Rock and roll, especially ’80s hair metal, is all about a good time. Songs are built around a handful of repetitious themes—girls, raunchy sex, Jack Daniels, heroin, Harleys, a party that will never, ever end. The music and the lifestyle that surrounds it is certainly not about regret, remorse or tragedy. Great White was no exception. Until this tour.
Next week, Great White will play Missoula’s Elbow Room, hopefully for a rollicking, appreciative crowd. But lead singer Jack Russell won’t be taking any girls back to the tour bus or dropping Franklins at Moulin Rouge after the show. There is no tour bus to go back to, just a rental van, and the money Russell and his band make isn’t for strippers, it’s for the victims of the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people at one of the band’s gigs last February.
“Immediately after the fire we started thinking about what we could do to help people out,” says Russell. “We lost 100 friends that night. These are people that we grew up with. In the rock and roll community, especially in this genre, which isn’t as big as it used to be 10 years ago, we see the same people at the shows every night.”
A few months after the fire, the band decided it wanted to do a benefit tour to raise money for the victims and their families. The band spent a few weeks searching for the right fund through which to funnel their revenue.
“The biggest problem wasn’t finding a benefit fund that would take our money,” says Russell. “We found a lot that wanted a 50 percent administration fee and then would put the rest into a college fund. Well, what is that going to do for people that need skin grafts or need food for their tables or need new shoes for their kids?”
After putting out a press release in a few Rhode Island papers, the band was approached by the Station Family Fund, which is set up to help victims’ families with living expenses.
Not everyone liked the idea of the benefit tour. Criticisms from enraged relatives of victims and a request from Mayor David Madden caused the band to cancel a gig in South Weymouth, Mass., on Sept. 26. The show would have been the band’s first performance in New England since the fire. Great White has since decided not to book any more shows in New England for the time being.
But for some families, it isn’t just the close-to-home shows that upset them. A few families find something obscene about the band they blame for the fire touring for the victims.
“There are a couple of families who don’t understand, who maybe had lost a daughter or a son or something and they want to blame the band,” says Russell. “I understand where they are coming from, and that’s why we’re not playing any East Coast shows. We don’t want to hurt anybody, we don’t want to make anybody feel bad. But my question for the ones who want to stop the tour is, ‘Why would you want to stop somebody from asking us for help and us giving it to them?’ There’s 56 kids who were left without one or both parents. How can I turn them down? How can I say no when they are asking for help?”
To maximize the amount they can raise, the band has become a bare-bones touring outfit. Jack and company fly in and out of hubs, do three or four dates over a weekend and return to L.A. for a day or two before heading back out.
“Nobody’s getting rich in the band on this,” says Russell. “Hell, if we wanted to we could go out under the same guise and stay at the Ritz Carlton and eat $100 dinners every night and ride in a tour bus, and still give money to the fund. But it would be hundreds of dollars a week, instead of thousands.”
Another obstacle in front of the tour was replacing guitarist Ty Longley, who died in the February fire. In what Russell calls “one of those strange ways the universe works,” Russell’s son’s half-brother—they share the same mother—Jordan Martin stepped into Longley’s place. Russell had been helping 18-year-old Martin and his band record an album, and Martin expressed interested in the tour.
“No one could ever replace Ty. But I thought, ‘let’s give this young kid a shot and let him come out and have some fun,’” says Russell. “He comes from a very Christian upbringing and he’s very into the whole concept of the tour and that’s really who we wanted. We didn’t want some jaded guy from the ’80s who all he cares about is his salary.”
When asked the typical interview question, “Why should Missoulians come to see you?,” Russell responded uniquely. He says that he doesn’t care if you’re a Great White fan or not. He doesn’t care if you like rock and roll. To him it doesn’t even matter if you see the show. All Russell wants is your donation. That’s why he’s here.
“It’d be just as easy for me to sit at home and do nothing,” he says. “Instead I’m out here working and taking some heat from some people and heat from some press. But what’s right is right. These people are our friends, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do something about it.”