Dimebag Darrell: Ten Years Gone

This week, it's been 10 years since Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell was murdered during a live show in Ohio.  To commemorate one of metal's all-time great guitarists, here's an article I wrote for Rip & Burn magazine soon after the 2004 tragedy.

IT'S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT, when a gunman swiftly approached guitarist 'Dimebag' Darrell Lance Abbott on the night of December 8, 2004, some of the audience laughed. After all, their hero was standing onstage playing a guitar. His band Damageplan were barely into their first song. The six-foot-three stage invader carrying a handgun had to be part of the set, right?

Tragically, this was paranoid schizophrenic 25-year-old Nathan Gale: a man who believed he had a score to settle. Reportedly grabbing Dimebag with one hand, he shot the guitarist repeatedly at point-blank range. As the horrible reality dawned on a shocked crowd at The Alrosa Villa - a long-running, 250-capacity rock club in Columbus, Ohio - Gale continued to fire, killing fan Nathan Bray, the venue's security guard Erin Halk and Damageplan's own security man Jeff Thompson - all of whom were reportedly attempting to prevent more bloodshed. Gale then took the band's drum tech John Brooks hostage in the backstage area. Hearing a commotion inside the club, local police officer James Niggemeyer entered the premises. In a grim final scene normally reserved for action movies, Brooks shifted position and Niggemeyer killed Gale with a shotgun blast to the head.

You may never have heard of Dimebag Darrell. After all, rock musicians rarely gain mainstream attention for their brilliance alone. Yet his death sent shockwaves rippling through millions of fans and musicians. As part of the band Pantera he changed the face of metal forever.

So who exactly was Dimebag and why was he targeted by a homicidal fan?

'I'M GONNA BE YOUR bartender, boy. Lean back further!'

The mid-'90s in Philadelphia: Dimebag Darrell and I were on Pantera's tour bus, playing one of the band's many rock 'n' roll games. The band were at the height of their success, having scored a Billboard Number One hit with 1994's Far Beyond Driven album - an achievement made all the more impressive by the record's solidly uncompromising nature. I was the journalist, attempting to 'hang out' with the guitarist. Having been coerced into playing, courtesy of some fairly good-natured peer pressure, I leant backwards like a bad limbo dancer. Dimebag then appeared with a bottle of whiskey, pouring some into my open mouth. Another alcoholic liquid followed, before he introduced the piece de resistance: hot chilli sauce. Strangely unable to swallow this tasty brew, I coughed violently, spewing the mixture over myself, Dimebag and the tourbus floor.

Roadies hurried to grab sponges and clear it up, patently having seen this happen before. Certainly Dimebag didn't seem to hold it against me. You could see why he was universally popular with fans and other bands alike: the man was a walking cartoon character, so full of gruff Texan machismo that you could hardly believe him real. With a beer surgically grafted to the palm of one hand and whiskey shots never more than a twist of a bottle-top away, Dimebag was known for his hospitality and insatiable appetite for traditional rock 'n' roll antics.

As Pantera had developed a distrust for the media, however, he was far more guarded and temperamental with me. One minute we'd be talking about guitar pedals; the next he'd be holding court about journalists misquoting bands. As if to prove the point, he said a deliberately convoluted phrase, then asked me to repeat it. Because I was drunk and he wasn't always easy to understand - the guitarist referred to his own comically garbled language as Dimebonics - I failed and he brushed me off. Case closed. Another dumb journalist spurned.

Pantera hit their native Texan metal scene in 1981, resembling a glam rock band both in terms of their sound and spandex-clad look. Darrell Abbott's nickname was then Diamond, no doubt in reference to Van Halen's flamboyantly camp mainman 'Diamond' Dave Lee Roth. Darrell was joined in Pantera by bassist Rex Brown (aka Rex Rocker), singer Terry Glaze and his drumming brother Vinnie - the pair had spent their childhoods worshipping bands like Kiss (Darrell would be buried in one of the band's commercially available coffins) and being encouraged to adopt instruments by their musically-oriented Dallas folks. The boys' father was, after all, country & western producer Jerry Abbott.

Because Pantera's first four albums were released on their own Metal Magic record label, these releases were obscure and presently remain so. Musically, the albums charted a swing from melodic arena rock to a hard-edged crunch informed both by classic metal acts like Judas Priest and the harder athletics of Metallica. Even in their early days, Darrell's guitar work distinguished Pantera as ones to watch - particularly on 1988's Power Metal album, which saw Phil Anselmo making his vocal debut. The guitarist's work was state-of-the-art, buzzing like a living entity. A mere $100 will bag you a copy on eBay today.

The only thing holding the Texans back was exposure. Cue a deal with the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco, through which 1990's Cowboys From Hell was released. This jaw-dropping collection of songs remained catchy while flaying the skin off your head, growing Pantera's fanbase considerably.

Significantly, Metallica released their Black album the following year. While a massive success, its more accessible approach left a fat wedge of hardcore fans feeling disenfranchised. The good ship Pantera was perfectly happy to accommodate such refugees. The prevailing musical climate further contributed to the Texans' popularity: half of the rock world were modelling lumberjack shirts and crooning along to Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the rest of Seattle's glum grunge pack.

In 1992, Pantera's cult groundswell burst with the release of Vulgar Display Of Power, a brilliantly savage album and a true landmark in metal. For a growing army of fans, Pantera were quite literally their rock: the solid, eternally reliable modern-day equivalent of Motörhead. It's easy to see how the band's eventual split might prove devastating to a devotee. Especially to someone with Nathan Gale's problems.

PERHAPS THE FIRST SIGN that all was not well with Nathan Gale came during his mid-90s formative years in Marysville, 25 miles north-west of Columbus. The heavy-built teen was distinguished from millions of other Pantera-loving high school students by a belief that Pantera had stolen his lyrics. A former friend has recalled Gale presenting pages of words which he claimed were his own, but had clearly been copied from Pantera's album inserts. When Gale announced his plans to sue Pantera, several friends reportedly distanced themselves from him, believing him to be 'off his rocker'.

While Gale eventually abandoned his litigious intent, it's possible that the grudge remained. He spent time as a semi-pro soccer player - reportedly psyching himself up for games by playing Pantera on headphones - and had occasional run-ins with police. The latter are thought to be connected to 'drug issues' which his mother claimed he 'worked through'.

While Gale apparently had his sights on a career as a tattooist (often turning up at the local parlour and reportedly forcing 'pointless conversation' on people, as the parlour owner has noted), he ended up joining North Carolina's 2nd Marine Division in 2002, working as an auto mechanic. When he returned home for Christmas that year, his proud mother gave him a handgun - the very same weapon he would later use to take four lives. While Mrs Gale didn't, at his point, realise the extent of her son's mental condition, it's a chilling example of America's deluded view of the firearm.

While Gale was intended to have spent four years with the Marines, he was sent home on a medical discharge in November 2003, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Left untreated by medication like Thorazine or Haldol, this is one of the most damaging of mental disorders. Generally thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, its symptoms include delusions, confusion and anger. Sufferers are warned to seek help immediately if they experience suicidal or homicidal feelings. The possibility that Gale had been suffering from the disorder for most of his life is suggested by extracts from his handwritten diaries, in which he refers to 'growing up not knowing my own thoughts'. 'He came home [from the Marines] with his medications,' his mother has said. 'I don't know if he took them or not'.

DIMEBAG DARRELL'S MURDER IS all the more bizarre for having taken place in the rock world. The fates of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls have rendered homicide part of gangsta rap, but in rock it's practically unheard of. One of the few vaguely comparable events saw Norwegian black metal artist Varg Vikernes murdering his rival Oystein Aarseth in 1993, receiving a 21-year jail sentence. Eerily, Dimebag's death marked the 24th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination by Mark Chapman, another paranoid schizophrenic. 

In 2003, it became clear that Pantera had permanently split in half, due to a communication breakdown between the Abbott brothers and their bandmates. Dimebag and Vinnie formed Damageplan and released their debut album New Found Power in February 2004 - a worthy, but workmanlike affair. Fandom's paper-thin line between love and hate, plus its talent for dividing into opposing tribes, were well demonstrated as fan message boards buzzed with heated and often downright aggressive debate.

The Abbotts cited Anselmo's increasing interest in a long procession of side projects (Superjoint Ritual, Down, Eibon…) as responsible for Pantera's demise. In the issue of UK magazine Metal Hammer released on November 24, 2004, Anselmo blamed the 'distance' which had specifically grown between himself and Dimebag. 'There was never a point when he could not get drunk,' he said. 'Which was pretty much every day. And now I'm hearing it's worse than ever'. Showing obvious anger towards his former colleague, he added that the guitarist 'should be beaten severely'. This, along with statements like 'I suggest no-one do me wrong. Things don't go so well for them. And I lift not a finger' would shortly lead some fans to forge the conspiracy theory that Nathan Gale was commissioned by Anselmo. If that doesn't immediately strike you as utterly ludicrous, one stream of the heartrending video statement posted by a tearful Anselmo after Dimebag's death (Pantera.com) should clarify matters.

We may never know exactly why Gale killed Dimebag Darrell. While some witnesses claimed that Gale walked onto the stage verbally blaming Dimebag for Pantera's split, you wonder how audible he might have been, over the noise of a live metal band. Almost more important than Gale's motive, however, is the fact that he had the opportunity. Spectators to the tragedy have asked why a more prominent rock agitator - Marilyn Manson, for instance - hasn't taken a bullet, and the answer has to be security. Few artists make it to the top of their genre's tree, playing heavily-policed arenas, then start again with a new band operating at club level. Damageplan's 2004 tour saw Vinnie and Darrell revisiting their roots: Pantera had first played the Villa in 1991, before swiftly outgrowing it. When Nathan Gale climbed over a eight-foot wooden fence and entered the venue, pursued by security staff whose progress was slowed by crowd density, he was ironically taking full advantage of the Abbott brothers' rebirth. The implications for rock show security will surely be profound. As one US message-boarder rather crudely noted, 'This is like the 9/11 of metal'.

I LAST SAW DIMEBAG Darrell in February 2000, while interviewing the band at a down-home bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They were publicising Reinventing The Steel, an album which would prove their last, if a fine swansong.

The 34-year-old guitarist burst into the bar's courtyard like a tornado, seemingly drunk at 3pm. Dancing around with a dazzlingly red beard and a camcorder perched on one shoulder, he darted over and slapped the back of my head. 'I'm just fuckin' with you, man,' he roared, by way of explanation. As expected, he had no recollection of having met me before.

The ensuing interview is one of my favourites, because it was so hilariously difficult. Filmed by the band's entourage, who sat around as though watching a boxing bout, it involved horrendous amounts of alcohol, semi-serious arguments between band and interviewer, together with unexpected physical contact: at one point, Anselmo seized me in a wrestling hold.

As usual, Dimebag provided most of the very finest quotes. 'We are the STEEL FUCKING ROD up the fucking centre of everything that churns around us!' he bellowed at one point. 'We're pure fucking metal!'

Was there an ironic wink? Hell, no. Sadly, there's now one less person on the planet who'll say that stuff with a straight face.

* * *

No comments: