Author Zac Crain speaks about writing Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott
Terry Wickham: When did you first hear Pantera? Back in 1983, my long-time friend Andrew Krepela told me he was pen pals with a guy in Texas, who was in a metal band that recorded in his band mate’s father’s studio. So when he got a cassette (during those tape-trading days) he played Metal Magic for me. His pen pal was Rex (“Rocker”) Brown.
Zac Crain: I’m not exactly sure when I first heard Pantera. Best guess, I’d say I first heard them not terribly long after Cowboys From Hell came out, and I probably knew what they sounded like before I actually knew it was them. It was just sort of around, you know? When I first started working on the book, I was surprised by just how many songs I actually knew. I think I took a lot of them in by osmosis.
TW: Speaking of those early Pantera albums (before Phil Anselmo joined the band) I feel there’s no shame in liking them. In fact, the first thing I ever finished as a filmmaker was a music video (where I told a story to the lyrics of the song) for “Come On Eyes” from Pantera’s third album, I Am the Night.
ZC: Oh, I think you’re right. It was a different sound, but it was a good representation of that sound. And, I think, obviously there was something there, since Terry Glaze went on to have success with Lord Tracy. When I started working on the book, I realized that one of my neighbors, Kinley Wolfe, among many other bands, had played bass in Lord Tracy. He had all the early Pantera records, and he introduced me to Terry. I flew up to Maryland and spent a day with Terry there.
TW: What sparked you to write Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott?
ZC: I covered Darrell’s memorial service for Spin magazine, and that was probably when I had the first inkling that this was something I wanted to do. There was a ton I didn’t know, not just about the band, but especially about Darrell. I knew the hard-partying side, at least by reputation, but I started to get more of a picture of who he was as a person, and it seemed to me like it would be a great story to tell — about him, about his family, about the band, and everything that goes along with that.
TW: How long did it take to write your book? You’ve got a lot of people within speaking about the band and “Dimebag” in particular, which had to take some time.
ZC: The book publishing business, I found, is kind of hurry up and wait. I finished the first draft of the book — researching and interviewing and writing — in just about a year. I spent most of that time researching and interviewing, and I was doing interviews up until a few weeks before I turned it in. The last one I had scheduled was Trent Reznor, but Vince and the family I think kind of shut that down. Which is fine. That’s their right. So, about a year for the first draft, and then maybe six months later, I did a rewrite, which it needed. I wrote about 50,000 words of the first draft in one month, writing between 11 pm and 4 am every night, then getting up a few hours later and going to work. The second draft, I was able to polish and reorganize and sort of work more of the mountain of material I had into the story. That’s when I really was able to nail the structure, and my editor, Ben Schafer at Da Capo Press, was a huge help with that. And then everyone signed off, but the book didn’t come out for another, I want to say, year or so. I finished the first draft in January 2007, and then it finally came out June 2009.
TW: Did you ever get the chance to see Pantera live? If so tell me about the experience. Unfortunately, though I’ve been a lifelong metal listener and have known Pantera almost from their beginning, I never got the chance.
ZC: I did not. For whatever reason, it just never happened. I grew up in a small town, and so I didn’t really have an opportunity, and by the time I was in Dallas, they were just about done. I wasn’t a huge fan of some of their later albums at the time, and so it didn’t seem mission critical to see them. I have a better appreciation for them now, after having spent a lot more time with them, so, you know, I probably would have done it differently now. I do feel like I have seen them — at least a little bit — because I probably watched 50 full concerts while I was writing. I found a guy who gave me a ton of bootlegs, so I saw a lot of video of live shows and heard even more.
TW: What was the hardest part about writing Black Tooth Grin? Did anyone give you a hard time?
ZC: Well, like I mentioned, Vince was never really onboard with the idea, and I 100-percent get that. It’s his brother and when I started working on this, it wasn’t terribly long after everything happened. I thought it might be different, because he reached out through his manager after I wrote the Spin piece, and he relayed to me that he appreciated it. But very early on, he told me he wasn’t interested in participating or even supportive of the idea at all. So that shut a few things down. Basically every band on Roadrunner Records wanted to talk to me, but — I think it was the guys in Slipknot — they reached out to him to tell him they were going to do it, he said no, and that killed all of the Roadrunner interviews. That was in the first month or so. I just kept working, and never heard anymore from them. Just before I turned in my first draft, they put out the word to pretty much everyone in the music business to disavow me, but all that really cost me was the Trent Reznor interview. I was done by then. I had emailed a few times with Rita Haney, Darrell’s girlfriend, and it seemed like she was going to talk to me. At one time, I felt I was close to arranging a meeting. But then she cut off all contact.
That was the hardest part logistically, but that just made me have to handle everything a bit more creatively. Try to find more people, dig in a little deeper. The hardest actual writing part was the club shooting. I got video of the whole thing from the Columbus Police, and also a evidentiary video of the aftermath. I saved watching both and writing about them until the very end. I watched the videos very late at night — I don’t know why; that’s just sort of how it played out — and it was just — it was very hard to watch, and then very uncomfortable to write about. That’s an understatement.
TW: Did you get to actually meet any of the folks you spoke to or was it all done by phone and Internet?
ZC: A lot of it was by phone, yeah, because a lot of these folks were spread across the country or even overseas. Buddy Blaze was in Hawaii, and so I had to do most of my interviews with him sort of late at night, because of the time difference. And I did fly up to see Terry Glaze. But for as many of the local people as I could I did it in person. Tommy Snellings I spent a long afternoon going through all of the memorabilia he had saved, and several albums worth of photos. He gave me a Diamond Darrell guitar pick. Scott Minyard, Jerry Hudson — I met them at places Darrell had been, and that helped, too.
TW: Did you ever hear what Vinnie Paul thought about your book once it was done? If so, what was his reaction?
ZC: No. I assume he hasn’t read it. I saw him at a Danzig show not long after it came out, but he didn’t talk to me.
TW: What about Rex Brown or Phil Anselmo?
ZC: I don’t know about that either. I’d guess no. But Rex wrote his book, and maybe at some point might have flipped through mine for comparison. But I never heard.
TW: Did you ever get any feedback from any hard rock or heavy metal musicians to their opinion? I figure his friends, like Zakk Wylde would want to read it.
ZC: Again, I never heard. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who knew Darrell, and they were complimentary. But that’s about it. I think Pantera fans like it. I have heard from them.
TW: What’s your favorite Pantera album and why?
ZC: Vulgar Display of Power. I think that is absolutely the best representation of what they wanted to be, which was like a super-heavy version of Van Halen. They were still a unit — I think it was Far Beyond Driven when Phil recorded his vocals apart from the rest of the band, in New Orleans — and everything was clicking.
TW: What’s your all-time favorite Pantera song?
ZC: Again, I would go back to Vulgar Display of Power and say “Mouth for War.” The way it starts off, with those machine gun drums, and then Darrell’s opening riff, heavy but sort of swinging, and then Phil just shows off everything he can do. The video is great, too.
TW: Are you planning to follow the book with any other tomes on heavy metal or hard rock? Do you have a website where people can follow your work?
Hm, maybe, if I found a story that really connected with me. I don’t have one now, but I certainly haven’t written it off. And I don’t have a website, but you can follow me on Twitter at @zaccrain. But you’d have to be forewarned, it’s mostly ridiculous jokes.