Though they formed in 1977 and it took them the best part of a decade to really get going, there was a golden period in the mid- to late 1980s when there were few better bands on the grimy L.A. rock & roll scene than Great White.
It’s easy to forget just how wild and untamed but also straight-up talented these guys were. The hair might have been big but, like early Aerosmith and, later, early Black Crowes, they were essentially playing blues rock, while dabbling in sleazy fashion and glam-rock imagery. The trilogy of 1986’s Shot in the Dark, ’87’s Once Bitten … and ’89’s … Twice Shy proved that these guys could play hard, fast and intricately.
At the front of it all was Jack Russell — the diminutive singer with the voice that could channel both Ian Hunter and Robert Plant. Russell would whip around the stage like the breed of dog that shares his name, spinning and gyrating but never skipping a note.
In contrast, recent shows have seen a more sedate version of Russell (despite his own protestations that he’s still the same old Jack). His health has suffered due to a combination of overindulgence, some necessary surgeries, and the events of Feb. 20, 2003. That was the day of the fire at the Station, a Rhode Island nightclub, during a show by Jack Russell’s Great White, caused by pyrotechnics and highly flammable sound insulation; it killed 100 people, including the band's guitarist, Ty Longley. Mention the tragedy today and Russell still audibly gasps at the memory of it.
“It’s not like I’ve come to terms with it because I’ll never get over it,” Russell says. “I lost 100 friends that night. You play somewhere for over 20 years, especially a smaller venue, you get to know people and you watch them grow up. There are so many times when I’ll see a sunrise and I’ll just start crying because there’s 100 people that will never see that again, because they wanted to come and see me sing. Who I really feel horrible for are are the relatives that lost someone — wives, husbands and family members. I can’t imagine that kind of pain. If I lost my wife, what would I do? How would I feel? How would I handle that? It would probably send me around the bend.”
It would be an overstatement to say that the 56-year-old Russell looks frail now, but the last decade and a half has certainly taken its toll on the man. There’s innate sadness etched on his face, even when he’s onstage doing what he does best. His voice is still magnificent, which seems like a miracle. Most ’80s singers have lost at least a touch of their mojo, but Russell’s has remained remarkably consistent.
His current guitarist in Jack Russell’s Great White (so named because there are two competing versions of the band on the road) is Robby Lochner, and the two have formed a bond based on professional respect and genuine friendship. Lochner says there are occasions when he sees that his friend’s mind is wandering, and he knows that Russell is back in the Station in 2003. In the past, pain has lead to self-medication.
“He wasn’t smoking when we first started up, then he started smoking,” Lochner told me back in December. “Then he slipped off the wagon and started drinking. It got so bad, he was out for five days, in the hospital. I would go down there and visit him. When he actually woke up, I was there and I told him that the band was over. He was wrecked and I thought he wasn’t going to come back from it. He’s like, ‘Where am I? What happened?’ I said, ‘Dude, you drank yourself into a coma.’ He was freaked out that he’d been there for five days. That was over a year ago now. He just celebrated one year of sobriety. It took him two to three months at about 80 percent, and I thought [his voice] wasn’t coming back. But it did, and lately he’s been sounding really good.”
He sure does; Jack Russell’s Great White released the album He Saw It Comin’ in January, and the vocal performance in particular is spectacular. Throwing himself into a new creative project has been extremely helpful for Russell, despite the survivor’s guilt.
“I’ve got to admit, I don’t feel guilty over the idea that ‘Maybe there’s something I could have done,’ because there wasn’t,” Russell says. “In the scope of my job, I don’t go to soundcheck and check out to see if all the doors open up, if there’s flame-retardant stuff on the walls — I just take it for granted the fire marshal or whoever is doing their job and they take it for granted that I’m going to sing. It’s a really hard pill to swallow. It’s something I deal with every day.”
Not everyone is convinced about the depth of Russell’s feelings. A survivor named Gina Russo has been particularly vocal in placing blame at Russell’s feet, telling the Providence Journal in November 2015, “He’s looking for forgiveness from a lot of people. In my world he doesn’t warrant any forgiveness.”
More than 14 years have passed, and Russell, with help from his wife and Lochner, has had to work on his own pain in order to get his career back on track. But bad blood remains between Russell and Mark Kendall, original Great White guitarist and leader of the other band currently touring under the Great White name. Kendall performed that night at the Station, but Russell says the old bandmates have been growing further apart ever since.
“I take responsibility for [the breakup],” Russell says. “I’m just a bit miffed at the way they went about it. Not calling me — just the ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ thing. When I was in the hospital dying of septic shock because my colon burst, nobody called me to say, ‘Hey, I hate you, don’t want to play with you anymore, but we’ve been brothers for so long — how are you doing?’ Nothing. It is what it is. There’s no love lost there. I’m over it. I don’t have any bad feelings toward them, but I can’t say that it’s reciprocated. But that’s OK. I’m in a band that I love and I wish them the best of luck. I just wish myself a little more.”
It’s tough to say how well Russell really is. Listen to him and it would appear that everything is pretty much hunky-dory. His demeanor is less joyful, though that might be because he’s on his way to the doctor when I speak to him. He married Heather Ann Kramer in 2011, but she’s been sick due to stomach and intestinal issues that have clearly caused more turmoil for the couple. Russell says that she won’t get better, but they get through it together.
“My wife is a wonderful woman,” he says. “She loves me like I’ve never been loved before. It’s not about who I am or what I do. She’d be happy if I quit tomorrow. She enjoys what I do but it’s not the be-all and end-all for her. The peace I have comes from the band I’m in, but mostly from my marriage. My wife wouldn’t care if I worked at a 7-Eleven. That’s really refreshing.”
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Jack Russell in 2017 isn’t the same free-spirited kid from the 1980s. Like most people, he’s grown up and made his mistakes. The animosity between him and his former bandmates (in addition to Kendall, the other Great White also includes longtime drummer Audie Desbrow and guitarist-keyboardist Michael Lardie) appears to hurt him more than he cares to admit. But on the bright side, Jack Russell’s Great White are putting on good shows and putting out great records. And he still enjoys playing the old songs with this new band, which he'll be doing a lot on his current tour, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Once Bitten.
“It feels snappier, tighter,” Russell says of the classic material. “I don’t tell them to play it lick for lick. Some parts I want exact. Solos and stuff. I’m not likening this to a Led Zeppelin song, but just for analogy’s sake, it’d be like changing the lead to ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Some things you don’t mess with, and people want to hear what they know.”
There will be more rough times ahead, but it seems Jack Russell will be around to offer the people what they want to hear for some time to come.
Jack Russell’s Great White plays with Fallen Saints and Tailgun at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills on Friday, Aug. 25, and with Angeles and Electric Hound at the Rose in Pasadena on Saturday, Aug. 26.