anybody feel any better about it, and sometimes it might make them feel worse, so I really would rather not say too much, you know,” he said as he headed for his dressing room after the benefit.
Russell initially balked at a Globe request for an interview — he rarely talks to the press. But he agreed to open up the next morning, welcoming a reporter to the 45-foot fishing boat that he calls home to discuss everything from his bitter split with his band mates to his battles to stay sober to the tragedy that sent him spiralling.
“After The Station, I was really down, was taking anything I could take,” he said. “I would just sit for hours and cry.”
Russell wouldn’t say whether he felt partially responsible for the 100 deaths in the fire, though friends say his broken body is a form of self-punishment. For his part, he still expresses surprise at his unwanted place in history.
“All I ever wanted to do was be a singer,” said Russell, still looking the part of a rock star with dangling earrings, four on each side, and his trademark, pirate-style bandana over long, sandy blond hair. “I just hope that I put more into this world than I took out of it.”
By Feb. 20, 2003, Great White was well past its 1980s glory days, when “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” was a hit single and two albums went platinum. Once popular enough to pack arenas, the band had been reduced to playing out-of-the-way roadhouses like The Station, with its capacity of 400.
That day, Russell swaggered around West Warwick, handing out free tickets to anybody who recognized him or the band’s name, adding unknowingly to the ranks of the dead and injured.
As Russell took the stage, road manager Daniel Biechele set off the pyrotechnics that were part of the show, igniting flammable sound-proofing materials along the back wall, spreading flames so quickly that the audience seemed momentarily transfixed. A chilling videotape of the fire shows Russell saying “Wow . . . this isn’t good,” when he finally noticed the growing blaze behind him.
After ineffectually trying to douse the fire with his water bottle, Russell and most of the band quickly exited through the stage door while the audience surged toward the main entrance, creating a massive bottleneck that prevented escape. The ensuing inferno killed 100 people and injured roughly 230.
The band didn’t immediately realize the gravity of the situation — guitar player Mark Kendall said he told his wife on the phone that he expected to finish the show after the fire was extinguished. Russell later approached firefighters to ask if everyone made it out OK, unaware that scores — including his rhythm guitarist, Longley, 31 — were dead.
A tearful Biechele pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison for setting off the illegal fireworks. But some felt his boss, Russell, should have been the one behind bars.
“I think it’s so unfortunate that [Biechele] took the rap and not Jack Russell,” said Chris Fontaine, whose son was killed and daughter was badly burned in the fire. The daughter’s fiance was also killed.
Russell’s lawyers say he wasn’t charged because his actions were not criminal: He did not ignite the pyrotechnics, he had no financial interest in the club, and he had no role in installing the flammable foam. Russell also maintained that the band had permission for the fireworks.
Eventually, Great White’s insurance company paid $1 million to fire victims and survivors, scarcely putting a dent in the almost incalculable damage from the fire.
Russo, now president of the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, said her group rejected any proceeds from Russell’s benefit concert because it seemed to her a publicity ploy. She hastened to add that the group does not take funds from others who were involved in the disaster, including other members of Great White who broke with Russell and now tour separately.
“It’s just not appropriate,” she said. “It’s the whole Great White name, and in our world, it’s tarnished.”
Russell recognizes the animosity toward him, saying, “I can’t imagine how people feel who lost like their wife, lost their son, lost their daughter, lost their husband or whatever, I can’t imagine the depth of their pain.’’
But he said people should realize that the fire haunts him, too. “This was a life-changing event for everyone,” he said. “It’s not like something I forget about.”
He has spent the last decade in a swirling haze of band tours, heavy drinking, and drug abuse, often at the same time. By the summer of 2010, he could no longer stand for an entire performance, and he suffered a perforated bowel that left him in a coma, near death.
Russell attributed the grave illness to a fall, but Kendall, the guitarist who cofounded Great White with Russell in the 1970s, believes it was the long-term damage from substance abuse. Kendall also said that Russell was having difficulty standing because years of using the steroid prednisone, to strengthen his voice, had severely atrophied his leg muscles.
By the time Russell slipped into a coma, Kendall, weary of Russell’s cycles of substance abuse, rehab, and fleeting sobriety, had moved on. Russell was replaced with a new lead singer, while Kendall secured the copyrights to the band’s name.
“All we wanted was a sober, healthy Jack Russell, one that could command the stage and do what he does,” said Kendall, who is touring with Great White and recently drew close to 300 people at a show near San Diego with tickets averaging $45, triple the price of admission to Russell’s benefit.
Russell survived the perforated bowel, but it left him a physical wreck, said Robby Lochner, a guitar player who met Russell after surgery in 2011. He’s feeling better now, free of the colostomy bag and able to stand during shows. Lochner said Russell seemed to get his drinking under control following the alcohol-poisoning death of a long-time friend the summer of 2011.
“He turned the page, in a big way,” Lochner said.
Russell claims he hasn’t had alcohol for more than a year and that Marlboro cigarettes are his only addiction. And, he said, life is looking up in other ways, too, starting with his new wife, Heather, a 39-year-old nurse, who was constantly at his side when he was so sick. He gushes that she has given new meaning to the love ballads he was writing back in the 1980s.
“The songs I wrote were really about this fantasy world that I never knew existed,” Russell said. “I have that now.’’
Though Kendall was never publicly vilified — he had little to do with the decision to use indoor fireworks — he said it took him a long time to recover from the fire. Now a 55-year-old grandfather, Kendall said he finds comfort in playing music and in his church, and he has kept in close contact with several fire victims.
“Nothing has been more healing than the fellowship with them,” he said, “because they’ve been through so much, and I’ve been a witness to all this.”
Russell says he has forged friendships with victims from the fire, too, including the father of his former guitarist Longley. After the memorial foundation rejected his offer of a benefit, he donated proceeds to a charity founded by Acey Longley, Ty’s son, who had not been born by the time of the fire.
Yet Russell only mentioned Ty Longley and the Station fire once during his benefit show at Saint Rocke. Mostly, Russell was in rock star mode, wheeling through Great White’s old hits and, halfway through the set, the song that he was singing when The Station caught fire, “Desert Moon.”
“Let’s shake this town, baby,” sang Russell, who told the audience the song was about making love in the moonlight.
Immediately after the fire, Russell vowed the band would never play “Desert Moon” again.
“I don’t think I could ever sing that song again,” he said.
But eventually the band reconsidered. As Russell explained, “It wasn’t the song’s fault.”