Even in a genre where the distance – emotional, physical, metaphorical – separating player from fan is so paper thin, in a style of music where, above all others, total commitment onstage is a baseline requirement, I find it hard to imagine a metal musician who took such inspiring, unquenchable, childlike pleasure in his craft and so thrilled to find himself in what some might’ve imagined an unlikely spotlight, as did former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. His tragic shooting death ten years ago tonight at the hands of an unbalanced fan on stage at a rock club in my adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio, is, for the millions worldwide who loved his band and his playing, a wound that sometimes seems as if it will never fully close, let alone heal, the kind of premature and pointlessly cruel removal of a kind man and loving presence from the larger metal community that brings to mind not journeymen but giants – Cliff Burton, Ronnie James Dio, Chuck Schuldiner – the kind of singular artists who did one thing as well as or better than just about anyone who lived, or, failing those lofty heights, did it in a way so innovative and brilliantly different that it redefined the way an instrument was considered and played for years after. Nobody sounded quite like Dimebag Darrell. For a while, though, just about everyone tried.
Darrell Abbott could make his guitar squeal with rage and rancor, sorrow and pain, defiance and delight. His greatest work* effortlessly erased the boundaries between those poles and occasionally even inverted them, serving in the process as the catalyst for an entire generation of rock guitarists to first pick up the instrument and dig into it, then dig deeper and push harder, refusing to be beaten down or ever defined by their limitations. Abbott was, at once, a light speed shredder, a full tilt boogie-man, an artisanal crafter of insane, indestructible and indelible guitar riffs, and a steady and shockingly delicate hand at mood and balladry whenever the song required it. At its best, his playing existed on a plain utterly teeming with excited students and bystanders but largely free of equivalent peers. I’ve always lamented the notion that so many wonderful metal bands ended up achieving a fraction of the overall success they probably should have. Pantera, propelled by Dimebag’s incendiary guitar, a towering rhythm section (and bludgeoning conception of rhythm itself), and the bark and braggadocio of lightning rod vocalist Phil Anselmo, surprisingly became a rallying point for countless thousands, debuting at #1 on the Billboard chart in 1994 and selling far in excess of 25 million total albums, which are frankly astonishing accomplishments for any genre band NOT named Metallica. Pantera’s moment in the sun might’ve barely outlasted the decade of the 1990s, but the band was remarkably influential, and engendered deep passions and ironclad loyalty within its exploding fanbase. In a neat alchemic redefinition of metal’s standard success formula, Pantera’s popularity actually appreciably grew the more it pushed sonic boundaries. Anselmo may have been the mouthpiece, but Darrell’s playing was always the engine.
*I would offer, for the uninitiated, a Whitman’s sampler consisting of “Cemetery Gates”, “Domination”, and “Primal Concrete Sledge” from Pantera’s seminal “Cowboys From Hell” album, alongside “A New Level”, “No Good (Attack the Radical)”, and “Hollow” from its genre-defining successor “Vulgar Display of Power”, and, finally, “Becoming”, “I’m Broken”, and “25 Years” from the world-beating “Far Beyond Driven”. This is but a taster’s menu, and I’m sure plenty of fans will find it musically tame, overly safe or otherwise lacking, which is precisely the point. Soak in these songs, secure in the knowledge that there is so much more to explore. “Power” and “Driven” are near flawless heavy metal statements, full to bursting with worthy deep cuts I didn’t have the space to include, not to mention the two subsequent albums I left out of the exercise entirely. Okay, try “Floods” on for size too, or “War Nerve”, and then, as a properly baptized fan, dig deeper of your own accord.
The circumstances of Darrell’s death a decade ago are all the more upsetting because for him to have been killed by a fan, even a clearly disturbed fan, runs completely counter to the deserved fate of the man we all knew, or imagined, him to be. Pantera might have been an aurally aggressive and unsettling outfit, but embodied in the spirit of the Abbott brothers, Darrell and his drummer brother Vince (ne: Vinnie Paul), the band were also good time ambassadors of high renown. Music wasn’t the only thing that endeared them to fans. Darrell was a “life of the party” type (his eventual “Dimebag” nickname proved much more apt than the “Diamond Darrell” moniker he briefly carried during Pantera’s transitional period from a full on Texas hair metal band to the captivating new strain of mutant thrash they’d go on to perfect) and an infamous practical joker. He made time for fans and extra time for friends, and very often there was significant overlap between the two designations. He always seemed so full of life. The cliché in this context seems especially cruel, but no one can dispute its veracity. In short, Darrell should, by all rights, still be on a stage somewhere, grinning devilishly as he inflicted exquisite further punishment on his fret board or unleashed a polished steel guitar riff that could crush a Hummer into so much aluminum siding. His spirit seemed – and I hope you’ll forgive me for the characterization – unkillable. It still does.
I’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio since the turn of the millennium, and in those fifteen years I’ve seen dozens of bands play concerts at the venerable Alrosa Villa. The most memorable night of the run, however, was one at which I wasn’t present but perhaps could’ve been. I run the details over and over in my mind, even now, a decade removed. In 2004, Pantera had been disbanded for a couple of years, and Darrell and Vinnie had formed a new band, a fairly uninspired/completely unapologetic Pantera rip-off** called Damageplan. On December 8, 2004, Damageplan took the stage at the Alrosa Villa, and as a fan of the Abbotts if not particularly of the band itself, it would’ve made infinite sense to find me somewhere in that crowd. Boston metalcore heroes Shadows Fall were billed as part of the larger tour but were not on the bill that night in Columbus. If they had been, I almost certainly would’ve gone…and I have no idea what might’ve happened next, though I’ve surely dreamed about it a time or more.
**Though if anyone has the right to rip off Pantera, you would have to concede it’d be the band’s co-creators. Ask John Fogerty how smoothly his early post-CCR solo career went.
Toward the beginning of the show, the shooter, who had scaled a side fence and accessed the club through a backstage entrance, opened fire on the band from behind, killing Darrell instantly, plus another three with seven wounded in the ensuing chaos, before being taken down himself by a police officer. The tragedy was immediate, incomprehensible and all-encompassing. It hung like a pall over the city of Columbus and continues to, nearly driving the Alrosa out of business and residing like a cancer in the chest of every Columbus metal fan, even as it ripped open a large gash in the metal community at large. I still remember sitting at home and receiving a panicked call from the wife of my good friend and partner in concert-going crime, asking if I was all right and if I knew where he was. I was, but I didn’t, though I was able to calm her somewhat with the idea that he almost certainly wouldn’t have gone without me. I hung up the phone dumbfounded. Approximately fifteen minutes later I emerged from a mental fogbank long enough to turn on the local news, and was utterly heartbroken. The fact that, no, this absolutely could not be happening in no way prevented it from having just happened. I felt sick, and stricken, and splintered, and spent.
Darrell Abbott deserved so much better than that, but then again everyone does. No one could have possibly anticipated his death, any more than we can comprehend it now. I’ve heard it often said that it’s never a tragedy to die doing what you love, though the events of that night were a bitter perversion of that lovely sentiment. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for Darrell Abbott’s life and his work, and his overwhelming life force, and for the prodigious talent that so amazed and endeared him to a cross section of heavy metal fans over what was, for this one band, perhaps the most charmed decade of recorded output in the genre’s recent history. I know that it is damn near impossible to love any band more than I loved Pantera in 1994. I hear the power and precision of “Mouth for War”, the explosive pop swagger of “Walk”, the lunatic abandon of “Strength Beyond Strength”, and know now, as I did then, that I was listening to something special, something unhinged, unchained and wonderful, something we without a doubt will never quite hear the likes of again. The only difference is that, back then, I took this knowledge for granted. Now the underlying clarity we all feel has been earned the hard way. Darrell Abbott is ten years gone today, and yet somehow he is just as vital a presence, just as alive in the hearts and memories of those he left behind, those who cheered him and toasted him and loved him and were loved back, as he ever was. He was a good guy by all accounts, a good friend, and, of course, one hell of a guitar player. He lived his dreams to the fullest and died far too young. However unfair the outcome, we are the lucky ones, we who still own and love this music. We are caretakers of his memory.
We celebrate Darrell’s unassuming greatness. We raise a Black Tooth Grin in his honor.
We will carry Dimebag Darrell Abbott’s flag forever.