It was a Wednesday morning in the summer of 1987 when Dimebag Darrell Abbott phoned Phil Anselmo at home in New Orleans to offer him the job as Pantera’s new vocalist. “He said ‘Hey man, we’ve got a gig. You wanna come do it?’” the singer recalls. “I didn’t hesitate. Two days later we were onstage together in Shreveport, Louisiana. And the rest is history.”
Anselmo had met Dimebag, his brother Vinnie and their buddy Rex Brown for the first time just 48 hours earlier. The brothers had stumped up for a plane ticket for the 19-year-old singer to come to Dallas to try out for their band, which had lost momentum since the departure of original vocalist Terry Glaze. Four or five local singers had taken a shot at fronting Pantera in the interim months, none to the satisfaction of the band’s guitarist and drummer. Anselmo, however, clicked immediately.
“That first day together was a little intimidating,” he recalls. “They were older than me, and much more experienced. Once we started jamming it was very clear to me that this was absolutely the tightest band I’d played with in my life. I was kinda in awe. But I did my best and I guess there was some magic in the air. Maybe some metal magic in the air, pun intended.”
Phil moved to Dallas days later, taking up residence with Rex Brown and his friends, “a bunch of wild, crazy Texans, who were also fucking sweethearts.” Within two weeks he was in the studio with his new band, working on what would become the group’s fourth album, Power Metal. The singer recalls his new bandmates being “perfectionists, super professional” but it was obvious to him that guitarist Dimebag was the leader: “he had this interesting power over the group,” he recalls.
“I’m not so sure that he was ready for the strong personality that I brought to the band,” Phil says with a dry laugh. “I for sure was not prepared for his strong personality. We had a lot in common, and we were both leaders, so to speak. I was very determined to take these guys with this incredible fucking talent and make them hip to where heavy metal was going. But there was some friction getting to that point.”
Tensions between the young singer and the band’s guitarist, two years his senior, quickly came to a head, with Anselmo confronting the older man backstage in between sets one night, resulting in what he now remembers as “a huge fight.”
“I had to put my foot down,” says Phil. “I told him ‘I don’t feel any brotherhood here.
I see one dude who keeps bragging about being the youngest guy in Texas to win some guitar contests, and I don’t give a fuck about any of that. A band is supposed to be a unit, it’s supposed to be a brotherhood.’”
“To his credit, Dimebag did not fight me on this issue, he bought into what I was saying. And that showed me right there and then what kind of character Dimebag had. I remember being super impressed with the fact that he actually listened to me. And from that point on, Pantera was a democracy. It was a matter of him trusting me to be the band’s focal point. Once he understood me, and I understood him, that’s when the real work began. We learned from each other, and grew together.”
Asked for his memories of Dimebag in those earliest days, Phil Anselmo chuckles and says “Getting to know Dimebag back then was like learning a different language completely. The dude had his own language. He’d say things like ‘Go do a dance and blow past the grid iron and go grab me a goddamn cold steak!’ and I’d be like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ Luckily I had Rex there to decipher the code for me, but that was a challenge right there. But once I got to know the Dimebag-isms, I started to feel like I was part of the club. And that felt pretty good.”
Pantera’s success in taking heavy metal by the scruff of the neck and dragging it into the new decade has been well documented: at one point they were quite simply the best and most important metal band on the planet. As talks turns to the 10th anniversary of Dimebag’s death, Phil Anselmo becomes solemn, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. His answer as to how he will mark a decade without his friend is heartfelt and sincere.
“Listen, man,” he begins, “there will be a never be a day that I celebrate the death of my guitar player. Every fucking year that goes by, it gets worse and worse and worse and it becomes tougher and tougher to realise that one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in this world, one of the most talented men I’ve ever worked with, has gone. When I look out at the heavy metal landscape and think about what could have been, and could be, it’s crushing, and it doesn’t get any fucking easier. It rips my heart in half every fucking year.”
As time is called on our conversation, Anselmo returns to the topic once more, his voice shaking with emotion.
“Write something beautiful, brother,” he says. “Dimebag is a person that I think about every day of my life. I have pictures of him all over my house and there’s not a second that goes by that I’m not thinking about him. He was a credit not only to heavy metal, but to humanity: he was a fantastic person and a great comrade. My love for him is eternal.”