Put on the opening track on Pantera's 1990 breakthrough album and it'll take all of maybe ten seconds to realize what makes it so legendary in the metal world. From the quick harmonic screech that settles into a motorcycle idle of guitar, followed by a riff that makes your fists involuntarily close and squeeze, to the first drum and bass assault that joins it, Cowboys from Hell is an absolute monster of a song. It's everything metal is supposed to be: corrosive, propulsive, aggressive, utterly cathartic. At the time, it was an introduction to Pantera that was undeniable, a flag plunged into the ground like a knife saying, "Here we fucking are." And the best part was that it just got better from there. The whole CfH album was like an extended release of pure, glorious rage, and central to all of it was the feral growl and blood-curdling scream of Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo.
Anselmo was always more than just an authoritative metal voice, he was one of the genre's most dynamic frontmen. That was true throughout Pantera's run and his status as an emeritus hero in metal remains to this day. Unfortunately, Anselmo is also a racist and bigot, an ignorant, rampaging asshole bully who's never really hid his white supremacist tendencies for the past quarter-century. And two weeks ago, he may have given his fans and everybody else the clearest indication yet just what kind of thoughts bounce around inside his head and what feelings are deep in his heart each and every day. During a performance on January 22nd at Dimebash in Hollywood, the annual concert meant to honor late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, Anselmo wrapped up the final all-star jam by stepping forward, giving a Nazi salute and shouting, "white power!" at the audience. He'd reportedly just belted through a powerhouse version of Pantera's Walk, singing alongside the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl on guitar, and then right after he's "seig heiling" the crowd.
For a couple of days, nobody outside of the show had any idea what had happened -- until, of course, somebody uploaded a clip of the incident to YouTube. The response was swift and merciless, as it should have been. At first, Anselmo demurred, claiming that it was all an inside joke since "white wine" was being served back stage. White wine, at a metal show. Sure thing. It was bullshit from the get-go, especially given that watching the video you see the steely eyed fury with which Anselmo screams his racist proclamation. He's dead fucking serious. Thankfully, nobody bought Anselmo's explanation and by late last week Robb Flynn, vocalist and guitarist for Machine Head, had decided to speak up. He released his own ten-minute-long YouTube clip in which he talked about what happened, dismissing Anselmo's claim of white wine being the impetus for his actions. "I was there, and I can tell you for a fact that there was not a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio in sight backstage," Flynn said. "In fact, the only thing that you were drinking, Phil Anselmo, was Beck's. German beer. Maybe that's where the joke came from."
Flynn went on to rail against Anselmo, giving him a very necessary history lesson. "No white person has been oppressed by black people. Quite the contrary," he said. "And it's not okay to scream out 'white power' and then brush it off as a fucking joke." In response to the video and the pressure coming from a lot of metal fans, Anselmo offered up your standard apology. “Anyone who knows me and my true nature knows that I don’t believe in any of that,” he said, claiming that that he's “a thousand percent apologetic to anyone that took offense... because you should have taken offense.” He asks for fans to give him another chance. The problem of course is that this would technically be his third or fourth chance. Or it least it would have been if people weren't so enamored of Pantera that they let Phil Anselmo get away with being a racist prick for years.
Just at face value there were those early on who figured that his distinctive shaved head at a time when metal still hadn't ventured beyond guys with long hair was meant to show solidarity with skinhead brethren. But maybe judging him by his looks was something that would've made the concerned as guilty as they believed Anselmo to be. Sadly, in 1995, Anselmo himself was more than happy to validate everyone's suspicions about him. In March of that year -- at the height of Pantera's fame -- he took time out of a show in Montreal to deliver a rambling soliloquy to the audience about how "rap bands... are pissing all over your white culture" and how "rap music advocates the killing of white people." He of course prefaced everything he said with a disclaimer about how he loved all people, but, well, everything he said after that seemed to indicate otherwise.
Meanwhile, in Robb Flynn's response video, he claims that during the Dimebash show, a drunk Anselmo was using racial slurs backstage and that while it might not have been caught on video, there was another instance of Anselmo throwing out a Nazi salute and mouthing "white power" during the show. "There's no place for that in metal. And if there is a place for that in metal, count me out," Flynn says. He calls Anselmo, "a big bully. A big, scary dude. But… enough's enough. Enough's enough," and he promises never to play another Pantera song live.
Here's the thing: Phil Anselmo has been like this for more than two decades and almost certainly longer even than that. Nobody bothered to call him out on it for exactly the reason Robb Flynn says: because he's a pit bull of a man and he's a huge star within the metal universe. Everybody just figured it was Phil being Phil and moved on. But the times -- to say nothing of the technology -- finally caught up with Anselmo's retrograde views on race. This is America and he's entitled to think whatever the hell he wants. He can be a white supremacist dickhead to his little heart's desire, but it's good to see that the bands and fans within the metal scene aren't going to simply look the other way this time. Metal's gotten a bad rap over the decades as music for reactionaries, as a scene that not only tolerates intolerance but embraces it as it does so much behavior shunned by polite society. But that's not an accurate picture of it.
Now more than maybe ever before, racism of the kind Phil Anselmo has always casually exhibited can be seen for the gruesome and unacceptable anachronism it is. It was never right, but now people know not to put up with it and they're willing to make that clear to those who still cling to it. Anselmo isn't the victim of PC culture here. He didn't make some crass joke or toss a "microagression" at a hypersensitive college kid. He shouted "white power" and gave a Nazi salute. That doesn't fly. It's reprehensible. And it's good Anselmo finally understands that other people realize that even if he doesn't. Maybe he still has time to get his shit together and change for the better.
This piece has been adjusted slightly from its original version.