In the late 1980s, Great White were all over the radio and MTV, led by charismatic frontman Jack Russell. Spurred by hits such as "Rock Me" and "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," they toured alongside giants including Bon Jovi.
Nowadays, however, the band is torn apart and Russell lives on a houseboat in Redondo Beach. Meeting a reporter at the entrance gate to the marina, the 53-year-old singer wears a Bret Michaels–style bandana but looks like a war veteran fallen on hard times — hobbled by various leg and back maladies, hunched over and using a cane for support. Post-surgery, his left leg is now 2½ inches shorter than his right.
In conversation, however, he still has a spark, telling stories about catching red snappers and mako sharks. "I've lived on boats for years, on and off," Russell says, noting how much he enjoys "looking out at Catalina on one end and seeing snow in the mountains the other way."
He shares the modest-sized, well-maintained boat with his wife, Heather Russell. A brunette who just turned 40, she's a longtime fan of Great White; they met on a Colorado tour stop six years ago. Working as a nurse, she's been a great help to him in his physical struggles.
But unfortunately that's not all Russell has had to cope with. Great White didn't need to become an aging rock band cliché; unlike a lot of the other so-called hair-metal bands of their era, they could actually play. But as grunge took hold in the '90s and the band members' drug and alcohol excess took their toll, the act suffered a long decline.
A pyrotechnics accident at a 2003 Rhode Island show killed 100 people — including one of the group's guitarists, Ty Longley. Great White's tour manager, Daniel Biechele, pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and served two years in a Rhode Island prison before being paroled. Lawsuit settlements totaling $176 million were paid out to survivors and victims' families by the manufacturer of the soundproofing foam, which ignited rapidly during the blaze, as well as by radio stations and alcohol brands that sponsored the venue.
While Russell had battled addiction throughout his adult life, the tragedy didn't help him. "After [the accident], I was really down, was taking anything I could take," he told the Boston Globe last year.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2010, when Russell suffered a perforated bowel, which required him to wear a colostomy bag for nine months. Six months earlier, he had shattered his pelvis after a live performance fall. His alcohol and painkiller addictions didn't help, but Russell largely blames these injuries on a drug he was prescribed.
"I would have a bad night on tour, and the next day I would get a steroid shot — Prednisone," Russell says. "Pretty soon I thought I couldn't sing without it. Little did I know that it was destroying my bones and tissue, and making my skin thin and prone to hemorrhage."
That same summer, the other members of Great White decided the group would tour without Russell, giving him time to address his issues. Warrant singer Jani Lane filled in for a few shows — Lane's death from alcohol poisoning in 2011 was unrelated — before the band tapped Terry Ilous, formerly of '80s L.A. hard rockers XYZ.
Unfortunately, time apart would not solve Great White's problems, and in 2012 Russell sued their founding guitarist Mark Kendall, guitarist and keyboardist Michael Lardie and drummer Audie Desbrow. The act now has been split into two versions, each trying to regain its footing for one last attempt at rock glory.
Russell and Kendall first started playing together in Los Angeles in 1978. Russell quickly landed in prison, however, after he and some friends attempted to rob a Whittier drug dealer's home to steal cocaine. Russell was high on PCP at the time, he says; he shot through a door and accidentally hit a live-in maid. She survived, and Russell served 11 months in prison. Kendall took him back when he got out.
As Great White, they released their self-titled debut in 1984; quick-paced, in the metal vein of Judas Priest, it wasn't successful, but their 1987 album, Once Bitten, went platinum on the strength of "Rock Me." Their 1989 double-platinum follow-up, Twice Shy, featured the group's biggest hit, a cover of Ian Hunter's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy." Though they now were playing blues rock, their sartorial style and tresses got them lumped in with the exploding hair-rock genre. Though they managed one more gold album — 1991's Hooked — their fortunes soon declined.
Recently, Kendall reminisced over a chili dog at West Hollywood diner Barney's Beanery, the same spot where, in 1984, Great White manager Alan Niven told the band that EMI had offered them a record deal. Niven no longer manages them but Barney's is still a nostalgic spot for Kendall, who is aging gracefully, with a shaved head and white patch of hair on his chin.
Talk of Russell's struggles brings on a somber mood, however. Kendall is not angry but speaks of his former bandmate like a family member gone astray. Kendall says that by hiring a replacement singer, he hoped Russell would both recover from his physical problems and address the deeper issues of his addictions. "I was thinking it could give him the chance to quit everything and get well."
But Russell's recovery took longer than hoped, and the group began to gel with Ilous.
Being edged out hurt Russell, of course, but he says not hearing from his former bandmates after pelvic surgery three years ago stung the most. "All they had to do was pick up the phone and say, 'Hey Jack, we are so mad at you for screwing up. We don't trust you and don't want to play with you anymore. But are you OK?' " Russell says.
The perceived slight helped fuel Russell's decision to sue for control of the band name in March 2012. In turn, the band countersued him, claiming Russell's self-destructive behavior was damaging the Great White name. (They also alleged he was charging promoters less for his own touring version of Great White.) The parties settled in July 2013 without going to trial; Russell would perform with a new lineup as "Jack Russell's Great White," while the others would continue as Great White.
Russell is at peace with the decision. "I see no problem with [Kendall] using the name and making a living off of it," he says. And despite his ailments, Russell's group began touring immediately, featuring a mostly new lineup that also returns '80s-era Great White member Tony Montana to the fold. A January show at Whisky a Go Go drew a few hundred people; although Russell seemed hobbled and his vocals were rough, his obvious enthusiasm lifted the show.
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The Ilous-led Great White, meanwhile, released a new album, Elation, in 2012, and recently headlined the Rainbow Bar & Grill's 42nd-anniversary party. Ilous' workmanlike performance nearly matched those of Russell's glory days, though he lacked flair.
Despite the conflict, Kendall says he would potentially perform with Russell again. "If he stripped everything that was bad for him and just replaced it with nothing but good, he could totally come back," Kendall says. "Even if it was just at 80 percent. We have too much history to just throw it all away."
Russell claims he hasn't had a drink since Jani Lane's death. "My wife woke me up," Russell says. "She said, 'Your friend Jani Lane just died of alcohol poisoning. You might want to think about quitting drinking.' "
But that doesn't mean he's ready to go back to the old Great White. "It's nothing against them," Russell says. "I just love the people I'm playing with now."