These were three words I thought I’d never live to hear. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was a lifelong, card carrying, die hard metal fan since I was a kid. A back patch wearing, cassette collecting, fanzine subscribing, stage diving lifer at heart. But Ozzfest? The Foo Fighters? The mother of all metal festivals, the meeting of all Marshalls, the most tyrannical thrash-apalooza known to man was requesting…the “Learn to Fly” guys? The smiley, smirky, candy commercial dorks? The rock and roll “Revenge of the Nerds”? Shit, some of us even had hair ABOVE our collars! This made no sense. This must be some kind of practical joke. Candid camera? Punked? Was Ashton Kutcher going to jump out of my hotel closet and find me shivering in my soiled pair of 90’s long underwear? This was the greatest mismatch of all time. This was Tyson vs. Ghandi. David Copperfield and Claudia Schiffer. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (Okay, I take that one back…) Disaster waiting to happen!
Seems that the legendary American kingpins of Nu Metal, Korn had to pull out of their appearance, and the promoters thought that our brand of jangly, radio friendly, 70’s AM Gold would be the perfect fit. Who knew? How the sweet, crooning chorus of “Walking After You” could replace the bludgeoning stomp of Korn’s almighty “Blind” was beyond me. But hey, I’ve never been one to back down from a terrible idea. I’d practically made a fucking career of it up until that point! Why the hell not?
“You’ll be going on after Pantera….”
Silence. Dead air. My throat closed. My stomach dropped. My butthole turned into a Star Wars trash compactor. An audible “gulp” and whimper were the only sounds I could manage to produce. No. Fucking. Way. AFTER Pantera? The absolute heaviest, tightest, grooviest, most badass metal band of all time? The kings of cro-magnon carnage? The motherfucking COWBOYS FROM HELL??? Are you out of your goddamned mind??? There’ll be nothing left once they play their final chord, believe me. Stage, gone. Minds and P.A. blown. Nothing but a muddy field of shattered eardrums and melted brains strewn across the littered lawn. And then…us? No. Fucking. Way.
“They’re offering $***,***…..”
“See you at Ozzfest!” I chirped.
Milton Keynes Bowl was no stranger to rock and roll spectacles. From Michael Jackson to Metallica, Queen to Green Day, Status Quo to The Prodigy, the venue had hosted decades of massive shows within its natural surroundings (a former clay pit for brick making, apparently). With a capacity of 65,000, and only 50 miles NW of London, it was the ideal place for a glorious, sunny Saturday of DOOM. And the lineup was ridiculously strong. Sabbath, Slayer, Soulfly, and….ahem…us. The day was primed to be a showdown of mammoth proportions (not to mention my teenage, hescher dream come true).
Pulling into the backstage area, I peered out of the tour bus window to see if I could catch a glimpse of some of my heroes. Tom Araya! Scott Ian! Tony Iommi! Max Cavalera! There they were, all wandering about like us mere mortals. And in the light of day, no less! I had always imagined (hoped) that these dark figures only came out at night after hanging upside down like rabid bats in their mausoleums. Nocturnal creatures refusing the sun, just waiting to terrorize us all with their evil anthems beneath a full moon.
I think I saw a few of them in shorts holding soda pops, but whatever.
I hid in our dressing room. I couldn’t bear to walk to the stage and take a frightened glimpse of the certain fate that awaited us in that ungulating mosh pit of leather and spikes. I sat there nervously, trying to concoct a set list that was a little more Motorhead, a little less 10cc. What on earth could we possibly perform that would satisfy 65,000 hungry headbangers? What rabbit could I pull out of a witches hat to win over this most hardened crowd? I scoured our back catalogue for anything without the word “love” or a George Harrison style slide guitar solo in it. I felt like that asshole kid searching for ONLY the marshmallows in a box of Lucky Charms (It’s the textural juxtaposition of the marshmallows and cereal combined that makes Lucky Charms the king of cereals, folks. Don’t be that kid.)
Finally working up the courage to venture out of my sweaty porta-cabin, I stepped to the side of the stage and witnessed what can only be described as the most awesome, most brutal, most vulgar display of power known to man: Pantera, ladies and gentlemen! In all their glory! Absolutely DESTROYING the stage. Vinnie Paul, the master, the legend, the hero, beating the ever living shit out of his thunderous mountain of drums. Phil Anselmo screaming bloody fucking murder like a man possessed by every evil spirit from every single exorcist movie ever made. Rex Brown stalking the stage, carrying his bass like a massive flame thrower aimed at the crowd. And, Dimebag Darrell…God’s gift to guitar, stealing the show with such ease, such swagger, such cool, leaving jaws dragging in the summer dirt. A Valhalla of volume. At one point, I looked behind the drums and saw a deranged, shirtless fan, breaking bottles and moshing alone, singing along to every word as if his life depended on it. THIS was a true Pantera fan. Not unlike like the 64,999 others out there in that bowl, mind you, but this dude was going totally mental literally within a few feet of the drum set. He then leaned down to the drums to fix a cymbal stand that had shifted from Vinnie Paul’s merciless bashing. How strange, I thought. Turns out this deranged, shirtless, slam dancing fan was Vinnie’s drum tech, Kat. Let me tell you, never ever ever in my years of touring had I seen something so badass. This wasn’t a road crew. It was a gang of hoodlums. And, this wasn’t a band. It was a force of fucking nature.
For a moment, I forgot that we were even on the bill that day. I was so lost in the band, I forgot that I would soon have to follow this historic ass shredding performance with my version of post grunge, alternative rock (cue fingers ramming down throat). Some people meditate, some people go to church, some people lick little frogs in the desert to find this feeling. All I needed was Pantera. Unfortunately, that euphoric feeling immediately disappeared the second they finished and the crowd roared like a blood thirsty Roman coliseum. We were dead meat. Dead. Fucking. Meat.
I don’t remember much about our set (sometimes traumatic memories can be suppressed and pushed down to the darkest depths of your psyche, only to be unlocked by years of difficult therapy) but I do recall a few guys from the other bands watching us while we played. That, at least, made me feel a bit less like Pee Wee Herman in the biker bar (“Tequila!”) Thankfully, we managed to make it through the gig without any bottles of piss hurled at our faces, so I considered it an incredible success! That roaring, Roman coliseum was not so roaring as before, but we made it back to our little room without losing any limbs. Phew.
Anyone who ever had the honor to hang out with Pantera knows that it was not for the faint of heart. First of all, there was never a band more welcoming, more hospitable, more down to earth than Pantera. It didn’t matter who you were, what you did, where you were from, they would welcome you in, stuff a beer in your hand, a shot in your mouth, and make you laugh harder than you’ve ever laughed before (until you wound up barfing it all back up and having the most soul crushing hangover of your life the next morning). Need proof? Watch their home video “Pantera 3: Watch it Go” That’s all you need to know. It’s a lesson in excess. These dudes didn’t fuck around. We got along like a house on fire.
After some cocktails (and hero worship) with Vinnie and Dime, we had to head out to our next, much less colorful destination. Parting ways, Vinnie gave me a business card. “Dude, next time you’re in Dallas, you gotta come by the Clubhouse.” I looked at the card, and to my amazement (but not surprise) they had THEIR OWN STRIP CLUB. Now, some rock stars have expensive cars. Some have castles. Some even have exotic animals (Yes, I’ve seen “Tiger King”, so stop texting me that I should watch it. Jeesh.) But, a fucking strip club? That takes the cake. That’s like me owning a Starbucks coffeeshop. Danger.
As luck would have it, I was about to drive across country with my drummer, Taylor Hawkins in my Chevy Tahoe, making the big move back to Virginia after years away. What better excuse to pop in and witness this temple of rock stardom, Pantera style? We whipped out the road atlas and calendar, planned our Trans-American odyssey down to every last pit stop, and called the fellas to let them know were were coming. “Excited” doesn’t even scratch the surface here. Not since I was a young boy waiting for the living room lights to come on Christmas morning had I felt such anticipation. Of all the shit I’d seen in my life, this was bound to be the mic drop, epitome of rock and roll. No one came anywhere close to the wicked hijinks of Pantera. No one was more badass. (Well, other than Lemmy, but that’s a given…)
Our first day on the road we stopped at a gas station in Barstow to empty our bladders, fill up on gas, and grab (you guessed it) some smokes and Slim Jims. Windows down, speakers distorted from blasting classic rock at 90 mph, just two best friend/drummer guys racing down the highway without a care in the world. Yes folks, we were a cartoon. All sunglasses and hair, cigs hanging from big smiles, risking our lives air-drumming while speeding past 18 wheelers blowing like sails in the desert wind. This was a Tom Petty song come to life. (Or an Aerosmith video, just without the two hot babes in sundresses) Life was grand. I called and left our Texan friends excited messages from my Flavor Flav sized cell phone. Be ready, we’re on our way.
Destination, day 1: Phoenix.
Walking up to the counter at the roadside motel, I slapped my back pocket as I would always do before pulling out my favorite green, velcro and vinyl wallet (Fort Knox, as it was jokingly referred to) Though, this time it didn’t make that familiar thump. My pocket was empty. My wallet was gone. Must have been in the truck! I checked the cup holders. The center console. Under the seats. The glove compartment. Nothing. Zilch. Gone. The only place we stopped that day was that gas station in Barstow! FUCK. Where else could I have left it? And that was 372.9 miles in the opposite direction! Everything I had was in that old wallet. License, credit cards, cig money, Dimebag Darrell guitar pick…I was entirely screwed.
Fortunately, my bestest BFF in the whole wide world, the greatest pal a guy could ever have, Taylor Hawkins threw down for our room. I phoned my accountant in Seattle, and we planned on shipping replacement cards to our next roadside motel. Alas, we soldiered on. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING was going to stop us from getting to the Club House….
Anyone familiar with American geography knows that Dallas isn’t necessarily “on the way” to Virginia. No. It’s a proper 200 mile detour if you’re planning on taking the I-40 across. But, the heart wants what the heart wants, so what’s an extra couple hundred miles compared to the stories we’d have to tell when I got back to my old neighborhood friends in Springfield! Stories that would make David Lee Roth’s toes curl! Tales of mischief that would make Keith Richards cover his ears in disgust! Hell, even Lemmy might crack a smile….
After dinner with some of Taylor’s relatives at a real deal, authentic Texas steak house (mouth watering as I type, perhaps nothing better in this world) we were cleared for take off. We jumped in the Tahoe and drove the short distance outside of town to the Clubhouse. Actually, we may have floated there on a rainbow wave of cotton candy unicorn glitter, but maybe that’s just my romantic revisionism kicking in (it does that sometimes). Regardless, it was really happening. Months and months of waking everyday, counting the minutes until we walked into the neon/black light of the Clubhouse, enveloped by the aroma of Coors Light and peach body wash, DJ blasting old school Scorpions, to find a booth full of Pantera just waiting to greet us with a big, Pearl Jam high five. I had the whole thing dialed in my mind. It was the Goodfellas kitchen scene on acid. And it was about to go down.
The doorman stood there with his glow in the dark hand stamp ready to go, waiting for me to do that old familiar ‘slap’ on the back pocket everyone does before whipping out their own trusty Fort Knox. Shit! I looked at Taylor, eyes wide in shock. He returned my panicked expression. All the blood rushed from my face. Tears welled up in my eyes. I began to tremble with fear. I stuttered the only words I could muster, “B-b-b-b-b-b-Barstow…….I lost my wallet in Barstow, sir.” Silence. A long, pregnant pause that made the ice age seem like a Tik Tok video. Then, the words I most dreaded, more than the grim reaper himself, spilled from the doorman’s sneer, “Sorry, bud. Can’t let you in without ID.” Taylor jumped in and pleaded, “But, but, but……we’re friends with Pantera!” The man looked up with his cold, dead eyes and growled, “EVERYONE’S friends with Pantera. Sorry.”
And…..that was that. 3 days, 1,400 miles and a dream, stomped out like a dirty old Parliament Light in the parking lot of an industrial complex outside of Dallas. No candy coating here, it fucking crushed my soul. A few more unanswered calls from the Flavor Flav phone, a few more cigs in the parking lot, and we slowly climbed back into the Tahoe, heads down, hearts broken into a thousand pieces, totally dejected. I believe this is what people now refer to as an “epic fail”. Back then, it was just referred to as a “steaming shit sandwich”. And we had to eat every last bite. By the time we got back to the Hilton hotel bar, I didn’t even want to drink. Just the sight of a Coors light or Crown Royal bottle sent me into inconsolable hysterics. But, we do what we do in times of life crisis, right? We shake it off. Just like Taylor Swift does (who would never have a problem getting in to the Clubhouse, by the way. God dammit!). Virginia was only a few days away….
Oxnard, CA. Ten years later.
Walking up to the cash register at the local surf shop in the harbor, the nice girl behind the counter greeted me with a hello as I handed her the pair of sunglasses I was buying. She started ringing me up, and then paused. Squinting her eyes, she asked, “Are you Dave Grohl?” I said yes. Still squinting she said, “Did you lose your wallet in Barstow in 1998?”
People of the internet, I could not make this shit up.
“YES!!!!!!!!!!” I replied in amazement. She laughed and said, “That was my parents gas station. They still have your fucking wallet, dude.”
Now, if ever you hear someone use that stupid cliche “it’s a small world”, just remember this story. Because it is indeed a small fucking world, and it’s getting smaller every day. So take care of each other, please (Wash your fucking hands!) I stopped trying to understand fate and destiny a long time ago, but dumb luck seems to be my specialty. Fort Knox was returned to me not too long after that. Completely intact. Just like a time capsule buried for years, it was still filled with sweet memorabilia from that glorious time in my life. Credit cards, too! And yes….my old driver’s license. The one with the “Revenge of the Nerds” haircut. My golden ticket. My key to the Clubhouse. Like a knife twisting in my back, I had to smile. This now made it all worthwhile.
Dime and Vinnie have since passed on to the great gig in the sky, but every memory I have of them is a joyous one. I’m so lucky and honored to have known them, even just a little. They are missed by many, but their legacy lives on. Crank some Pantera and raise a shot of Crown for them. They would have been your friends, too.