We all know that rock ’n’ roll history is littered with tragedy. There’s the 1969 Stones’ Gimme Shelter show at Altamont Speedway where addled Hell’s Angels-turned-security goons left one guy stabbed to death and others beaten to a pulp. There was the 1979 Cincinnati Who concert where 11 people were crushed to death. And who can forget fatso Fred Durst helping to incite a rape-riddled riot at Woodstock in 1999? Or the nine people who died rushing the stage at a 2000 Pearl Jam show in Denmark?
But the most grotesque, by far the most heartbreaking, happened when all-but-vanished Great White hit the stage last Thursday at a puny Rhode Island rock venue called the Station. The band’s pyrotechnic display torched the place to the ground.
We saw the haunting video images of Great White hosting the worst tragedy in the history of rock ’n’ roll. At press time, 97 daughters, mothers, dads and sons are gone. All after seeing a band which — thanks to Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and songwriter-for-hire Jack Blades — had peaked in the strip-metal halcyon days of the late 1980s, sold 6 million records and received a Grammy nod before fading southward.
To elevate the sadness on a local level, involved in the Rhode Island fire was Bob Rager, a house soundman at Detroit hard-rock venue Harpos, where he had been employed for 10 years. Rager is described in local circles as a “sweetheart.” In January, Great White tapped Rager to do house sound on the band’s ill-fated national tour.
Word is that Rager is in intensive care and his condition is stable. He has had two operations since Friday to save his right arm and hand.
According to the Harpos Web site (www.harposconcerttheatre.com), Rager stayed behind to help others out of the blaze. As he did, a piece of the ceiling fell in on him, giving him massive second- and third-degree burns. The doctors say his recovery will be a long, slow process.
Great White played Harpos in early February. According to a club booker there the band did not use the aforementioned pyrotechnic display.
The pyrotechnics used at Great White’s Rhode Island show were, in fact, relatively benign; a common class C consumer firework called Gerbs that when ignited becomes something of a glorified sparkler. One could poke body parts in the sparking glints and not get hurt or burned. The band members themselves would, according to an ex-Great White tour manager, stick their heads into the spray to make it look like a halo.
What’s more, the use of pyrotechnics at the Station — a club Anthrax singer Scott Ian once described in a tour diary as “a dive to end all dives” — was common.
David Vaccaro, front man for the defunct Lovin’ Kry of Boston, told the Associated Press the group played the Station about 20 times and used fireworks on all but one occasion. There is footage of a Kiss tribute band shooting pyros as recently as last August.
So, this whole idea that the owners of the Station eschew pyrotechnics is horseshit. The Station’s co-owner Jeffery Derderian’s teary-eyed display last week on national news was, I’m sure, rooted somewhat in sincerity. But here’s a guy — employed by a local TV station — who is under scrutiny for the deaths of at least 97 people. To me, his TV performance was worthy of an Emmy. After all, it was his responsibility to ensure the safety of his patrons. I think Derderian will be held responsible for the fire and deaths at his club. And Rhode Island law says the use of fireworks and pyrotechnics requires a permit.
Michigan law is similar — a band or promoter must obtain a permit from the venue’s municipality in order to employ pyros.
Perry Lavoisne, talent buyer at Clear Channel in Detroit says that of “all the years [booking] at St. Andrew’s Hall we never allowed it [pyrotechnics] once. It’s just really weird. Nowadays nobody does it. And the Great White thing is just such a tragedy.”
How has the Rhode Island debacle influenced the way he looks at presenting shows?
“It’s affected all of us. It affects how the patrons look at safety and the business. Now we want to make sure, more than ever, that the patrons are more aware of their own safety,” he says. “We always have permits and work within the letter of the law.”
This Rhode Island disaster is just profoundly sad and so unnecessary. Anyone who has ever attended a small, overcrowded rock ’n’ roll show can empathize.
I’ve done tours playing small rock venues and shitholes around the country. I can tell you that club owners consistently push the envelope, often exceeding fire code capacity limits; many fall short of maintaining a protected environment.
The fire at the Station was born of simple jackassian decision-making, the kind of decision-making common on low-end tours that feature erstwhile arena rockers incorporating archaic Kisslike pryo trajectories into their club shows. In these small, off-the-beaten path venues such as the Station, the chances are high that the bands will be dealing with people who have no experience working with varied production requirements.
Jack Russell, Great White’s shouter, is not the brightest guy in the world. He comes off as a friendly but bumbling sort. After a handful of troubling years, he’s simply out earning a living doing club gigs in hopes of a major comeback. The singer now finds himself cast in a role of a man who might be partially responsible for the death of nearly 100 of his fans. Hence, Russell will be forever remembered.
What’s Great White’s encore for the catastrophe at the Station? Well, according to the New York Daily News, Jack Russell is wasting no time filling the shoes of deceased guitarist Ty Longley, who died in the Station fire. “We will continue our tour with a replacement guitarist sometime in the next few days.” Jesus.Brian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org