Black Tooth Grin by Zac Crain
This unauthorized book on 'Dimebag' Abbott won't rock heavy-metal fans' world.
Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of "Dimebag" Darrell AbbottPublisher: Da Capo
Length: 336 pages
Author: Zac Crain
Publication date: 2009-06
Darkness splashed with all-American light: The life of Darrell "Dimebag" Abbott in a glass. A "black tooth grin", Crown Royal (or any brown liquor) and Coca-Cola, was Abbott's signature drink, one he helped popularize by relentlessly pushing it on friends and fans.
Viciously potent -- not unlike Abbott's pulverizing riffs as a member of Pantera and Damageplan -- it's also the title of Zac Crain's unauthorized biography of the guitarist, who was gunned down onstage by Nathan Gale in December 2004 at an Ohio nightclub.
Crain -- a senior editor at D Magazine, a Spin and Esquire contributor, and a former Dallas Observer music editor -- set a Sisyphean task for himself, in that the Abbott family distanced itself from his project early on, citing the Abbotts' work on a separate biography and Crain's dismissal of Pantera's 1996 record, The Great Southern Trendkill, during his tenure at the Observer. Despite that blow (and plenty of fuming from the metal community at large), Crain was undeterred, using his Spin coverage of Abbott's Arlington memorial service as a jumping-off point for Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of Darrell 'Dimebag' Abbott.
The lack of access forced Crain to sketch a portrait from a distance, relying on archival quotes from Abbott and his brother Vinnie, along with copious details gleaned from an extensive series of interviews with friends, business associates and contemporaries. What emerges is frustratingly incomplete and overly reverential (Abbott is all but deified by the book's conclusion) but nevertheless admirable for its ambition, as it traces Abbott's formative years absorbing lessons from Texas legends like Bugs Henderson, his multi-platinum reign at the top and his ugly, untimely demise.
The Dallas-born guitar hero, who died too young at 38, was sonically innovative and deeply influential for a generation of metalheads who came of age during Metallica's glory days. For those who might pick up Black Tooth Grin with scant knowledge of Pantera or the band's contextual relevance within the metal and hard rock scenes, Crain deftly outlines the major players, the significant records and the key moments in the Texas thrashers' development, reliably underscoring Abbott's generous nature and creative tenacity.
Yet for all the fond remembrances and convivial anecdotes, there's an unshakable aloofness to the 301-page tome that prevents full immersion in Dimebag's boozy, fun-loving world. Perhaps it's that Crain is on the record elsewhere about his disdain for the genre and its output; perhaps it's that Abbott was, at heart, a man of simple pleasures with a largely uncomplicated life.
Whatever the reason, Black Tooth Grin quickly becomes repetitive as Crain, a few wonderfully evocative lines notwithstanding, emphasizes Abbott's love of alcohol, loyalty to his friends and business partners, and selflessness, offering one debauched or touching story after another. While the depth of sourcing -- one gets the feeling that Crain scraped out every last corner of the public "Dimebag" archives -- allows for different insight than the family might provide, Black Tooth Grin lacks a crucial sense of intimacy and never fully brings Abbott to life.
Abbott's tragic death -- labeled the "9/11 of rock" by Disturbed's David Draiman -- is particularly mishandled, as Crain simply watches footage of the shooting and spends nearly ten pages relaying his impresssions. While he does solicit reactions to Gale's senseless act from Abbott's friends, the play-by-play interspersed with suppositions and theories about the killer's motives is at once repellent and self-indulgent. It's a sizable stumble in a book that has already courted plenty of controversy; injecting oneself into the key event only reinforces suspicions of opportunism.
Put simply, when Crain has access -- witness his dazzling, heartbreaking 2008 D Magazine profile of country legend Charley Pride -- he can slip inside a musician's skin like few other writers in the area. Just as Black Tooth Grin burnishes Abbott's considerable reputation, it can't help leave you wishing Crain had battled a bit more for cooperation from the family and, by extension, a more richly drawn assessment of a singular talent.