Walter O'Brien: Strength Beyond Strength
Originally published in Guitar World, January 2010
Pantera manager Walter O’Brien saw everything that happened onstage and off—and lived to tell the tales, including the story of the drama and drugs that led to the group’s demise.
Few people in the music industry worked with Dimebag Darrell and Pantera as closely, and for as long, as Walter O’Brien. As the president of Concrete Management, O’Brien served as Pantera’s day-to-day manager from 1989 until 2003. He accompanied the band in the studio and on the road for much of their career, and was instrumental in helping to make them one of the biggest heavy metal acts of the Nineties.
O’Brien, who earlier in his career had worked with such acts as Genesis and Peter Gabriel, cofounded Concrete Management and Marketing with Bob Chiappardi in 1984. In 1991 the company split, and O’Brien took over operations for what became known as Concrete Management. Over the years, his organization guided the careers of such superstar metal acts as Anthrax, White Zombie and Ministry, though no relationship lasted as long, or arguably reached such heights, as the one Concrete forged with Pantera.
In 2003, O’Brien ceased formal activities as Concrete Management and shut down the company’s offices. He has since retired from the music business and turned instead to focus on freelance writing and photography. In this exclusive interview, he looks back on his time with the band and tells the story of their tremendous rise and tragic fall. He also discusses how he came to sign Pantera, who he says he initially thought were “terrible,” and recalls some of his highest, and lowest, moments with the band, from celebrating Number One albums, to witnessing drug overdoses, to attempting to navigate them through their tumultuous final years. As a manager and a friend who was with the band every step of the way, he sums up his time with Pantera thusly: “It was a lot of headaches, and a lot of hard work. But it was also the best 14 years of my life.”
GUITAR WORLD How did you come to manage Pantera?
WALTER O’BRIEN It’s actually a funny story. When the band was putting those first few independent records out, pre–Phil Anselmo, they would send me copies and ask me to manage them. And I would always say no, because basically the records were terrible. The band was very glam, and they were in spandex, and I just didn’t think that much of it. Obviously, Dimebag was a great guitar player, Vinnie was a great drummer and Rex was a great bass player, but the frontman at the time [Terry Glaze] just didn’t do it, and the songs just didn’t do it. Power Metal [Pantera’s first record with Phil Anselmo, released in 1988] was a little better, but they still had the yellow spandex and stuff, and it wasn’t my cup of tea.
Now, around 1989 I was working to get one of my other bands, Metal Church, a new record deal, and I went to see a friend, Derek Shulman [then president of Atco Records] to see if he was interested in signing them. Derek said, “I don’t really want to sign a band that’s been around the block a few times. But I do have this new group I’d love to have you manage—Pantera, from down in Texas.” And I went, “Oh, no, no, no. I’ve heard their tapes!”
GW So then what happened?
O’BRIEN Mark Ross, who worked in A&R at Atco, asked me to go down to Dallas with him to see the band play. He said, “You gotta see them live.” So I thought, What the hell, I’ll go. If nothing else, I’ll get a nice dinner out of it! We went to see them at Dallas City Limits, a bar with pool tables. And the place was jam-packed—there were probably a thousand people there. All completely nuts. It was an unbelievable scene. Pantera hit the stage and it was total pandemonium. I’d never seen anything like it. Dimebag and Rex were flying all over the stage, Phil was taking leaps off the drum kit, Vinnie had the unbelievably fast double-kick going. By the second song I said to Mark, “I’ll do anything to manage these guys.”