February 16, 2009 — There is a dark side to oddity hunting, and for the subject of this entry, I’m definitely banging my shins repeatedly and stumbling around with my hands thrown blindly in front of me. You see, anytime a dredged-from-the-devil tragedy causes the 80s radio-filler “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” to start playing on an endless loop inside your head, it’s definitely an oddity. And just to make it clear, I realize full well that I’m walking a tightrope for this article. I also realize full well that I suck at tightrope walking.
On February 20, 2003, 472 people gathered at a small nightclub called The Station in West Warwick, RI, to do all the more hedonistic things people do at nightclubs, on this particular night to the strains of 80s one-hit-semi-wonder band Great White. Mere seconds into the concert, the band’s ill-thought-through pyrotechnics display burned the place down into ash tray leavings in such a short time that it makes one wonder why the phrase “fast as fire” hasn't yet become a tiresome cliché in our language. The nightclub fire killed an absurdly round number of people (100) and injured twice as many. It was a grimy, horror-filled night that most victims and participants would like erased from their memories. For the rest of us, there’s footage of the night to re-watch over and over.
A local-channel cameraman happened to be filming in the club that night and caught the entire range of emotion in the little box on his shoulder, from cheerfulness to surprise to confusion to panic to incomprehension to grief. The footage is linked to at the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which gives me a degree of separation that, although my conscience doesn’t necessarily need, it needs to at least pretend it does. Be forewarned, though, that the footage, while not being outright gruesome, is still terrifying enough to make one never want to enter a building ever again.
One of the infuriating things about tragedy is that it has no scale. Some tragedies are worse than others only technically. When a four-year-old child is hit by a truck, it’s a stamped-in-bronze tragedy. When thousands die at the hands of an inhuman dictator, it’s still stamped in that same bronze. In some ways, this makes sense. Well, only one. To the individuals directly affected by a tragedy, it always feels like it’s the worst thing that could have happened. To those of us outside the tragedy, we often must still agree, regardless of the circumstances, if only for the mere reason that we cannot and do not want to imagine ourselves going through the same. Whether your adult son died on patrol in Iraq, your whole family in a boating accident, or your wife dancing drunkenly in a nightclub, who are the rest of us to say that it’s not all the same pain? Damned Pandora.
It’s a tragedy in itself that tragedies aren’t rare enough to be oddities intrinsically. However, in the case of The Station fire, it has something that most other tragedies don’t have: a strange sheen of 80s hair band rock n’ roll.
From the headlining band of that horrible night and topical interviews with Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister (complete with intercuts of him performing in drag) to benefit concerts featuring Tesla and commercials starring Brett Michaels of Poison (complete with headband), there’s enough incongruity here to build the world’s strangest bit of architecture. No matter how much you like Something to Believe In as a song, the subgenre, like many others in our culture, is singularly incapable of seriously tackling tragedy as a subject matter in any way. So when it becomes linked to one for reasons beyond its control, it just has to flail bravely and hope sincerity can overcome parody. It usually can’t.
And all that weirdness is exactly why The Station calamity stuck out to the degree that it did to make me curious enough to check it out.
If the van-art-style mural of giant rock star portraits against the backdrop of an American flag on its façade is any indication, The Station couldn’t have been much more inviting in its heyday than the pile of ashy rubble that it became. Of course, now, six years after the fire, all that has been bulldozed away, leaving a bit of gently sloping bare land and a blank marquee out front with a hand-written sign taped to it that reads, “Never Forget 02.20.03.”
Outlining the vacant lot where the nightclub stood is a large group of hand-made crosses decorated with pictures, beads, stuffed animals, notes, all the usual accoutrements of roadside memorials. A few folding chairs and a shrine or two are also present, and a small green dumpster off to the side is the only way possible to make this place seem even sadder. I once visited a paupers’ graveyard in New Orleans, and it reminded me somewhat of that.
According to Chuck Klosterman in his book Killing Yourself to Live the memorial was improvised by a group of cokeheads and lesbians using the floorboards of the razed club. Normally I would cite that insight without sourcing it, but it just seems too remarkable a one to steal.
When we visited, just a few weeks before the sixth anniversary of the disaster, the tableau was covered in snow, much like that original February night. The snow made the place seem tranquil, holy, and betrayed the footprints of recent visitors, which was a bit comforting...even though I didn’t need any comfort. I’ve seen pictures of the memorial in other seasons when the area is just a dirt plot, and it’s the second only-way-possible to make the place seem even sadder.
By this point in the timeline, multimillion-dollar suits have been settled, blame has been assigned, jail time has been served, regulations have been altered, and support funds have been raised. But this glaring blank spot of land remains, for all intents and purposes and despite the large number of crosses adorning it, a glaring blank spot of land. And that song is still in my head.