Once the hunted, Jack Russell is now the hunter.
In his addiction, the frontman of ’80s rock outfit Great White — who still tours with his band Jack Russell’s Great White — was always one step ahead of that metaphorical beast that stalked him. Occasionally, it caught up, and he’s fortunate, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, that he escaped with his life.
There was the time before Great White took off that he shot someone during a drug robbery and spent 18 months in jail. There was the chemical tailspin he threw himself into after a fatal 2012 nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including his bandmate, the late Ty Longley. There were two comas, the most recent of which lasted five days and ended with a doctor’s warning:
“The doctor said, ‘If you drink again, you’re going to die,’” Russell said. “It wasn't like he said, ‘You could die.’ It wasn’t like he said, ‘You might die.’ It was, ‘You are going to die,’ and I believed him. That was enough for me. That was it.
“And that was four years ago (this month). Now, to even think about it, it’s like asking myself, ‘Why don’t I walk in front of a bus?’ It’s a pretty simple answer. That’s just me, and I’m not saying it works for everybody, but for me, so far that’s worked if I ever get to a point where I feel like I’m thinking about it.”
Fishing as a metaphor for life
These days, when he’s not on the road with the band, you can find Russell on his 54-foot sport fisher, the place he calls home. It’s docked at Redondo Beach, on the south end of Santa Monica Bay, and he finds serenity when he pilots the craft into the cobalt-blue waters of the Pacific. The irony isn’t lost on him that the fish he sometimes pursues is the namesake of his band.
“A friend of mine has a permit, so we catch and tag them,” Russell said. “You can’t harass them, because they’re an endangered species, so we catch them unharmed and tag them with a satellite tag, so scientists can track their movements.”
The biggest they’ve ever landed was 18 feet long, but whenever he spends time with his pal, professional shark tagger Keith Poe, they’re more often after mako sharks, which can grow to 11 or 12 feet long. Fishing, Russell said, is a lifelong love.
“When I was 5 years old, I started fishing, and sharks, they were always around the boats when we were out at night,” he said. “We would go on two-, three- or four-day trips, and when we would clean the fish and throw the guts and stuff overboard, sharks would always come around. When I used to catch them back then, they were bigger than I was, but we used to have fun catching and releasing them. That was my first experience with sharks, and I’ve been a fanatic ever since. That’s what I do with my time off.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Russell knew early on that rock ‘n’ roll was going to play an important role in his future. He saw it — literally, he said.
“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.”
A childhood spent in pursuit of that dream opened doors early on that, looking back, make Russell pine for the innocence of a normal childhood. He first tried drugs when he was 11 years old, he said, and the euphoria he felt became a god he would worship for the rest of his life.
Drugs and rock 'n' roll: a dual destiny
“It was like, ‘OK, this is it. I have arrived. This is where I belong,’ and from then on, I was a drug fiend,” he said. “I look back at an 11-year-old kid and think, God, that’s young, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. Now, I’ll hang out with one of my friend’s children, who are 11, and they’re still playing with G.I. Joe and stuff. I grew up way faster than that.
“I was hanging out with older guys, because that’s who the musicians were. Eleven-year-old kids weren’t very proficient at playing guitar and what-not, so I ended up hanging out with 16-year-old kids who played, and that was my thing.”
When Russell himself turned 16 in 1977, he met Kendall, and the two started their first band together. What started out as Highway went through several incarnations, and Russell showed a great deal of promise. Drawing vocal cues from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, his incredible range made him a versatile weapon in the L.A. scene.
Drugs, however, were a big part of the equation, and two years later, his efforts to feed his habit caught up with him.
“I used to rob coke dealers. I would go in with a ski mask and a gun, with no intention of every hurting anybody, but I kept the gun loaded because it was a revolver, so you could look at it and see if it was loaded or not,” he said. “I guess I blacked out, because I don’t remember anything, but the (court) transcript said I went in with my partner, and I just lost control. He split, and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I guess I went up and asked the maid, ‘Where’s the coke?’
“She was Hispanic, and I guess she thought I was a friend of the guy and was playing a joke, because she said, ‘No Coke, just Pepsi! Go to fridge and help yourself!’ When she finally realized I wasn’t joking around, she started wrestling with me, and the gun goes off and ricochets off the concrete beside the pool, where the guy was. He runs in the bathroom and locks himself in, and she gets in the bathroom with him. They said I was pounding on the door, putting cracks in it, and they said I shot through the door and hit the St. Christopher’s medallion over her heart, which then ricocheted and hit her shoulder, saving her life and mine.
“When they told me, I couldn’t believe it. I got eight years in jail, but through a bunch of clerical mistakes, I only did a year and a half, and a year later, I signed my first record contract,” he added. “This was my life. No matter how bad I tried to screw it up, I’ve been very blessed.”
A feeding frenzy of fame
Kendall had soldiered on while Russell was away, but upon his release, he got back into his old bandmate’s good graces and joined what was called, at the time, Dante Fox. A year later, they signed with Alan Niven, a dude who would go on to manage Guns N’ Roses; he suggested a name change, and Great White was born. A five-song EP catapulted them into the L.A. club scene, where the dual attack of Kendall’s guitar and Russell’s voice gave Great White a muscular edge over their more glam-rock peers.
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 end of the decade, Great White was a hard rock standard bearer, having charted such songs as “Rock Me,” “Save Your Love,” “Lady Red Light” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” arguably the band’s most successful hit. The concerts were huge, and the industry was built on rock ‘n’ roll as an art form. Bands back then, Russell pointed out, put as much thought into album covers as they did into song sequencing.
“They were works of art,” he said. “For a lot of bands, there was meaning behind the cover. Don’t get me wrong; there were some stupid covers — back in the ’80s, it was a standard formula to stick a hot chick on your album cover, and it would be guaranteed to sell huge. That’s just the way it was, but we put a lot of thought into ours.
“Now, rock ‘n’ roll is a business, and it’s work. It’s still fun, but it’s more of a job. You don’t have record stores anymore. I miss having albums and CDs and something tangible. Music is disposable now, and I never thought we would reach a point where I would say that. Back then, you kind of felt like you could get away with anything, and I got away with a lot of things I shouldn’t have, and other people wouldn’t have.”
Drugs, for example, were so plentiful that at times, life seemed like a Hollywood movie. Russell always cleaned up before Great White headed out on tour, eliminating drugs and alcohol and even cigarettes to make sure his voice was in shape for the band’s ballads, anthems and rockers. It was probably an ego-driven decision, he muses, but he didn’t want fans having a bad experience at a Great White show because he’d ruined his throat the night before.
After a tour wrapped, however, it was game on.
“The road crew guys had a lit cigarette, a bottle of Jim Beam and an ounce of coke in the dressing room waiting for me,” he said. “I definitely made up for lost time when we were off, and it was every single day — partying, partying, partying. Drinking, drugging, sex — everything was in excess. There was nothing we did that was moderate. It was everything on 11.”
'I should be dead 10 times over'
At the time, he added, he knew he was probably an addict — but he couldn’t bring himself to care unless it interfered with making music and money. Even then, fame had a way of getting him out of situations that would have landed a civilian in the slammer.
“I remember one night we had come off a tour, and we had 40 people down on my boat at like 4 a.m., jumping off the fly bridge into the water,” he said. “Everybody was drinking; we had a kilo of coke on the boat and a half kilo of heroin — every possible drug you could imagine. I remember the harbor patrol drove by on their boat, and they just looked over at us and said, ‘F----- Jack,’ and laughed and kept going. Fortunately, I used to always send those guys T-shirts and CDs to hook them up, so they were 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. I don’t want to glorify drug use, because people say, ‘That sounds like fun!’ — and when you’re young, it seems like fun, but you’ve got to remember that every time you do that, you’re risking your life.
“I should be dead 10 times over. If I had nine lives, I’d be in the red, and I’ve really messed my body up,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of issues with my health, all due to drug abuse, so I don’t recommend it.”
Inevitably, however, things would eventually deteriorate, and Russell would face a reckoning. He still winces when he remembers how, during his second marriage, he was cash-strapped and wanted a beer, and so he broke up his stepson’s piggy bank. That was a wake-up call that led to an eight-year period of sobriety, but when that wife asked for a divorce, he went back out.
It didn’t help that the music landscape changed in the early 1990s. Metal and glam rock were pushed aside by grunge, and while Great White released two more albums for Capitol Records — 1991’s “Hooked” and 1992’s “Psycho City” — the changes made already-tumultuous band relationships fray even further. Russell and Kendall went through various periods of acrimony and brotherhood, and by the turn of the century, Great White was on the verge of falling apart.
A parting of ways
Mending fences, however, led to a reunion between the two men, but in 2003, just as they were hitting a decent stride, they performed 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 and injured 200. It was, Russell said, the beginning of the end when it came to his battle with addiction.
“It really put me into a tailspin,” he said. “I was in this darkest place, emotionally, and using-wise, I was out of control. I remember that for the first three months afterward, I was pretty much catatonic, and I couldn’t stop crying. They had me on every type of medication, and psychiatrists didn’t know what to do with me. They pretty much had me admitted, and I still am in therapy.
“I mean, how do you deal with something like that? I can’t even describe the feeling. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was a horrible tragedy, and I feel so horrible for everybody that was involved. It definitely changed everything about my life. At that point, I was drinking occasionally; I wouldn’t say it was under control, but as far as drinking like a normal person, that was as close as I’d ever gotten, because all I would do would be to have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.
“But after that happened, it was no holds barred,” he added. “I was constantly wanting to numb everything.”
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.”
It would be another four years, however, before Russell saw the light. Married again, he watched his life crumble around him, until he overdosed and spent those five days in that coma. After the doctor’s dire warning, he began the process of putting his life back together.
A new musical journey
In the summer of 2016, Jack Russell’s Great White signed a deal with Frontiers Music, releasing four singles leading up to a 2017 debut album, “He Saw It Comin.’” Kendall continues to tour with the other version of the band, and while the two haven’t spoken, the catalog they created together is something Russell still values greatly.
“I don’t like to rehearse them, but playing them live is a whole different story, because you’re getting that rush from the audience, and when I play ‘Once Bitten,’ it’s great,” he said. “You’re getting the energy, and that’s what makes it fun. That’s what keeps you coming back. To me, that’s a feeling I 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 it’s not entirely a nostalgic act: In addition to recording an acoustic version of “Once Bitten,” the guys are working on “Great Zeppelin 2,” a follow-up to 1998’s album of live Zeppelin covers, and there’s a new album of original music in the chamber as well, Russell said.
“Put it this way: There’s no lack of things to do,” he said. “My band is very meticulous. They love to play, and they’re very much seasoned professionals, having been around the block many times. We really enjoy each other, we’re best friends, and when we’re on stage, we have the time of our lives.
“A lot of bands, you can tell they’re not having fun, or they don’t like each other, or they’re doing it because they need the money. I don’t ever want this to be a job. I don’t ever want to feel like I have to go to work. For me, the work part is waiting around to sing. That’s what I get paid for — all the time in between.”
“I’ve never been somebody who says, ‘I’m not sure — maybe I should answer this questionnaire!’” he said. “I’ve been one since I took my first drink, and even before that. I think I was born an alcoholic. When you’re that young, you don’t know it, of course, and later on, you start to wonder why. Lack of love? Lack of attention?
“You just feel awkward, like you don’t belong, and obviously there’s something missing emotionally, or you’re not equipped emotionally to deal with whatever it is. And so you escape through alcohol and drugs, and once you find that escape hatch, you’re using all the time. At least I was.”
Contentment and serenity, at last
Over the past four years, Russell has looked for opportunities to help others who have walked a similar path. He’s been vocal about his own journey, and if he’s asked to help someone, he doesn’t hesitate to recommend meetings, even going so far as to accompany them at first.
“So they’re not walking in by themselves,” he added. “For a lot of people, that feels all weird, and they don’t want to go somewhere they don’t know anybody. That stops a lot of people.”
And when he’s not on the road, he finds gratitude that after all this time, he still has a boat he calls home, a family whose trust he’s regained and a life worth living.
“I think the one thing that I would have had a hard time following would be that I’d still be doing this,” he said. “I never even thought that far ahead. I didn’t think I’d ever even see the ’90s, and the year 2000? It was like, ‘Yeah, right, like I’ll be alive then.’ It’s a miracle some of us made it through, really. I lost a lot of friends, and I’ve come close on a number of occasions.
“I said to my wife the other night that for the first time since I can remember, I am content. There’s always something that you want or that you wish you had or something you want to strive for, but if I never get anything other than what I have, I’m fine. I love my life. I have a very simple life that’s very minimalistic. I don’t have a lot of stuff, and I don’t want a lot of stuff, because it ties me down.
“I don’t need to have a bunch of materialistic stuff to feel like I’m worthy or worth something, because my value comes from the person I am and the way I treat others and what I bring to other people’s lives,” he added. “Hopefully, that’s positivity and some smiles and giving them a chance to escape for a while through my music.”