Van Halen, Aerosmith, the Who Tribute Bands Play Rhode Island Benefit

Sadness and anger mix with music at tribute band benefit for fire victims

Michael Springer/Getty Images
May 15, 2003

On April 11th, Van Halen, Aerosmith and the Who played a benefit for those injured in the February fire at the Station, in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which killed 99 people and hurt more than 190. Not the real Van Halen, Aerosmith and Who, actually, but five local tribute bands, all of whom were regulars at the Station. The packed gig, at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, drew 1,000 people and raised more than $10,000.

Heartfelt help from struggling pretenders: That's about all that the injured parties have received in the wake of the fire, the fourth-deadliest nightclub blaze in American history. Blue Öyster Cult are the only major act to come forth to take part in a benefit. (Great White plan to play one song, in memory of their guitarist, Ty Longley, who perished in the fire, at a benefit in Los Angeles on April 29th.) It's as if the war on Iraq banished the tragedy in Rhode Island from the public consciousness; few people outside of the state seem to still care.

Early in the night, the crowd was tentative, unsure whether applauding too long or loudly would somehow mean disrespect to the dead. Fans stood in groups of two and three, saying little. "The mood is pretty somber," noted Keith Pike, drummer for the Wild Blue Angels, a Jimi Hendrix tribute band. "Folks know why they're here: to raise money for people who ran through their savings and can't pay their medical bills."

Who's Next finished "Behind Blue Eyes," and the growing crowd pressed close to Lupo's stage. "The spirit is in this room," said Dave McDonald – Roger Daltrey down to the high cheekbones and washboard abs. "To the ones who are gone and the ones who are here, rock on!"

Backstage, in a small dressing room shared by all five groups, there was a somewhat angrier vibe. It was a compound anger, expressed toward officials in Washington, who'd rejected Rhode Island's request for money and disaster-area status; toward some Rhode Island politicians; and toward the music industry, which has been strangely silent. (Nobody said a word about the fire three nights later at the Grammys.) The ninety-nine dead had been, after all, devoted music fans. And now the survivors feel forgotten. "I get a message from the government and the entertainment industry, and that is, if you don't have money, your value as a person is less," complained Neil Byrnes, singer for Aerosmith cover band Draw the Line. '"It was just a club, some blue-collar people going to see some blue-collar music.'"

Among the fans, displeasure was also directed at Great White, whose pyrotechnics ignited flammable foam in the ceiling of the Station, obliterating the club in three minutes. "It was god-awful of them to leave right after the fire," said Julie Mellini, a former Station bartender whose friend Linda Fisher had been burned over forty percent of her body and spent excruciating weeks in intensive care. "They could've visited the burn victims, if they really gave a shit. They've had the opportunity to go back to Los Angeles and evade everything."

Rumors of an upcoming Great White tour abound, though the band denies it. Singer Jack Russell has sounded out at least one former member of the band about the project. "If Great White toured, the reaction here would be very negative," said Joe Bevilacqua, programming director at WHJY, whose DJ Michael Gonsalves died at the Station. "I'm not playing Great White music on the radio anymore, out of respect for those who died."

This story is from the May 15th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.

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