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Book Review: Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott by Zac Crain

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During his short, spectacular life — he was just 38 years old the night he was brutally murdered — as a guitar god with the bands Pantera and Damageplan, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott was a living, breathing, walking, talking, and yes often drinking — heavy metal caricature.

His transformation from a scrawny guitar prodigy barely big enough to hold the instrument — let alone play it as well as he did — to take his place amongst the ranks of the rock stars he idolized as a kid growing up in Texas is the sort of stuff that rock and roll dreams are made of.

In Black Tooth Grin, which is named for the whiskey and coke concoction that was Abbott's preferred drink of choice (and which was never too far away from his lips), former Dallas Observer music editor Zac Crain recounts Abbott's rise to stardom in Pantera, up to his murder on December 8, 2004 while performing onstage with Damageplan in a Columbus, Ohio nightclub.

Crain neither dwells too heavily on the details of that tragic night, nor does this book really shed any new light on them. Still, his recounting of that event — which some metal fans still call the "9/11 of heavy metal" — as remembered by those who were actually there is chilling.

What becomes clear is that Abbott's murder, which took place 24 years to the day after the murder of John Lennon, was exactly what it appears to be – a senseless act by an apparently deranged fan.

Despite the significance of the date, you won't find any conspiracy theories here, but rather just eerie, tragic coincidence. The stories about how Nathan Gale was heard to have said something to Abbott about how "you broke up Pantera" before brutally killing him are as meaningless now as they were on that horrific night.

Although Dimebag's murder and subsequent remembrances (including those by people Abbott worshiped like Eddie Van Halen) are given the amount of space they warrant here, the bulk of Black Tooth Grin chooses instead to focus on Abbott's life, which by all accounts was one which was lived to the fullest extent of rock and roll excess and debauchery.

Growing up as a rabid teenage fan of people like Van Halen and Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley in Arlington, Texas, once Dimebag made it himself, he vowed to live the rock and roll lifestyle to the fullest. Which meant the usual rock and roll excesses of partying, strippers, and trashing hotel rooms. And booze. Lots and lots of booze.

In one particularly funny story from early on in Pantera's career (that even comes with a picture), the band feels it's their sacred rock and roll duty to destroy one hotel room, but are still too poor to risk having to pay for the damages. So they instead take pains to make sure the lampshades are crooked and all the pictures on the wall are knocked askew.

As the fame of his band rises though, so does Abbott's need to behave like a "real rocker" at all times. You rarely see him without his guitar or a drink in his hand. The Dimebag drinking stories were already the stuff of legend of course – you literally couldn't meet this guy without spending hours or even days subsequently downing shot after shot with him.

But what also emerges here is a picture of Abbott as a genuinely nice guy, who never lost sight of things like family or of his inner sixteen year old rock fan. This is a guy who even after making it big himself, had Ace Frehley sign his chest and then had the signature made into a tattoo.

When Dimebag was asked to join bands early on, as he once was with Megadeth for example, it was also always a package deal that included his brother Vinnie on drums. As a person, Dimebag never really changed even after having hit the big time.

He lived at his Mom's house long after he had need to, and was known to pay off all of her credit card bills whenever he returned home to Texas after a tour. By all accounts, Dimebag always treated fans and other strangers the same as he did his friends – especially when he had a few trays of shots in him.

Abbott's rise to fame with Pantera, from playing keg parties in Texas to headlining sold out arena tours and gracing the covers of guitar magazines is also recounted here in detail. As is the case with most rock and roll stories however, so is the band's fall – a messy breakup fought out in the pages of the music press between the Abbott brothers and former vocalist Phil Anselmo.

The final section of Black Tooth Grin finds the Abbott brothers back to square one – touring the country in a bus and playing club dates with their new band Damageplan. The arenas were long gone, but Dimebag's outlook remained upbeat right up until that fateful night in Columbus. He was the ever gregarious King Dime right up until the end.

Zac Crain's biography is a fast and thoroughly entertaining read – a definite page turner that I actually read through in a single sitting. For fans of Dimebag Darrell, Pantera, and heavy metal in general it's a must. But even if you never banged your head in the moshpit to "I'm Broken," Dimebag's story, like a good, stiff drink, is one you wont want to put down.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
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