The micro-legacy of the murder of Dimebag Darrell, with respect to the relationship between Philip Anselmo and Vinnie Paul

December 8th, 2013

Nine years ago today, Dimebag Darrell Abbott, guitarist of Pantera, was shot and killed while playing a show with his band, Damageplan, at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. His murderer will not be named in this article, because he doesn’t deserve to be named. In the words of Zakk Wylde, “end of story.”

In the years since this tragedy occurred, there have been several ongoing conversations regarding Dimebag’s life, death, and legacy. To my eyes, as someone who has steadfastly followed the metal press for almost two decades, the predominant themes have been as follows (in no particular order):

  1. Dimebag as a legendary musician/guitarist
  2. Who’s responsible for the breakup of Pantera – Phil, or Dimebag?
  3. The cold war between Phil Anselmo (vocalist) and Vinnie Paul Abbott (drummer) since Dimebag’s death
  4. Phil and Vinnie should reconcile
  5. Who would play guitar in a Pantera reunion?

There are other themes, but these have been the major recurring ones over the years.

In my opinion, numbers 2 and 5 are unimportant.

In the case of who caused the breakup of Pantera, the Abbott brothers blamed Anselmo, and Anselmo blamed Dimebag, and the rest doesn’t matter. It happened, and the players went their separate ways. It could be (and has been) argued in hindsight that the breakup led to Darrell’s death, but as far as I’m concerned, all bets are off when a psychopath is concerned.

As far as who would play guitar in a reunion, I think that the metal press (including everyone who brings up the subject in interviews with either party) has collectively done both fans and the musicians themselves a disservice by asking about it incessantly over the years. Vinnie Paul and Phil haven’t spoken since at least 2004, and Vinnie Paul has ignored or rebuffed all of Phil’s overtures toward reconciliation to date. Until that massive, painful wall is dismantled and the mutual relationship is rebuilt – which is nowhere near a given, by the way – any discussion of a reunion is about as moot as it could possibly be while the remaining band members are still alive.

Nevertheless, the questions persist, and every week your favorite metal music site (pick one) has a link to a video of someone asking Phil Anselmo about Vinnie Paul and the abyss between them. While it’s understandable that the interviewers themselves are largely fans of Pantera – and, to their credit, some interviewers don’t go beyond asking about the status of the relationship itself – as time passes and nothing develops, I find myself increasingly baffled at the lack of depth and imagination of the questions that are asked of Anselmo in 2013.

But this post isn’t just about content of the questions the metal media usually asks. That’s a subject for another day, perhaps. What I’d like to do today is bring us back down to a basic human level with respect to why such a gulf exists between Vinnie Paul and Phil.

* * *

Philip Anselmo has obviously come a long way over the past decade.

By the time Darrell was killed in 2004, Anselmo had been exchanging barbs with the Abbott brothers over the inactive status of Pantera for a couple of years. It was an ugly series of exchanges. Things started out cold, with the Abbott brothers answering questions about the band with statements along the lines of “We’re ready to go, we’re just waiting on Phil.” However, the public feud escalated, with the parties throwing out barbs about each other’s current bands, and culminated with the following words by Anselmo appearing in an interview that appeared in the December 2004 issue of Metal Hammer, which hit newsstands just a week before Darrell was killed (link is from Blabbermouth from 12/1/2004):

He would attack me, vocally. And just knowing that he was so much smaller than me I could kill him like a fuckin’ piece of vapor, you know, he would turn into vapor — his chin would, at least, if I fuckin’ smacked it. And he knows that. The world should know that. So physically, of course, he deserves to be beaten severely.”

[Emphasis mine, reflecting that this is the quote that everyone remembers, due to its being published shortly before Darrell’s death.]

At the time, Anselmo had been touring and recording with Down and Superjoint Ritual since Pantera’s European tour had broken down in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, and was constantly giving interviews for those bands. I remember reading those words at the time and thinking that things had gone far enough. No fan of a band wants to see its members embroiled in a nasty feud, and this had become quite nasty.

Of course, Dimebag Darrell was murdered seven days later. The general scene was captured by a camera on stage, and is available on YouTube. It is a harrowing video, and was shown on CNN in its news report. I watched it at the time, and I watched it again for the first time since then this weekend. The band (Damageplan) is playing a song called “Breathing New Life” when the murderer crosses the stage and shoots Darrell, fires several more rounds, and takes a hostage before a police officer kills the murderer with one shot.

In the ensuing days, as details came to light, the world mourned one of metal’s greatest guitarists and nicest people. Darrell’s murder affected hundreds of thousands of music fans around the world – not to mention his loved ones – and in the wake of the tragedy, bands, venues, and promoters began to rethink security at shows, and attitudes toward fans jumping on stage changed. But that’s the larger picture.

Shortly after Darrell was killed, Phil Anselmo released a rambling, emotion-filled video, in which he apologized for his actions and expressed deep regret over not having the chance to reconcile with Darrell before he died. At the end of the video, he hardened himself enough to place blame for the murder on the metal media before signing off and proclaiming that he was going into seclusion. Here’s the video:

As annoying as it was to hear him direct blame at the music media, it seemed to me that he was deflecting blame as a form of coping mechanism, as a way to defend himself – to himself, among others – in lieu of possibly imploding under the crushing weight of guilt. While Phil Anselmo did not kill Dimebag Darrell, he did make the statement above. Regardless of whether it had been off the record, or had made it into a publication, he had said those words, and he had to live with that fact.

At the time, I felt for his combined pain of loss and guilt about his actions. And he did indeed disappear for several months, and later he had surgery to alleviate a serious back problem, eventually resurfacing in 2006 to give word that Down was reactivating and to perform with Alice In Chains at a tribute to Layne Staley.

* * *

Over the years since all of this occurred, I’ve followed the career of Phil Anselmo and the “latest” on the Vinnie-Phil feud. In that time, Anselmo has done nothing but praise and honor Darrell. He has repeatedly extended olive branches to Vinnie Paul. He has learned how to manage the chronic pain in his back through therapy, along with daily stretching and strengthening. He has rebuilt the strength behind his ferocious voice, post-surgery. And he’s made more music, as always.

But most of all, he has seemed more human in public than ever before. He’s been clean for years, and over time, his conversations in interviews have shown increased maturity and lucidity. While he’s still a straight shooter, his answers are delivered more thoughtfully than they used to be. The death of his friend still weighs upon him, as does the silent treatment from Vinnie Paul, but he doesn’t kill himself with the guilt every day. He shares love and blesses people – and is blessed by them – rather than incessantly focusing on separating himself from those he doesn’t agree with through put-downs and the like. He’s still Phil Anselmo, but he’s a changed Phil Anselmo.

I found this video a couple of years ago on YouTube. It’s an interview with him at Loyola University, approximately 2006, where he talks about his drug use. It’s a remarkable video, and once you get past the nervous introduction, things get very real and down to earth. It’s worth watching the whole video at some point where you have an hour to spare.

* * *

By stripping away the edifice of commentary and internet speculation that has built up over the years about the feud with Vinnie Paul, we can see the basics of their non-relationship a bit more clearly.

Without doing so, and without thinking critically about these basics, it’s tempting to fall in line with a simplified solution; in this case, that solution is (to paraphrase The Internet), “C’mon, Vinnie… Phil’s a changed man. Get together, clear things up, and then maybe have a Pantera reunion!”

“Simple,” however, does not automatically equal “easy.” While we can’t possibly know exactly the maelstrom of emotions that Vinnie Paul Abbott has had to wrestle with and work through over the course of the past ten years, there are the facts of his brother’s murder, his ex-bandmate Anselmo’s violent rhetoric against his brother just before the murder, and a recent legacy of bad blood prior to that. When Darrell died, his loved ones – Phil Anselmo included – had to reckon with untold grief. They had to learn to live after (and live with) what had happened. For Anselmo, I’m sure it was a major reality check. For Abbott and his family and loved ones – again, including Anselmo – it was indescribable devastation. Over the years, both parties have learned to live, and grown as human beings, after the tragedy.

However, time does not always heal wounds. The saying says that it does, but the truth is that it does not always do so. And so, even after nine years have passed, that time hasn’t made Vinnie Paul interested enough in Phil Anselmo to reciprocate with an olive branch of his own.

* * *

Which brings us to a further point: these men, who were once a singular unit together, have dealt with Dimebag Darrell’s death in different ways. This is a natural thing, since they are different people with different personalities.

Phil has worn Darrell on his sleeve, giving him respect and love at every turn, and will likely do so as long as he lives. As the party that had the final public say on the Pantera issue prior to Darrell’s death – and who most people believe was in the wrong in that – Phil is petitioning (personally) for closure. His closest connection to Darrell is Darrell’s brother, and that person has extracted himself completely from Phil’s life.

On the other side, Vinnie has also loved and honored his brother. He has also moved on, and made more music. But he’s in a different situation. As the multiply-aggrieved brother, he has professed no interest in Phil’s overtures. And since Darrell is no longer with us, Pantera is, in Vinnie’s mind, also dead. While Phil has constantly sought closure and redemption, and has lived his life in that vein, Vinnie has coped in part by excising himself from anything relating to Pantera’s future, including any relationship with Phil. It’s one of the ways he can feel healthy in the absence of his brother. He moves on, honors his brother, spreads the word, and plays in Hellyeah, his post-Damageplan band of several years. He has apparently found that he is happiest without Phil Anselmo in his life, and so that’s how he lives his life.

This should not be surprising to people. Human beings respond to grief and anger in different ways. It’s obvious that Vinnie feels that he is in the best place to cope with the loss of his brother by handling the situation exactly the way he has. In effect, he has acted according to his nature.

There is no blanket solution to counter or “fix” this. It’s simply the way it has been, and is, with Vinnie Paul.

As such, to relegate Vinnie Paul’s unimaginable pain and his ongoing adjustment to the “just get back together already” wagon is to miss the facts. Fans are certainly interested in a Phil-Vinnie Reunion. So is Phil. However, Vinnie obviously isn’t. Until he cracks the window a bit and reaches out his hand in Phil’s direction – as a result of some combination of a softening (or change) of heart, the passage of time, encouragement from family and close friends, etc. – that door is closed, and Phil has said that he respects that.

There is no one-size-fits-all alternative in this case. And metal music journalists of all stripes – along with fans who think that the one-size-fits-all “easy” solution is immediate and viable – need to learn that fact.

* * *

In closing…

I’ve written a lot of words here, and yet I still feel that I’ve completely failed to adequately make my point. Since I’m not a professional writer, a psychologist, or a learned logician, this is akin to my best effort, given the amount of time I’ve been able to put into this post. I hope that it has made sense to you, my friends and fellow fans.

And please: if you are a fan – and especially, a fan who also considers himself/herself a metal journalist – please give the “Pantera Reunion” and “Phil/Vinnie Reunion” subjects a break. It’s only logical that, if there is a reconciliation, it will be news, and it will be announced by one or both camps. And if that would ever lead to a “Pantera reunion featuring Zakk Wylde on guitar” or something to that effect, rest assured that that would obviously be announced as well, as it would be huge news (and that’s an understatement if there ever was one!). Constantly asking about it won’t make it happen, or happen any faster.

Finally – to Darrell, if you’re listening somewhere up above: you are loved by more people than you could ever know, my friend. Meeting you in late 2003 was one of the highlights of my life, and you were even nicer to me than I could have ever imagined you’d be. You’re eternally a musical and personal inspiration, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet you and talk with you. I think about you every time I play guitar. Peace.

* * *

Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!

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