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White Noise

After last year's tragic fire, Great White is back on the road raising money and ire.

Until February 20 of last year, Jack Russell was best known for one song -- a cover of Mott the Hoople's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," performed with a big-haired bravado that made his band, Great White, a momentary star of the '80s hard-rock firmament. What a difference a year makes. Russell may now be the most notorious middle-aged '80s relic this side of the state-fair circuit. He was standing center stage when the Station nightclub in Rhode Island ignited, killing 100 people and variously maiming, disfiguring, blinding and crippling hundreds more.

Russell and his bandmates were not among those indicted by a Rhode Island grand jury last December; the Station's two owners and Great White's former tour manager, 26-year-old Dan Biechele, were each charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter and could face up to thirty years in prison. Russell and the band will probably be named as defendants in a round of civil lawsuits expected this spring. In the meantime, he remains the most reviled man in Rhode Island, a state that's been left to absorb much of the financial aftershocks of the fire; recent estimates place the damages at more than $100 million. Potential lawsuits against local officials could bankrupt the tiny working-class hamlet of West Warwick.

Yet Great White rocks on. Three months after the inferno, the band was back on the road, to the astonishment of many in Rhode Island and the music industry. Russell described the tour as a fundraiser for the Station Family Fund (www.stationfamilyfund.org), an organization formed by a survivor of the fire. This month, he kicks off a new spring tour, raising anger and suspicion as well as money.

Trial by fire: Mark Kendall and Jack Russell are Great 
White.
Trial by fire: Mark Kendall and Jack Russell are Great White.

Westword:It's hard to imagine how you could ever get on a stage again after what happened. Why are you still touring?

Russell: It was very difficult, and I asked myself the same question: How can I ever get out there again when so many people lost their lives? But the only thing that got me off my couch and off my psychiatrist's couch was the support of my fans. We got tens of thousands of e-mails from people supporting the band and asking for help. What was I going to do -- sit around and mope for the rest of my life, feel sorry for myself? No. I had to get out there and do what I could.

Many people in Rhode Island say they don't want your help.

I understand that. People want to blame the band. That's okay. My only problem with those people is that when we started to tour, they were trying to stop us. I'm saying, "Wait a minute. You've got hundreds of people saying, 'Thank you. We need the help. Our kids need school clothes. I need to pay my doctor bills.'" Why would you want to stand in the way of that? If you don't want our help, don't take it, but don't stop us from helping someone else.

You've been accused of benefiting from what happened.

The only way I know how to raise money is to sing. People say, 'Oh, they're just doing this so they don't get indicted.' Well, the indictment's already come down, and we're still doing the tour. It's not to enhance Great White's future. Great White's going to be a club band forever, and that's just the way it is. No matter what we do, for the rest of our lives, we will always be associated with a nightclub fire that killed 100 people. They say, 'Oh, they're just trying to make their career come back.' Give me a break -- I'm not that stupid. The '80s aren't coming back. I wouldn't want them to.

You did 41 dates last year and raised more than $70,000. This time out, a smaller percentage of your profits will go to the fund.

Seventy thousand's not bad for a band playing nightclubs. On the last tour, we committed to give 100 percent of the profits to the fund. After we paid expenses, we gave to the fund. We went basically all last year without making a living. Obviously, we can't continue to do that for the rest of our lives; we've got families to feed as well. We need to make a living. We're taking a small percentage, and whatever is left over, we're giving away. We're in a van; we stay at the cheapest hotels. This stuff helps us give more to the fund.

You're expected to be named in several civil suits. Is any of the money that you're raising going toward your own legal defense?

My legal defense is my problem. Any money I make on the road, I'll take my portion and pay my own bills. I'm not expecting our fans to pay my legal bills.

Were you surprised that the band wasn't indicted?

I'm a singer, not an attorney general. We didn't know from one minute whether they were going to indict the band or not; it wasn't that important. We had other things to think about -- like the tour, helping these people out. The justice system is going to follow its own course.

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