The following feature is taken from the December 2016 issue of Decibel magazine, which is available for purchase here.
Like so many huge mistakes, this one was made in Hollywood. Phil Anselmo was in town for the Dimebash, an annual benefit concert held to commemorate the life and music of Anselmo’s former Pantera bandmate “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, who was gunned down onstage 12 years ago in Columbus, OH. By many accounts, emotions were running high—this was, after all, a tribute to a massively talented and beloved musician who was murdered while doing what he loved—and the booze was flowing freely. But it was all for a good cause: Proceeds from the show would go to the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. With a star-studded cast that included the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, Slayer members Gary Holt and Paul Bostaph and former Pantera bassist Rex Brown, Anselmo sawed off a handful of Pantera classics and a cover of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” at Lucky Strike Live on Hollywood Boulevard. At the end of the set, Anselmo raised his arm in the Sieg Heil salute and shouted “White power!”
It was an ignominious end to what was otherwise a fun and nostalgic night of music. Pig Destroyer bassist John Jarvis, who also plays with Anselmo in black metal act Scour, was at Dimebash with fellow Scour member Derek Engemann (also of Cattle Decapitation). “Before that happened, it was pretty much one of the greatest times we’ve ever had,” Jarvis tells Decibel. “We spent the whole day with Phil and got wasted out of our minds, of course. Derek and I were backstage hanging out with Dave Grohl and Rob Trujillo and Dave Lombardo—all these superstars backstage, and they’re all in awe of Phil. It’s crazy to see Dave Grohl be like, ‘Look—there’s Phil Anselmo!’ and kind of get starstruck.”
After Anselmo raised his arm in the notorious Nazi salute, Jarvis and Engemann didn’t know what to do. Scour’s debut had already been recorded, but hadn’t been released yet. Suddenly it seemed like their new project might be dead in the water. “We didn’t go backstage after it happened because we were just like, ‘What the fuck was that? Did that really just happen?’” Jarvis explains. “The walk back to the hotel that night was kind of questioning if Scour should even happen. Those types of actions can end any band.”
Jarvis and Engemann braced themselves for the inevitable real-time fallout, but were met with total silence. “I remember driving home and being like, ‘How could this not be a news story yet?’” Jarvis recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe I was just wasted.’”
In fact, nothing happened for almost a week. The Dimebash was held on Jan. 22. It wasn’t until Jan. 27 that video footage surfaced on YouTube showing Anselmo doing the now infamous deed. The audience member who posted the footage had cut Anselmo’s coup de grace from his initial post, but ultimately reconsidered and reposted an unedited version. As the comments section lit up like a Christmas tree, Anselmo did himself no favors by chiming in via the Housecore Records YouTube handle with, “Ok folks, I’ll own this one, but dammit, I was joking and the ‘inside joke of the night’ was because we were drinking fucking white wine, hahaha… of all fucking things. Some of y’all need to thicken up your skin. There’s plenty of fuckers to pick on with a more realistic agenda. I fucking love everyone, I fucking loathe everyone, and that’s that. No apologies from me.”
On Jan. 29, Machine Head ringleader Robb Flynn—who played Pantera songs with Anselmo at Dimebash—released an 11-minute response video in which he denounced Anselmo as a “big bully” and a racist. He concluded by saying that he would never play another Pantera song again. The same day, former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, who toured with Pantera when they supported Skid Row on the Slave to the Grind tour in 1992 and once created a well-deserved shitstorm of his own by wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “AIDS Kills Fags Dead”—tweeted, “People who say White Power are PUSSIES.” As the days lurched by, the backlash kept coming from all corners of the metal world.
On Jan. 30, Anselmo released a video message in which he changed his tune considerably: “It was ugly, it was uncalled for, and anyone who knows me and my true nature knows that I don’t believe in any of that… I am a thousand percent apologetic to anyone that took offense to what I said, because you should have taken offense to what I said. And I am so sorry, and I hope you… just give me another chance. I love all of you… Bless you.”
On Feb. 1, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, who is Jewish, released a statement on his official website saying, “Philip’s actions were vile” and invited Anselmo to make a donation to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Later that month, Black Label Society’s Zakk Wylde, who has long been touted as a potential stand-in for Dimebag at any potential Pantera reunion, was asked about the Dimebash debacle by Fuse. “I saw the video [of the incident] and I’m like, ‘What are you doing, man?’” the guitarist replied. “But he apologized and he knows he’s wrong… I’m pretty much… like everybody else, just as bummed out and saddened by the whole thing, man.” When Slayer guitarist Kerry King was asked in March by Vanyaland for his opinion on Anselmo’s actions, he replied, “There’s a line I think he crossed a little bit; yeah, he may not come back from that. It was massive.”
In the aftermath, Anselmo’s main band, Down, was dropped from Holland’s FortaRock festival by the event’s organizers, who issued a statement saying, in part, “We want to make clear that there is no room for racism or fascism at FortaRock.” A few days later, the French government pulled a 20,000-euro grant from Hellfest, citing Down’s scheduled appearance on the bill and the government’s policy against hate speech. Hellfest organizers refused to drop Down and claimed the government was looking for any excuse to rescind the cash, but Anselmo and Down bowed out of the festival of their accord. At one point, the heat got so bad that Anselmo made a second public apology via his own website and suggested that his bandmates in Down “move on” without him.
In the pages that follow, Anselmo gives the first major interview he’s done since Dimebash. In our effort to provide as many viewpoints as possible, we reached out to several of the musicians who publicly denounced Anselmo’s actions. Zakk Wylde declined to comment for this story. The publicist who represents both Kerry King and Scott Ian informed us that they were unavailable to speak with us. Our emails to Sebastian Bach’s manager remain unanswered as of press time. Meanwhile, the notorious Dimebash video, posted on YouTube by user Chris R. under the title “Phil Anselmo is a Racist! Ruins Dimebash 2016,” has well over a million views as this story goes to print.
“The truth is, I’m doing myself no fucking favors by granting this interview,” Anselmo says when we call him at home in Louisiana. “There’s gonna be all those pussy websites that claim they’re heavy metal websites that are gonna poke holes through everything I fucking say—or desperately try to—which, good luck with that.
“Please use my words precisely,” he adds. “Because I’m recording you as well, just to make sure that what I say doesn’t get twisted—not that I don’t trust you. This is for my own safety.”
On the day we speak with him—Sept. 21, 2016, to be exact—Anselmo is taking a break from recording with Warbeast, the Texas thrash band he’s producing for his label, Housecore Records. Since shortly before Dimebash, he’s been working on music relentlessly, completing new recordings with Superjoint, Scour, Philip H. Anselmo & the Illegals and a mysterious death metal project called Metraton Nganga that he says he can’t discuss just yet. “From the end of last year till now, I’m probably sitting on about five or six records,” he reveals. “There’s about two and a half albums’ worth of Illegals stuff alone.”
The biggest news of the bunch is the latest Superjoint record, Caught Up in the Gears of Application. It’s the first new Superjoint album since 2003. The band, formerly known as Superjoint Ritual, then featured bassist Hank Williams III, guitarist Jimmy Bower (also of Down and Eyehategod), guitarist Kevin Bond and drummer Joe Fazzio. In 2004, the whole operation went tits-up in a tornado of drug abuse and bad blood before reemerging with a new lineup to play Anselmo’s Housecore Horror Festival in 2014. “We were having some internal problems and then… I don’t wanna throw everyone under the bus, so I’ll just make me and Jimmy the main culprits,” Anselmo offers. “We were coming off of hard drugs, which is always very traumatic. We’re talking over a decade ago now, but if you’re gonna take the correct steps in defeating that type of addiction, you’ve gotta part ways with old acquaintances. So, there was that, and then I had back surgery and knee surgery, and then there was the resurgence of Down—all that put [Superjoint] off.”
On top of that, Superjoint had a legal problem that forced them to drop the “Ritual” from the band name. “That’s because there’s a bloodsucking leech out there who took advantage of a situation,” Anselmo says without naming names. “But we’re all at fault as well for signing a document that basically has a zero sunset clause, meaning that this person is privy to a cut of any money a ‘Superjoint Ritual’ would make. Hence getting rid of the ‘Ritual,’ coming back as Superjoint, and cutting out that cancer.”
It’s our discussion of the new Superjoint album that slowly but surely leads back to the fateful events of Dimebash. When asked what inspired the title of the record, Anselmo replies, “I don’t want to spoil it for everybody, but it’s an interesting take on the world we live in today. And it’s funny that I wrote it a year ago, considering the year that I’ve had. It’s very self-prophesizing, so to speak. It just goes to show how it’s very different in this day and age compared to when we were coming up as young musicians in a genre of music that was meant to be cutting edge and free and meant to speak our minds and come from the school of GG Allin and the Mentors—or a band like Anal Cunt. It makes one wonder how those bands would fare in today’s society.
“What does today’s young person really want?” he continues. “Do they want safe rock ’n’ roll? Do they want safety within their music? That’s not how we grew up. The more dangerous, the more cutting edge, the more attractive it was to us. Whether you meant what you were saying or not, if you shook things up, the more props to ya. But it seems like today if you shake things up, you’re the scourge. So, the new Superjoint, needless to say, will—gasp, hold your breath, get ready for it—might ‘trigger’ some people.”
It’s Anselmo who asks us to put the quotation marks around ‘trigger.’ And then he gets right down to business: “First and foremost, I do take full accountability,” he says of his Dimebash showing. “I’m not deflecting at all. What I did was insulting, absolutely, and abhorrent, because it did truly upset people, and it hurts my heart that anyone would think that I’m the dreaded ‘R’ word—a racist. Anyone who truly knows me knows that it’s utterly ridiculous. But if I did offend my Jewish friends, people I work with, my associates, other people in bands… if I were to upset people in that particular way—that’s why I apologized. That apology is there—and no, you won’t get another one ever again.”
Then he pauses and mentions something that seems to have been largely overlooked in the massive online pissing match that followed Dimebash. “It’s kinda funny, considering I’ve got a Mexican drummer and a half-black guitar player,” he laughs.
He’s referring to Superjoint, Illegals (and, incidentally, Warbeast) drummer Jose “Blue” Gonzalez and Superjoint guitarist Kevin Bond, respectively. In all the uproar, it seems nobody bothered to examine the racial makeup of Superjoint. Or to point out that the Illegals’ original guitarist, Marzi Montazeri, is Iranian. All of which only serves to highlight the two very different questions at issue here. The first: Were Anselmo’s words and actions at Dimebash incredibly stupid, insensitive and inflammatory? Almost everyone with a brain—including Anselmo—agrees that they were. The second: Is Anselmo a racist? Of the many high-profile musicians who denounced his actions—Flynn, Ian, Bach, King and Wylde—only Flynn seems willing to go that far, even claiming in his response video that Anselmo pulled him aside at Dimebash and told Flynn how much he “hated the ‘nigger era’ of Machine Head.”
When asked what he thinks of Flynn’s video, Anselmo simply replies, “Who?”
But he dismisses the accusations of racism outright. “I’m no rustic fucking fool,” he says, the agitation palpable in his voice. “That’s simpleton think. And I’m not quite as simple as people would envision me. I’ve said it throughout the years, but my heroes are black; they’re Jewish—Mel Brooks, Rod Serling. The first time I shaved the sides of my head was because of Mike Tyson. The [Pantera] song ‘Mouth for War’ was written about the middleweight champ at the time—James fucking Toney. I don’t think people even know that.
“Should I have done it?” he says of his Dimebash finale. “Hell fucking no. Would I take it back? Absolutely. But my sense of humor is dark and my temper is and always has been volatile, so I reacted. I reacted in an ignorant way. I own it. But do I believe in it? That’s ridiculous.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time the words “Phil Anselmo” and “racist” have appeared in the same sentence together. During Pantera’s heyday, MTV did an interview with Anselmo about fans shouting “White power!” at the band’s shows. In the introduction to the segment, commentator Kurt Loder mentioned “rumblings of the alleged racism in the band’s lyrics” and pointed out the triskelion—a symbol used by the South African neo-Nazi organization AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging)—on the T-shirt Anselmo wore during the interview. The singer flatly denied all allegations of racism at the time, but didn’t help his case during a 1995 Pantera concert in Montreal, during which he went on a long, tortured rant against a then-popular T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Stop Black on Black Crime.”
“People say I have a history of racism,” Anselmo says today. “When I was in Pantera, I was completely and utterly confused when, in the ’90s, the T-shirt started circulating that said, ‘Stop Black On Black Crime.’ Today, as a damn-near-50-year-old man, living in 2016 where America is divided so completely, I understand it and I support that sentiment completely. But as a young man in my 20s, I didn’t understand it and I did speak out vehemently against it because to me it basically said, ‘Stop black on black crime, but everyone else is fair game.’ That’s how I took it. And anybody could get that misconception. So, there’s your mighty racist history right there. I took offense to a T-shirt.”
As for Pantera’s supposedly racist lyrics? “Let me make it very clear, here and now: I have never written a white power song in my entire discography,” he insists. “Maybe I’ve said controversial things, but that’s the school of music that I come from. If you want safe music and safe spaces and all that type of shit, then run screaming in the other direction, please, and go toward yon safety. Way back when, if you didn’t like what someone was saying, you change the channel. It’s not all that difficult.”
Kiss & Tell
Prior to our interview, Anselmo made some notes about a YouTube video. Not the “Phil Anselmo is a Racist!” video, but another one posted by a Dimebash audience member using the handle “russdudeman.” The title of the video is “Dimebash 1-22-16 All Of Phil Anselmo’s Bits Between Songs.” “Why on earth would I just scream what I did and make the hand gesture? Why did I do that?” Anselmo asks. “That’s the most valid question out there. So, I suggest that everyone check out this YouTube video. In preparing for this interview, I looked at it and it’s amazing.”
His analysis is this: “First and foremost, I was absolutely smashed drunk. No excuse, but I was. It was late and my mood was mixed because of the situation in general. We were honoring my dead, murdered guitar player and it’s still something that a piece of me has not come to grips with. I know people are reading this in black and white, but it makes my heart ache as I say it. Now, [from] the second I stepped on that stage until the bitter end of that night, there were a couple of kids with an absolute agenda constantly, all night long, calling me the dreaded ‘R’ word. ‘Racist, racist, racist,’ over and over and over—in between songs, during songs, during my stage banter. And I marked it: At 4:35 in the video, you can see my attention slowly beginning to get irked and agitated. By 5:10, you can see me actually eyeballing these people and engaging. They were 70 feet away from me screaming this shit. I even invited them up onstage and dared them to call me that to my fuckin’ face, and I said I would knock them out cold. You can check the video for yourself. Can you hear the kids? No, you can’t. But I most certainly did. And I’ve talked with people who were there who can corroborate because they were standing right next to them.”
Anselmo’s Scour bandmate John Jarvis confirms that there were audience members near the stage yelling at Anselmo, but he heard them saying something entirely different. “They were saying, ‘You guys are heavy metal,’” he recalls. “So, the kid was trying to interact with Phil in a positive way, but I think what Phil heard was, ‘You guys aren’t heavy metal.’ That’s when the tone of the whole thing really went south. Then Phil said, ‘I want you to come up here and say that to my face.’ So, when he thought he heard something, the whole vibe went sour.”
Jarvis says he didn’t hear the audience members calling Anselmo a racist, but he says it’s possible that they did. “Like I said, I was wasted, too,” he explains. “It all happened so fast, you know? But it went from the best time ever to the worst.”
Ultimately, Anselmo claims he yelled “White power!” and threw the Nazi salute because he was joking about drinking white wine backstage and because he was reacting to the audience members up front who he says were taunting him. But then he drops an extra detail we hadn’t heard before. “The white wine thing was a running joke backstage after—get this—kissing Doug Pinnick on the lips. And he says to me, ‘Whoa—you taste good!’ Because I was drinking a bottle of white wine. I even joked about it with him—‘white power,’ hahaha. The funny thing about that is that particular room was for certain artists only. Other certain people who were part of the Dimebash were not allowed back there. I guess they felt slighted or—in quotation marks—‘offended.’ So, there was a running gag there, and it carried on even after the incident. What went down onstage was an extension of that, but also a firm reaction to these motherfuckers [up front], who, that’s exactly what they wanted.”
Doug Pinnick plays bass and sings in King’s X. He was at Dimebash. He’s also black. And came out as gay back in 1998. We called him to ask about the interaction he had with Anselmo before Phil went onstage: “Yeah, Phil kissed me,” Pinnick laughs. “I hadn’t seen him since Dime was killed, but I walked backstage and he got up, hugged me as hard as he could and whispered in my ear, ‘You are the greatest human being I’ve ever known.’ That’s just how he is. He’s over the top about everything. I love that guy.”
Not that Pinnick condones Anselmo’s actions onstage that night. “He shouldn’t have done it. I can’t stick up for what he said. I think he was trying to be funny and controversial, but he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. I know people say, ‘How can you do something like that as a joke?’ But you gotta know Phil and his sarcasm. He got shit on for it, and rightfully so, but the backlash he got was a little bit over the top, I think. These people that are saying all these horrible things about him, they don’t know him. He’s branded a racist forever now, probably. That’ll be part of his résumé. But I hope he can recover from it and continue making music.”
“From a sociological standpoint, hate speech can be characterized as the purposeful use of gestures, text, images or multimedia to disparage and malign an individual or group based on identifiable characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Anselmo’s words and actions at the Dimebash have a very strong grounding in political movements which have been classified as propagating hateful utterances. Hence, one might classify such actions as hate speech.”
The speaker is Vivek Venkatesh, associate professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University in Montreal. A Canadian who was born in India and spent time growing up in Venezuela, the U.S. and Singapore, Venkatesh is a lifelong metalhead and a self-described “academic in the interdisciplinary field of extreme metal music studies.” His academic writings have explored the consumer culture, online communities, social psychology and—you guessed it—hate speech within extreme metal. He’s also the creator of the Grimposium, a touring festival and conference series that last took place in August at Heavy Montreal and featured such notable guests as Repulsion’s Scott Carlson, Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson and Decibel’s own beleaguered editor-in-chief, Albert Mudrian.
Venkatesh has seen the footage from Dimebash and has followed the aftermath. “I think that Anselmo did the right thing by apologizing for his actions,” he offers, “And I think that how such an apology is mediated, received and digested by the public and members of the media is of particular interest in understanding the complicated politics that run through our local and global metal scenes.”
Anselmo’s apologies have been received and digested in many different ways. Comments on all of the aforementioned videos and media statements reflect the full spectrum of opinion: Everything from standard acceptance/rejection of said apologies to total indifference and even declarations of support for the white power movement. “Essentially, I see these discussions as promoting a highly specialized form of solipsism that we like to project on the ‘other,’” Venkatesh offers. “It is far too easy to judge others’ characters and very difficult to step into the rabbit hole of disgrace and despair when one has transgressed against social mores. We have essentially become what we love to despise in others—narcissistically judgmental.”
And we’re not particularly polite or rational about it, either. “We tend to shout each other out in trying to make ourselves heard, and we tend to do this very hastily,” Venkatesh observes. “I think we need to favor the kinds of democratic spaces offered in online environments where we can engage in some form of agonism in discussing these important issues—places where we allow different perspectives to interact and for arguments to be borne out over time and space, without necessarily looking for solutions or coming to a conclusion.”
For what it’s worth to the wider metal community, Anselmo’s bandmates have forgiven him. He continues to perform with Down, who played their first show since Dimebash at the Psycho Las Vegas festival in August. Reached at home in Louisiana, Down drummer and Superjoint guitarist Jimmy Bower tells Decibel, “He did the right thing by apologizing sincerely, and that’s about all you can do. People get drunk and do stupid shit all the time; they’re just not put on the stand. And he was basically put on the stand for that. It was unfortunate, but I think he learned a big lesson from that as well. But is Phil a Nazi? Fuck no. He’s a burnout, dude.”
John Jarvis of Scour says he spoke with Anselmo shortly after the Dimebash video appeared online. “We talked it out, and he apologized, which meant a lot,” he offers. “If he had come out and said, ‘Fuck everybody, these are my views,’ I would’ve been like, ‘I don’t think I can be associated with you anymore, buddy. You’ve lost your mind.’ But luckily he was humbled enough to realize he had really fucked up and needed to change his life. And he has—hasn’t drank since February, as far as I know. Last time I saw him, he looked great and sounded better than ever.”
Anselmo confirms that he hasn’t had a drink since Mardi Gras. He says the Eyehategod shows he recently did—filling in for EHG vocalist Mike Williams, who is battling severe health problems—were the first gigs he can recall doing sober. “I don’t miss it; I don’t crave it,” he says of his trusty Beck’s and alcohol in general. “The taste is gone from the old tongue, and if that’s the case I’m gonna keep rolling with it. Now, will I have a sip at some point in the future? I honestly don’t know. It’s a day-by-day thing. But I feel much better as far as being onstage and having that clarity.”
Toward the end of our two-hour conversation, we ask Anselmo if there’s anything else he’s learned from this whole mess. “Well, I definitely know to retire the old ‘white power’ joke,” he offers. “Like Morrissey says, ‘That joke isn’t funny anymore. It’s too close to home, too near the bone.’ I understand that one hundred percent, so you’ll never see that shit again. If people wanna get political with my ass, I’ll just tell them to turn on the television, because I don’t know the answers or the solutions to their fucking questions.”
He concludes by saying that he won’t be doing many interviews after this—if any. In fact, he plans to keep his public appearances limited to the stage. “As far as extended conversations with me, outside, after the gig—that shit that I used to really look forward to, like meeting people and signing stuff? That shit is gonna be brief and monosyllabic at best on my end,” he says. “Those things they call phones that are actually way more than phones have ruined the experience.
“Two words and one hand gesture do not define my fucking career,” he adds. “There’s a lot more to me than that. Everyone who keeps living off that blip of time, they’re in for quite a shock in the next couple years. The music that I have coming out is gonna show that I’m a musician first and foremost. I’m not a politico. I may have my observations about the world, but they’re gonna be tongue in cheek.”