AUDIE DESBROW Says It Was JACK RUSSELL's Solo Band, Not GREAT WHITE, Which Was Involved In Deadly Rhode Island Concert Fire

February 19, 2024

GREAT WHITE drummer Audie Desbrow spoke to The Rock N' Roll & Coffee Show about the deadly blaze on February 20, 2003 in Rhode Island caused by pyrotechnics at a concert by the now-former GREAT WHITE singer Jack Russell. At the time of the fire, the group that was on the road was called JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE. Guitarist Mark Kendall, who founded the band with Russell in 1982, later said he was asked to join Russell and his solo band on the tour to help boost attendance.

Audie said (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "Oh, it totally destroyed us. We're forever plagued. It's because of the fact that the documentary that they put out, it's all lies," he added, presumably referring to "America's Deadliest Concert: The Guest List", which received its premiere in February 2022 via Reelz. "It said 'it was GREAT WHITE, GREAT WHITE, GREAT WHITE, GREAT WHITE. Even this little club they played at, it's one of those little tiny marquees with those little light bulbs all around on the trailer and they had those little plastic letters that said 'Tonight GREAT WHITE'. It didn't say JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE, but on his dressing room door, the flyers that they provide every night says JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE. His merchandise said Jack Russell tour, whatever. But because of that marquee, when CNN got there, they just flashed the camera in that marquee and it was, boom. [People got the impression that] it was GREAT WHITE that did that. No question about it. And if you were to try to argue that today, 'Oh, you're just trying to… It was Jack Russell, his GREAT WHITE, so it was GREAT WHITE.' I'm, like, 'No, you don't understand. Those guys that were in his band had nothing to do with any of those songs, with the writing or anything.' They didn't even mention in the documentary who those people were on stage with him on that particular night. They actually showed a flyer of the band — me, Tony Montana, Michael Lardie, Jack and Mark from a gig from back in our heyday for that show in the newspaper. They showed that on the documentary. So I was livid. And I was gonna call the station [that premiered the documentary], going, 'You need to blur my face out of there. You're insinuating that I had something to do with the responsibility of a hundred people's deaths.' I don't want that on my head. I don't want some crazy guy with a Molotov cocktail at my house one day, going, 'You murderer,' or I get shot in the head because this kid grew up and found out this band was responsible for his parents' deaths. I don't wanna be insinuated like that. It was a horrible thing, but I wasn't even there. So my wife called and she told him that 'you need to blur that out,' like they do in the 'Cops' TV show. They said, 'Well, it's really expensive to do that. We can't do that.' And then the next time I watched the documentary, that flyer, everybody's face was blurred out except for Jack's. So they actually did it, 'cause they knew [that it was wrong]."

Elaborating on the damage that was done by people believing that the original GREAT WHITE band was involved in the Rhode Island concert fire, Audie said: "When I first rejoined the band, I'd be in airports and strangers would come up to me, 'That must have been a really bad thing that happened to you guys.' I'm, like, 'I wasn't even there.' And that's what they insinuated in that documentary. It's, like, overkill on 'it's GREAT WHITE who did this.' It really wasn't."

Desbrow went on to say that even though Kendall was present at the show, "he wasn't in [Jack's] band. When Jack tried to go out there with these other guys [under the name JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE], he had really bad attendance. Nobody wanted to come. Nobody cared. So, he called Mark, kept calling Mark, calling him, 'Man, come on, you've gotta come out, man. Help me out here. And we can do some GREAT WHITE stuff together and then we'll get more people.' And so Mark reluctantly went there and played some shows, and then the next three or four shows down the road, that fire happened. [It was a] horrible thing. But he didn't even really wanna go do that. Jack just kept begging him and bugging him to, 'Come out, man. Come out. Help me out.' And he wasn't actually even getting paid the first few shows. He had to threaten, going, 'If you don't pay me before I get on stage, I'm not going. I'm just gonna go home.' It was only a few shows and that started happening. And then the next one was the fire. But yeah, he wasn't in Jack's GREAT WHITE band."

"America's Deadliest Concert: The Guest List" is based in part on John Barylick's narrative non-fiction work "Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert". It includes interviews with Russell, Dee Snider (TWISTED SISTER),Don Dokken (DOKKEN),Lita Ford and Michael Sweet (STRYPER).

Back in October 2022, Kendall told the "Sally Steele Rocks! Show" about the deadly blaze: "I think people misunderstood, thinking GREAT WHITE uses pyro. Because we've never used it before. And the main reason is we're not a spectacle kind of band. We just want… Give us a lot of lights, maybe a little fog on the ballad and girls backstage. That's pretty much the end of GREAT WHITE. We don't go blow stuff up and whatnot. So it was kind of strange. But it was [Jack's] solo thing. All the merchandise he had was all Jack RussellJack Russell CD, Jack Russell t-shirt, picture behind us…"

According to Kendall, the tour was initially billed just "the Jack Russell 'For You' tour," named after Jack's second solo album, which came out in 2002. "And when I went out there, not even realizing… After I did three or four shows, I saw a flyer that said 'Jack Russell's GREAT WHITE,'" Mark recalled. "And I even called the manager, I go, 'You're calling it 'Jack Russell's GREAT WHITE'?' I go, 'Whatever. That's cool.' But the night of the accident, they actually put 'GREAT WHITE' on the marquee, and I think that's where the confusion came. But I didn't know anyone in [Jack's solo] band; I just met 'em for the first time [on that tour]."

Russell's bandmate Ty Longley (guitar) was one of the people who perished in The Station blaze, which became the fourth deadliest fire in U.S. history.

In 2008, the band agreed to pay $1 million to survivors and families of the victims of the fire.

"It was just an awful experience," Mark said. "I talked to my pastor. Man, it was the most horrific thing. I'm very close with everybody in Rhode Island. We're constantly in contact on Facebook. It was just an awful night."

Elaborating on what he saw that tragic evening, Kendall said: "It was very mild looking [at first], but I felt heat and I never felt heat before with this stuff, and so I knew there was something wrong. So I went out through the back door to get out of everybody's way so they could put it out. I thought maybe they'd have a fire extinguisher. 'Cause I saw on the wall it was just a very small part of the foam [that] had caught fire, and I thought for sure they would just put it out. But when they opened the doors… This whole place was lined with this black foam stuff, and come to find out later — of course I didn't know it then — but the fire marshal said it was equal to 13 gallons of gasoline on the wall or something. So when they opened doors, the backdraft or whatever made it just go up. And it was just horrific, man. I don't like to think about it."

The fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick began in an overcrowded club when pyrotechnics from Russell's GREAT WHITE ignited illegal soundproofing foam lining the club's walls.

"I've seen so many video tapes of pyro shooting off in that club with the foam — bigger stuff than we had — and it never happened," Jack told Psycho Babble TV a few years ago." Why it happened that night… Who knows? I mean, it's like a plane crash — it takes all these little things to fall in line for that one big thing to happen. So [the movie] gave me the opportunity to talk about how I felt and for me to apologize. Not a guilty apology, but because I just…

"I mean, I feel horrible that it happened," he continued. "I lost a lot of friends that night — a lot of friends. People that I didn't even know were even there. And people have said, 'Well, he's not remorseful.' And they've gotta understand, when all this went down, my legal team, they said, 'You cannot ever say you're sorry, because it implies guilt.' And I'm, like, 'But I am sorry.' [And they told me], 'But you can't say it.'"

According to Russell, at least one "really beautiful" thing came out of the tragedy. "There was a man named Joe; they call him 'The Lizard Man,'" Jack said. "He was the worst, most badly burned of all the people. And he met his wife in the fire and they had a beautiful son. And his comment was, 'If this wouldn't have happened, I wouldn't have met the love of my life.'"

Russell exited GREAT WHITE in December 2011 after he was unable to tour with the group due a series of injuries, including a perforated bowel and a shattered pelvis. Jack largely blamed these injuries on his alcohol and painkiller addictions as well as the prednisone drug he was prescribed.

Russell sued his onetime bandmates in 2012 over their continued use of the GREAT WHITE name after Jack had taken a leave of absence from the band for medical reasons. A short time later, Russell was countersued by Kendall, rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Michael Lardie and Desbrow, claiming the vocalist'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, with Russell now performing as JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE while the others are continuing as GREAT WHITE.

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