In the fall of 2008, I began an internship at mainstream metal behemoth Revolver Magazine. My first assignment: review every back issue and compile the best of Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul’s advice column.
Initially, I was ready for this assignment to suck. It wasn’t that I disliked Pantera; quite the opposite, I fucking loved Pantera, and I didn’t even mind that Damageplan record that much. It was just that since Pantera’s dissolution and the tragic death of guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbot, fans had fallen on either side—either you were in Camp Phil or Camp Vinnie. I was hard Camp Phil.
Pantera’s appeal is two-pronged. On the one side is total classic metal worship, all leather and steer skulls and fist-pumping choruses–which is rad, but also kind of lame and stereotypical. On the other side is the troubled American dirtbag psyche, seething with topics like drug use, mental illness, observational social commentary, and a vague sense of seething, uncontrollable rage that can be awakened at the first sign of disrespect–which is killer, but also pretty silly and humorless.
Vinnie Paul and vocalist Phil Anselmo embodied those two poles within Pantera. Vinnie was all about Van Halen and Kiss, and courted a whiskey-lovin’ stripper-tippin’ good ol’ boy image. Phil was the dark weirdo in the Venom shirt who felt misunderstood and dwelt in a haze of weed, pills, and obscure death metal.
And between Phil’s harsh reality and Vinnie’s idealized Metal Heaven was Darrell, Vinnie’s brother and unhinged guitar virtuosos, who became a perfect amalgamation of those two aesthetics (Rex played bass). As Pantera grew into the dark, nuanced groove metal sound that fully emerged on 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power and peaked with 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill , Darrell’s nickname changed from “Diamond” to “Dimebag” and his guitar sound mutated from a chug to a roar, but he always maintained a carefree sense of humor that he shared with his brother.
Then, some years after the band split up due to creative differences and the Abbott brothers were touring with their new band Damageplan, Darrell was senselessly murdered onstage. And with the possibility of a Pantera reunion gone, and the embodiment of Pantera’s perfect middle ground taken from them, fans began to quantify why they listened to Pantera.
These camps weren’t even actual sides, because it felt small and awful to take sides after such a tragedy; these were just about your reasons for liking Pantera’s music. Camp Vinnie fans explained that they never really cared for the bleak lyrics, and really just enjoyed the band for their heaviness and power. Camp Phil fans made it very clear that they thought the sleazy classic metal posturing of Pantera was immature bullshit, but they loved the roiling turmoil at the heart of albums like Trendkill.
These days, Pantera’s legacy is bittersweet and fucked, in part because of the attitudes of both of these figures. Phil threw the ‘Heil’ and screamed, “WHITE POWER!” on camera at a concert honoring Dimebag’s legacy, thus validating a long history of mumbled racism claims and making “Camp Phil” the most undesired allegiance in metal. And Vinnie Paul, for his part, came out against his merch company no longer selling Pantera merch with the Confederate flag on it. Pantera’s history as an ultra-genuine modern metal band has become mired in the South’s ugly past and a new generation of metalheads who aren’t interested in humoring that sort of racist bullshit anymore.
But in 2008, I was totally uninterested in Camp Vinnie, because I had always been the dark outsider. I was all about listening to the ugliest, weirdest shit I could find, and was obsessed with metal outcasts like Dave Wyndorf and Will Rahmer. In my mind, the biggest arena bands and the smallest underground acts were operating on the same level, and to choose one over the other based on the size of their fanbase was as false as it got (I still remember my open-mouthed outrage when a Revolver editor once said to me, “Yeah, but who gives a shit about what Nifelheim thinks?”)
In short, I was a twenty-something headbanger who felt like he needed to prove himself, and having, grown up reading Revolver—hey, they covered Emperor and Opeth—I knew what I was in for with Vinnie Paul’s column: good-timey country boy bullshit with too many exclamation points and a lot of talk about getting laid. So I wasn’t all that psyched about this assignment.
For two weeks, I pored over every issue of Revolver and read every ‘Ask Vinnie Paul’ column in existence.
And I loved it. I laughed my fucking ass off. I pumped my fist.
It wasn’t that Vinnie Paul’s advice was great, which it usually wasn’t, or that he was unpredictably poetic, which, boy, was he not. It’s that I identified with the flippant, goofy voice that Vinnie took in responding to the trials and tribulations of typical metalheads going through typical things. When a reader asked Vinnie what to do with the huge boner he got whenever Pantera went onstage, and Vinnie replied, “SHOW IT TO THE CROWD!!!”, I thought, That is the greatest piece of advice anyone has ever been given.
None of this surprised me, because as a metalhead writer, I had Vinnie’s biography pretty well memorized. In real life, Vinnie Paul wasn’t entirely a stereotype—you have to imagine a guy who kept playing music after his brother was killed in front of him is more than just a cowboy hat—though he did a good job of playing one. He owned and managed several thriving Texan strip clubs, which made him one of the few big-name metal stars who made a lot of his money offstage. Vinnie also became one of metal’s most public faces, hamming it up for awards show promos and guest-starring in Pantera parodies. All the while, his final band, Hellyeah! (which was comprised of him and former members of nu-metal heavyweights like Nothingface and Mudvayne), toured relentlessly, churning out toned-down groove metal that sounded, unsurprisingly, like Pantera without a dark side.
So, while reading Vinnie Paul’s advice column, I certainly wanted to roll my eyes in contempt—and occasionally, I did, because Vinnie’s answers never meant anything. Even when Vinnie gave the occasional piece of constructive advice on cheating significant others or brutal hangovers, his responses were exactly the type of working-for-the-weekend party metal throwaway lines that I was expecting.
But what I discovered is that secretly, some part of me related to that. It was as though Vinnie Paul could read my mind I was a drink and a half deep at the bar and had nothing going on the next day. I missed that moment when religion and politics are momentarily put to rest, “I’m The One” comes on the jukebox, and some huge dude with stylized sideburns sidles up next to me, shouting, “We’re doing shots! You want a shot?”
To a lot of metalheads, that was Vinnie Paul. He was more than just a drummer, he was a fun-loving elder statesman, like Fezziwig, Scrooge’s rambunctious boss from A Christmas Carol. Vinnie represented the kind of dude who was there when all you wanted to do was leave your baggage at the door, get a little fucked up, and crack some dirty jokes. He represented the side of all of us that’s sometimes weary of the fight, and just wants to cut loose, talk shit, and have fun. He was a living avatar for every time the dudes from Immortal sang ABBA at a karaoke bar.
As metalheads, that part of ourselves gets harder to connect with every day, and for good reasons. Given the climate of the world, and especially modern America, the fight should be a priority, because the stakes are so high. The Confederate flag has a fucked-up legacy, and glossing over that in the name of selling merch isn’t cool no matter how many ways you slice it. We have to acknowledge that even the most awesome of the metal gods can be backward, outdated, or just plain wrong. Without progress, there would be no thrash, no grindcore, no doom. If it doesn’t get better, metal will die on the vine.
But at the same time, there’s something to be said for the hilarious release that’s always been a part of heavy metal. For metal to be interesting and enjoyable, it needs that positive catharsis. Hell, Pantera needed it: without Vinnie, Pantera would’ve been an endless bummer, all grunting and grinding and lamenting over pills, just like it would’ve been all spandex and airbrushed van art without Phil’s darkness. Instead, Pantera occupied that brilliant middle ground where you could give the world the finger, but do so with a smile on your face instead of a scowl.
With Vinnie Paul’s death Friday night, the metal community was reminded that all parties are gonna end. But it also reminded us to momentarily let down our guard, rally those we love around the campfires of our lives, and pass the bottle. The war will be there in the morning, and it’ll be worse than ever, but for now, we can have a little fun. Because if we can’t do that, what are we fighting for?
Chris Krovatin is crying into his Black Tooth Grins on Instagram .