Twelve and a half years ago, the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, claimed the lives of 100 people and badly injured more than 200 others. The bluesy hair metal outfit Great White were kicking into their opening song when pyrotechnics shot upwards behind the stage and ignited soundproofing foam on the venue ceiling, starting a swift moving blaze that engulfed the overcapacity club in a matter of minutes.
Great White have not played Rhode Island, nor any of the five other states of New England, since. Now split into two versions, one led by guitarist Mark Kendall and the other by frontman Jack Russell, it was announced in June — in what many considered to be a puzzlingly tone-deaf announcement — that the latter band, under the moniker Jack Russell’s Great White, would be headlining the Party in the Pasture festival in Mechanics Falls, Maine, along with fellow past-their-popularity-prime peers Steelheart and a slew of regional rock bands on August 15.
Curiously, the all-day event is taking place at Harvest Hill Farms, the site of another area tragedy: a haunted hayride accident last October that saw the death of a 17-year-old and left 22 injured. But according to organizers, it’s not a coincidence at all.
“It was a no-brainer,” Dwayne Milne, President of North East Concerts, promoter of Party in the Pasture, tells Vanyaland. “I’ve booked Great White before, on more than one occasion, knew Jack and thought about it and thought, ‘that wouldn’t be a bad idea.’”
“These people [at Harvest Hill Farms] are going to go through some scrutiny over the next x amount of years of ‘Is it their fault?’, the finger pointing, the blame game… so I reached out to Jack and he loved the idea,” Milne continues, defending the decision. “He’s been wanting to come back to New England forever; there’s so many Great White fans here. And the opportunity was staring at us right there; he can help these folks understand what they’re going to go through for the next 10, 12 years of their lives, he gets to help other people learn to heal how he learned to heal. We just thought it was the right time, right band, right place.”
There are some that might not agree with the sentiment of “the right time, right band, right place” — whether it’s families who lost loved ones, survivors to this day enduring profound physical and emotional effects of that fateful February night in 2003, or passionate residents who have been furiously lighting up social media. Much of it was due to Party in the Pasture being advertised like this: “For the 1st time back in 12 years, coming back to New England, playing like never before, Jack Russell’s Great White.”
“I think there was no other way to word it,” Milne says. “If you put yourself in a promoter’s shoes, you have controversy on top of a controversial site, how do you break that news? How do you put that out there? That’s how we wanted to word that; we’re inviting them back to New England for the first time in 12 years; never mentioned the fire and never mentioning anything regarding it whatsoever.”
Todd King, a survivor of the fire and President of the Station Family Fund, tells Vanyaland: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity when you promote a rock and roll show, if you’re promoting it on Facebook, you better check off those comments because you’re gonna be looking at a long day.”
Even Russell thinks the promotion behind the Maine show is in bad taste.
“Ah geez… people just don’t get it,” the singer tells Vanyaland from his home in Los Angeles. When told of how the fest was being promoted, he adds: “What are you thinking? Don’t you understand that people died? People lost their friends? I mean, have a little courtesy and respect. There’s people that are still devastated — I’m one of them. I’ve got a lot of friends I can’t just pick up the phone and call and their numbers are still in my phone. And I don’t want to erase them. I still cry, you know? Like 10 times a month, just bawling. I miss my friends, you know?”
“I see the way people are perceiving it, and everybody’s opinion is their own,” says Milne prior to the controversial line disappearing from all promotion except on the Harvest Hill Farms website. “That’s the great thing about the human genome; everybody’s opinion is their own — I accept that. I accept that when we worded it that way, we knew there was gonna be backlash. But the amount of backlash has been nothing compared to the amount of great sentiment.”
“He’s been wanting to come back to New England forever; there’s so many Great White fans here.”
Dwayne Milne, President of North East Concerts, on Jack Russell.
To many, Russell is the villainous face of the disaster who should never return to the region which no amount of belief in reintroducing him to the local circuit being the right thing to do is going to remove.
“I’m the most visible one of the band and they project that on me, and I understand that,” Russell acknowledges, becoming audibly emotional as the interview goes on. “My thought has always been if that helps them to grieve and to feel in any way a little better about everything, then that’s okay with me. I still don’t like it; I still don’t like that somebody is thinking that I killed their child or had anything to do with harming anybody. That’s not who I am; I’m the type of guy that takes a fly and spiders and lets them out of the house, you know? I have a great love for life and a great respect for it. Even when I fish, I don’t keep anything that I’m not gonna eat. I don’t get any joy out of killing a fish; it’s just food to eat.”
Returning to New England gives Russell pause.
“I’m a little apprehensive because I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings” he adds. “I don’t want to make people feel bad, it’s not my intent.”
Russell never did any jail time, but his road manager, Daniel Biechele, who set off the pyro, was sentenced to four years in prison. He was granted parole less than halfway through that time.
“For me, I have no like for [Great White],” says John Laurenti, former Music Director and Assistant Program Director of rock station WHJY-FM in Providence, Rhode Island. “I lost a co-worker as well as a friend and 99 other listeners, friends, fans… I should’ve been there, so who knows what would’ve happened had I been. I don’t think [Russell] ever really felt responsible for that. That’s why his road manager went to jail. I think that he cried crocodile tears. He let his road manager take the fall for him.”
“Some look at it as just a mistake — which it was — but I’ve always said if it wasn’t for the ego of Jack Russell, there was no need for the sparklers,” Laurenti adds. “We said it when it happened; sparklers and fireworks when you come out play a club? That’s the lead singer disease ego.”
“I remember him being there that night, being outside, running around trying to find his other bandmates, talking to the fans, and being genuinely concerned,” remembers Station survivor Steve Scarpetti, promotions director and on-air talent at WHJY-FM. “The second part though is [Great White] vanished; they didn’t handle it very well, they didn’t reach out very well, maybe it was the lawyers telling them it wasn’t a wise decision to open yourself to more problems.”
Russell admits, 12 years later, that legal threats affected his reaction to the tragedy. “Initially all my lawyers said don’t ever say I was sorry because that would mean I was guilty or something,” he says. “I didn’t have anything to do with what happened, you know what I mean? It was a horrible thing.”
Most music fans would be hard-pressed to name any other members of Great White who were on stage that February night in 2003.
“You don’t hear anybody blaming Mark Kendall,” says Milne. “You don’t hear anybody blaming members of the band. Everybody that knows Great White, they recognize the Jack Russell name and it’s an unfortunate stigma to have labeled on you when you didn’t show up until 15 minutes before the event.”
For what it’s worth, when Jack Russell’s Great White plays Maine later this month, none of the other members in the current band were on stage that February night in West Warwick.
“It was just one of those things where a freak accident came together and resulted in the worst ending you could imagine. I think Jack definitely had to bear the brunt of a lot of it.”
Mike Ricardi, author
Mike Ricardi went to the show with his friend Jim Gahan that night to interview Russell for the radio show they co-hosted at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. Ricardi made it out alive. Gahan didn’t.
“He put us on the guestlist, gave us free tickets, invited us to hang out backstage,” Ricardi recalls of interacting with Russell before the show. “I don’t want to say I have a soft spot for Jack, because that’s not where I’m goin’, but I’m always gonna think a bit differently because he made Jim’s last night sort of so memorable and a good time for us. I’ve never really had any ill will towards Jack.”
Others don’t feel the same way. In a terse message to Vanyaland when asked her opinion on Russell being back in New England to perform, Gina Russo, President of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, writes: “I have nothing to say about him performing in Maine. As long as he knows he is never welcome in RI, I don’t care where he is.”
Russell says he’s “not over it” and has been seeing a psychiatrist for 12 years, once a week since the mishap. When asked by Vanyaland if he plans on stopping in Rhode Island on the way to Maine, possibly to see the makeshift memorial at the razed site of the Station where dozens of wooden crosses have been erected by friends and family members of the victims over the years, Russell breaks down into a gut-wrenching succession of uncontrollable sobbing.
“I would love to go through there, but I’d have to make sure it’s just really under the radar, because I don’t want to cause any problems; but I want to pay respect to my friends and see that,” Russell says. “I want people to feel that I am sorry that this all happened. It’s not like I don’t feel bad.”
Russell continues to break down on the phone.
“If I could go back and change my life, or anybody’s life I would do it,” he adds, weeping. “That wasn’t supposed to happen; it was supposed to be a concert. I just try to take it one day at a time, and sometimes one day [is] worse… some days I can’t even get out of bed. I am so sorry. I just don’t want to cause any more pain — ever. It’s just — I don’t know.”
King realizes that many will never forgive the singer.
“I understand and I sympathize with the family members; they’re never gonna be ok with this,” says King. “There were three groups of people that night; there were people who went to see Great White who had no friends; they were just there to see a show — and there were a lot of us. Then there was the group of people where that was their regular bar, and then there were the people from that area who just knew people there and were there.”
“Then you have the family members on top of that, and you can’t say ‘sorry’ or whatever — it just doesn’t cut it for them. They lost somebody that went to a rock show and didn’t come home. They’ll never be able to move on from that night.”
“The general public, it’s just too raw for them,” concurs Scarpetti, “It just brings back so many memories they just don’t wanna think of; once and awhile I’ll hear a song of theirs come on the radio, and I can’t listen.”
“If I could go back and change my life, or anybody’s life I would do it. That wasn’t supposed to happen; it was supposed to be a concert. I just try to take it one day at a time, and sometimes one day [is] worse… some days I can’t even get out of bed. I am so sorry. I just don’t want to cause any more pain — ever. It’s just — I don’t know.”
Jack Russell, singer of Great White
One person willing to move forward is Scotty Dunbar, who went to the Station nightclub that night with his friends Derek Gray and Eugene “Gino” Avilez to see Great White. Dunbar was the only one of the three to make it out. He now fronts Dunbar, Merrill & Karl, better known as D.M.K., and will be taking part in Party in the Pasture as one of the featured acts.
“I really had to think about it a little bit, just due to the fact that even though it’s in Maine, three-and-a-half-hours-plus away from the Rhode Island area, it’s still part of New England,” Dunbar tells Vanyaland. “It’s not an issue for me. It can be an issue for some of the people I know, so I just wanted to make sure. Even though it’s so far away, you’re still going to get those people that don’t want to see Jack Russell or any version of Great White in the New England area.”
Dunbar believes in moving on.
“As far as my association with this show, maybe it would shine a light and change somebody’s mind, even if it was one or two people just to see things kind of in a different light,” he adds. “I let all that stuff go several years ago after a period I got clean and sober. Part of that healing process for me was to just let go of stuff and see stuff in a different way and just not hold resentment toward anything of that night and just realize it was a huge accident. It didn’t take much for me to decide personally. I just felt it would be good, kind of like a full circle for me.”
“I have people around me who taught me music helps heal,” says Milne. “And if we can bring Jack back to New England to help him heal, people like Scotty heal, other people attached to this event heal, and understand that maybe we are pointing the fingers at the wrong person here.”
Milne says that Dunbar’s case is vital for people to understand that not everyone is set against Great White returning to New England. He’s not some fan who wants to see a band he likes; it’s his life and part of the healing process.
“Having [Scotty], and the fact that he’s a very close friend of Jack’s as well (Dunbar stresses he is an acquaintance of Russell – not a “very close friend”), is paramount for the naysayers, the negative posters out there on Facebook and whatnot,” Milne adds. “There’s a lot of people that like to sit there and blame the band for the fire, and he up close and personal knows that it wasn’t the band’s fault. It’s really helped deflect a lot of the static.”
Regardless of the reaction, one thing in common is that both sides are passionate.
“On one hand I’m thinking it’s gonna open up a lot of old wounds for the people in this area, but then I think, when is it gonna be good?” posits Scarpetti. “Do we keep this guy out of here for the rest of his life because that’s the way it’s gonna be? Maybe the public should get to choose; let the people choose with their dollars. Personally, I’m not gonna go, of course.”
The Party In The Pasture show in Mechanic Falls, Maine, is located more than 200 miles and multiple state lines away from West Warwick, Rhode Island. But it’s the jurisdiction of New England that’s linking the two.
“It’s something I hate saying because I’m a New Englander, but it’s just stubborn New Englanders; they’re not understanding,” Milne says. “The bottom line is you sit back and you look at Jack Russell and you say, “That’s a man of integrity, a man of character who has sat there through these last 12 years and deflected more bashing that’s come his way that was not deserved than anybody other than Obama himself could dream of. Kudos to the man for getting back up onstage and performing every single night and putting on a great show.”
Russell says the demand is there.
“The bottom line is there’s enough people that have been calling and writing and e-mailing saying they want to see us to justify it to go, ‘Look, let’s go back there, let’s do a show and…’ I don’t know… ‘try to create a wave of love’ or something,” he says.
And what of the critics? The ones who say Russell should never set foot in the six states he’s avoided for the last dozen years?
“They’re gonna think what they think of me and that makes me really sad because I really do love people,” Russell says. “I’m not a mean guy, I’m not an evil guy. I’m just a guy who God gave a voice to. I’ve been fortunate enough to take what he gave me and make a living at it. I never expected in my wildest nightmares that something like this would happen in my life. You just don’t think of things like this.”