Dimebag Darrell: Rock Soldiers
Kiss Army Kaptains Snake Sabo & Dimebag Darrell come face to face with Ace Frehley, the man who gave meaning to their lives— and learn the truth about his shocking past.
Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell and Skid Row’s Snake Sabo, eyeing each other with great suspicion, are ready for the great competition. No, they aren’t trying to outshred each other in a sweaty all-night jam. Rather, they’re trying to see who will emerge champion in a two-man Ace Frehley look-alike contest.
Armed with jars of clown white, Stein’s liquid silver and assorted other powders and creams, the duo work like demons to replicate the distinctive Kabuki makeup of their favorite guitarist, ex-Kiss member Ace Frehley. The stakes are very high, especially since the man who is to judge the results will be none other than their hero, Ace—in the flesh.
Darrell, who has the advantage of having painted his face numerous times in his formative years, mercilessly heckles Sabo, who appears to be having trouble with some runny mascara. Sabo responds by telling the Pantera guitarist where he can stick his red, billy-goat beard. Both cackle like madmen. Soon they are done: both Dimebag and Snake have eerily transformed themselves into perfect copies of Ace, circa Alive!, 1975. “It’s a tie,” Frehley whispers, a bit stunned.
There is obviously, something strange about two successful young musicians participating in such a bizarre event. The truth is, Sabo and Darrell are simply engaging in hero-worship rites of the most powerful sort. One of the greatest rock and roll secrets of the last two decades is the prevailing influence of Kiss, and particularly Ace Frehley, on a whole generation of young musicians who grew up in the Seventies. Like the Beatles in the early Sixties, Kiss introduced rock and roll to millions of embryonic headbangers who were hypnotized by their cartoon personas, chunky hard sound and outrageous stage show. Among these were the young Snake and Darrell.
“Kiss was my first rock experience,” says Sabo. “They made me want to play guitar. In fact, I used to get into fights with kids at school who thought Ace wasn’t as good as Jimmy Page. I’d fight for his honor.”
As for Darrell, his obsession with the Kiss guitarist is so extreme that last year he had an image of Ace tattooed on his chest. “Before the day is through, I’m gonna have Ace sign his name on my chest next to his picture,” he vows. “And when I fly home to Texas tonight, I’m gonna head straight to the tattoo parlor and have them ink it in permanently!” (See photos, page 28.)
Frehley is somewhat humbled by Snake and Darrell’s hot adulation: “To tell you the truth, I never realized the effect Kiss had until long after I left the band,” admits Ace. “Ten years later I had kids coming up to me, telling me that Alive! and Alive II were their rock and roll bibles—and that flipped me out. I never thought about that stuff while I was in the band, and I was really surprised by it later.”
At the end of a lengthy photo session— during which the three Aces brandish Les Pauls equipped with smoke bombs—the trio seat themselves, and prepare to engage in a lengthy discussion of Ace’s stormy Kisstory. But first, Ace must autograph Darrell and Snake’s guitars, tennis shoes, posters…
DAVE “THE SNAKE” SABO How old were you when you joined Kiss?
ACE FREHLEY 23.
SABO How did you hook up with Kiss?
FREHLEY By answering an ad in the Village Voice that said, “Band with recording contract looking for a guitarist.” The first song they taught me was “Deuce,” and I loved it right from the first time they played it for me. When I came back for a second audition, they told me I had the gig—then I found out there was no recording contract. [laughs]
DIMEBAG DARRELL How did you react to the idea of wearing makeup?
FREHLEY Everybody in the band wanted to do a theatrical show, and obviously, makeup was included in that. At that time, Alice Cooper was really big and the New York Dolls were doing well, and both of them used makeup. So when they first asked me about wearing makeup, I thought it was a cool idea.
DARRELL Did you all design your own masks?
FREHLEY Yeah. We developed the makeup at a club on Long Island called the Daisy. The first night we played with makeup, Paul’s face was all red and my face was silver. I think Gene was the first to put makeup around his eyes and wear black lipstick. Then we all decided that we should wear white faces with designs around the eyes. I was always into science fiction and astronomy, so that’s how my image evolved.
GW Did the fact that the public had no idea what you looked like without makeup ever frustrate you?
FREHLEY No, I thought it was great. If everyone knew what I looked like back in 1978, I wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere. It’s funny—I get recognized a lot more today than I did when Kiss was at the peak of its popularity. To tell you the truth, the makeup let me live my life outside of the band much more easily. I had my anonymity back then, and today I don’t.
DARRELL I used to take the Double Platinum album and trace the embossed pictures inside to see what you guys might look like without makeup. [laughs] What’s the closest you came to getting photographed without makeup?
FREHLEY We were photographed a lot, but we always had bodyguards with us who would take the cameras and rip out the film.
DARRELL How did the band keep such a tight control over the photos for 10 years?
FREHLEY To tell you the truth, most magazines really didn’t want to print pictures of us without makeup. I can remember a couple of times where the magazines did get photos of us unmasked, but didn’t print them—they wanted to work with us. They knew that the band’s mystique was selling a lot of magazines for them, and they didn’t want to ruin that.
SABO To me, the band’s image and makeup were always secondary to the music, but I think a lot of people only saw Kiss for their theatrics. Was that ever a problem?
FREHLEY There definitely were times when I felt that the theatrics almost overshadowed the music. I never wanted the music to become secondary to the show. I can remember nights when I didn’t play very well, but I was very animated onstage—and people would tell me it was the best they’d heard me play in a long time. Then there were nights when I concentrated more on my playing and backed off on the choreography, and people told me I had an off night. It was then that I realized that the music was not the most important thing about Kiss. It was another contributing factor to my eventually leaving the group.
SABO When you were young, did you always see yourself becoming a musician, or did you have other aspirations?
FREHLEY I came to a crossroads in my life when I was 16. All my guidance counselors were telling me that I should go to art school and become a graphic artist. But although I knew I had the ability to do that, my heart was into playing rock and roll. Then I cut school one day and saw the Who opening up for Mitch Ryder in Detroit, and I knew for sure what I wanted to do.
DARRELL How many guitars do you own?
FREHLEY Only about 25. I used to have 150, but I dumped them when the vintage market bottomed out. If you remember, when Eddie Van Halen became popular, everybody started playing Kramers and Jacksons, and the vintage guitar market really dropped. And I didn’t want to get stuck with all these guitars, so I sold them. Man, I had mint vintage Gold Tops from the early Fifties with the tags still on them. I’m kind of sorry that I did that because today they’d be worth about a million dollars.
DARRELL Do you have a favorite guitar?
FREHLEY Yeah, my three-pickup cherry Custom.
DARRELL Do you use all three pickups?
FREHLEY No, just the treble. The other two aren’t even wired. [laughs]
GW Do you have a favorite guitar solo?
FREHLEY [to Snake] Well, Sebastian’s [Bach, Skid Row vocalist] favorite solo is the one in “Strange Ways,” and we’re playing that song live now, and I only recently realized how great that solo is. Sometimes you forget things you did a long time ago, and I’m really getting back into my older solos now.
DARRELL Are your solos spontaneous or do you work them out before you get into the studio?
FREHLEY I usually don’t figure them out beforehand—I just push the button and go.
GW What about the smoking guitar solo at the end of “Shock Me,” on Alive II? Was that rehearsed or spontaneous?
FREHLEY That one was kind of planned out. I basically did the same solo every night, with minor alterations. You know, I can remember going to shows as a little kid and watching guitar players who played their solos exactly the way they did on the album, and that always impressed me. I don’t like guitar players who try to be cool and play something completely different from what’s on the album, and I don’t think the fans want that. To me, when you change a solo, it’s almost like changing the lyrics of a song, and I think it disappoints the fans.
DARRELL Do you know a lot of theory?
FREHLEY I don’t know shit from shineola. [laughs] I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m original—I never took lessons or had any formal training.
GW Do you think you’re more respected as a guitarist today than when you were in Kiss?
FREHLEY I’m probably a more legitimate guitar player today than I was during the Seventies. I think it’s because I’m a survivor and still playing after all this time, and people respect that. But I think there was a time when it was almost uncool for serious musicians to like Kiss. We were considered more of a teenybop group because we were on the cover of 16 magazine all the time.
SABO When I’m onstage, certain things tell me whether I’m having a good night. What do you feel when you know you’re playing well?
FREHLEY Sometimes when I’m playing lead, I get a jolt of electricity that runs through my arm down to my hand that tells me I’m really smokin’. The strings become butter and the guitar almost plays itself. It’s a feeling I can’t explain, and it’s only happened about a dozen times in my whole life. I wish it would happen more often.
DARRELL Speaking of getting “jolted,” what happened that time you got electrocuted onstage?
FREHLEY Man, that was flipped out. It happened in Lakeland, Florida. We were touring with the big set, the one with the two staircases that’s pictured inside Alive II. Gene ran down the stairs on the first song and I walked down nice and slow—my balance wasn’t so good. The power in the building was weird that night, and when I came down, I just grounded out as soon as I touched the metal railing with my hand. I couldn’t let go. Once I got loose, I just fell back—I was out. I had burns all over my fingers. When Paul realized what had happened, he told the audience I was having a problem. They all started chanting my name, and that kind of got me going again. It took at least 10 minutes for me to get back to feeling somewhat normal.
DARRELL What gauge picks and strings do you use?
FREHLEY Medium picks and Gibson .009 to .046 strings.
DARRELL What about amps?
FREHLEY I’ve been using Laney amps lately.
GW Where did you get the idea for the smoking guitar?
FREHLEY We got some smoke bombs when I was on the road with Kiss in the early days, and it occurred to me that if I put a bomb inside the casing of a Les Paul, drill a hole in it and let the fuse stick out so I can light it with a cigarette lighter, the smoke would have to go through the wire channel and come out. And I did that for three or four shows until I realized that I screwed up all the volume controls. [laughs] That led to me hooking up with an engineer and designing the one that I use now.
DARRELL Does it have a time limit, or will it smoke for as long as you want?
FREHLEY I use different sized smoke bombs for different venues. I make the bombs myself, and how big I’ll make the bomb depends on the size of the room. I can tell how long it’s gonna burn just by looking at it.
DARRELL I was listening to Alive II the other day, and your voice was definitely weaker in those days than it is today. Have you been working on it?
FREHLEY Well, I don’t practice and I don’t warm up before a show, but it helps that I’ve been singing a lot in the past six months or so. Your voice is like a muscle—when you sing a lot, it gets stronger. Three or four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to sing “Detroit Rock City” for an encore—my voice just wasn’t strong enough. But now I’m having more fun onstage because I can belt it out a little more.
DARRELL I’ve heard rumors that you used to lie on your back in the studio to hit the high notes. Do you still have to do that?
FREHLEY I didn’t lie on my back to hit high notes—I did it because I was nervous and I didn’t want anybody to see me sing. [laughs] I made Eddie Kramer lower the lights and I laid down so he couldn’t see me through the glass, and that’s how I sang my first lead vocal, which was “Shock Me.”
DARRELL Using one word for each of you, describe yourself, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss and Paul Stanley.
FREHLEY I don’t know—Spaceman, Monster, Catman and Poser. [laughs]
SABO Is it true that the reason you, Gene, Peter and Paul did your solo albums in 1978 was to keep the band together?
FREHLEY Well, we did need a break from each other. But if I hadn’t done the solo album, I probably would have stayed in the band. When I got away from the rest of the band and did my solo album, I finally realized what I could do on my own. I found I was much more creative.
DARRELL What exactly were you doing when you crashed your DeLorean in 1983?
FREHLEY I was going 100 miles an hour against traffic on the Bronx River Parkway in New York.
DARRELL Were you loaded?
FREHLEY I was beyond loaded. [laughs]
DARRELL How hard were you hitting the booze back then?
FREHLEY Pretty hard. But today I don’t need it—it’s fucking great being sober.
DARRELL Snake and I both like to drink. Now that you’ve lived through having an alcohol problem, what advice can you give us?
FREHLEY It’s really a personal decision. Some people can handle it, some people only drink on weekends—but when I was drinking, I wanted to drink every day. But I know that I can’t do that anymore. Basically, I just couldn’t handle the hangovers anymore, and I knew I’d end up killing myself. Plus, my daughter becomes a teenager this year, and how can I tell her not to drink or do drugs if I’m high all the time? You know, she was listening to my solo album for the first time the other day, and she keeps playing “Ozone” over and over again. [laughs] I feel a little weird about it because I talk about getting high in that song, but I’m also happy that she’s finally discovering who her dad is and where he’s been.
GW What about Paul and Gene? Is it true that they’ve never tried alcohol or drugs?
FREHLEY Paul used to drink wine occasionally, but not in excess. But to my knowledge, Gene never drank or smoked pot. I don’t trust people who’ve never had a drink. [laughs]
SABO What was it like making the movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park?
FREHLEY Actually, I really didn’t enjoy it that much. A lot of that had to do with the shooting schedule because I was a night guy— I liked to hang out and go to clubs around L.A. at night—and we had something like an 8 a.m. makeup call. And since my hotel was about an hour from the set, I had to get up at like seven in the morning with a fucking hangover, go to the set and start putting on makeup at eight. By nine I’d walk on the set, and the director would go, “I think we’re going to do close-ups of Gene today. We won’t need you until after lunch, Ace.” He did that to me a couple of times, and one day I just snapped and took off in a rented Mercedes.
DARRELL Do you see a Kiss reunion in the future?
FREHLEY That’s really in the hands of Paul and Gene. They own the name and they’d have to propose it to me in the right way. And would I consider it? Yes. It could be a great thing.