The former music editor for the Dallas Observer was just another Texas teen when metal rockers Pantera emerged from Arlington in the nineties and went on to sell millions of records and concert tickets worldwide. In BLACK TOOTH GRIN: THE HIGH LIFE, GOOD TIMES, AND TRAGIC END OF “DIMEBAG” DARRELL ABBOTT, he captures the essence of the band’s virtuoso guitarist, who was revered by musicians and fans alike for his outrageous skills and everyman persona—and who, in December 2004, was brutally murdered by a deranged fan at a concert in Columbus, Ohio. Crain, who has written for Spin and Esquire, is currently a senior editor at D Magazine.
Rock bands, like superheroes, have origin myths. What is Pantera’s?
There are two legends. The first: Vince Abbott came home from high school with a tuba, and his dad, Jerry, a country musician, songwriter, and producer, told him he’d never make a nickel with that thing. So he traded it in for drums. Pretty soon some kids needed a drummer for their band. Vince told them he’d join, but only if they let his little brother, Darrell, in as well, on guitar. Even though Darrell couldn’t really play. And that’s the second legend: Darrell locked himself in his room—for six weeks or six months, depending on who you believe—and when he came out, he was, you know, Dimebag Darrell. “He could play like he could play,” they say.
How did the band change when it made the leap from regional clubs to national arenas?
By then, they had come into their own musically, arriving at a sound perfectly summed up by their first major-label record, Cowboys From Hell: hard and fast and, in many ways, Texan. This made their shows less about lights and explosions, though they were still spectacles. Pantera concerts were notorious for having the biggest, craziest mosh pits. A lot of bands tried to court the modern rock audience, but Pantera never did.
What about the Dimebag nickname?
Darrell’s stage name was “Diamond” Darrell, but his friends turned it around and called him Dimebag, a play on the fact that he wouldn’t keep more weed around than he could get rid of that day. He was paranoid about getting busted and losing his career.
Did Darrell and the band deserve their populist reputation?
Absolutely. When I covered Darrell’s memorial service, everyone had a story about hanging out with him, doing shots with him, running into him at Costco. A lot of musicians who reach that level you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with, but Darrell was the exception.
As for his onstage murder, what happened?
Watching the tape of the shooting—which was caught by the band’s own camera—it’s unnerving to see how the killer, Nathan Gale, had a clear path to Darrell, who had his head down, oblivious to everything but his guitar. No one will ever know for sure why it happened, because Gale didn’t leave a note or any real clues. [He was killed by a police officer at the scene.] He had enough ammunition to shoot his way out of there, and I think that’s what he intended to do.
Lubbock has a Buddy Holly statue, and Austin has a Stevie Ray Vaughan statue. Was Darrell too far outside the mainstream to receive that kind of recognition?
Probably so. Maybe Arlington would do it eventually, but I imagine a church group or family organization making a stink, based on song titles or his nickname or something. It’s too bad, because there’s not a ton of successful people from Arlington who are proud of it and never left, you know? He was just a damned interesting guy, unique to the core, a character. Like Yosemite Sam come to life with a guitar instead of six-shooters. DaCapo, $15.95