Walter O'Brien: Strength Beyond Strength
GW Did Dimebag and the others show concern about what was happening?
O’BRIEN We were all concerned. Dimebag definitely. Vinnie was very upset. Rex wasn’t thrilled either. And Dime being the big creative guy along with Phil, they were starting to butt heads. I should be careful how I word this, because I don’t want to overstate something in the wrong direction: It’s my opinion that Dime, Vinnie and Rex would have been very happy to be the next Van Halen or Metallica. They wanted to be the big arena rock band. Phil got to a point where he started to sort of back up. He wanted to be back playing in the bars, doing hardcore stuff that would scare your parents. He was into death metal and black metal, and he wanted to take Pantera in that direction. And as management we kept trying to say, “Look, you can make as many solo albums as you want, but Pantera is already an arena rock band. And with just a little twist you’re going to go triple Platinum with the next record.” And that’s not selling out—it would have still been Pantera. But he just kept pushing it.
GW The records did get progressively heavier. Do you think those last few Pantera albums were the ones Dime and Vinnie wanted to make, or would they have preferred the sound to have been a little different?
O’BRIEN I don’t really want to speak for them, especially Dime, since of course he can’t confirm or deny anything. But… yeah, I would say that’s pretty close to true. They liked the heaviness, don’t get me wrong; they loved making heavy records. But Dime had a different sense about the lyrics. In my opinion he thought the lyrics were getting to be a little too much. Songs like “Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills” [from Far Beyond Driven]…stuff like that. It got a little better with [2000’s] Reinventing the Steel. But by then there was such a big chasm in the group.
GW Common consensus is that the beginning of the end came when Phil suffered a heroin overdose backstage at a show in Dallas in 1996. Were you there that night?
O’BRIEN I was. That was a very bad day. I had always told the guys that I would not deal with a band that got involved with heroin. And I knew that meant there were bands I could never be involved with because they were junkies. But at the time, none of us knew Phil was using. We were all sitting backstage in the Pantera dressing room, partying, having a great time. It was a killer show, a big, big venue in Dallas. It was a homecoming. Everybody was there—family, friends. And all of a sudden somebody came in, screaming, “Phil’s dying! Phil’s dying!” We all jumped up and ran down to the room where Phil was, and he was laying out on a couch or a table or something, so dark blue you couldn’t even see his tattoos. And he’d stopped breathing.
So an ambulance came and they ran him off to the hospital. And the Pantera guys said to me, “You gotta go to the hospital.” And I said, “I ain’t going to the hospital. I am not chasing junkies all over town. I’m sorry. And if that means you’re firing me, fine. I’m probably quitting anyway.” And I remember as soon as I walked away, I saw all his New Orleans jackass friends, from Eyehategod and a couple other bands, who are all junkies and morons and losers. And one of them, a guy who was in Down [drummer Jimmy Bower], came up to me and said “Cha-ching! What’s the matter? Your big payday get taken away from you?” I said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And he said, “Well, you’re the one that let this happen.” And I said to him, “You’re the jackasses that do this shit around him and tell him it’s okay. And as far as a paycheck, I just quit.”
GW But you didn’t quit.
O’BRIEN I didn’t. Really, I couldn’t leave. So the next morning we had a big band meeting. We all went in a room and basically called Phil out on a lot of things. But he just wasn’t owning up to it. So that was the beginning of the end.
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