Fans still save love for Great White
By Naughty Mickie
Rockers Great White have been touring in support of the Station Family Fund, which was created to benefit the victims of the 2003 Rhode Island night club fire. Guitarist Ty Longley and 98 other people perished and nearly 200 others were injured. This past April, the band stopped in Whittier, California, lead singer Jack Russell's home town for a benefit concert.
"It's so strange. It's really cool," Russell bubbled. "You never thought about playing Whittier. When it came up on our schedule, I was like, 'What? Is this right? There isn't any place to play there.' Evidently there is now and it's really cool. I'm looking forward to it. My mom can come down without that long drive. She loves it."
Russell was joined on stage by the rest of Great White, guitarist Mark Kendall, bassist Scott Pounds and drummer Derrick Pontier, along with hired axeman Tyler Nelson. The show was a success, with the band sounding tight and offering up tunes with gusto to a very full house-- quite unusual for a Sunday night in a bedroom-style community.
Prior to the show, I spoke with Russell about the group, his life and the future. He began by telling me how everything started.
"My guitarist, Mark Kendall, and myself, we got together back in 1978. I was 17. We started a band that in '82 became Great White. So I've been playing with him half my life. It's cool when you go down that road when you have somebody you've known for so long and have had so many adventures with. It was something we always thought about when we were younger, that we'd be in the old rockers' home telling war stories. We're still hoping we're a few years from the old folks' home, but we've got some good stories to tell," Russell laughs.
Russell was born in Montebello and grew up in Whittier, where his mother still resides. He now lives in Palm Desert with his fiance.
"I love it, it's beautiful..." Russell croons about Palm Desert. "I wouldn't go back to L.A. for anything in the world, it's so peaceful out
here. I've always been a seasonal kind of guy, one cloud and I'm like the whole world's sucks. Out here it's always nice."
I lead him back to his childhood and his first encounters with his future livelihood.
"The first memory I have is I originally wanted to be an archaeologist. I got the Beatles' 'Help' album when I was six years old, that completely changed my whole ambition in life and right when I heard the first song, I was so into it. Now I'm a fossil," Russell chuckles.
The Beatles and the Beach Boys were Russell's first influences.
"I wanted to be a drummer," Russell goes on. "But I realized that you have to sit in the back of the band. I go, 'Forget that.' Besides that was never really my forte, singing has always been kind of easy for me."
Russell sang in school choir, but he didn't take lessons until 1986 when he wanted to be able to maintain his voice singing night after night. He starts warming up six hours before every show and has found that that keeps him able to perform as much as he wants.
Russell attended private schools in Southern California, as well as a military school in Signal Hill. In seventh grade he went to Starbuck Junior High School in La Habra and he later Lowell High School in Whittier (which is now a chiropractic college). With a good education and a solid dream, "I knew I was going to be a rock star," Russell didn't attend college, but then, he was already rocking straight out of high school.
"I've never worked. I actually had a job with my dad for a brief spell and I just didn't like the whole working thing," Russell admits. "You get up to early and it didn't fit me at all. Fortunately I've been able to make a living making music. That's really been a wonderful blessing in my life. If I joined the workforce, I'd be one miserable guy, I tell you."
When he's not busy with the band, Russell enjoys fishing (including shark fishing), scuba diving, sky diving and DIY projects.
"My thing right now is I'm really into building stuff. I recently remodeled our kitchen and in the past I built a deck outside and built a California kitchen. We just finished a trellis over our fountain in the backyard today. I just love the outside; I love working with my hands," Russell tells me.
"Well, at least you'll have something to fall back on," I tease.
"Yeah, an encouraging phrase nobody wants to hear," laughs Russell.
We move on to songwriting.
"I get inspired. I never know when it's going to be," Russell says. "Driving the car, that's a joke. Here, I'll give you a song as you're driving down Coldwater Canyon.' 'Oh, thanks a lot.' I think it's mostly because my mind slows down in the car and I can think. It's the same thing, like three in the morning when you wake up saying, 'Awww, man, can't this wait until morning?' I come up with a melody and an idea for some lyrics. Normally the melody comes first. It's a lot easier than trying to put music to words."
Russell takes in an idea or song to rehearsal or one of the band members will, but he still writes all of the melodies and lyrics.
"It's too corporate," Russell states of the music scene. "There's no fan loyalty it seems for a lot of these young bands, so they just can't go out and play clubs. Unfortunately there's no real rock and roll for whatever reason... I don't think it will ever be the same again. The music scene's just like anything else, one band that sounds different and then everyone else copies them."
"I'm so not Internet savvy," Russell admits, adding that his fiance had to teach him how to e-mail. "I've always been kind of anti-technology. You learn that stuff when you're a kid, it comes easy. When you get older, it's like huh? What? You've got five-year-olds kicking your ass at video games. OK, will try this pal, sing this," Russell snickers.
I ask him what he attributes to Great White's staying power.
"I think it's a belief in what we're doing and the fact that it's still fun and also not taking ourselves too seriously and paying a lot of attention to our fans, taking time to hang with them," Russell responds. "It's just the appreciation of them, I think. We don't take it that serious, we just feel real fortunate that we get to do this and that it's lasted this long that we can make a living at it. Our music's always been about celebration of life too and I think that comes out to people. It's not negative, it's not preachy, it's hey, have a good time, enjoy yourself.
"We try to keep it that way." Russell goes on, "We throw some blues stuff in there because you write about life that's part of life. In general, it's all about love and good will toward men and all the stuff the world needs more of."
Russell knows the blues. He left the band he founded to pursue a solo career and then his father died, making him more aware of the importance of finding his place in the world.
"I had a time where I knew it was time to change." Russell explains, "I left Great White for a brief time and I worked on my solo thing. And then I realized there's two parts in my personality and I need both things to complete them. I felt at first it was going to be an all or nothing thing because I'm very like that, I want to give 100 percent to whatever I'm doing. I didn't know if I could do both projects and still keep the quality up, but I realized that you take time for each one, but you still give 100 percent to each thing. So I'm still doing my solo thing, but I'm also giving time for Great White."
Russell reflects on the loss of his father and adds, "That was an important moment in my life, I wanted to make sure I was really doing what I wanted to do instead of doing things for the wrong reasons."
I know it's still painful, but I ask Russell to share some thoughts with me on the loss of Ty Longley.
"You try to keep his memory alive and, you remember him as your good friend and you move on, you have to," Russell confides. "Nobody will ever replace him, somebody might fill in for him, but he was one in a million. It's so weird looking over to the right and not seeing him there. It's a sad feeling and we have our moments on stage when we get choked up, but you've got to believe that he's up there somewhere or wherever the next life meets you and he's having a good time and you just keep going on."
Russell continues, telling me about the Station Family Fun, "It's a great bunch of people, survivors of the fire and victims and victims family members, and they've put together a foundation which the concept is really cool because they're able to get money to the people right then. So many people we talked to prior to going out on the road to earn money, they're like 'Yeah, we'll take your money, but we want a 50 percent administration fee and we'll put it in a scholarship fund.' We're like, 'What kind of help can you give them right now? Like doctors' bills or childcare?' They said, 'We're not set up that way.' So we said, 'Then you can't work with me.' Fortunately I passed across Station Family Fund and everything that we wanted in a foundation was there."
Great White is keeping positive and looking forward. They have been doing some writing and are thinking about making another album.
"It's about time. We have 15 albums and this is the longest time between records ever," Russell says.
He is planning to do another solo album, but he doesn't want to do two albums at the same time.
"I did two back to back once, but two at the same time. 'What's my song? What's your song? Wait a minute, what fucking album is this? Who are you guys? Fuck, get out of my studio,'" Russell laughs. "So I'll just do one thing at a time and give 100 percent to each."
Before we part, I ask him if he has anything he would like to say.
"I just want to take a minute to thank all the people that have been there for us through this whole ordeal. We have tens of thousands of e-mails from all around the world, people supporting. That really gave us the courage and the fortitude to go out and keep going with this thing. Because there was a time when I was like, 'I don't know if I want to do this any more.' But I'm glad that we kept on going. It's been a healing process for us. It's nice to go out and do something not totally altruistic, but as close as you can get and still make a living," Russell smiles.
Find out more about Great White at www.greatwhitetheband.com
Also find out how you can help the Rhode Island fire victims, survivors and their families at www.stationfamilyfund.org
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