Steel City Rocks: The Fall of Phil Anselmo

Our rock blogger Chris Lord weighs in on the recent controversy surrounding Down frontman Phil Anselmo.

It has been a tough couple of months for metal. We were only just beginning to come to terms with Scott Weiland’s untimely death on December 3rd, when our genre suffered its greatest loss ever with the tragic passing of Lemmy Kilmister a couple of days after Christmas. The whole of the worldwide rock-metal community came together as one to mourn and celebrate the life of an icon who truly was one of a kind. We will never see another Lemmy, and it has been an absolute pleasure to reminisce about him with friends and family over the last few weeks.

Unfortunately, this recent solidarity and camaraderie has been significantly dampened by the abhorrent actions of Phil Anselmo at the Dimebash 2016 event in Hollywood – an annual tribute to the late Pantera guitarist and Anselmo’s former bandmate, Dimebag Darrell, which took place on January 22nd at Lucky Strike Live. As with previous years, the show was a who’s who, all-star cast of rock-metal personalities; with names such as Dave Grohl, Rob Trujillo, Zakk Wylde and Robb Flynn, among others, all joining forces onstage to commemorate the lives of Dimebag, Lemmy and Ronnie James Dio. Proceeds from the event were donated to Dio’s posthumous charity, the Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. The venue’s club-sized setting meant the show was always going to be an exclusive, intimate affair; and for fans across the globe, the only access during and since has been fan footage of the covers Walk, Ace of Spades and Wish You Were Here available on YouTube. The immediate responses to the show were generally glowing, and as far as we could tell sat behind our laptops five thousand miles away, a damn good time was had by all.

At least that seemed to be the case until approximately a week ago, when unsavoury footage of Phil Anselmo surfaced online. Shocking footage which depicts Anselmo, upon the show’s end, Sieg-Heiling and screaming ‘white power’ towards the audience that evening in Los Angeles. The fallout from the emergence of this footage has been enormous. Countless comment threads and websites have been stampeded by outraged metalheads, disgusted Pantera fans, and the public in general, to rightly condemn and lambast Anselmo. The initial coverage of the controversy from the British rock press was extremely sparse and non-committal, with certain magazines opting to sit on the fence. A truth which is all the more disappointing when you consider that the quality of our genre’s coverage globally is at an all-time high, and that something as trivial as a Lars Ulrich fart often warrants a prompt press release.

It was Robb Flynn – Machine Head’s founder and frontman – who illuminated the grim reality of Anselmo’s transgressions at Dimebash for us all. In a sombre video message posted on the Machine Head YouTube channel, Flynn – a living legend in his own right – attacked Anselmo for soiling a great night of heavy music with his ugly actions, before insisting ‘enough is enough’, and that the world deserves to know the brutal truth regarding Anselmo’s intolerant, racist nature. Only after the band published this video – a clip that went viral in minutes – did the British and American rock press follow suit and begin to commentate on the controversy, albeit without any direct opinions or criticisms. This subsequent commentary only fanned the flames of the story, and caused a vast divide and difference in opinion within the global rock-metal community. Even now, a week later, the debate shows no signs of stopping. And at the time of writing this, Anselmo’s main band Down are being dropped from bills left, right and centre; purely due to the widespread dismay triggered by the man’s actions on January 22nd.

While Flynn’s eleven-minute tirade did drift unnecessarily to the topic of historical and present-day persecution of black people in America, the veracity of his assessments regarding Anselmo is undeniable. Yes, Philip H. Anselmo is a bully. One of the biggest and nastiest you’ll ever meet. Yes, we can’t let him off the hook any longer, and he finally needs to be held accountable for the casual racism he has propagated throughout his twenty-five year career. And most importantly, yes, there is absolutely no place for racial intolerance and discrimination in the metal community or indeed any musical community anywhere. Though of course, as deplorable as Anselmo’s actions may have been – in keeping with the American constitution’s First Amendment – he is perfectly entitled to exercise such behaviour. But as Flynn reminded us, he is equally answerable and deserving of the criticism he is now receiving on all sides. Criticism that has grown increasingly venomous in the face of Anselmo’s insulting, derisory attempt to pass the occurrence off as a reference to the white wine he claims to have been drinking backstage before the show. A claim soon squashed by Flynn, who revealed there ‘was not a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio in sight’.

Perhaps even more concerning than Anselmo’s outburst, though, is the countless number of members of the rock-metal community coming out in support of the man from New Orleans in spite of his actions, and with a justification as ill-natured, inarticulate and boneheaded as the next. Upon closer examination of the many message boards and forums online, these justifications appear to originate from three separate consensuses among Anselmo’s apologists. Not dissimilar to the way in which football attracts an exasperating minority of so-called fans who are only interested in a piss-up and a scrap with opposition supporters, metal will always appeal to its fair share of knuckle-dragging, oafish bullies – themselves viewing gigs merely as opportunities to swing their elbows around wildly and throw pints of piss at underage girls. Resembling the Slag Brothers from Wacky Races, these are the kind of metal fans who have spent the last week showing their support for Anselmo by posting messages to the effect of: ME LIKE LOUD NOISES ME LOVE PANTERA GO PHIL SO WHAT IF HE’S RACIST.

The second justification is certainly more rational in theory, and unlike the moronic perspective mentioned above, there is actually a case for discussion here. A portion of those willing to reject Flynn’s position admit that, while Anselmo is in the wrong, his fans should remain pragmatic, and detach Phil Anselmo the man – and his actions – from Phil Anselmo the music. I like to think that music comes from a place of honesty, and the process of detaching a piece of music from its architect is a dishonest action in itself. It’s all or nothing for me. And speaking as someone who, at fourteen, worked a paper round six days a week for £2 a day just to be able to afford Pantera, Megadeth and Metallica CDs, it gives me no pleasure to admit that I’m going to struggle to listen to any of Anselmo’s bands for a while. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be a black, diehard Phil Anselmo fan at the moment.

The third justification, much like the first, is ignorant and unreasonably lenient. Again, sections of Anselmo’s fan base are choosing to dig their heels in with the notion that Phil Anselmo is simply a product of his environment, and that we should expect and accept his casual racism. As a long-time bearer of the Confederate flag, and a citizen of Louisiana – part of America’s Deep South – Anselmo does have a certain stigma attached to him that unfortunately comes with being an aggressive, burly, bearded, heavily-tattooed, skinheaded white male living in that region of the United States. To label an individual racist based on appearance alone is absolutely unjust, and I wouldn’t dream of it – but in the case of Anselmo – he has done himself little favours during his career to quell such accusations.

Besides, the ‘product of his environment’ defence is hardly applicable to Phil Anselmo. Anselmo hasn’t spent the last twenty years sat in a barn in Georgia, chewing corn and sipping on Moonshine, having never encountered a black person in his life. The reality is quite the opposite. Anselmo is an incredibly well-travelled, cultured (you’d hope), middle-aged man. Pantera’s heyday saw the man play concerts in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Mexico and the vast majority of European countries. Most reading this won’t travel a third as much as Anselmo has, and still does today. So having spent the last three decades meeting people of all races, creeds and ethnicities, you would have to deduce that, at forty-seven years old, Anselmo may never grow tolerant and accept his fellow man. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

It would certainly be incorrect to suggest that metal has an innate issue with racism, as instances such as these are often few and far between, in a community generally known for being inclusive and all-embracing. Though, for impressionable young fans finding their feet in the genre, having a prominent mouthpiece like Anselmo casually throwing around Nazi salutes at charity gigs can surely only be of damage. The responsibility to promote tolerance and goodwill lies with Anselmo and Anselmo alone – not that we should expect him to radically alter his belief system overnight, if ever. Moving forward, it is up to us all as individuals – in light of our own respective skin colours and beliefs – whether or not we decide to forgive Phil Anselmo, and begin to enjoy once again those Pantera classics we all know and love. But in the Internet age where even the slightest sin caught on camera is subject to the collective wrath of anyone on planet Earth with a broadband connection, this is merely the first time that concrete evidence of Anselmo’s true nature – in all its ugliness – has been available for all to see. You can’t help but feel that the man isn’t genuinely remorseful for his actions on January 22nd; and like the unfaithful husband or wife grovelling to their dejected partner, he is only sorry he got caught.

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