For more than three years, anger, grief, lawsuits and haunting memories have swirled around the band Great White since its pyrotechnic display ignited the Rhode Island nightclub fire that left 100 dead and injured many more.
The fire “was a full-blown American tragedy,” lead guitarist Mark Kendall told The Associated Press in a recent rare interview. “I was sad to be a witness to it. It was just a nightmare.”
The February 2003 conflagration, sparked by stage explosives that ignited foam meant to soundproof The Station nightclub’s stage, also killed the hard-rock group’s guitarist Ty Longley.
Amid escalating legal troubles, Great White has now reunited after a year off the road and is preparing to record an album and go back on tour.
Looking forward is much easier than looking back for Great White.
“These people (in the club) were like friends to us, not just rock fans,” Kendall said. “There’s a fellowship with the surviving victims. ... We all get together, we hug, we cry. For the majority of the people, they all want to hear the band play.”
Nearly 300 people who were injured or whose loved ones died in the blaze named Kendall and lead singer/co-founder Jack Russell in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for their losses. Multiple calls to the band’s attorney, Ed McPherson, were not immediately returned.
Former tour manager Dan Biechele, who lit the pyrotechnics that night, has been sentenced to serve four years in prison. Under a plea deal a judge is expected to approve Friday, club owner Michael Derderian would receive four years in prison and his brother, club co-owner Jeffrey Derderian, a suspended sentence.
Many fans remain devoted
Kendall said the Southern California group — once Grammy-nominated for the ‘80s hit “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” — has re-formed with its original members. Kendall and Russell have written 15 new songs for an as-yet untitled album to be recorded in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City by year’s end.
Steadfast fans are ready for the band’s re-emergence and have expressed their support on the Great White MySpace Web site.
“What happened in Rhode Island was very sad but I go by the music and I still love to listen to their music!” fan Pam Meadows, 36, wrote in an e-mail when asked by The Associated Press about her loyalty to the band after the fire.
“My hands are joined in the circle around Great White,” wrote Cheryl Blevins, 45, of Idaho, when contacted by The Associated Press.
Just after the fire, bassist Dave Filice and drummer Eric Powers left the group. Kendall — 49 with a shaved head and white goatee — stopped performing, turned to Christianity, went through intensive therapy and surrounded himself with his wife Bridget, three sons and one stepdaughter.
The draw of Great White’s music proved too strong for Kendall and Russell. Several months after the blaze, they returned to touring, contributing proceeds to The Station Family Fund.
Six months ago, the guitarist and his family packed their things into storage and left their home in Palm Desert to help take care of his ailing mother-in-law in Ogden, Utah. Kendall has been busy producing local artists, including hip-hop group Bomb City. In 2005, Kendall released a spiritually minded solo CD.
Russell, the band’s lyricist and a recovering alcoholic, underwent a facelift earlier this year, documented by the TV show “Extra.” News of the facelift — which Russell told “Extra” he wanted in order to get rid of his “jowls” and “double eyelids” from years of hard living — angered relatives of those who died in the fire and its survivors who felt he didn’t show enough remorse.
“I don’t think he wants to talk about the fire,” Kendall said of Russell. “It’s hard on everybody. At some point, you feel you want to stop talking about it.”
When pressed, however, Kendall did talk about the Derderians, owners of The Station.
He said that although it’s hard to blame one person for the fire, “I think it’s kind of wrong for someone to allow pyrotechnics when there’s flammable substances (nearby). I think they realize that was kind of dumb.”
Like Kendall, Heidi Longley has gone through therapy to deal with the effects of the fire. When her boyfriend, guitarist Ty Longley, died in the fire she was four months pregnant with their son.
“I never used to say that Ty was dead, until last summer,” she said by phone from her home outside Chicago.
The former stripper in Los Angeles with a taste for Versace, says she is now a “domestic diva,” taking care of 3-year-old AceyTy Christopher Longley II with help from Social Security and worker’s compensation from Great White. She has not been in touch lately with Kendall and Russell.
Longley often shows her son videos and photos to preserve his dad’s memory. The two look alike, she said.
“We call him Daddy Angel,” Longley said. “Acey says, ‘Rock on, Daddy Angel,’ and he dances around.”