It was a cold Wednesday night in December, and hundreds of fans huddled into the Alrosa Villa club in Columbus, OH, eager to check out Damageplan, a new band featuring former Pantera members Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul. But just as the lights dimmed, the amps buzzed to life, and Dimebag strummed the opening song’s first chords, the crowd’s familiar roar of excitement suddenly morphed into screams of fear and disbelief when a man with a handgun ran onto the stage and began firing at the unsuspecting guitarist.
“You broke up Pantera! You ruined my life!” gunman Nathan Gale reportedly yelled as he charged onstage. Known to many as “Crazy Nate,” Gale was a 6-foot-3, 25-year-old ex-Marine who was given an early medical discharge and sent home in November of 2003 after being trained in combat and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was prescribed medication for the illness, but it’s unclear whether he was taking it at the time of the attack. According to his mother and friends, Gale had been obsessed with Pantera since high school, blasting them on his headphones before football games. More recently, he had begun insisting that the band had not only stolen lyrics from him, but were trying to steal his identity. Eventually, even close friends distanced themselves from Gale after he began exhibiting odd behavior such as talking and laughing to himself.
Gale shot Darrell five times at point-blank range, the last time directly into his head. Dimebag was dead before hitting the floor atop his trademark Washburn guitar, which continued to emit a loud, ominous drone. Gale then quickly changed clips and fired on club security guard Erin “Stoney” Halk and Damageplan’s head of security, Jeff “Mayhem” Thompson, as they converged on him from opposite ends of the stage, killing both. Damageplan tour manager Chris Paluska and drum tech John “Kat” Brooks were shot next (though not fatally) while trying to subdue Gale, as was audience member Nathan Bray, who was killed after leaping onstage to help Dimebag. Meanwhile, several police officers had entered the club and assumed defensive positions around the stage. Gale took an unidentified hostage in a headlock, ready to play it out to the bitter end, but was shot by a cop from behind with a shotgun, killing him instantly.
Born Darrell Lance Abbott in Dallas, TX, in 1966, Dimebag was the son of a well-known country & western songwriter named Jerry Abbott, and grew up around music and recording. He and his brother Vincent Paul Abbott (who later changed his name to Vinnie Paul) formed Pantera with bassist “Rocker” Rex Smith and vocalist Terry Glaze in 1982. Influenced heavily by KISS, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Motley Crue, Pantera recorded three albums before recruiting vocalist Phil Anselmo in 1989 and intensifying their sound. It was this lineup that put Pantera on the metal map with 1990’s Cowboys From Hell.
Over the next decade, Pantera released five more albums (four of which went platinum), were nominated for two Grammys, and were the first metal band ever to premiere at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with 1994’s Far Beyond Driven. At a time when the mainstream media was myopically focused on the Seattle grunge scene and claiming that heavy metal was dead, Pantera led the charge to re-establish thrash as a prominent musical force. Touring endlessly with virtually every major metal act (including Black Sabbath, KISS, Metallica and Slayer), selling out stadiums and inspiring some of the most brutal moshpits ever seen soon established Pantera as one of the best live bands in the world. And at the heart of it all was a beer-guzzling, fret-burning Texan with a pointy red beard by the name of Dimebag Darrell.
Pantera disbanded in 2002, after Anselmo left to take up his side project, Superjoint Ritual, full-time. In early 2003, the Abbott brothers enlisted singer Pat Lachman and bassist Bob “Bobzilla” Kakaha to form Damageplan, and released their first album, New Found Power, the following February. It was this record they were touring to promote the night of the fatal attack—exactly 24 years to the day after John Lennon was assassinated outside his home in New York City.
In the early days of Pantera, Abbott used the stage name Diamond Darrell, before switching to “Dimebag” around 1994. The nickname Dimebag originated back in high school, when Darrell was a hardcore pothead, but according to close friends he had long since given up smoking. Despite his personal decision not to partake, Dimebag and the rest of Pantera were always huge proponents of marijuana and the stoner lifestyle. During the ’90s, Darrell constantly wore a pot-leaf baseball cap, and the band has incorporated pot leaves into countless T-shirts and merchandise designs. They even included green-leaf lights in their stage shows, which inevitably elicited a shower of joints onstage.
In June 1993, Dimebag and Rex joined Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach and Dave “The Snake” Sabo in an all-star band known as Sebastian Bach’s Rock Budz for the first-ever “Rock for Pot” benefit at the Limelight club in New York City, hosted by High Times and Norml. The group performed renditions of the Pantera classics “Walk,” “Cowboys From Hell” and “New Level,” as well as stoner anthems “Sweet Leaf” and “I Want to Take You Higher.”
“I remember rehearsing for the gig in ‘rehearsal mode,’ which was doing the songs but not putting a lot of sweat into it,” Bach recalls. “Dimebag said to everyone, ‘What the fuck is this? Where is the sweat? The fire?’ I said to him something lame like, ‘Oh, it’s just rehearsal, dude. You wanna rehearse like we are actually onstage, that’s cool.’ Dime shot back at me: ‘IS THERE ANY OTHER FUCKING WAY???’”
Despite rain and cold, over 200 fans gathered outside the Alrosa Villa club in Columbus the night after the shootings and conducted a two-day vigil in honor of their slain hero—singing and playing Pantera songs on acoustic guitars, lighting candles, and leaving bottles of beer and yellow roses at a makeshift shrine. One distraught fan even chose to display his grief by streaking the vigil while screaming, “Fuck Nathan Gale!”
Darrell was buried in a custom KISS casket donated by bassist Gene Simmons at a private funeral service, as requested by the family. The public memorial—held on the rainy evening of Dec. 14 at the Arlington Convention Center—was attended by his family, friends and nearly 5,000 fans. Among those in attendance were fellow guitar legends Eddie Van Halen, who played a voicemail message from Darrell over the PA system, and Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, who played an acoustic tribute.
Notably absent from the gathering was former Pantera bandmate Phil Anselmo, who was asked by the Abbotts not to attend, most likely due to an interview in Metal Hammer magazine—published just one week before the incident—in which Anselmo called Dimebag shallow, stupid and a drunk who “deserves to be beaten severely.” Some speculated that these comments may have added fuel to Gale’s misguided rage. In a videotaped statement released to the FUSE Network after the incident, a visibly distraught Anselmo expressed deep sympathy and remorse, saying he loved Darrell as a brother, blaming “the heavy metal media” for Pantera’s breakup and declaring, “This is the last you’ll be seeing of me for a long time.”
I first had the pleasure of meeting Dimebag at the Limelight club in New York, about a year after he played the High Times benefit. I was walking through the backroom wearing my “Fucking Hostile” T-shirt when I heard someone yell, “Hey—nice Pantera shirt!” I turned around to see none other than Dimebag Darrell, chilling at the bar with Vinnie and Rex and drinking his trademark Black Toothed Grin (Crown Royal with a splash of Coke). He motioned for me to come over: “Dude—we’ve been in town for three days, and you’re the first guy I’ve seen wearing one of our shirts. Let me buy you a beer.” He did, we toasted, and I hung out and bullshitted with him until the band came on. By all accounts, that’s just the kind of guy he was.
Dimebag’s impact on hard rock can hardly be measured. His unique style, squealing licks, crushing riffs and lightning solos were unmistakable, and influenced an entire generation of young musicians. But far beyond his musicianship, he will always be remembered as a fun, generous, down-to-earth human being with a heart the size of the state he lived in. Rock on, my brother…