These days, Jack Russell doesn’t get antsy when the harbor patrol pulls up alongside his 54-foot sport fisher docked in Redondo Beach, on the south end of California’s Santa Monica Bay.
There was a time when the 58-year-old singer, who brings his version of the hard rock outfit Great White to The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville this weekend, would have crossed his fingers that the band swag he gave out to the men who police the bay was enough for them to overlook the hedonism taking place on board.
As a guy who came up on the Southern California glam and hair metal scenes, he was in the thick of the debauchery that was part and parcel of those days. It was, he told The Daily Times recently, a surreal time that he counts himself lucky to have escaped with his life.
“I remember one night we had come off tour, and we had 40 people down on my boat at like 4 a.m., just drinking and partying and jumping off the fly bridge into the water,” Russell said. “We had a kilo of coke on the boat and half a kilo of heroin and every other possible drug you could imagine. And the harbor patrol drove by on their boat and just shook their heads and laughed and kept going. Fortunately, I used to send those guys T-shirts and CDs and hook them up, so they were all friends of mine and wouldn’t mess with me.
“At that time, it didn’t seem like a big deal, but when I look back now, that was absolutely crazy. The stuff we used to do and get away with that we never thought anything of — I can’t believe we even did that, let alone got away with it. People like to say, ‘That sounds fun!,’ and when you’re young, it seems like fun, but I should be dead 10 times over. If I had nine lives, I’d be in the red.”
But while he still struggles with health problems related to his drug use, Russell has been clean and sober for almost four years. And while he still loves getting the boys together and roaring his way through some of Great White’s classic hits — “Rock Me,” “Save Your Love,” “Lady Red Light” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” arguably the band’s most successful song — nothing fulfills him as much as steering his boat into the blue-black waters of the Pacific and casting a line into the deep. He started fishing with his old man, he said, when he was 5 — around the same time that he had a vision of what his future would entail.
“I was given a gift of future sight, or whatever you want to call it, and even though it sounds crazy, I knew I was going to be a successful rock singer,” he said. “And it happened, so it wasn’t any surprise to me. I just followed the path, and it led where it led, and when I met Mark (Kendall, with whom he co-founded Great White), I knew that was the guy I was going to do it with. It was very strange, and I don’t think it’s a very common story by any means, but it proved to be true, and this is all I’ve ever done.”
The two men met in 1977, performed together briefly before Russell had to serve 18 months of an eight-year jail sentence for a botched robbery and then reunited after his release. A manager convinced them to change their name from Dante Fox to Great White, based on Kendall’s bleached hair and penchant for white clothing and a white Telecaster, and a five-song EP catapulted them into the L.A. club scene. Tour openings for Judas Priest and Whitesnake let to interest from Capitol Records, which signed the band, reissued the independent debut album “Shot in the Dark” and set the stage for the band’s mainstream breakthrough, 1987’s “Once Bitten.” It went on to sell more than a million copies, and the 1989 follow-up, “…Twice Shy,” did even better.
By the early 1990s, however, grunge pushed Great White and other bands that made their bones in the 1980s to the fringe; Russell and Kendall went through various periods of acrimony and brotherhood, with Russell sobering up for months and years at a time before falling back into addiction. In 2003, they were hitting a decent stride when they posted up at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Pyrotechnics used in the band’s stage show ignited foam soundproofing in the club’s ceiling, and the ensuing fire killed 100 people, including band member Ty Longley.
“I remember for the first three months, I was pretty much catatonic, and I couldn’t stop crying,” Russell said. “I’m still in therapy, because how do you deal with something like that? I can’t even describe the feeling. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, because it was a horrible tragedy, and I feel so horrible for everybody that was involved.”
The band soldiered on for another few years, but in 2010, Kendall called in some replacement singers while Russell recuperated from medical complications. In 2011, the two men went their separate ways, with Kendall carrying on under the Great White banner and Russell performing as Jack Russell’s Great White. They came to an agreement on the usage of the name through legal means, but the two men haven’t spoken in eight years, Russell said.
“It’s tough; it hurts, and it’s painful, but I can’t make somebody feel a certain way,” he said. “I’ve apologized for everything I’ve done, but some things are more important than friendship to some people, and that’s OK. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can just do my thing and move on.”
His “thing” these days is hitting rewind for the fans who remember his iconic voice from those heady ’80s heydays. It’s an honor to do it, he said, and with the guys in his band — Great White guitar vet Tony Cardenas, along with drummer Dicki Fliszar, bassist Dan McNay and guitarist Robby Lochner — he’s still having a good time, he said.
“Playing it live, you’re getting that rush from the audience and that energy, and that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “That’s what keeps you coming back. For me, that’s a feeling you can’t describe, and there’s no drug, no sex, nothing else that can compare with that feeling. That’s why I do it.”
And when he’s not, he’s on the water, working on his boat or fishing. But while his childhood vision may have foretold his rock ‘n’ roll career, it never told him he’d still be doing it as he approaches 60.
“Back then, I thought I’d never see the ’90s, and the year 2000? It was like, ‘Right — like I’ll even be alive then!’” he said. “It’s a miracle some of us made it through.”