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Black Tooth Grin The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of Book

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Overview: Black Tooth Grin is the first biography of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, the Texas-bred guitarist of the heavy metal band Pantera, who was murdered onstage in 2004 by a deranged fan—24 years to the day after John Lennon met a similar fate.


Darrell Abbott began as a Kiss-inspired teenage prodigy who won dozens of local talent contests. With his brother, drummer Vinnie Abbott, he formed Pantera, becoming one of the most popular bands of the ’90s and selling millions of albums to an intensely devoted fan base. While the band’s music was aggressive, “Dime” was outgoing, gregarious, and adored by everyone who knew him.

From Pantera’s heyday to their implosion following singer Phil Anselmo’s heroin addiction to Darrell’s tragic end, Black Tooth Grin is a moving portrait of a great artist. 


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Black Tooth Grin The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of Book Read Online Chapter One


AND THE CRADLE WILL ROCK

Born Country and Western, Raised Heavy Metal

“A lot of guitar players come up to me and say Alive! is their rock ‘n’ roll bible. That’s how they learned to play guitar, which I find flattering.”

003

ACE FREHLEY,

KISS: Behind the Mask

In the case of Darrell Lance Abbott, it happened exactly as it was supposed to. He was born to be a musician; he wanted to become a musician; he became a musician. He was a textbook case, even if nothing else about him—his dyed-red billy-goat beard, his inked-up body, his long kinky hair, his sailor’s mouth, his choice of profession—exactly screamed academia.

It started, like most things do, with his family. Darrell got the talent from his father. By the time Darrell came along on August 20, 1966, Jerry Abbott was already a one-stop shop. Jerry was a skilled songwriter, could play just about anything that made a noise, and also knew his way around a recording studio. “He would do these country tracks for people, and he played piano,” says Jerry Hudson, who worked as a recording engineer at Pantego Sound Studio with Abbott. “He got me basically to just watch the machine. He’d set it up and I’d watch levels for him. Once he got the rhythm track, he’d come in and he’d take over. He’d overdub acoustics and stuff, and we’d work together on that. . . . Him and Charles Stewart were songwriting partners, and they had some chart hits. He didn’t have any No. 1s or anything, but they charted songs with Danny Wood. Buck [Owens] and Emmylou [Harris] recorded one of their songs [“Together Again,” a country chart hit in 1979, also memorably covered by ex-Screaming Trees front man Mark Lanegan].” That Jerry Abbott didn’t make it in the music business before his sons did had more to do with timing than ability. Because he had a family to support, Jerry didn’t have a chance to pursue his country music dreams until later, when Darrell and Vince’s success allowed him to leave Arlington, Texas, behind for Nashville, where he set up Abtrax Studio and sold some songs.

Prior to Darrell’s arrival, Jerry had already passed his gifts along to his oldest son, Vincent Paul, born two years before Darrell (on March 11, 1964) when the family lived in Abilene. Vince—as he was known growing up, and as he’s still known to his oldest friends; in the music industry, most know him as Vinnie Paul—would choose a different instrument than his younger brother, but his choice of drums made him a perfect jamming partner for Darrell. It also conveniently aped the bandmate/brother dynamic earlier set forth by Alex and Eddie Van Halen, whom the Abbott boys modeled themselves after from the very beginning. Beyond his natural musical ability, Vince also inherited Jerry’s knack for recording, which would come in handy later, when Darrell was searching for the guitar sound that would ultimately launch a thousand picks.

From his mother, Carolyn, Darrell received something even more important than a music gene and a fairly easy entrance into the business: unconditional love. Carolyn and Jerry divorced in 1979 after almost seventeen years of marriage, but Carolyn made sure Vince and Darrell had a stable home life. By all accounts, she was the kind of mother that usually exists only on very special episodes of Oprah; Carolyn didn’t care what her boys did as long as it made them happy. That’s what made her happy. That’s probably why they kept living with her long after they could afford houses of their own. In fact, they kept living with her when they could have bought a few houses of their own. They were mama’s boys, and proud of it.

“Every time Darrell came home from a tour, he paid his mom’s credit cards off,” says Kitty Webster with a laugh. She worked with Carolyn until 1990, and her sons, Buddy and Ken, were friends with Darrell and Vince. “Because she liked to shop and buy jewelry and stuff. He always came home and cleaned up her credit cards.”

“She was fantastic,” says Buddy Webster, known in the music industry as Buddy Blaze.

She was a foreman in a factory and worked a normal eight-to-five job, or whatever you would call it. To me, from somebody somewhat on the inside looking at the whole picture, Pantera [and its success] without Carolyn Abbott, I don’t know how it could have happened. That house was a band house, from the time that Darrell was, like, in the ninth or tenth grade. There would be fifty people at the house and she’d let it happen. She loved her kids and she supported them. And obviously, Darrell and Pantera were doing pretty darn good. They [eventually] reached enough success that they could do things like buy her cars and things, kind of pay her back. I don’t know how they would have done it without her. Because a lot of parents would have said, “Get the hell out,” and that kind of forces people to figure out how they’re going to eat. They had a roof over their heads and they were able to eat regardless of what they did. I think they were really blessed to have a mom like Carolyn.

Even though they were blessed with the right parents to facilitate a career in music, that didn’t necessarily mean Vince and Darrell would pursue one. That they did had as much to do with where they lived as it did with whom they lived with.

 


ARLINGTON, TEXAS, is a small town made big (population just over three hundred thousand) by its proximity to two of the state’s largest cities, Dallas and Fort Worth. It hangs in a hammock between the two, suspended by the dual highways, Interstates 20 and 30, cutting through it.

It’s fitting that the Abbotts hail from Arlington, since the city’s reputation, what there is of it, is based on fun and games. It’s the home of North Texas’s only real amusement park, Six Flags over Texas (the older brother in the Six Flags chain), as well as Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which houses baseball’s Texas Rangers. The venerable Dallas Cowboys are currently building a state-of-the-art new stadium there and will move in before the 2009 season. Other than that, there isn’t much to recommend Arlington. It’s a sea of strip malls known most for being the city one passes through on the way to Fort Worth or Dallas.

While Arlington isn’t quite as cosmopolitan as its neighbors to the east and west, it shares with them an abiding love for hard rock and heavy metal. North Texas has a long history as a heavy music outpost, thanks largely to the Texxas Jam,1 an arena rock festival held at the Cotton Bowl every summer between 1978 and 1988. During its run, Texxas Jam hosted day-long, multiact shows featuring the likes of Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Boston, and Metallica long before Lollapalooza and Ozzfest and Coachella and Bonnaroo and dozens of other summer rock festivals existed. Vince Abbott was at the very first installment, on July 1, 1978, which boasted a lineup that included Cheech & Chong, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Eddie Money, Mahogany Rush, and, most important of all, Van Halen.

Given that musical climate, and the fact that their hometown didn’t have much else to offer, it’s easy to see why the Abbott boys decided to form their own band. It’s harder to understand why they didn’t leave Arlington behind as soon as they possibly could.

But Darrell stayed. Where he grew up is five minutes and a few miles from where he spent the rest of his days. Almost all the important events in his life happened within the same zip code.

The tour starts at Pantego Sound Studio, where Pantera recorded its first six albums, the first four with Jerry Abbott at the helm. There’s little chance one would come across Pantego Sound Studio unless it was the specific destination. Even then, it’s hard to find. Located at the ass-end of an industrial park that was probably frayed at the seams when it was brand-new, the tan brick building is completely hidden from view, the last stop before a dead-end street becomes a scraggly mess of trees. If potential visitors didn’t happen to notice the lonely mailbox jutting out from behind the fence corralling Cowboy Towing’s land of misfit cars, they wouldn’t even know there was a building there, much less the creation site of two of the most beloved metal albums of the past two decades.

Those albums made Darrell a rich man. Not obscenely rich, not like someone on MTV Cribs rubbing a chamois on his fleet of Ferraris, but he certainly never had to worry about having a little change in his pocket. Wealthy enough, certainly, that he could have easily moved away from that beaten-down industrial park and the studio hidden on a dead-end street. Yet Darrell’s home in Dalworthington Gardens, a tiny, tony suburb of Arlington, is just over a mile from Pantego.

The home itself isn’t ostentatious; it’s one of the more modest homes in the area. It’s gated, but other than its position at the bottom of a small rise, it’s not away from prying eyes. Had a fan hunted down his address while he was still alive, they would have had a good chance of spotting Darrell rambling around his property, heading out back to record maybe, or deciding where to ignite a fresh sack of M-80s and Roman candles.

“I told myself a long time ago that if I could ever afford to buy a house, I wanted to have a studio in the backyard, just like Edward Van Halen—my very own 5150,” Darrell told Guitar Player magazine in 2004. “So when I found this house . . . and saw the barn behind it, I knew I was set.”2

The path to get there began more than twenty years earlier, and less than two miles away, in the bedroom of his mother’s unassuming ranch house on Monterrey Street.

 


ACE FREHLEY stood in the middle of the bedroom, watching him watch himself in the mirror. His guitar was slung over his shoulder. His makeup was perfect. It was showtime. He only needed to ignore a few minor details, such as the fact that he was lacking the rest of the band, the audience, and the ability to actually play the thing hanging from his skinny frame, and, oh yeah, the reality that he wasn’t, technically speaking, Ace Frehley.

But that, of course, was inconsequential. So what if he wasn’t really Ace Frehley? So what if the rest of the band existed solely on the turntable, and the only audience was the mirror and the occasional family member who wandered by, wondering when Darrell Abbott was going to stop messing around, stop posing with his guitar and start learning how to play it? If he thought hard enough, and turned the music up loud enough, he really was making all that glorious noise on Alive!—right alongside Paul, Peter, and Gene. Really, weren’t KISS’s instruments more-or-less props anyway?

Posing was about all Darrell could handle at first. The guitar was practically bigger than he was, and roughly as heavy. Darrell was a stick figure with a pulse, the size and shape of a mike stand, a volcanic tangle of curly hair that tapered down to nothingness. It was more fun this way, and certainly easier. All he needed was face paint, a turntable, his guitar, and some imagination.

That was the full inventory of what Darrell required to be happy. He remained that same KISS fan the rest of his days. He had Frehley’s portrait and autograph tattooed on his chest, a blood oath that meant he was in it for the long haul. Years later, after he had blossomed into the rock god he dreamed of being in his boyhood bedroom, Darrell still thought nothing of jumping onstage and joining some nobody band to blaze through a cover of “Cold Gin,” while the audience—the band, too—looked on in disbelief. KISS came before his first kiss, and before his first love. (His first love: That happened when his dad gave him that cheap guitar.) Vince and Darrell were fans, and from the beginning they made sure their fandom was well known, as indelible as Darrell’s future tattoo.

“Back in our tape room [at Pantego]—it was all rough cedar, all finished out,” says Jerry Hudson. The boys would regularly come to work with their father. “They had drawn the KISS logo in black Magic Marker—and some of the made-up faces and stuff, too—on the wall. Even though it wasn’t my studio, I was kind of, like, ‘What’s the deal with that?’ And Jerry was just, like, ‘Ah, it’s just my kids.’”

Jerry Abbott never forced the boys to think of his studio as more than just a place for KISS graffiti. He never forced them to follow him into the music business; he knew firsthand that was a hard life. But Jerry never discouraged them either. If they wanted to follow his path and make music for a living (and all that entailed), he could at least point them in the right direction and help them hone the skills they’d need to survive. That’s why, when Vince came home from school with a tuba, Jerry bought him a drum kit. (“You’re never going to make a penny with that thing,” Jerry told Vince. “Take it back.”) That’s why, when Vince wouldn’t let Darrell get much time behind the drums and was already showing proof of Jerry’s genes, Jerry bought Darrell a Les Paul copy and a Pignose amp for his birthday.

In the mythology of Darrell and Pantera, that is the extent of Jerry Abbott’s role. In most versions, he provided his sons with the genes, a recording studio, some early managerial guidance, and that’s about it. As far as Darrell went, well, he was born to be a guitar hero. He didn’t have to learn to play so much as he had to decide to start playing. The skill, the story goes, was right there waiting. The legend is more-or-less a parallel to the Immaculate Conception: Darrell couldn’t play his guitar, and then, one day, he could. No one knows what really happened, just that Darrell and his guitar disappeared behind his bedroom door for six weeks (or six months, depending on whom you believe), and when he finally emerged, he wasn’t good—he was great. He was a Guitar World cover waiting to happen, only missing the nicknames and the attention. End of story.

This is true in a sense. Darrell did hide himself away in his bedroom, and he did figure out how to turn that Les Paul copy into a weapon, an ax in just about every way you could mean it. That is the Hollywood biopic version of the story, however, compressing the timeline and leaving out crucial characters. It neglects the messy business of learning, the fits and starts, the setbacks. It skips over the period when Jerry would learn KISS songs (and Van Halen and Judas Priest and more) so he could walk Darrell through them. Jerry didn’t much care for that kind of music. He was a C&W man, and always would be. But someone had to help Darrell learn how to play.

Had Jerry taught Darrell what he knew how to play rather than what his son wanted to learn, Darrell’s life might have gone in a different direction. Had the boys never strayed from their father’s record collection, Darrell would probably be the most sought-after session musician in Nashville right now, though his skills and personality might not have allowed him to remain behind closed doors. He might have gone on to become a country singer in the outlaw tradition—another Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson or, even better, David Allan Coe, a talented but underappreciated renegade, a hardcore troubadour acknowledged by a loyal cadre of fans (including Jerry and Carolyn Abbott) and an even more loyal faction of musicians.

Darrell and Vince found a different path, mapped out by the Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, KISS, and Van Halen albums that dominated their turntable. When Darrell was twelve years old and stumbled across the melody to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” by plucking individual notes on a single string, Jerry had to start listening to those albums, too.

“My dad showed me how to play a movable power chord shape, and that made the riff sound heavy as shit,” Darrell told Guitar World’s Nick Bowcott, who worked with Darrell on his “Riffer Madness” column for the magazine. “Being able to play a whole song is one of the most satisfying things when you’re learning to play guitar.”

Being able to play a whole song also allowed him to—finally—jam with Vince, who had been pestering him, leading the charge for Darrell to stop posing and start playing. That first day wasn’t much—five or six hours of nothing but “Smoke on the Water,” which is probably more than even the most ardent Deep Purple fan would want to hear in one sitting, showing anyone in ten words or less exactly how much Jerry and Carolyn Abbott loved their sons. But it got better. Between lessons from his father and jam sessions with his brother, Darrell’s repertoire expanded. Just as important, Darrell had regular access to the guitar players who came through his dad’s studio—Texas legends like Bugs Henderson, Ricky Lynn Gregg, Jimmy Wallace, and Rocky Athas. He would hit them up for pointers or, more often, stare at their fingers.

“His dad let him sit, actually, in the studio while we were recording,” Henderson says. Henderson recorded his 1981 album, Still Flyin’, at Pantego Sound, with Jerry Abbott producing. “He’d sit over by the piano, on the floor or something, and watch. Just kind of soak it up. His dad said he was starting to play guitar and he was just trying to learn everything he could and asked me if I minded him coming in. I said, ‘No, I don’t mind at all.’ He’d been around enough sessions to know to sit there and be still. Real nice kid. Real polite and respectful. He’d occasionally ask me something, but never any big deal. He was more interested in how I’d set the amp and stuff like that.”

If all that study didn’t translate exactly right when the guitar was in Darrell’s hands, sometimes that was even better. “I’d take it home, dick with it to see how many ways I could stretch it,” he would say later. “Doing that would always lead me into some new shit.”

 


FROM THAT first marathon version of “Smoke on the Water” on, Darrell and Vince Abbott were always a package deal. You wanted one, you got both, and if you didn’t like it, tough shit. The pattern was established from the beginning, in 1981, when a nascent version of Pantera was coming together.

Jerry knew from experience that a good drummer was rarely out of work for long. Vince learned quickly that was the truth when Terry Glaze, Tommy Bradford, and Donny Hart, three kids from school, were trying to start a band. They needed a drummer, and their list was one name long. Vince was Jerry and Carolyn Abbott’s original musical prodigy. Everyone knew Vince Abbott was the best drummer around. He was a standout in the drum corps and jazz band at Arlington’s James Bowie High School, and beginning to prove his father right that a drummer could go much farther than a tuba player. Vince agreed to drop by Glaze’s house after school so the four of them (Glaze on guitar, Bradford on bass, and Hart on vocals—mainly because he had his own PA system) could jam. It went well enough that Vince agreed to join the band, with one stipulation: His little brother Darrell would be coming on board as well, on guitar.

It was a tough sell, mainly because “he wasn’t very good,” Glaze says, somewhat sheepishly poking holes in the legend. “He had just started. He was a little skinny, scrawny dude. We’re in high school, and we don’t want us a young kid. We didn’t know.” He laughs. “We’re stupid.”

Almost a decade later, when Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine wanted Darrell to join his band, Darrell paid Vince back: He told Mustaine, “Sure, I’m in, as long as you’re planning to hire my brother to play drums.” The gambit may not have worked then, but it did in 1981; it was agreed that both Abbotts would join the group. With the brothers in the fold, the new band was ready to go. They called themselves Pantera, Spanish for “panther,” a name suggested by a friend “mainly because it sounded cool,” says Glaze. But that version of Pantera didn’t really go anywhere. Hart was the first out the door, replaced before it swung shut. “Donny came in one night when I was in singing,” Glaze says. “He was pissed that I was singing. And that’s when it turned into a four-piece.”3

Bradford didn’t last much longer; that summer, he decided he wanted try out for drum major in the school marching band, and he quit Pantera to focus on that goal. In one of the band’s early publicity bios, for their first album, Metal Magic, Bradford’s and Hart’s exit from Pantera was blamed on the fact that they were “both suffering from long-standing personal problems.” This may have been slightly tongue-in-cheek; later in the bio, the band describes being “discovered by Jerry Eld’n, a long-time record producer for Metal Magic Records” that signed the “bangers” to his label. Which is just a somewhat creative way of getting around the fact that the Abbotts’ father recorded Pantera’s album and issued it on the label he started solely for the purpose of releasing Pantera albums, something every young band does to plump up a lightweight résumé.

The band located Bradford’s replacement quickly, inviting a local kid named Rex Brown to Pantego Sound to test him out. Brown was, like Vince, a member of the jazz band at Bowie High and had been playing bass with another local group, Lance & the Brew Necks. When he left the studio that night, he was a member of Pantera.

Brown—who went by Rex Rocker during the band’s formative years, and later, for a time, just Rex—is perhaps the most overlooked member of Pantera, a fate typical of most bass players. Yet he would, over the years, come to be something of a heavy metal icon all his own. Part of the reason was that his underrated bass playing helped lay the foundation for the band’s trademark “power groove” sound. The other part was because Brown, as much as anyone who ever picked up the instrument, just looked like a heavy metal bassist, with long, stringy hair, goatee, and backward baseball cap. Brown was so identifiable in this role that in the 1994 movie Airheads, Steve Buscemi portrayed an almost carbon-copy version of Brown—a bassist for a struggling metal band who was named, perhaps not coincidentally, Rex.4 But in 1982, Brown was just another local kid who could play bass and got along well enough with the rest of the group.

About the same time, something more important happened: Darrell’s transformation as a guitar player, the result of the increasing amount of time he and his guitar spent hidden away from all outside distractions—including, on a regular basis, school. This period served as the genesis for Darrell’s infamous “loogie wall.” It was exactly what it sounds like. He would sit on his bed with his guitar and, every so often, lean back, hock up a load of phlegm, and spit it over his head against the wall. Even after he was good enough with his guitar to take his act outside the confines of his room, the wall regularly received a fresh coat. (Though, strictly speaking, “fresh” might not be the best word for it.)

Psychologists might look at this behavior and think they have an easy diagnosis. Most academic studies of heavy metal, most notably Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s Metalheads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation,5 typically talk about the music’s tendency to isolate its listeners from society, with all the attendant negative connotations. In Darrell’s case, the symptoms may have been the same, but the disease was not present. He wasn’t escaping from something in his bedroom. While his parents divorced in 1979, his family life was happy, and he didn’t have many concerns. No, when Darrell shut himself off in his room, he was escaping into something, a joyful place that just happened to be built—especially later—out of something that sounded a lot like pain. He wasn’t distancing himself from the world. He was joining it. By the time those bedroom sessions were over, he was already there.

“When he came out, he could play, like, ‘Eruption’ and ‘Crazy Train,’” Glaze says. “I mean he just morphed over the six-month period. Before that, we shared lead guitar. But pretty quickly, I backed into rhythm guitar. The funny part was that’s all I really wanted to do. I always wanted to be the singer-songwriter, play a G chord, and do that. That’s all I wanted to do.”

Glaze had to, at least temporarily, set aside his hopes of being a songwriter. Pantera was birthed into a Dallas-Fort Worth area club scene that had little use for original material. Pantera and the other bands making the rounds would work in one or two of their own songs on occasion, if the set was long enough, but cover tunes were the order of the day: KISS, Van Halen, Ozzy, and whatever else was popular on the radio at the time. Pantera would quickly pick up a following because they were better at the routine than most. It helped that they had a budding virtuoso in their midst.

“Darrell was just like a natural,” says Tommy Snellings, Brown’s high school best friend and a member of Pantera’s crew until the late 1980s. “They always amazed me because they could pick out any song. There would be a new song come on the radio. They would listen to it two or three times and go out and play it. It just amazed me. I was still trying to figure out what the lyrics said. They had such an ear for it. They were just naturals.”

By the end of 1982, the first “real” incarnation of Pantera had solidified, and it played its first gig together at a now-defunct club in Dallas called the Ritz. Snellings was there that night with his camera. He worked at a Fotomat in Arlington and lined up jobs for the members of the band there. He usually had a camera with him. That fact, along with his status as a card-carrying pack rat, has made Snellings something of an unofficial historian of Pantera’s early days. At his home in south Arlington, Snellings has a dozen or so photo albums devoted to his time with the band, not to mention a few boxes crammed with the rock-and-roll ephemera he accumulated along the way, including a pair of Darrell’s impossibly tiny magenta spandex pants. When he digs out his photos from the Ritz, they bear out at least a portion of the Darrell Abbott legend: He was born for the stage. No noticeable nightclub jitters are present in any of the photos. Just a skinny kid who looks like he’s already found his home. 



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