The Writing Disorder


jj anselmi



Living Through Pantera

by J.J. Anselmi

      Sitting in our living room, watching TV, anxiety crawled into my throat when my dad’s truck pulled into the driveway, gravel popping underneath his truck’s tires. He slammed the front door. Wine glasses in the china cabinet, next to the front door, rattled. He dropped his keys into the key basket. I knew that he had another shitty day reading electric meters. I waited for him to walk into the living room.
      “Did you find a job today?” He shut off the TV. He filled the room.
      “I was going to pick up a few applications,” I said, “but I ended up riding my bike at the skate park.”
      “Goddamnit, son. It’s always the same shit. Every day. You need to find a job and start trying harder in school.” His harshness reminded me of the way my God-fearing grandpa talked to my dad and me.
      I told him I didn’t want another bullshit job like the maintenance job I’d been doing for my uncle. I had recently quit working for my dad’s brother, at the hotel my grandpa built, which my uncle now ran. I worked there for two years. Thoughts I wanted to escape were encapsulated in that hotel. Seeing how blue-collar labor affected my dad made me not want to get another job. But I didn’t say any of this to him.
      “What are you going to do for money?” His voice was louder.
      “I’ll just get a paper route or work at McDonald’s or some shit.”
      “That’s another thing. You need to clean up your language. I don’t want to hear you cussing anymore.” He sighed. “You need to have a better attitude, son.” Gravel laced his voice. Hearing the amount of cuss words that came out of his mouth every day, it seemed ludicrous that he would tell me to stop cussing. Behind his words, I heard the statement, “Do as I say, not as I do,” which his Catholic mother had been saying to him, and me, for our entire lives. Hearing him repeat her hypocritical words fanned my resentment. As with his father, my dad wouldn’t admit that his mother had some serious flaws as a parent. Instead of directly interacting with my dad, I focused anger for my grandparents onto him.
      “Fuck you, Dad.”
      Like every other time I’d said this to my dad, he looked at me for a few seconds, eyelids widening around his whites and blue irises. We screamed at each other for a few more minutes.
      “How can you give me life advice?” I asked. “You’re just a stoner that dropped out of school.” Ever since I found out that my dad smoked pot, I saw his desire for me to build a productive life as another aspect of his hypocrisy. He wanted me to follow a socially acceptable path, but, in my mind, he was a criminal. Not attempting to understand my dad’s drug use, I took it as a personal insult.
      I got up from the chair, grabbed the keys to my car and left. I drove down a hill, over a bridge with a brown, litter-strewn creek flowing underneath. Gnarled sagebrush jutted over creek banks. Eroding sandstone cliff faces surrounded gas stations, bars, and trailers at the bottom of the hill. Thinking about living in Rock Springs, Wyoming with my dad for another three years, anger flowed through my veins.
      I needed to listen to Pantera.
      I skipped The Great Southern Trendkill to its eighth track, “Living Through Me.” As Phil Anselmo screamed, I broke your fucking mold, then threw away the cast, in his guttural voice, intensified by Vinnie Paul’s driving drum rhythms, the crunch of Dimebag’s guitar, and the rumble of Rex Brown’s bass, I felt like someone patted me on the shoulder, saying, “You fucking should hate your dad.”
      I had been playing drums for four or five years. Listening to Vinnie’s technically ridiculous double bass drumming, combined with Phil’s lyrics—lyrics that seemed to tap into my deepest emotions—and Dimebag Darrel’s shredding guitar, I didn’t think I could ever make art on the same level as these guys. Pantera would always be better than me at expressing my own emotions.
      After driving west across vacuous plains on I-80 for about a half-hour, then turning around, I wished I had somewhere to go besides my parents’ house. I drove home, still listening to ... Trendkill. Inside, my dad and I ignored each other. I went up to my room and shut the door.
      Lying on my bed, I looked at a picture of Phil Anselmo on my wall. Black tattoos on white skin. Long hair. Beard. The trademark Phil Anselmo sneer. I looked at myself in the mirror above my dresser, adjusted my hair so it looked more like Phil’s from the picture—parted down the middle, gnarled split-ends on both sides. I wondered when I would be able to grow more facial hair. Sixteen, I could only grow a patchy goatee. I pictured tattoos covering my skinny arms. I wished Phil Anselmo were my real father. I didn’t articulate it in this way, but, as I examine my obsession with Pantera’s singer, and the rest of the band during my high school years, it always comes back to that desire.
      I had so many fights with my dad when I was sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, fights that started and ended almost exactly like this one, they blur together in my memory. We had the same fight once a week for three years.

      I chose Phil Anselmo, and, to lesser extents, the other members of Pantera, to fulfill my need for an admirable father figure, partly because of the space in each band member’s projected image. Phil, Dime, Rex, and Vinnie: they seemed more like fictional characters than real people. Although I consumed pictures, magazine interviews, and video images of the band that spanned fifteen years, I didn’t see any change in these guys. From my bedroom walls, each member of Pantera told me I could understand and depend on him.
      In most pictures, Phil looks pissed, his mouth twisted into the same scowl as he shouts into a microphone. Dimebag Darrel, with the same dyed-red goatee, camouflage shorts and maniacal grin, rips solos on his guitar. A black bandana on his head in almost every picture, scraggly mutton chops sprouting out, Vinnie beats the shit out of his drums. Rex head-bangs, his long blond hair swirling around his bass. I imparted each character with the things I craved in a father figure. I couldn’t change my dad, but I could shape these characters.
      Pantera’s music made these characters real. Most of their songs are honest, concentrated expressions of anger. Emotionally raw slow songs also appear on their albums. I was privy to some of these guys’ real feelings.
      These fictional father figures allowed me to avoid my complicated relationship with my dad. My interpretations of Pantera’s members, combined with their aggressive music, told me it was OK to bypass complicated emotions, and just be angry. At the time, I thought I was finding therapy through Pantera.

      Phil Anselmo lived in a narcotic bubble, but, unlike my dad, he would never get stoned with one of my classmates, Drew, on a hunting trip with one of his buddies, Drew’s older cousin. If Phil was my dad, I wouldn’t have to deal with most of my peers from high school—rumors travel very quickly in small towns like Rock Springs—knowing and asking about my dad’s pot smoking after Drew told anyone that would listen. Phil Anselmo often got so fucked up before Pantera shows that, on stage, he would lie down, mumbling into a microphone, pissing on his band mates’ art. But, in my mind, I wouldn’t have to deal with the resentment and humiliation connected to my real father if Phil Anselmo was my dad.
      I wouldn’t have to deal with these situations at all.
      I wouldn’t think about my dad’s father calling him a failure because he dropped out of college; because he would never be like his business-savvy older brother (the uncle I worked for); because his mind worked in ways my grandpa didn’t understand. My dad’s Catholic, status-obsessed mother, telling him that he fried his brain doing LSD and smoking weed when he was a teenager, that he would never amount to anything—these thoughts, always connected to my dad’s need to encapsulate himself in a padded haze, thoughts I constantly tried to distance myself from, which arose every time kids at school asked about his drug use, wouldn’t be a problem if my version of Phil Anselmo was my dad.
      Trying to hate my dad seemed a lot easier than trying to understand him. His hypocritical ranting; his weird hang-ups about not throwing things away, including food past the expiration date—if someone threw away moldy cheese, or foul-smelling deli meat in our house, he would often pick these things out of the trash and eat them—as well as rotting deer, elk, and antelope hides in our garage; the many times he switched, very quickly, from a good mood, talking and laughing with me, my mom and sister, to being highly irritable: all these things should have told me that my dad was fucked up beyond my understanding, that I needed to examine him in more complex ways. I know now that hating him wasn’t doing either of us any good, that I responded to my dad in the same way as his parents. But Phil Anselmo and the rest of Pantera told me that this was the best, the only way to approach my relationship with my dad.

                                                                                                * * *

      At a concert in Ohio, a man named Nathan Gale climbed on stage, during a song, and shot Dimebag Darrel, after which a police officer shot and killed Gale. I was a freshman in college. Thinking about Dimebag’s death, I felt like someone killed one of my family members. I didn’t understand how Gale could justify the murder. It seemed incomprehensible. I’ve come to realize Nathan Gale and I had more than a few things in common.
      In the patchy biographical information I’ve read about him, there are a few narrative strains. Most speculation about why he murdered Dimebag seems to stem from two facts: Nathan Gale was a rabid Pantera fan. Nathan Gale was fucking crazy. Reading about him, I catch myself trying to latch onto details that differentiate him from me. Those two facts are always at the core, though. When I think about him in these ways, it becomes a lot harder to tell myself that we were not at all alike.
      Nathan Gale conversed with Pantera, in his head, on a daily basis; so did I. Gale told his friends and family that Pantera planned to come to his high school and play a concert, just for him. When I was in high school, I daydreamed about moving to New Orleans, where Phil Anselmo lived. The city’s metal scene would embrace me immediately. Phil Anselmo and I would become close friends. We might start a band.
      During my adolescence, guns and physical violence terrified me—an angry kid, but I never gave serious thought to killing anyone. Still, in Gale’s obsessive fanaticism, which perpetuates a disconnection from reality, I see a lot of similarity between him and myself when I was an obsessive Pantera fan. Viewing my Pantera worship through this lens is terrifying.

      We live in a world that encourages obsessive idol worship. In the cult of Pantera worship, this encouragement is taken to a grotesque extreme.
      During the summer when I was seventeen, Superjoint Ritual, the band Phil Anselmo formed after Pantera broke up, played at Ozzfest. Pantera had already broken up when I became an obsessive fan for the band, so seeing the members’ post-Pantera bands would be the only way I would get to see them in concert. The idea of seeing Phil in a live setting seemed incredible. Unlike Dimebag and Vinnie, whose post-Pantera music I didn’t like, I loved all of Phil’s music after Pantera. He still seemed to know exactly how I felt. I bought a ticket, drove six hours to Denver to see the show.
      After a long morning of metal-core bands, cigarette and weed smoke emanating from stinky dudes and scantily clad women, I learned that Superjoint Ritual was doing a meet-and-greet. I just had to buy one of their CDs or DVDs to get a pass to meet the band. Holding Superjoint’s A Lethal Dose of American Hatred, trying to decide which part of the CD booklet I wanted the band to sign, I waited in line. I talked to some of the other Pantera fanatics. Talking to devout Pantera fans, you don’t hear “Dimebag Darrell Abbott,” “Vinnie Paul Abbott,” “Rex Robert Brown,” or “Philip H. Anselmo” as they reference band members. You hear “Dime,” “Vinnie,” “Rex,” and “Phil.” We talked about band members like they were family.
      Some fans had the letters ‘CFH’ etched into their skin, usually in black ink. In a circular shape, the CFH logo has become Pantera’s emblem—it stands for Cowboys from Hell, which is the first album Pantera recorded with Phil Anselmo. The tattoo is a rite of passage for “true” Pantera fans. At other metal concerts, I also met several people with CFH tattoos. A month or so after this show, I paid a tattoo artist sixty-five dollars to engrave Pantera’s logo into my skin. As the needle shot burning jolts into my wrist bones, regret lodged in my throat, which I smothered by thinking about the ways people would react to my tattoo. Anyone who saw my tattoo would know, right away, who I was.
      I needed to prove my life-long loyalty to the band by branding myself with their emblem. I needed to gain membership into the cult of “true” Pantera fans. I needed an absolute to counter my unstable relationship with my dad. Although a lot of rock and metal fans are outspokenly anti-religious—I was a glaring example of this—they seek acceptance into groups that serve the same purposes as organized religion.
      Like The Grateful Dead, Slipknot, Led Zeppelin, Slayer and The Beatles, there is a weird, cultish rabidness about a lot of Pantera fans. Being a rabid fan for a band, you find an instant sense of community with other rabid fans. Creepily, this community takes on an illusory, familial quality. Like myself, people who gravitate toward obsessive fandom are often social outcasts. Adding to angst from my home life, I felt isolated in my high school, where boys were pansies if we didn’t love hunting, fishing, and team sports. To counter isolation, it’s understandable that people would want to join a group whose members, without even having to meet each other, feel connected. But this fandom, and the community that comes with it, fucks people up. Trying to fill the void of isolation with fictional relationships and superficial self-perception destroys your ability to see the complex, human aspects in real people.
      Music reaches people on intimate levels, leading to feelings of identification with musicians. As with any art, music provides a concentrated, pure form of emotional expression. Combined with narrative information about artists, this expression often creates the illusion of one-on-one interaction. But there is an important difference between artistic communication and personal, one-on-one communication that I didn’t see when I was a Pantera fanatic. Nathan Gale didn’t see this difference, either. This differentiation separates obsessive fans of music, movies, visual art, television, and any other type of art, from people who know that the snippets of emotion and communication in art only illustrate a portion of an artist’s personality. The idea of personally knowing artists is also supported by the cultural assumption that we are our stories, which perpetuates the illusion of knowing after we consume biographical narratives. When you think you can know people, entirely, through narrative, image, and the art they create, you start to ignore aspects of people you can only experience in person.
      My favorite artists seemed to occupy an elevated realm. Instead of digesting how fucked up everyone is, it can be easier to believe in an ideal of flawlessness. This view of artists also stems from self-worthlessness, from the idea that only a select, elite group of people can make art. Once you believe these ideas, idol worship is only a small jump away. Seeing anyone through such an unrealistic lens intensifies disconnections from reality. Trying to replace complicated, hard-to-digest real relationships with convenient fictional ones, like I did with my relationship with my dad, can help fool yourself into believing that you can escape inter-personal problems.
      I didn’t see holes in my logic while enveloped in this culture. Waiting in line, I was just excited to meet people I felt connected to.
      Superjoint Ritual also consisted of Jimmy Bower from Eyehategod, a band I was just getting into, and Hank Williams III. But Phil Anselmo was my reason for waiting. I finally saw him. Like an original painting you have only seen in prints, an aura surrounded him. I wasn’t nervous because I felt like I had already met him. Shaking his hand, I said, “Everything you do is fucking genius, man.”
      He held his fist in the air, as if we were fighting for the same political cause, and said, “Thank you, brother.”
      Watching him live, later that evening, a distinct sense of drifting outside my body overwhelmed me. I snuck past security guards to get into the VIP section, just a few feet away from the stage. Through my eyes, Phil Anselmo and the rest of the band looked like hybrids of Claymation and cartoon characters.
      Waves of music tingled my spine.

      I was nineteen when Nathan Gale shot Dimebag Darrell at a Damageplan show. I saw Dimebag a few weeks before the shooting, in Denver, where I attended college, on the same tour. Seeing Damageplan—a generic, radio-friendly metal band that Dimebag and his brother, Vinnie Paul, formed after Pantera broke up—would probably be my only chance to see the Abbott brothers in a live setting. I saw Phil Anselmo with Superjoint Ritual a year-and-a-half before this Damageplan show.
       As Damageplan played their first few songs, giddy pulses tickled my stomach. Soon, though, after the novelty of seeing Dimebag and Vinnie in person wore off, I started to feel pity for the former Pantera members. Dimebag gained a lot of weight since the last pictures I had seen of him. He had the same long, curly hair. The same dyed-red goatee. The same cargo shorts and sleeveless shirt. He acted out the same on-stage antics—taking shots, throwing cups of whiskey into the crowd, and head-banging wildly—from all the Pantera videos I’d seen. That night, I understood for the first time that Dimebag imprisoned himself in his own image.
      Hearing Damageplan’s music before this show, I thought they were trying to pick up where Pantera left off, but in a watered-down way. Seeing the band live told me that Dime and Vinnie couldn’t move beyond the past. The singer, Pat Lachman, with a shaved head, tattoos, and tough-guy persona, aped Phil Anselmo’s on-stage moves, which became more obvious when the band played a few Pantera songs, “Becoming,” and one or two others. Thinking that they were smothering themselves with their own shadows, I felt disloyal, like I was betraying Dime and Vinnie.
      Later in the set, Dimebag, Vinnie, and Damageplan’s bass player, Bob Kakaha, came on stage without Lachman. Dime played the opening riff from Ted Nugent’s classic, “Stranglehold.” After the drums and bass established a solid, grooving rhythm, Dimebag launched into a series of epic solos. The pity I felt, seeing Dime and Vinnie as locked within their own caricatures, dissipated as I saw flashes of two brothers who fucking loved to jam. Sibling musicians can attain a groove that borders on psychic interconnection. Feeling this connection between Dimebag and Vinnie Paul is a memory I still value.
      A few weeks later, Nathan Gale shot and killed Dimebag Darrell in Ohio. I will never really know who Nathan Gale was, and I don’t necessarily want to. But I think I understand him on a few levels, as a result of my own experiences.
      Nathan Gale worshipped Dimebag Darrell. Like me, Gale needed to dismantle his idol worship before he could understand himself, and, by extension, the people around him. I think he knew this on some submerged level, but felt like he couldn’t articulate it. Like he wasn’t valuable enough to articulate it. He thought Dimebag was endowed with a God-like ability to create art. Like me with Phil Anselmo, Nathan Gale didn’t distinguish between his fictionalized version of Dimebag, and the person behind the caricature. Instead of searching within himself, challenging his assumptions that Dimebag had some super-human ability to create art, it made sense to Gale that, in order to eradicate God from his mind, he had to actually kill Dimebag Darrell. One of the only real differences I can articulate between Nathan Gale and myself is that, when I started to realize that idolizing Pantera was fucking up my ability to see reality, I knew that eradicating idol worship from my life had very little to do with the people I idolized. I realized that my problems lied within the ways I constructed my identity. My struggle to dismantle God has been violent, too, although in ways very different from Nathan Gale’s.
      Shortly after Dimebag’s death, Phil Anselmo posted a video on his website, of himself, sitting at a table, ranting. Over and over, he says that he will not let Dimebag’s death keep him from making music. Before shutting off the camera, he says, “You have not seen the last of Philip H. Anselmo.” I saw a stark contrast between my version of Phil Anselmo and this narcissistic dip-shit, realizing that, in my fandom, I never wanted to know who he really is.
      Seeing Damageplan, and watching this video were catalysts for a long, difficult process of self-examination. A process of trying to eradicate idol worship from my life. A process I am still trying to deal with.

                                                                                                * * *

      Dedicating myself to making art—writing and playing drums on a more serious level—has helped me dismantle the idea that my favorite artists are more capable of expressing my own emotions. Consuming other people’s art can lead us to our own feelings, but I understand now that we need to create our own art to examine and understand those feelings. Writing nonfiction and playing music have helped me understand myself, and my dad, in deeper ways. My dad is fucked up. I think it’s fair to say he is crazy. But we are all fucked up and crazy.
      I still catch myself latching onto the idea that my dad’s back-story can fully explain what it’s like to be around him. Never examining his parents’ flaws, I think, has damaged him in a lot of ways. To him, they had solid reasons for the verbal abuse they subjected him to, which engrained worthlessness into his self-perception. While this narrative does explain some things about him, a gap remains between understanding my dad and actually being around him. Reaching toward an understanding of my dad has been about admitting that I might never fully understand him. Trying to deal with some of his idiosyncrasies in person—his mood-snaps; how pissed he gets when I criticize his parents; seeing pain and escape written into his stoned, blood-shot eyes—is probably always going to be difficult. But I still have to attempt to understand him. I had to stop worshipping other artists to reconcile myself to these truths.
      Exploring my own feelings, and expressing myself artistically, have helped me understand that my dad destroyed his body—two herniated discs in his back and bad knees—through physical labor, for my mom, sister, and me; that, during the screaming matches we had when I was in high school, his underlying message was, I want you to have a better life than me.

J.J. Anselmi is a nonfiction MFA student at CSU Fresno. His work has appeared in Jackson Hole Review, Connotation Press, and Pulp Metal Magazine. Recently relocated from Denver to Fresno, he misses beating the shit out of his drums for Sherman to the Fucking Sea and In the Company of Serpents — two bands you should listen to.

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