“It’s gonna be a killer show.”
– Jack Russell, lead singer of Great White, February 20, 2003
killer adj. (orig. US) 1 [1970s+] terrific, amazing, effective . . .
2 [1980s+] ghastly, terrible.
– Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, 1998 ed.
from SIFTING THE ASHES
February 21, 2003 dawned stunningly crisp and cold in New England. Over a foot of fresh snow had fallen the previous two days, and conditions were what skiers jokingly call “severe clear”–cloudless blue skies, bright sun, temperatures in the teens, and wind-chill in single digits. It was, in short, postcard picture-perfect.
On this morning, however, the images being snapped by news photographers in the town of West Warwick, Rhode Island, were hardly Currier & Ives material.
In the southeast corner of town sat a nightclub called The Station–or what was now left of it. Presently, it consisted of a smoldering footprint of rubble at the end of a rutted parking lot, surrounded by banks of dirty snow into which burning bar patrons had blindly thrown themselves just 8 hours earlier. The site resembled the scene of a battle, fought and lost. Discarded half-burned shirts littered the lot, along with soiled bandages and purple disposable rescuers’ gloves. Hearses had long since supplanted ambulances, the work of firefighters having shifted from rescue to recovery.
No one among those gathered at the site took any particular notice of one fireman lingering in the footprint of the burned-out club. “Rocky” was a familiar figure at fire scenes; as the town’s fire marshal, part of his job was investigating the cause and origin of fires there. As the fire marshal’s turn-out boots crunched in the ruins, he must have had the appalling realization that the ground beneath him was intermixed with what funeral directors euphemistically call “cremains.” And only he could have known that he was, perhaps, the single person most responsible for this tragedy.
from MILL TOWN WATERING HOLE
If West Warwick, Rhode Island were a car, it would be a 1957 Studebaker–functional in its day, but now well past its prime. It has the look and feel of a place that time, and certainly prosperity, have long since passed by.
Driving through the town today, one can catch glimpses of its industrial past. Hulking textile mills, some boarded up, some converted to “luxury condos,” line the Pawtuxet River’s banks. Mill workers’ duplexes still squat in the river’s floodplain, while owners’ mansions, many now decrepit, occupy the high ground. Mac’s Bowlaway Lanes, its paint peeling, sits cheek-by-jowl with Louise’s Liquors. A red J.J. Newberry’s storefront harkens back to its halcyon days as a sponsor of TV’s Romper Room, while the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society and St. Anthony’s Church remind visitors that Masses are still said in languages other than English or Latin.
West Warwick homes are, for the most part, pre-WWII-vintage, often multi-family, and set impossibly close to one another. Vinyl siding over rotted wood is the dominant aesthetic. Which is not to say that pride in ownership does not occasionally shine through. Carefully tended window boxes grace otherwise bleak tenements. Manicured postage-stamp lawns hold their own against incursion by overgrown neighbors. In short, the town has seen much better days, but its close-knit, often blood-related residents refuse to give up on it. Which is one reason why tragedy hit so close, and so hard, that winter of 2003.
from ROCK IMPRESARIOS
“It’s a place where good bands go to die,” quipped Steven Scarpetti years before the fire. Scarpetti,a promotions executive at radio station WHJY, was referring to The Station’s prestige among third-rate concert venues, but he could as well have been talking about the club’s potential for actual tragedy.
When the Derderian brothers bought The Station from Howard Julian in March of 2000, they knew little about operating a rock club. But they would soon learn on the job that cutting corners on payroll, stuffing patrons into the club and stiffing local bands were all part of the economic equation for small-time promoters.
W.A.S.P.’s road manager in the spring of 2000 was Dan Biechele, who would later manage Great White’s 2003 tour. In addition to handling all business with each venue, Biechele set up and operated pyrotechnics for W.A.S.P.’s show, the highlight of which was an electrically-triggered sparkler known as a “gerb,” attached to Lawless’ codpiece. At the show’s climax, Biechele flipped a switch, causing Blackie Lawless’ crotch to erupt, showering pyrotechnic sparks over The Station’s stage and front-row patrons.
If it had not dawned on the Derderians earlier, they had to realize at that seminal moment that they were not purchasing a cultural mecca.
Neither Jeff nor Mike Derderian quit his day job to run The Station. Jeff continued reporting for WHDH in Boston. Less than a year after he and his brother lined the club’s walls with polyurethane foam, he appeared on-camera in a story on the fire hazards of foam mattresses. Shot in the apartment of one of the TV station’s producers, the story was one of several Jeff recorded that day.
Jeff Derderian was known at WHDH as “talent” who could arrive on-site, glance at his producer-written story line and do a stand-up with minimal preparation. He would ad lib and “punch his words for dramatic emphasis,” according to producer Michael Boudo. On the afternoon of the mattress fire shoot, he was definitely on his game, hitting his marks in a single take. “Another problem is what’s inside the mattress: polyurethane foam,” Derderian gravely intoned. “Fire safety experts call it ‘solid gasoline.’ It can cause a smoldering mattress to burst into flames.” Then, he unclipped his microphone and left for his 4 p.m. assignment.
from THAT AIN’T THE WAY TO HAVE FUN, SON
To the right of the aisle, immediately behind the driver, lay a table littered with empty soda cans, a cigarette pack and CDs. To the left, a sitting area with cracked Naugahyde bench seats. Farther back, 12 bunks were stacked three high, six on either side of a narrow corridor–about as commodious as aboard a nuclear submarine. If groupies were ever invited “back to the bus,” they would have to be contortionists. This was the “luxury motorcoach” that Great White shared with its opening band, Trip, for their 2002-03 tour of little-known venues. Its occupants received $25 per day for expenses, on which each was to live his own rock ‘n roll dream. The glamorous life, indeed.
It had not always been so.
In the pantheon of has-been rock gods, the resident deities run less to the Homeric than to Homer Simpson. And nowhere is their silliness more apparent than in the hospitality riders they attach to their touring contracts. Great White’s contract had one. Every band has one. These wish-lists detail everything the venue must provide for its visiting rock dignitaries. Frequently, the demands appear to be in inverse proportion to the acts’ star power.
The hospitality rider for Jack Russell’s Great White carefully instructed, “A nutritious meal shall be served, including salad, chicken breast or prime rib, baked or mashed potatoes and freshly steamed vegetables.” It continued, in a more practical vein, “Please provide all utensils required to stop the crew from eating with their hands.”
from LUCKY DAY
It wasn’t often that rock idols, even past-their-prime players like Great White front man Jack Russell, graced the streets of West Warwick. So when his tour bus rolled into town, the locals were starstruck–even if they weren’t quite sure who he was. But they could see from his high-mileage face and full-sleeve tattoos that he lived a life the average Rhode Island warehouseman or carpenter could only dream of. He was very, very cool.
At least that’s what crossed Tina Ayer’s mind as she peered over the small bottles of shampoo and conditioner on her supply cart at the guy stepping out of room 210. The Fairfield Inn motel, where she worked as a housekeeper, had its share of lonely salesmen, lost tourists and trysting couples, but this guy was different. He wore a bandana pirate-style over his chin-length, dirty-blond hair and exuded the confidence of someone who was used to being recognized. He looked familiar to Ayer, though perhaps older and jowlier than she could place.
Russell, the gracious celebrity, invited Sanetti and friends to the Station as his guests the following night. He told them that the Station concert would be a “killer show,” complete with pyrotechnics. They accepted in a heartbeat.
Everyone else on the guest list remained at the club, in a state of high anticipation. Right up until 11 p.m., when Great White struck the opening chords of “Desert Moon,” each would consider it to be the very luckiest of days.