Alexander Garvey Holbrook explores the legacy of the late Pantera and Damageplan guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott.
I am solemnly listening to Evile’s rendition of Pantera’s ‘Cemetery Gates’, taken from Metal Hammer’s 200th issue CD. The listen is a poignant one, not only for the heart-stopping rendition of Pantera’s composition, but also for the knowledge that this track is the final studio recording to feature the late, great Mike Alexander on bass for Evile. Like most fans of music, I am no stranger to admiring the ability and achievement of the dead, not to mention the canonisation of the prematurely demised, although I still consider myself lucky to have seen Evile with Mike Alexander and to have experienced the man’s power on stage.
However, it is the absence of the composer of the original tune which still has the force to reduce any fan of hard rock or heavy metal to a reverent and indignant mourner. It is, of course, ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott, shot dead on stage whilst performing with his later band Damageplan on December 8th, 2004. The incident, imagery and music of Dimebag have been so often entwined with metal culture that one can’t think of metal culture – from guitar technique to festivals to future releases to the subculture’s mentality – without thinking of him as well. Ubiquity is the fastest path to cliché, although all of us – myself included – wish this wasn’t the case if only for respecting the memory of the departed. In order to do so, I’ve taken it upon myself to analyse the legacy of this man so he may be properly remembered in the light of his unexpected coda; I think the fawning sympathy of the Diana Spencer variety is unbecoming of any departed individual and, in this instance; the mainstream metal press has been undeniably guilty.
Dimebag’s shocking death and a few incidents in the following days were to catapult the guitarist not only into rock history, but towards becoming one of the most enduring icons in modern music. Murdered along with three others in Columbus, Ohio, Darrell was shot three times in the head at close range by a paranoid schizophrenic called Nathan Gale, himself shot dead by an intervening police officer. Present at the public memorial were figures such as Zakk Wylde, Eddie Van Halen and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell along with thousands of fans. In a manner perhaps typical of the Metal superstar, EVH and Wylde downed shots during their speeches whilst Cantrell performed on an acoustic guitar. The mourning may have been kept in the company of Pantera and Damageplan fans only, if it were not for a certain infamous essay.
This piece of reactionary bellyaching would normally have attracted no attention at all if it wasn’t for the blatant provocation in its title and first few paragraphs; William Grim, the editor of the now defunct ‘Iconoclast’ website, released the article ‘Aesthetics of Hate: R.I.P. Dimebag Abbott, and Good Riddance’ on December 14th 2004, six days after the murder. The article is indeed hurtful and unqualified, not to say pathetic and libellous – believe what you like about heavy metal, but no one in their right mind would think that Abbott was, as Grim puts it, ‘an ignorant, barbaric, untalented possessor of a guitar and a loud amplifier system.’ Abbott’s command of the guitar – combining the technicality of Glam Metal arpeggios and sweeps with the atonal shriek of Thrash Metal pinch harmonics and chromatics – is considered hallowed and often emulated amongst guitarists who aren’t remotely concerned with metal (this is coming from one who had to study the individual parts of ‘Cowboys from Hell’ in forensic detail as part of a BA in Music).
Furthermore, even in the lowest moments of polemical writing, crediting character deficiencies to physical makeup and appearance takes callousness of a special magnitude, as Grim exhibits when he describes Dimebag as ‘simian’ in his appearance and that he could only be allowed comparison to ‘a gorilla on PCP.’ If that wasn’t bad enough, Grim describes the vigil held by fans thus:
“[It was] an assemblage of ignorant, semi-human barbarians who were filthy in attire and manner, intellectually incoherent and above all else, hideously ugly to the point of physical deformity.”
As can be reasonably expected, this essay received a fierce and appalled response from many people, the most famous of which was Machine Head’s frontman and producer Rob Flynn. In the 2006 tour de force ‘The Blackening’, Flynn had penned the song ‘Aesthetics of Hate’ in response to the essay, its coda featuring the mantra of ‘May the hand of God strike them down.’ At nearly every live show of the first tour of this record, Flynn gave a cutting speech at nearly every show before playing the song, one of the most high profile of which being Download Festival 2007. The Speech is as follows:
“On December 14th 2004, six days after Dimebag Darrell was murdered, a conservative website called the Iconoclast released an article entitled ‘Aesthetics of Hate: Goodbye Dimebag and Good Riddance.’ The article would say that Dimebag was an untalented possessor of a guitar and that by playing heavy metal he had reaped what he had sowed. The article also said that anyone mourning this man’s death is pathetic and ugly. Machine Head had the opportunity to tour with Dimebag, and while he wasn’t our closest friend, we are honoured to have called him a friend of ours. So to any of you who mourned that day, to any of you who cried that day, this song is for you. And this song is dedicated to them. It’s called ‘Aesthetics of Hate.’”
The borderline hysterical responses from the crowd were expected, given what the Dimebag legend had grown into at that point – both guitar companies who endorsed Dimebag in life, Washburn and Dean, not only re-released his signature model, but also released special lines of their companies dedicated entirely to variations of the guitars he had used. Both MXR and Jim Dunlop pedals released tribute models of effects he had used in life, despite neither company having being officially endorsed by him whilst he lived. A plethora of corporate tributes to him are also in existence – Download festival, as of 2008, had the Dimebag Darrell Stage, not to mention many other metal festivals. In Spain, there is a dedicated festival called Dimefest where mainstream metal bands play nothing but Pantera and Damageplan songs. Indeed, Devildriver led a capacity crowd in Dallas, Texas in a moment’s silence three years after the murder. After encouraging the entire crowd to ‘take a knee’, singer Dez Fafara asked for a moment’s silence for ‘all those affected by this tragedy.’
In this iffy gushing, the press has been a major player. However, and without a shadow of a doubt, the British Metal Press has been the worst offender by far. Metal Hammer has printed 6 articles either featuring discussion of or exclusively about Dimebag from December 2012 to March 2013 alone. It also doesn’t help that several ‘exclusive’ interviews conducted with Phil Anselmo or Rex Brown contain discussion with Dimebag as a hook for the reader. Additionally, every year there is a ‘tribute’ issue to him, released on the anniversary of his death, filled with many recycled or contrived interviews with those too late to the grieving. Press scrambling in the event of an untimely death is, I suppose, to be expected, but not to this demented degree.
I suggest that the media and corporate obsession with Dimebag, besides his gruesome and pointless murder, lies in the fact that Pantera had already called it quits beforehand and that it was a band reunion many hoped would occur. Few bands recover from the death of an integral band member and the only three exceptions which immediately come to mind are New Order, Metallica and Alice in Chains. The recent charity single featuring Dave Grohl and Kris Noselvic of Nirvana with Paul McCartney was met with disgust and ridicule as well as bewilderment that the survivors of Nirvana would have committed such sacrilege against the memory of Kurt Cobain. I conclude that a reunified Pantera would be difficult, if not impossible, without Abbott’s input and that this is a cause of resentment and disappointment for many a metal fan whose experience of heavy music after ‘Reinventing the Steel’ had been an unsatisfactory one with the dawn of Nu Metal.
However, from an anthropological point of view, the embracing of Dimebag as a symbol of ‘Metal against the World’ is to be taken for granted. In his superb documentary ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’, Sam Dunn studied the roots of heavy metal and why, at once, the metal community had been the most resilient form of popular music and the most despised by mainstream culture. One of his correspondents, the author Chuck Klosterman, made the point that:
“If you listened to like The Replacements or The Smiths or something when you were young, it was saying ‘You feel weird and different, but that’s because you’re smart… you ARE different to these people and you should be happy with that’, but Metal kept saying ‘You feel weird, but you’re not!’ – This is probably why I was so interested in the idea of the KISS Army; its saying ‘If you like KISS, you are a part of this massive coven of people who have the same values that you have.’ KISS songs always seem to imply that as we’re KISS fans, we’re somehow being persecuted for it! If you listen to the song ‘Crazy Nights’, it says that there are people determined to stop us from liking KISS! I think that’s a really brilliant idea and it’s part of the draw to metal; it makes people feel that this is not a way to understand your loneliness, it’s a way to feel as if you are part of something larger than yourself because everything that is larger than metal is larger than it is in life.”
Rob Zombie goes on to explain further about the cultish element of Heavy metal that is the key to its longevity:
“It’s like a lifestyle music, you know? Usually, people are like ‘I liked it, I didn’t like it, it was interesting’, but with metal? Metal fans love it forever. I’m not a casual person, when I like something it’s like… REAL; and it’s not casual music. You never hear anyone say ‘Yeah, I was big into Slayer… one summer’, you know? I’ve never met that guy, I’ve only every met the guy with ‘SLAYER’ carved across his chest!”
This idea of isolationism and ‘Do-Or-Die’ is perfectly encapsulated in Dime’s killing and its aftermath – even in death, Dimebag was attacked by members of a reactionary right who saw what he and his music stood as hateful and debauched, not to say untalented. The latter is self-evidently fatuous and stupid, for a start, as I explained earlier. I do not have the experience to know, but all those who were close to Dimebag are fairly uniform in their appraisal of him as a genial, beefy and proud son of the south, not to mention a Republican conservative. I find it ironic and laughable that a cultural hack like Grim would have the indecency to bad mouth a man, probably even more emphatically to the right than he, as a machine of the pathological left through which to poison aestheticism and art in general.
Even though I know I cannot speak heavily about the politics of the metal community – ranging from radical Marxism (Tom Morello) to Fascism (Varg Vikernes) – Metal is, as pointed out by Sam Dunn, one of the most misunderstood and maligned musical forms in existence, drawing ridicule, fear and providing the easiest target for demagogic organisations like the PMRC and the Christian Right. One of the most famous campaigns by these lobbies was the attempt to pin the blame for the Columbine massacre on Marilyn Manson. Galling as it is to quote from any of Michael Moore’s films, the documentary gem of ‘Bowling For Columbine’ featured one member of a protest against Manson’s performance in Littleton, Colorado, who crystallised their opposition in these callous words:
“Some will be so brash to ask whether everyone who listens to Marilyn Manson today will go out and commit violent acts. The answer is no. But does everyone who watches a Lexus advert go out and buy a Lexus? No… But a few do!”
As if petty and frivolous campaigns of censorship like those of the PMRC, the Christian Right and Bob Dole’s Presidential campaign hadn’t confirmed general loathing for metal (and, in a way, proved KISS right), the openly murderous intent of the Trenchcoat Mafia and Nathan Gale, coupled with the sneering arrogance of an opportunistic, sensationalist mainstream, had pushed Metal’s defiant swagger to new heights.
Having said all of this, could the death of Dimebag ever be construed as Metal’s case of ‘Candle-In-The-Wind Syndrome’? I’d say no, but I cannot stand idly by and watch Dimebag be turned into a martyr for a cause where there was none to begin with. The man and his music stand for many great innovations and skills within the metal form, his charitable aims and personality were widely recognised and his death was a terrible one. The Iconoclast’s guffaw at this event was rightly regarded with hatred and contempt. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing else to discuss about Dimebag or his life. If all fans of Heavy Music are to begin striking back at a society which can find no time for them, except to use them as a scapegoat for a convenient moral panic, then fans of Heavy Music should rise above mainstream’s habit of fetish and finally let Dimebag Darrell Abbott truly Rest in Peace.
All words by Alexander Garvey Holbrook.