One Hundred Million Reasons to Go See Great White

It was just over one year ago at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that Great White's errant pyrotechnics display started a fire that claimed 100 lives -- including that of Great White guitarist Ty Longley. As part of their "Help Us Help Them" tour, Great White will perform at Cardi's on March 6.

While media coverage of the fire was extensive, it was definitely not of the round-the-clock, pull-out-all-the-stops, total overload of the Class-A American Tragedy variety. No, as media feeding frenzies went, this was about a C-level deal -- it ranked somewhere above a Paris Hilton sex tape and somewhere below Dean's scream and Janet's costume reveal. A week or so after the fire, it was supplanted in the news cycle by something more important -- something like, say, the disappearance of Laci Peterson. Laci was a cute, all-American and perky ex-cheerleader. Laci was no Great White fan. (And then a bona fide big story came along: The war in Iraq started, and even Peterson was pushed to the sidelines.)

Why wasn't the story given bigger play? Well, it would help to imagine if the fire had been at a Strokes show on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Imagine that one of the 200 major-label execs in attendance drops the flaming $100 bill he's using to spark up his Montecristo. With deadly efficiency, the ensuing fire consumes the whole club. One hundred actors, supermodels, rock stars and music industry bigwigs perish.

Can you even conceive of the outcry? CNN, Fox News and MSNBC would raise the specter of terrorism, and the tragedy would have its own somber theme music. The nation's terror alert would rise to red, and stay there even after it was learned that a stogie-chomping record exec was to blame. The New York Times would compose tear-jerking bite-size obits on all of the victims. State and even some national politicians would fall over themselves trying to funnel money for the already well-heeled victims and their survivors. The calamity would become a campaign issue, somehow, some way.

More to the point, the rock world would also rally round. In no time flat, there would be an internationally televised "Concert for the Upper West Side." The managers of every hot band on the planet would give their firstborn kids to have their acts on that bill, and the show's proceeds -- after you add in the TV money -- would likely run to the tens of millions. In short, it would be a media overkill event on a par with JonBenet, or Michael's latest pedophilia-related alleged peccadillo.

And not many of them were at the Great White show that February night. No, the people there had mullets and big hair and untidy lives. Many of them worked at Wal-Mart or at strip clubs, at McDonald's or as Starbucks baristas, as legal assistants and medical technicians. In short, they were predominantly the poor schmucks who just try to make whatever living they can in postindustrial America, the sort of people who attend ITT Tech and DeVry University, the sort of people who had kids before they got out of high school. The sort of people of whom we say "there but for the grace of God -- and my advanced degree/ trust fund/reliable birth control -- go I."

Also among those who perished was 32-year-old Eric Hyer, who once shaved his head and sent his hair to a charity that made wigs for cancer-stricken children. There was 32-year-old Derek Johnson, who as a volunteer at the Make-a-Wish Foundation, saw to it that one very sick kid got to meet Shaquille O'Neal and took another to Disney World. And there was Tracy King, who made millions of people laugh when he went on Late Night with David Letterman and balanced a 17-foot canoe on his chin.

But King was a star compared to the rest of those who perished. And how have the surviving Great White fans of West Warwick, Rhode Island, been faring since Big Media looked away? Not too well, as it happens. Insurance companies are ducking paying out to the survivors. Federal aid was refused -- legally, if ungenerously, and perhaps cynically. More maddeningly, the A-list of the rock community has completely ignored the tragedy, as have those at the highest strata of the recording industry.

Victoria Potvin is doing something about all that. Potvin is a Station fire survivor and also president of the Station Family Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization that raises funds for the survivors and families of the fire. "We've had some wonderful assistance from the local music community, but if it was the real Bon Jovi and not their tribute band or something like that…" Her voice trails off. "Any one of these major rock acts could raise millions of dollars in one night," she continues. "And what would it mean for them, you know?…Very little effort. The Grammys were nine days after the fire, and it was never even mentioned."

According to a recent Rolling Stone article, a Rhode Island promoter tried cobbling together a huge benefit at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence. The biggest names he could get to sign on were Lou Gramm of Foreigner and Starship featuring Mickey Thomas. A week before showtime, the promoter canceled the gig. You couldn't blame him -- only 15 tickets were sold.

I guess that all of that just makes sense. Why would a bunch of cool rockers -- or even Bon Jovi -- spend any hipster chits on fans of a band like Great White? After all, since they were Great White fans, they deserve only having the likes of the remnants of Foreigner, Starship, Quiet Riot, Poison and Iron Maiden to champion them, not to mention tribute bands without number. If you insist on being behind the times, don't expect Aerosmith, Sting or the Boss to play your tribute, no matter how many of your friends die with you, much less have your ilk mentioned at the Grammys.

And according to Potvin, you really shouldn't get caught in a disaster in a state like tiny heavily Democratic Rhode Island, a state with only four electoral votes, especially not when there's a Republican in the White House. The Rolling Stone article also makes that case, and at first it seems laughable. After all, you can't blame Dubya for everything, can you? He wouldn't be so cold-blooded as to assess the tragedy in terms of potential votes, would he?

Potvin thinks he would. "If we had more electoral votes up here, the state of Rhode Island would have had federal assistance," she flatly states. "There was a fire three years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts, that took the lives of six firefighters, and they received federal aid for their families. Not that they didn't deserve it, because after all, six people perished, and I completely understand that. But we have a hundred people dead, and 180 people injured, 64 children without one or both parents, and the entire government on both the state and federal level have basically thumbed their noses at this entire tragedy and brushed it under the rug as if it never happened."

Wait a minute -- even the state government has forsaken them? "Rhode Island has done nothing," Potvin says bitterly. "It's all over the newspapers -- we're winning Pulitzer Prizes for these journalists off of our backs, but that's it. The only people that have stepped in and really reached out and helped these people are grassroots efforts like the Station Family Fund. And the sad thing is we're all survivors ourselves. We're not professionals. We shouldn't have had to do this on our own."

No, they've got more important things to do, like undergo skin graft operations, deal with having one of their ears melted off, the aftereffects of fourth-degree burns that seared even their skulls, the depression, the nightmares, the parents that you'll never see again… Stuff like that. True, over $3 million has been raised by private donations, and that sounds like a lot, until you consider that one of the 180 survivors is facing $2 million in medical bills and another estimates his debt at $5 million. Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri estimates the disaster's total price tag -- once you factor in all the long-term physical and mental rehab -- at a staggering $100 million.

Think about that sum for a while. Now consider this. If you made $35,000 a year, and saved every penny, it would take you only a little over 2,857 years to raise it.

Which is what Great White is trying to do. No, they don't think they can come up with it all, but they're doing their part. "We've been very grateful from the very beginning," says Potvin of the band's decision to start touring again. "Controversial or not, this is a band that could have gone and hung their heads and disappeared and had every excuse to do so. But they decided that the only thing they knew how to do was to pull themselves up and go out and tour and perform, because that's what they are -- performers. And so far they've been able to raise $70,000 for us, and they continue. Every show they do, they give us a portion. And they will probably continue to do that for a very long time."

Hey, at that rate, they'll only have to tour until about the year 3400. But at least someone is doing something for the Great White survivors, these people who committed the mortal sin of having questionable taste.

This disaster and our nation's reaction to it damn us all -- the government, the rock and music industry, the insurance industry, the media and everyone who thinks they're superior to Great White fans. You can take it to the bank: Had the hypothetical Stokes fire occurred, total strangers would have wept for all the lost beauty and talent, much as they did for Lady Diana. Well, the Great White fire did occur, and our compassion-fatigued, hipper-than-thou response was to crack sickly wise about singed mullets.

Shame on us. Shame on us all.

Great White appears Saturday, March 6, at Cardis 2000, 9301 Bissonnet. Militia (Metallica tribute) and Unchained (80s tribute) are also on the bill. For information, call 713-270-0053.


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