by BJW Nashe
When “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, who gained fame in the 1990s as a groove-metal guitarist for the band Pantera, was killed in 2004, many of us found the news hard to take. Rock stars are notoriously prone to early death. They overdose, wreck cars, die in plane crashes, hang themselves, hold guns to their heads, jump out of windows. Not Dimebag. He seemed indestructible — a force of nature, a highly talented musician whose outlook and productivity showed no hint of looming disaster. Nevertheless, fate dealt Dimebag a tragic blow one cold December night, when he was inexplicably shot and killed onstage while performing with his band Damageplan in Columbus, Ohio.
Prodigy. Darrell Lance Abbott was born on August 20, 1966 in Ennis, Texas. His father, a country musician and record producer, bought young Darrell his first guitar, a Hondo Les Paul, when he was thirteen. Darrell was soon winning local guitar competitions. He and the instrument seemed made for each other. In 1981, Abbott formed the band Pantera with his brother Vinnie Paul on drums. The band gained a following in the heavy metal scene, opening for large acts such as Slayer, Metallica, and Motorhead. Abbott soon drew attention for his expressive guitar work. He played monster metal riffs laced with blues licks; he used specific effects and tunings to tailor an individual sound; his solos could range from screaming rage to soaring melodies. Initially, he used the nickname “Diamond Darrell.” Later, as the band became more successful, he became known worldwide as Dimebag.
Cowboys from Hell. Pantera’s major label breakthrough album was Cowboys from Hell in 1990. Vulgar Display of Power was even more successful in 1992. The band had refined its “groove-metal” sound, which took heavy metal into a more musical direction, but sacrificed none of the power and rage. I remember seeing Pantera play in San Francisco around this time; the band was incredibly heavy yet undeniably soulful. Dimebag was clearly a guitar virtuoso at this point. He had managed to combine ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, and Slayer into his own wicked style of attack. Dimebag’s guitar didn’t just roar; it grooved and jammed and writhed around in between notes. He was the John Coltrane of heavy metal. His riffs sounded like Godzilla taking a stroll down the block.
Pantera went on to sell over twenty million records. In the mid-nineties, however, the band was plagued by lead singer Phil Anselmo’s drug addiction. Music was more important to Dimebag than a rock star party-lifestyle. Though far from a tee-totaller, he had no interest in heroin dependency. He took time off from Pantera to collaborate with numerous musicians, appearing on tracks by Anthrax, King Diamond, and Nickelback, among others. Dimebag’s unique solos were a prized commodity in the world of metal, always capable of lending fluid dynamics and depth and texture to any track. He also took time to explore his country roots, playing with local musicians from the Dallas area.
Damageplan. On indefinite hiatus from Pantera, in 2001 Dimebag and his brother Vinnie formed the band Damageplan in order to continue on in the groove-metal vein. With former Halford guitarist Pat Lachman on vocals, and Bob Zilla on bass, Damageplan released its debut album, New Found Power, on February 10, 2004. The record debuted at number 38 on the Billboard 200, selling 44,676 copies in its first week. By all accounts, Dimebag was excited by the new lineup, and looked forward to taking the show on the road.
Death Onstage. Damageplan was scheduled to play at the Alrosa Villa nightclub in Columbus, Ohio on December 8, 2004. Three opening bands were also on the bill. A crowd of just 250 people showed up for the gig, well short of the venue’s capacity of 600. While the opening bands thundered away inside, outside a man named Nathan Gale was hanging around in the parking lot. Gale was a six foot three inch, 250 pound construction worker from Marysville, Ohio. He was reportedly wearing thick glasses and a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey jersey over a hooded sweat shirt.
When someone asked him why he wasn’t inside enjoying the show, Gale replied that he didn’t care about any local bands; he was waiting for Damageplan. Club manager Rick Cautela thought Gale was a harmless hanger-on who didn’t have a ticket, or couldn’t afford one:
“He was just a crazy fan trying to talk to members of the band,” Cautela said. “One of my guys who helps to set up the bands eventually told him to leave.” Unfortunately, Gale had his own sick plans for Damageplan.
According to a Rolling Stone story from December 30, 2004:
“… as Damageplan took the stage, Gale jumped a six-foot-high fence and rushed into the club through a side door. Walking swiftly past pool tables, a bar and the sound booth, he reached the left side of the stage. Witnesses thought Gale, whose head was shaved, wanted to stage-dive. It was about ninety seconds into the first song of the set, Damageplan’s new single, ‘New Found Power.’
“‘The dude was way determined,’ said Billy Payne, the singer for Volume Dealer, who saw Gale enter the club. ‘He was on a mission. He looked angry. He was walking like he was going into battle.’
“Onstage, Gale drew a Beretta 9mm handgun and headed straight for Abbott. Joe Dameron, bass player for Volume Dealer, thought Gale shouted something about Pantera, but he wasn’t sure. ‘With the feedback, I didn’t hear what he said,’ Dameron said. ‘I saw him open his mouth to yell something, but I don’t know what it was. He just looked determined.’ Gale shot Abbott – who was headbanging, his hair in his face – at least once in the forehead. ‘Dime was doing his thing,’ said Aaron Benner, a fan who was standing nearby. ‘He gets really into it, so he was blindsided.’
“Cautela, who was tending bar, thought firecrackers had gone off. Others figured the speakers had popped or somebody had fired a cap gun. ‘I thought they were playing a big gimmick,’ said Ryan Melchiore, who was working security. ‘People were pumping their fists, thinking it was a hoax.’ Cautela kept pouring drinks.
“The music stopped; drummer Vinnie Abbott, Darrell’s brother, stood up behind his kit. Abbott’s guitar began to emit feedback in a high-pitched shriek.
“A security guard tackled Gale, who continued to shoot into the crowd. One bullet grazed the arm of a Volume Dealer roadie, Travis Burnett, a burly former soldier who dropped his beer and ran toward the stage to try and disarm the shooter. ‘I asked him, Dude, what the fuck are you doing?’ Burnett said. ‘He was like, Get out of here, get away. As I went to grab him, he shot at me. The bullet went through my shirt, and I didn’t even feel it.’
“Darrell Abbott lay on the stage, bleeding from his head. While most fans fled, one concertgoer, Mindy Reece, a registered nurse from Columbus, rushed forward. ‘I said, Fuck this, I’m a nurse,’ said Reece. ‘He needs help.‘I did chest compressions for fifteen to twenty minutes. I kept saying, Dimebag, come on, come on, please, stay with me.’ Abbott was near death by the time paramedics arrived.
“From the backstage area, Officer James Niggemeyer appeared, carrying a twelve-gauge Remington shotgun. He walked past a stack of amplifiers and saw Gale, who had taken a male hostage. Holding his gun to the unidentified man’s head, Gale began moving toward the rear of the club. From twenty feet away, Niggemeyer fired once, killing Gale.
“Nathan Gale, according to people in Marysville, was troubled, but not prone to violence. He enlisted in the Marines in 2002 but left the Corps, for as yet unknown reasons, eighteen months later. He worked on construction sites; in an oil-change shop, Minit Lube; and as a landscaper. Gale also played offensive guard for Lima Thunder, a local semipro football team. On the team bus, Gale could often be found with his headphones on, listening to Pantera.
“On November 17th, at 3:20 A.M., police arrested Gale for driving with a suspended license. By then, friends told the Columbus Dispatch, Gale had changed; he’d begun talking and laughing to himself. He told a friend that Pantera had stolen his songs and that he was going to sue them.
“Lucas Bender, manager of Bear’s Den Tattoo in Marysville, across the street from Gale’s house, said Gale was a frequent visitor. ‘He got a tattoo on his right or left forearm, a big custom-design tribal,’ said Bender. ‘He also got his ear pierced about a week or two ago. He came in on a daily basis. I tried to keep him away from the clientele; he kind of gave everyone a weird impression.’
“Bender said Gale told him he’d left the Marines due to mental problems, was taking medication and may have been bipolar. ‘Nathan was infatuated with guitarists,’ said Bender. ‘One of our tattoo artists plays guitar, and Nathan started trying to hang out with him.’
“As police officers and detectives flooded the Alrosa Villa on December 8th, Vinnie Abbott escaped into the Damageplan tour bus. He climbed into Dimebag’s bunk and wept.”
The inside of the convention center was filled with flowers and oversized magazine covers featuring Dimebag, according to The Dallas Morning News. Among the musicians on hand to pay tribute were guitarists Zakk Wylde and Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains, as well as members of Pantera and Slipknot.
Eddie Van Halen, a good friend of Dimebag, had earlier placed his original black with yellow stripes guitar (commonly called “bumblebee”) into the Kiss Kasket Abbott was buried in. A copy of the guitar, designed in Dimebag’s favorite color combination, was crafted by Van Halen as a gift several months before his untimely death. However, upon hearing of the shooting, he offered to place the original guitar in the casket. Dimebag’s brother Vinnie was quoted as saying, “If he had known he would be buried with this guitar, he would have said ‘shoot me now!’”
In a stunning display of ignorance and bad taste, a man named William Grim outraged the metal community when he wrote an article for the web site Iconoclast titled, “Aesthetics of Hate: R.I.P. Dimebag Abbott, & Good Riddance.” In the piece, Grim claimed that Dimebag was “part of a generation that has confused sputum with art and involuntary reflex actions with emotion,” “an ignorant, barbaric, untalented possessor of a guitar” who looks “more simian than human.”
In retaliation, Rob Flynn, vocalist and guitarist for the stellar metal band Machine Head, wrote a song called, “Aesthetics of Hate.” The track is a glorious eruption of speed and fury. “Aesthetics of Hate” received a nomination for Best Metal Performance at the 50th Grammy Awards in 2008.
Just 38 years old when he was senselessly gunned down onstage, Dimebag Darrell is now widely recognized as one of the most influential hard rock/metal guitarists of all time, alongside such luminaries as Tony Iommi, Eddie Van Halen, and Randy Rhoades. He is also considered by all who knew him as one of the finest people you could find working in the tumultuous, ego-driven music business.
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