Some say he was larger than life, a legend who always stood up for the underdog. He was the type of legend who'd walk into a club in some random city, join a local band on stage and play for 15 minutes as if he were just another member. With his black cap worn backward and beard dyed reddish-pink, Dimebag Darrell was the original cowboy from hell. And he slung his guitar like he lived his life: with no limits.
"He was a legend before he even died," says Rex Brown, former bassist of Pantera. "He was legendary in his drinking, his guitar playing and his quality of life. Every emotion he laid out on the table."
It's been 10 years since "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott was taken away from his fans, friends and family by a madman with a gun. To his fans, he'll always be known as a legend, but to his close friends and family, he'll always be remembered as a brother with a heart of gold.
"I never thought something like that would happen to him," says childhood friend Stuart Taylor. "I thought we'd be old with cirrhosis of the liver and chewing on the straws. Thank God we had all those years before they got the record contract."
Brown and Taylor had known Dimebag since they attended Bowie High School in Arlington, a breeding ground for the local metal scene in the early '80s. Brown played tuba in the school band with Dimebag's older brother Vinnie Paul, who was a percussionist in drum line. Taylor knew Dimebag as the "guitar guy," and he knew Taylor as the "picture-taking kid."
"Whenever I saw him in the hall, we'd put our thumbs up like Fonzi and say, 'Heeeey'," Taylor says.
In '81, Dimebag's guitar playing blossomed into an unstoppable force when he received a copy of Ozzy Osbourne's Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman from a friend, which introduced him to Randy Rhoads. He mastered Rhoads' style of playing arpeggios, striking the notes of chords in sequence rather than simultaneously.
"Darrell puts himself into a room and comes out a protégé," Brown says. "He won every guitar contest, and they eventually had to kick him out."
Later that year, Dimebag formed Pantera with his brother Vinnie Paul on drums, Tommy Bradford on bass and Donnie Hart on vocals. According to Brown's autobiography, The Official Truth: The Inside Story of Pantera, the name, which is Spanish for "panther," was chosen because it sounded cool.
Bradford and Hart soon left the band, and the brothers picked up singer Terry Glaze. In '82, Dimebag called 17-year-old Brown and asked him to come to the studio to play bass on three songs that would later appear on their album Metal Magic. "Darrell just had a swagger about him," Brown says. "He did that 25-minute solo. We could have done that playing clubs in Dallas gigs, but we wanted something bigger."
"Their presentation in the club was so bad ass," recalls Rick Perry of Gammacide and Warlock. "They put on a professional performance and made every other band pick up their game. Darrell would play long solos for like 10 or 15 minutes. People wouldn't crowd the floor back then, and Darrell would run out there and stand on top of their tables and play Randy Rhoads or Eddie Van Halen."
Some people in the local scene would make fun of the guys' big hair and spandex, but no one could deny their talent as a cohesive metal machine. Dimebag was respected, but not just because of his guitar talent.
"Darrell was always a real good guy, always cracking jokes," Perry says. "He was the real deal, man. When he and I were alone [and] would have a conversation, he would listen to everything you said and remember that shit."
Despite their local success, Dimebag was getting bummed out about the direction Pantera was heading, explained Perry, who remembers smoking a joint with him in the parking lot of Savvy's, a local club, and Dimebag talking about sending audition tapes to Ozzy.
The band recorded four albums in the '80s, but it wasn't until Glaze was replaced by an 18-year old singer from New Orleans named Phil Anselmo that the band really hit its stride. His was a style full of emotion, one that comes from surviving in the underbelly of society, and it only took one night for the band to know he was the man for the job. Together, they would create one of the definitive metal albums of all time, Cowboys from Hell.
"Pantera kept metal alive in the '90s when so many bands didn't want to be called metal," says Perry. "They were the main metal band. [Hell, even] Metallica was wearing eyeliner and getting haircuts."
Pantera would release five albums and sell more than seven million copies with Anselmo. But eventually touring took its toll. "Touring as much as we did from 1982, the band didn't split up; it broke down," Brown says. "We hadn't taken a break. The strongest one of us all was Dime, and he kept the peace between all of us."
Even Dimebag couldn't save the band from itself.
In 2003, the band officially ended. Brown and Anselmo were playing together in Down, a heavy metal super group Anselmo formed in '91. Dimebag and Vinnie Paul formed Damageplan with vocalist Pat Lachman of Halford and Diesel Machine and eventual bassist Bob Zilla.
"Darrell was distraught over the band's breakup," Taylor says. "He worked one day in his life at a fast food place and said, 'Dude, I'm done.' He had a magical life."
In '04, Damageplan released its debut album New Found Power, a name the brothers had thought about giving the band. It debuted at No. 38 on Billboard 200.
On December 8, 2004, while the band was promoting the album, 25-year-old Nathan Gale stormed the stage at the Alrosa Villia, a small bar in Columbus, Ohio. It was about nine seconds into the band's first song, "New Found Power." Dimebag was headbanging when gunshots rang through the club.
Gale shot and killed Dimebag, 38, and three others - 23-year-old fan Nathan Bray, crew member Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, 40, and club employee Erin Halk, 29 - and wounded seven people before Officer James Niggemeyer shot and killed Gale.
Each year, on December 8, fans, musicians, friends and family remember Dimebag in their own special way. Thrashin' Alan of KNON's Hard Time Radio changes the name of his show to Dime Time Radio and dedicates four hours to nothing but music by Dimebag.
"I consider myself very fortunate to have called Dime 'Friend' and to have the avenue to pay homage to brother Dime and broadcast it to the masses who in their own way will forever miss Dime as much as I do," Thrashin' Alan said in an email interview.
Each year, thousands of fans head to the Moore Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Arlington where Dimebag is buried and pay respect to the man who saved metal. They leave whiskey and beer, guitar picks and etch their names into his tombstone.
Taylor remembers the years he and Dimebag spent together, conjuring images of debauchery and brotherhood. One memory that will forever stick with him was Dimebag laying down guitar tracks on Taylor's band's debut album. It was one of Dimebag's last recordings.
"One night Darrell called me," Taylor said, "and we go to the studio. He puts in the CD [with his tracks recorded on it], and I start crying like a motherfucker. It was a pretty big deal. I've been homeless and a drug addict. It was a blessing."
Dimebag told him, "Stuart, man, you've had a rough life. You deserve a fucking break." But Dimebag got paranoid after he recorded the tracks, Taylor explained, and asked him to credit him as "Drunkbag Darrell" instead of "Dimebag."
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Brown wrote in his biography that he and Dimebag had made peace or, at least, were "on the same page regarding what we hoped for in the future." But his childhood friend's death "left an undeniable imprint on every second of my life since then."
"He's in our memories," Brown says now. "That's where you live."
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