The Guest List: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert’ (documentary review)

Premiered on February 20, 2022 (Reelz)

America’s Deadliest Concert: The Guest List TV show review — I can’t decide if I really like the TV station Reelz or if I was in their office meetings, I’d probably not be able to keep my mouth shut and set a record for the shortest lived employee they ever had. I thought that might be a good way to start the review as it shows how conflicted I am on the premise of even doing a documentary on the Station tragedy.

You see, Reelz did an autopsy episode on Chris Farley that made my skin crawl. I love Chris Farley‘s work and though I’m not ignorant to the fact that he had major problems, I found that episode completely and totally disrespectful to the point that I turned off the TV with such force I feared I pressed the button down so hard it wouldn’t pop back out. Yes, I nearly broke my TV over how annoyed I was with what I watched! That should show you my lack of stable thought. With that in mind, Reelz also did a documentary, not an autopsy episode, on Chris Farley that was simply wonderful and had tears running down my face. Again, conflicted opinions. I also nearly broke my TV when I saw A&E‘s Biography series on “Macho Man” Randy Savage which had the shit sniffing WWE spin on the legacy of one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. But, guess what? That same month, or nearly that same month, Reelz presented an autopsy episode on Randy Savage that was far more respectful to the Kingdom of Madness than WWE and A&E were… In fact, Lanny Poffo, Randy‘s brother and legend in his own right, shared my opinion on the matter.

So, my view of Reelz is complicated… They made me insanely mad once or twice. Their Phil Hartman documentary from many moons ago also served to make my blood boil as well now that I think of it. But, they have managed to present a lot of quality rock documentaries of late — Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, Alice Cooper, Twisted Sister… Most of these documentaries, not all, present a fair look at these bands and their legacies in a, more or less, positive light. So, maybe I would get along with these folks after all?

Great White is, and has been, one of my favorite bands for the better part of 30 years. Twice Shy was one of the first CDs I ever bought as part of that Columbia House deal where you got 13 CDs for a penny and then you owed them your first born unless you bought at least 10 more albums at regular price over the next however long. Somewhere in the early 1990s, I got that album and since then, I’ve picked up every album they ever did including solo albums and weird releases that don’t make a whole lot of sense — I’m thinking of the Rehab album as I type that description. I side with Jack Russell in the great divide between Great White and Jack Russell’s Great White. But, I have immense respect for everyone involved in both bands. But, to this day, there is a black cloud over the Great White band name. That black cloud, perhaps a cloud of smoke, is the tragedy that was the Station Fire.

The documentary kicks off by telling the story of the Station Fire. Before long, they mention that Great White was once a major force in the music industry and even a Grammy nominee. But, those days were long before 2003. That story is told to explain why a national band that has sold millions of albums was playing a wooden night club in Rhode Island in 2003. The documentary does see fit to throw in stock footage of Lita Ford, Don Dokken, and Dee Snider then describing why grunge came into fashion and hindered the success of “hair bands” to where they were reduced to playing smaller clubs. That part of the documentary felt very forced and like it was used to fill time. And, by today’s standards, many hard rock bands that are played on popular readio stations are playing the same sized venues as a Great White with only a few bands able to play bigger venues… And yet, The Stadium Tour with three iconic hair metal bands will be playing football and baseball stadiums all over North America this summer. So, was it really that needed to bash the size of Great White in 2003? I don’t know. I don’t believe it was.

Jack Russell is interviewed for the documentary with quotes sprinkled in. His contributions are somewhat small. When he’s on camera, you can see how much he has aged over the past 19 years. Yet, in spite of his massive near death health problems brought on by his own personal demons, he actually seems more healthy, overall, now than he did in the video footage from 2003. The “Guest List” part of the documentary’s title is about Jack inviting locals to the show by adding them to the guest list the day of the show. The West Warwick town was excited to have a national act perform and rolled out the red carpet for Jack and the mysteriously unnamed throughout the documentary rest of Great White. From tattoo artists that gave Jack a tat to people he met at the local diner, additional people were put on the guest list to attend what would be a tragic concert.

There is more footage of that night than I had ever seen before. The footage is… Well, it is hard to watch? Haunting? Awful? Shocking? All of the above? You can actually see a picture, video of the entry way of the Station where people did not get out because the stampede to get out resulted in the flow of people bottle necking… As scary as it is to see those images now, years later, imagine what those people went through. Unbelievable. They theorize that those inside had 90 seconds to get out. Or, they’d be trapped inside to burn alive. They also say that the bouncers did not permit those trying to leave through the “band door” to get out sending them back into the crowded burning room. That floors me as I can’t imagine the level of inept thinking by the bouncers that would enforce a silly club rule like that when you can see, smell, and hear the chaos inside. Again, unbelievable.

The focus takes a few different turns throughout the piece. The main focus is on the families of those impacted by the fire either by death or by scars, physical or mental, that will never heal. There are a few different remarkable stories that stick to my mind. One was of a college radio duo who interviewed Jack Russell the morning before the tragic concert. At this time, I was doing college radio. They had video of them doing the radio interview… One of the hosts didn’t make it out. The story really struck me as I was doing college radio at this exact time. These guys were probably my age and were on the very same path as me. Aside from the obvious kinship of loving this type of music, being able to relate to them on this level really hit home with me in a very real way. I’m not someone who allows his emotions to be seen. So, if I’m ever quiet for too long, you probably know I’m keeping something in. I was silent during any portion of the story that involved the Power Hour radio duo.

Another story of triumpth was a gentleman, who I did not note the name of, who sustained nearly 100% burns over his body. He was at the bottom of the pile of humanity but survived. A few years later, he met the mother of his second child at a burn victim get together. He told a joke that was so out of place, it made me howl with laughter. Because he wore an eye patch, the woman who would be his wife asked why. He told her that he had experimental surgery done where his eyelids were crafted from foreskin. But, they ran out. The line? “So, I’m cock-eyed.” I’m done! Does that not show the power of the human spirit? To have a sense of humor after encountering and overcoming such adversity? That is amazing. I loved that line.  There are a lot of great stories from parents, siblings, and even brothers in law of the deceased that are amazingly touching. The West Warwick, Rhode Island community seems to genuinely be full of good hearted, hard working regular people. I don’t think you could say enough good things about the quality of people that appeared on this special.

Another aspect of this is the blame game. Of course, Reelz has to explore this because that will interest the viewing audience the most. So, who is to blame? One of the biggest fears I had going in was going to be the documentary being a “bash Jack fest.” But, I genuinely did expect that they would try and use journalistic opportunism to bash all the members of Great White, especially Jack Russell. That really didn’t happen. And, that is a pleasant surprise. The blame is placed mostly upon club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian along with Great White band manager Daniel Michael Biechele. Those are also the ones who were indicted and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The club owners had installed sound-proofing foam that was highly flammable about a year before the show. The documentary even shows a gentleman light a piece of the exact foam used on fire with a simple match and the thing goes up like kindling. But, there are some daggers thrown at Great White as well.

The phrase “illegal pyrotechnics” was thrown around but never explained. Was the type of pyro itself illegal? Or, do they mean that it requires a permit? They just say, matter of fact style, “Jack tried to use illegal pyro in any venue that he could get away with it.” That leaves a lot to be desired… Are we talking about pyro purchased on the side of the road from guys selling home made explosives for your backyard 4th of July party? Why is it “illegal pyro”? Pyro itself is legal! If it wasn’t, KISS would be in jail! That line really is a weak point in the documentary.

Another suspect thing about Reelz‘ approach to the band is that there isn’t an approach to “the band”. If you did not know better, you would think Jack Russell was the only performer in Great White that night. Mark Kendall, who was there and seen looking furious at overbearing reporters, is never mentioned by name. Ty Longley, the other guitar player in the band that night who died in the fire, is also never mentioned by name and is only eluded to by an emotionally drained Jack from a TV interview from the night of the fire. Why no mention of any other band members by name? Why is Ty Longley, who died in the fire, never mentioned by name? I’d love to know this answer.

The civil suit stuff is sketchy. It talks about how Jack was implicated in the civil suits filed and goes a little into his financial woes even before this happened. He spoke, briefly, about selling three million copies of Twice Shy but Psycho City, just a few years later, only sold 250,000 copies. He said he remembers saying to the rest of the band, “I hope you guys saved all your money because I didn’t!” Boy, that is true. Don Dokken, proving his part wasn’t just stock footage on whatever they wanted to use bashing hair metal to praise the never ending garbage that is grunge in the media, explains that many bands, including his, were making millions and selling tons of albums but were still ultimately in debt. So, the theory that every successful rock star has millions of dollars simply isn’t the case. That part of the story is somewhat well told.

The civil side of things — which means the “money” aspect — does expose the underbelly of lawsuits in the United States. Instead of getting the money out of Jack, which is like trying to get blood from a stone based on how they presented it, or from the convicted involved, the families sued things like the company who manufacture the foam that went up in flames. Is that fair? I mean, I’m all for these people being set for life financially in any way possible. But, who says the foam company even meant for the material to be used near flame? Who says it was designed for a concert venue? Who says it even was designed to be sound proofing itself? It feels a lot like suing the company that makes the gun because some nut case went postal and shot up a place. Don’t blame the object, blame the person responsible. That is as close as I’ll get to a sharp opinion here.

The final part I’ll talk about is Jack‘s visuals because this is a music site. The documentary does a good job showing a few interviews at different times after the Station fire of Jack in various states of intoxication. One of those interviews, which I own on DVD, has Jack being very hard to understand as he is clearly drunk as a skunk. It talks about how the weight of the situation impacted Jack. He even says he drank so much to try to numb the pain of the situation and his guilt but it only made it worse. But, for now, there is a happy ending for Jack. While we all know Jack stands, sometimes, with a walker and had some serious stuff happen to him in 2011 due to the demons just mentioned, he is still making music and found the love of his life — Heather. I was so happy to see what she looks like after hearing her name so often in Jack related articles. She seems to legitimately be the best thing for him. Nice to put a face, a pretty one at that, to the name.

They do discuss Jack leaving Great White to form his own version though they skirt the true reasons why. Remember, for all intents and purposes, there are no other members of Great White but Jack in this documentary… Jack does get some of his He Saw It Comin’ record sampled in the background of some clips, which can only be a good thing to make people aware that he still makes quality rock ‘n’ roll. And, they did show him sitting in a chair watching the clips of the night and showed his genuine remorse as he broke down and cried saying, “I am so sorry being involved in this at all.” He implies it is “too little, too late.” I don’t believe that to be true.

Some of the families did have harsh things to say about Jack… One even wished him dead. Those people have a right to feel however they want to feel. I would never begin to make what they feel invalid after what they went through. But, if I have one chance as a life long fan, allow me to say this to Jack and the rest of Great White — whoever the mystery people might be as their names are kept secret in this piece — you are loved. Your music has touched countless lives in a positive way and the fact that so many people watched this documentary has a great deal to do with the fact that people care about you on a personal level and want to see the best for you. While something as heavy, and this was heavy, as this documentary could send Jack into a tailspin, my hope is enough people like myself make it a point to say “Thank you, Jack” for years of great music, meaningful lyrics, and to celebrate that you are a stand up person now and forevermore.

I am glad, however, that they did not use the Great White song from their 2007 album Back To The Rhythm called “How Far Is Heaven” during the documentary. Had they, there would not be a dry eye in the viewing audience. At least, mine wouldn’t have been.

Reviewed by for Sleaze Roxx, February 2022