Jack Russell is a genuine, true-to-heart rock and roll road warrior. The former Great White frontman, who was at the forefront of the band’s rise to hard rock prominence in the 1980s hard rock heyday, has earned his stripes — and then some.
His reputation in the 1980s was that of an extreme personality with an ego as large as his vocal abilities. With it came the sex, the drugs, the alcohol and a life on the edge where so many have crashed and burned. He lived it, and he loved it.
After the multi-platinum success of the “Once Bitten” (1987) and “Twice Shy” (1989) albums, Great White’s popularity slowly began to sink with the rest of the genre in the 1990s. The hard rock seas got even rougher from there for Russell, culminating in the horrific Station Nighclub fire in 2003 in which 100 people lost their lives.
To say Russell, now fronting his own band called Jack Russell’s Great White, has been through hell and back and lived to tell about it is a disserving understatement of epic proportions.
But looking back today, Russell is a man of many cautionary words — words he hopes many hear or read. He has a story to tell, and lessons to purvey. He’s a complicated and sincere man who is lucky to be alive. Or as he admits:
“Amazingly enough, I’m still here.”
Russell, along with long-time Great White bandmate Tony Montana (guitar) and new additions Robby Lochner (guitar), Dan McNay (bass) and Dicki Fliszar (drums) are still doing what they do best — making music — and this year they are marking the 30th anniversary of the release of the “Once Bitten” album by playing the album front to back on selected dates, and also stripping things down to the bare bones with an “Once Acoustically Bitten” album, originally slated for a July 14 release but delayed in its release as of this writing.
Russell sat down with ListenIowa for a revealing, sometimes emotional 50-minute interview, discussing his battles with drugs and alcohol; his recent health struggles; and on a more upbeat note, his band’s fantastic new album, “He Saw It Comin.’ ”
How is your health, Jack? You’ve had some trying times the last few years.
This is the best shape I’ve been in in years. There was a point where I weighed 137 pounds and couldn’t walk. My wife had to teach me how to walk and eat again. I had no muscle at all. Nothing weighs 137 pounds. But that was me.
I understand you were in a coma for a period of time a couple of years ago.
On Sept. 29, two years ago, I woke up from a coma. My liver had almost completely shut down, and the doctor told my wife he didn’t think I was going to come out of it. I woke up to a room full of really surprised people. (laughs)
Was the coma due to drinking?
Yeah, I almost drank myself to death. But it was one of the best things to ever happen to me because I’m the type of person who needs black and white. If there’s a gray area, I’m the king. I’ll travel all over that. You give me a “maybe,” and I think, “Oh, so there is a chance.” My doctor told me that if I drank one more time, I would die. Not maybe. Not could. Not might. He said, “You will absolutely die the next time you drink, unless you change the way you drink. You think you can do that?” I said, “Absolutely not.” I’m a raging alcoholic. If I could have changed the way I drink, I would have done it years ago. You’re not going to unspot this leopard.
All or nothing.
You hear, “You’re going to die unless you stop drinking.” Well, that doesn’t tell me a lot. It’s vague upon vague upon vague. I finally woke up after car wreck after car wreck and realized that it’s time. If not for the grace of God, I would be dead.
You played in Des Moines with the original Great White a few years ago and had to support yourself on stage with a cane, and you also were seated on a stool for much of the show. What was going on in your life at that time? You sounded good, but looked miserable.
In 2009, I had back surgery. It was my birthday. The band had convinced me that if I took my pain medication, I’d be fine. I felt horrible, I couldn’t move. But you don’t want to let your friends down, because they don’t know how to do anything else. It’s not like Mark’s (Kendall, Great White guitarist) going to become a diamond appraiser or a professor of physics at a local college. So I stayed on the road, ended up being on pain pills and tripped over some cords onstage and shattered my left femur. I finished the show from the stool. They rushed me to the hospital to put me back together again, but I lost 2.5 inches of my femur, and I had to learn how to walk again. After that, it was a series of ridiculous things. I was on a plane at 36,000 feet and my colon burst, and they were not about to stop the plane to let me off. So I flew from the East coast to the West coast screaming in pain. When I got there, my wife picked me up, took me to the nearby hospital, and I went right into surgery. They cut me open, took my intestines out, laid them onto a tray next to me, washed them out, then washed out my body cavity. They repaired the hole, but I had a colostomy bag while the other part of my colon was healing.
What were the other members of Great White thinking about all of this? Concern?
The thing is, nobody contacted me from the other camp.
Why didn’t Mark contact you? You guys have history. You two started Great White.
He was tired of me being messed up. He had gotten sober, and I think it made him aware that he could fall, too. And when you’re sober, the last thing you want to do is be around someone who is wasted. I get that. What I don’t get was the level of hatred. I was supposed to sing at Jani Lane’s (former Warrant vocalist who passed away in 2011) memorial, and a friend of both of ours went to the dressing room and apparently Michael Lardie said something to the effect of (referring to Russell), “Why doesn’t that guy just die already?” No one has said anything worse than that.
That took place a few years ago, so where do things stand as of today with you and your former bandmates?
I have no ill feelings toward them. People ask what I think of the old band, and I just say, “Not much, and not often.” I don’t really have time to spend thinking about them. I’ve got my band and their families, and they’re looking at me to make the right decisions and take care of myself.
Let’s switch gears. The new album, “He Saw It Comin,’ ” is, in my opinion, one of the best releases of the year thus far. I love the diversity in songwriting, and the sound is fantastic.
That record encapsulates my whole career. It’s everything I’ve wanted to do musically on a record in my entire career. The record is a true story. On the cover, the little boy on the left is me, and the boy on the right is Robby, and we’re both staring into a crystal ball. We’re looking at each other at the ages we are now. The song “He Saw It Comin’” was based on a something that happened when I was 6 years old. It’s the absolute, honest-to-God truth. When I was 5, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was going to dig up dinosaur bones. Little did I know that later on I’d BE a dinosaur. (laughs) Actually, I always liked music. I had Beach Boys records. For my sixth birthday, my parents bought me the Beatles’ “Help” album. I remember that day so well that I could tell you pair of pajamas I had on, what my record player looked like, what the cover felt like. And I noticed on the record that it was the same label as what the Beach Boys had. I put it on, and I was so mesmerized by it. It was the most incredible thing I had ever heard in my life. At that point, it was as if it was nothing short of the skies opening up, angels coming down, blowing trumpets and telling me that I was going to be a rock star. That’s not what happened, but it was as if it did.
That was the moment you knew what you wanted to do with your life — even though you hadn’t hit double digits.
I remember walking back and forth, jumping up and down on my bed screaming, “Help, I need somebody.” (laughs) I abandoned everything I had thought about archaeology, and I realized that this was what I was going to be. All through my life, my dad told me I had to have something to fall back on. But I didn’t feel like I needed to have something to fall back on because I knew I was going to do this and be successful. And when he sat back and watched me play Irvine Meadows with 18,000 people there to see his kid, it was a mindblower.
You were fortunate to have been given this “vision.”
I’ve been so fortunate and blessed. I’ve always known how the universe works. I understood at a young enough age that if I daydreamed, and I worked, and I pictured myself doing something, eventually those pictures would come into existence. I used to sneak out of my bedroom when my parents used to go to bed, and I’d put on the headphones on their stereo and listen to “Toys In the Attic” over and over and over again. I would go, “Hey, Steven (Tyler), how’s it going?” and talk like he was my imaginary friend. But I was a little kid. Then all of a sudden one day, I was talking on the phone, and I realized I really was talking to Steven Tyler, and he really was my friend. My life is just full of that.
Talk to me about your formative years, then. You knew — or at least you think you knew — what you wanted to do with your life, but I understand you struggled with some demons along the way, including an episode that landed you in prison.
I was arrested for numerous things when I was young. There were many periods of incarceration. I wasn’t raised that way, but when you get into drugs and alcohol, it’s a different street. One day, a friend came down and he had scored a pistol, and he said he had an idea on how we could get some cocaine. I used to really be into cocaine. I had just turned 18, and Mark and I had just started the band. I got together with this other guy, we had a .22 pistol, and the only reason it was loaded was because, when you have a pistol pointed at someone, you can see whether it’s loaded or not by looking in the chamber.
What do you remember about that day?
Actually, I don’t remember most of what happened that day because I smoked some PCP before we went to do the robbery. I ended up blacking out. From what I understand, a maid was out by the pool doing some watering, and I came out with a ski mask and asked her, “Where’s the coke?” She thought I was a friend of the kid’s and (was) playing a joke on her. And she goes, “No Coke, just Pepsi. Go to the refrigerator and help yourself.” I had blacked out, my buddy had split, so I’m in the house alone with this maid. Come to find out, the father was there, and he grabbed his briefcase full of money and hid in the bathroom. She ends up getting away from me and ends up in the bathroom with him. And they said I was pounding on this solid oak door, and putting these huge cracks in it. Then, I guess I shot through the door. The bullet went through the door, hit a St. Christopher medallion that was resting over her heart, and it ricocheted into her shoulder, saving her life and mine. I woke up on my knees staring at a door, and there was a gun on the floor. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until I heard the cops outside. It was like being on Dragnet. I didn’t even realize I had shot the gun. I unloaded the gun, thinking that if it’s unloaded it won’t be that big of a deal. I didn’t realize I had shot it, so I stuffed the bullets down in a waterbed. I went outside, and the cops were all over me, asking why I shot her and whatnot. I was like, “Shot who?” They told me it was me who shot this woman, and at that very moment I heard my dad’s voice. He’d always tell me, “One of these days, you’re going to get all hopped up on this, and you’re going to shoot somebody.” And I thought it was ridiculous and told him to stop with that nonsense. And there I was. He was right. I got eight years (prison sentence), but due to a bunch of clerical mistakes and people bending their own rules, I got out in 11 months. A year later, I signed my first record deal.
The latest album features a track called “My Addiction.” Is that autobiographical about your struggles?
Yes, and people need to hear that, about how bad it (addiction) can get. People don’t understand it. It’s almost in vogue to be addicted these days. “Oh yeah, I’m a heroin addict.” I’m trying to squash the myths. I’ve been down more times than Muhammad Ali. But no matter how far down the ladder you’ve gone, if you decide to turn it around and do something different, the universe will always comply. Your thoughts become “things,” and you end up where you intend to end up. I’m the architect of my life. If I end up in jail, it’s because I put myself there.
Tell me about “Godspeed” from the new album. A doo-wop song on a hard rock album is an extreme left turn, but it works remarkably well.
That was a song that almost didn’t happen. Robby and I were writing, and I was singing, he’s playing along, and I thought the song sounded too much like another song. And we don’t need another ballad. So he goes, “Well, how about if I did an a capella song?” I was like, “On a rock album? You’ve gotta be kidding right?” And he was serious. He comes back a month later with a grin on his face and tells me that he finished that song. I go, “What song?” “Godspeed,” he said. “You want to hear it?” Of course! So he puts it on, and I’m just laughing. Gut laughing. Any more, and I’d be peeing myself. He had this look on his face like I’d shot his dog. (laughs) He goes, “You don’t like it.” I said, “Dude, this is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard.” It was brilliant.
“Anything For You” is another song that lyrically sounds like it came from a very deep place.
I wrote that for my wife. She was a registered nurse, and she is super, super smart. Well, not that smart, she married me. (laughs) But she is brilliant. She graduated magna cum laude, valedictorian. She wanted to be a hospice nurse and look out for terminally ill people. She has told me some beautiful stories about the ends of people’s lives, and things that they have seen and said. If I had had a doubt about whether or not there’s something going on out there after this (life), I don’t now, from what she’s told me.
I can tell by the tone in your voice that she means the world to you.
Oh, yes. But as life would have it, I’m all sick, and she gets me back in shape, so what happens? She gets sick. She went from a perfectly healthy 40-year-old, to suddenly having to basically have her entire colon removed. It’s just horrible. That and now she has fibromyalgia and gastroparesis. If you and I had a diet that is the equivalent of a 12-foot rod, her diet would maybe be a quarter of an inch of that rod. She has toast and milk mainly. It’s not going to get better either. And it’s really horrifying. I have this lovely woman who would do anything for anybody, and who has really given her life up to save mine, and now it’s my turn to try to save her, and I don’t have the tools to do it. (Voice cracking with emotion) It makes me so sad that I can’t help my wife. All I can do is to try to make her know that she is loved every day, and that I’ll never leave her.
Is it fair to say that this album is a snapshot of Jack Russell, right now, as we speak?
The album tells the story of my life. In the title track, the first verse goes, “You say my time is over/You look at me and shake your head/You say I’ve had my day, and you can’t believe that I’m not dead/I’ve fallen down a thousand times/A thousand times I’ve risen/You’ve watched me agonize in pain/But still I stand here and deliver.” That’s me — and I am blessed.
Jack Russell’s Great White Tour dates:
11 — Three Forks, Montana – Rockin in the Rivers
12 — Draper, Utah – Leatherlands
13 — Jerome, Idaho – Jerome County Fair
18 — Terre Haut, Idaho – The Bird
24 — Addison, Illinois – Rock N Wheels
25 — Agoura Hills, California – Canyon Club
26 — Pasadena, California – The Rose
1 — Scottsdale, Arizona – BLK Live
9 — Savnna, Illinois – Poopy’s
15 — Roland, Oklahoma – Cherokee Casino
22 — Largo, Florida – Central Park PAC
14 — Prior Lake, Minnesota – Mystic Lake Casino
27 — Pekin, Illinois – Avantie Dome
5 — Pembroke Pines, Florida – Rockfest 80s
29 — Los Angeles, California – Whisky A Go Go