Long before the term “extreme” was used to describe an entire subgenre of metal, Pantera was laying the foundation for other extreme metal bands with its aggressive style that hit listeners like a punch in the face, an image that would later be captured on their Vulgar Display Of Power album.
It all started on Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott’s 12th birthday, when was given his first guitar as a gift. It quickly became his biggest obsession. A foot soldier in the KISS Army, Dimebag would play his new guitar dressed as Ace Frehley. Together with his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul, the Arlington, TX Abbott brothers eventually followed in the footsteps of their rock heroes.
Pantera started out as a glam rock band with a reputation as the kings of southwest spandex in 1981 before they were of age to get into bars. The band’s extreme metal sound didn’t happen until 1986, when Dimebag, Vinnie and bassist, Rex Brown, parted ways with original frontman Terry Glaze in favor of 19-yr old, New Orleans native, Phil Anselmo. Inspired by bands like Metallica and Slayer, the new lineup wore jeans, t-shirts and focused only on creating music that would terrify people.
THE BIG BREAK
After constant rejection by record labels, the band finally got their big break when label executive, Mark Ross, saw the band playing at a birthday party in Texas. A few songs into the set, Ross left to call his boss to let him know that he was going to sign Pantera. In July of 1990, Pantera made their ATCO Records debut with Cowboys From Hell.
A few months after the release of Cowboys From Hell, Pantera began touring with heavy-hitting bands Suicidal Tendencies and Exodus, traveling to each gig in a beat-up RV with no headlights. Their brutal live show featured intense, frenzied mosh pits; Anselmo fueled the fire from the stage. The band itself was fueled by copious amounts of liquor, Dimebag in particular. They prided themselves on being the only band to mandate drinking to keep your job. It got to the point where the band couldn’t play without drinking first. A breathalyzer was used to make sure that each member was properly inebriated before taking the stage.
By 1994, the metal genre was struggling to survive, drowning in the overwhelming popularity of grunge. Pantera took it upon themselves to make sure that metal survived and got its due recognition. Already one of the heaviest bands around, Pantera took it to another level with their Far Beyond Driven album. With no radio or MTV support, the album still managed to debut at #1 on the Billboard Album Chart, but there was trouble on the horizon.
During the Far Beyond Driven tour, Anselmo started distancing himself from the band. His violent stage performances started to take a toll on his body, and his chronic back pain led to erratic behavior. The mixture of painkillers and a bottle of Wild Turkey to numb the pain greatly affected Anselmo’s performance.
Despite the band’s coaxing, he refused to go to seek medical treatment. Doctors had already told him that the necessary surgery would sideline him for at least 18 months. With his condition worsening, Anselmo turned to heroin to numb the pain, a solution that he admits was akin to “putting a Band-Aid over cancer.”
Dimebag’s best friend, legendary guitarist Zakk Wylde, referred to Pantera as an “unstoppable wrecking ball,” an accurate description of their music, but unfortunately, not the band.
The disconnect between Anselmo and the rest of the band continued to grow in 1996 during the recording of The Great Southern Trend Kill. While the rest of Pantera recorded in Texas, Anselmo chose to stay in New Orleans to lay down his vocal tracks. The band had no idea that their frontman had turned to heroin until July of 1996 when he overdosed in Texas, needing paramedics to save him with adrenaline and oxygen. The following night, Anselmo apologized to the band and crew, and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. He would relapse two more times, and his ongoing struggle began tearing the band apart.
Pantera stayed out of the studio for four years as they waited for Anselmo, but came back with a vengeance in 2000 with their Grammy-nominated Reinventing The Steel album. The harmony within the band would be short-lived. Old tensions resurfaced on the road as Anselmo pushed away everyone who loved and cared about him.
DOWN AND OUT
The Reinventing The Steel tour was cut short by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the band would never again perform together.
During the break caused by 9/11, Anselmo formed Down and recorded an album. He also recorded with Superjoint Ritual. All the while, Dimebag and Vinnie were waiting for Anselmo to continue with Pantera. After two years of waiting, and not even hearing from Anselmo for a year, the Abbott brothers reluctantly ended Pantera.
The idol time spent waiting for Anselmo sent Dimebag spiraling into depression, so he made his peace with the perils of Pantera, and formed Damageplan with Vinnie in 2003. Their debut album, New Found Power, was released in February of 2004, and sold nearly 45,000 copies in its first week. Sadly, the album was the first and last by Damageplan.
On December 8, 2004, Damageplan was wrapping up a two-month long club tour at Alrosa Villa in Colombus, OH. Ten seconds into the set, a 25-yr old ex-marine stormed the stage and shot Dimebag with a 9mm pistol, killing him instantly. The gunman killed three others as he tried to get to Vinnie, and shot John “Kat” Brooks in the chest, arm and leg as the drum tech tried to subdue him.
At 10:18pm, three minutes after receiving the 911 call, the police arrived on the scene. Officer James Niggemayer ended the mayhem when he shot and killed the gunman who was holding Brooks at gunpoint. Amazingly, Brooks survived the gunshots, and was released from the hospital three days later.
Vinnie describes the disturbing footage caught on tape as a “real bad movie.”
Dimebag’s death at the age of 38 sent shockwaves through the metal world. The memorial service in his honor was a true rock and roll sendoff that seemed like something out of a movie. It was filled with rock stars paying their respects to Dimebag, who was laid to rest in a KISS casket.
Eddie Van Halen placed the guitar from Van Halen II in the casket. Zakk Wylde placed 15 bottles of Crown Royal in the casket, making sure that his friend had enough alcohol for his final journey. The memorial service was a who’s who of rock, but not everyone was welcome to say goodbye to the fallen guitar hero.
Estranged former Pantera frontman, Phil Anselmo, made the trip to Texas, but never left his hotel room. After several phone calls, Dimebag’s wife, Rita Haney, finally got on the phone with Anselmo and told him not to show up to the memorial, and that she would blow his head off if he did.
GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN – LIFE AFTER DIME
Vinnie is back on the metal scene with his new band Hell Yeah. Anselmo , who still plays with Down, has a chip on his shoulder and harbors a lot of anger towards the members of the press who blame him for Dimebag’s death. Vinnie also blames Anselmo for his brother’s death and the demise of Pantera, and all indications are that he will never forgive him, although Anselmo would welcome the chance to make peace.
Dimebag may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. Every year on his birthday, a Ride For Dime event takes place in Dallas, TX and in Colombus, OH to honor Dimebag and the other fallen victims: Erin Halk, the hero who died tackling the gunman, Jeff Thompson (band security) and Nathan Bray.
Would Pantera ever have resolved their issues and gotten back together if Dimebag was still alive today? Unfortunately, Pantera fans will never know the answer to that question.