Putting the Band Back Together

Four years after the tragedy of the Station nightclub fire, Great White frontman Jack Russell is pushing for a fresh start—but at what cost to those still suffering?

For a sleepless week, Jack Russell sat by himself, swilling vodka and smoking cocaine. It was spring 2003, and the 42-year-old rocker was in a haze. His bid to recapture a taste of the fame that his band, Great White, enjoyed in the 1980s had just ended in tragedy: A few weeks earlier, on February 20, the group’s pyrotechnics sparked a blaze that killed 100 fans, including 33 from Massachusetts, at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

Last year band manager Daniel Biechele and club owner Michael Derderian received four-year jail sentences for their role in the deaths; Russell—who escaped through a side door—has never faced charges, though he’s still named in many of the 250 civil suits filed in court. Since the fire, the singer has avoided the East Coast and largely stayed quiet, granting few interviews. But now, with almost two years of sobriety under his belt, Russell has reunited his band’s original lineup, finished work on a new disc, and launched a 25th-anniversary tour. And he’s finally ready to talk.

“After the fire happened, I really went into a downward spiral,” Russell tells City Journal. “Every single drug I could ever get, I’d do, because I just didn’t want to feel anything. I was in so much pain.” When he hit bottom, he followed rock-star protocol and entered the Betty Ford Center. Still haunted by the disaster, he canceled most of the shows he’d planned for 2005 and 2006. The band’s comeback, he says, will help him move on at last. But survivors and victims’ family members say Russell’s reemergence comes at an emotional cost to them. Donald Latulippe of Randolph, whose son Dale died in the fire, said he’d like to see the court set aside a portion of Russell’s earnings for the victims. “One hundred lives—my God,” says Latulippe, who helps support Dale’s 12-year-old son. “And some of these people are deformed.”

Criticism that the band hasn’t done more for victims has dogged Russell. Though Great White did donate more than $80,000 to the Station Family Fund in the months after the fire, the band later parted ways with the nonprofit. “They felt,” Russell says, “that their continued affiliation with Great White would hinder them from getting any other kind of support.” (The concern was well founded: In 2003, a planned Weymouth gig had to be bagged when victims’ families vowed to protest.)

Resentment was also inflamed when Russell got a facelift last year—a decision decried by some as a vain insult to those disfigured in the blaze, many of whom are suing Russell to cover medical bills. “If people are going to lose sleep over whether I get a facelift or not,” Russell says, “then maybe what I do is too important to some people.” In January he was blasted again, this time for playing a charity concert in Hollywood to raise money for Canadian harp seals rather than fire survivors.

When pressed on whether he’ll donate proceeds from the new album and tour, Russell is noncommittal. “I understand this horrible thing happened, and you’re looking at me and vilifying me, and I get that. I’m a face you can put on that,” he says. “If that’s the way somebody feels, I can’t blame them. I pray for them every day. I hope their pain goes away and their hearts can heal.”