When Your Gig Is A Mass Casualty Event
Jack Russell, whose band Great White’s show ended in a fire that killed 100 people, has a message for Eagles of Death Metal: It’s honorable to keep going, but it’s OK to stop.
Let’s say you make sandwiches for a living.
You’ve been making sandwiches every day for 20 years, or thereabouts. Perhaps your sandwiches have garnered a robust cult following, or maybe your sandwiches experienced a spike in popularity during the 1980s and their appeal has since dwindled significantly. Either way, you’ve made a respectable living as a sandwich maker.
One day, you make a sandwich, and something horrific and inconceivable happens. Dozens upon dozens of people die. The “lucky” individuals (like you) who avoided physical injury will be nursing psychological scars for probably the rest of their lives. Suddenly, your sandwiches are more famous for their association with a historic tragedy than they are for tasting good.
Nonetheless, after all that heartbreak and trauma, because it’s probably the only way to pay your bills, you’ve got to go make more sandwiches.
Eighty-nine of the 130 people killed during last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris were at the Bataclan theatre to see Californian snark rockers Eagles of Death Metal, before alleged ISIS-affiliates turned the occasion into a hostage crisis and bloodbath. Amid the loss of life and international reaction, “How are Eagles of Death Metal going to carry on?” probably still isn’t at the top of anyone’s list of pressing questions—but it was going to come up eventually.
Jack Russell’s Great White might be the only band on Earth to endure a kind of comparable episode. On Feb. 20, 2003, a pyrotechnics accident during their performance at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, sprawled into an inferno that claimed 100 lives, and injured a few hundred others.
We emphasized “kind of” in that last paragraph, because if EODM ever return to Paris, they wouldn’t be crazy to expect a hero’s welcome. Such is not at all the case for Great White, who haven’t played Rhode Island since the Station fire. Recent controversy surrounding Russell’s rumored documentary about the disaster tells us West Warwick’s wounds are far from healed.
Nonetheless, Russell is one of the only people on Earth who have had to carry on in a rock band that’s forever linked to a mass casualty event. In his interview with The Daily Beast, over a decade later, he said he still grieves, and that the night at the Station “never goes away.”
So we’re doing this story, trying to get some perspective on Eagles of Death Metal’s Bataclan show…
Well, y’know, from my perspective, it’s always scary going on stage. The thing about these terrorists is they can strike anywhere. They don’t care. When we were doing the Whitesnake tour in Europe, we went over and did Ireland. The first show was in Dublin, and everything was great. The next night was in Belfast, and it was quite a different scene. There were army guys rolling the streets. At the gig they had bomb-sniffing dogs. I asked the guy, “What are the dogs for?” He goes, “Finding bombs.” I go, “You mean there could be bombs under the stage?”
He goes, “Could be. That’s what the dogs are for.” That really scared me. But I don’t think that was [about] ISIS. I think it was just generally about terrorism, suicide bombers, and things like that.
So how did you manage to move forward with music after the Station fire?
I’m still working on it, man. It never goes away. I still grieve my friends, and most of them were people I knew, if not my name, by face. They’d been going to our shows for 20-something years. I saw them go from teenagers in high school to grown adults having their own kids, so there was a connection there. It’s hard to wonder, “Why was I saved? Why didn’t I get killed?” I guess they call that survivor’s guilt, or whatever. I don’t know how those other guys are dealing with it.
Every time I get on stage, I think of Dimebag Darrell, y’know? For some reason, it’s just… Ever since [Darrell’s 2004 murder] happened, it showed me that you’re never safe, even on stage entertaining people. There’s a lot of crazy people out there, y’know? I don’t understand them. I guess that makes me semi-normal? I always thought I was crazy, but when you look at the barometer, I guess I’m not so bad. It’s just a tragic thing, y’know? How would you deal with it?
It would be like if you owned a restaurant and made the same thing every day, then one day something horrible and inexplicable happened.
Yeah, right. In this case, it’s more like some people come to your restaurant because they love your food, and some terrorist bomber comes in and blows up your clientele, so you have to build another restaurant and keep serving the food. That’s more what it’s like.
But I don’t blame myself for the fire, and it took me a long time not to do that. I was just there to do a job. I don’t have control over what goes on in the inner workings and outer workings. They just tell me what time to sing, so I go up and sing, and the rest of it is worked out by management.
It sounds like a copout, but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to not blame yourself, but in a way, you can’t blame yourself. There were a bunch of people there who came to see me sing because they enjoy my music, and they got killed and injured. That’s not what music’s all about. That’s not why I wrote these songs, and that’s not why Great White existed. Great White existed to make people feel good, y’know?
Did you ever get to a point where you could play a show without thinking about the fire?
I always think of the fire. I always think of, y’know, I’m always looking for the exits. I always look for dangerous situations. I’ll alert someone if I see something’s haywire or a wire’s looking like it could possibly short, because God forbid. I always tell people to make sure to know where the exits are, because you never know when something could happen. Even if you’re at the movies or dinner, make sure you know where the exits are. Whenever I go anywhere with my wife, I suss out the exits and have a plan if something were to happen.
What kind of advice would you give to the guys in Eagles of Death Metal at this point, if they’re second guessing whether to keep doing music?
Well, y’know, they’re as passionate about music as I am—I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old. This is all I’ve ever done. This is my life, and if you think that way, nothing else is going to fulfill you. But if going back to music is going to somehow harm you mentally, then don’t, if you can find something else that satisfies you.
But it’s almost like… You kinda gotta keep doing it for your lost comrades, y’know? I think about WWII, when my dad was sitting in the trenches and his friend got shot. What if he just threw his gun down and walked away, and everybody else did the same? It’s a stretch of an analogy, but y’know what I’m getting at.
But I certainly would never look badly at somebody who quit after a tragedy like that. I’m sure there are people who went to our concert in Rhode Island that would never go to another concert just because of the fear, and I don’t blame them for that. We all take things a different way when we all… I don’t know… I always wondered when the day was going to be when terrorists would hit a rock band. I’m terribly sorry for them all.