There has been a lot of comment about the actions of this singer in the past few days. He made a Nazi salute and mouthed the words “white power” while exiting the stage at a recent concert held in memorial for Darrel Abbot. For those of you who were not aware, Phil Anselmo is the singer of the 90’s metal band Pantera. He then got addicted to H and pain pills due to a back injury that resulted in Pantera splitting up just before their guitar player, Abbot, was gunned down on stage. There are many reports that the shooter blamed Abbot for the band’s break up and took Phil’s side, not that any of that matters because he obviously had a lot of problems. As much as I loved Phil in Pantera, his post addiction self was beyond interesting and inspiring. He manned up to his mistakes, got sober, and quietly toured college campuses to talk about what he learned about substance abuse and addiction. Phil had recently been honored by the president for his contribution to the arts.
And this he did what he did. There have been rumors for years that Phil was a racist. He has worn shirts that have had symbols that represented white supremacy. He has tackled race in his music from a very meritocracy point of view which was frequently galvanizing. He also wrote some of the best lyrics ever talking about racial harmony and brotherhood among races. It is hard for me to look at the many things that this person has done and think that he is a racist. There is plenty of evidence out there to support my belief, but there is also plenty of evidence out there to support that he is a racist. I would go so far as to say that most of the people reading this will never really know. I say that about almost all celebrity or media coverage of things. We don’t know nearly as much as we think that we do. It is not my place to judge someone, though if what he did offends you to the point that never want to look past what he did, then it is your right to feel that way. There are a lot of things we can interpret, but he did what he did.
The first thing I am going to say is that I have been a fan of this man’s art for a long time and because of this, I admit that I have a very biased point of view. I look at the lyrics to his music and I have a hard time believing that he is hateful of any group of people. I honestly don’t believe that he intended for the crowd to see him doing what he ultimately got caught doing, as the gesture was recorded as he was walking backstage. I can believe that he was gesturing towards a friend and not intended to publicly support any hate group or ideology. I also don’t know if that is good enough. I won’t pretend to know what a celebrity believes or is thinking from one moment to the next. I have the same belief when it comes many of the legal allegations that the media makes way too public and often skews public perception, but Phil isn’t being accused of anything here, it is merely a report of a stupid thing that he did and has to be viewed as that. Maybe part of the reason that people are defending him is because he knows that he is an addict and that he goes to far when on any drug to include alcohol. I’m not saying that to defend the action, but to say that I know this event was a heavy trigger for him. I’m sure that it offended plenty of people and helped to reinforce a racist perception surrounding hard rock and metal music that covers the people listening to it. If you listen to Pantera publicly now, people might assume that you are a racist or that you are trying to convey hate by your musical choice, even if the lyrical content are saying the exact opposite. That is the kind of burden that has always been a part of the metal community that we have been dealing with for a long time that will be worse now.
Part of me wants to say that this is all being taken out of context. There are plenty of examples that Phil’s friends, family, and fans have posted online recently in his defense. How after he got over drug addiction that he quietly toured college campuses and tried to get the word out about drugs and addiction and their glorification in media. How he would bring disabled people on stage at his shows or the things he would donate to his community that is largely an African American community in New Orleans. The question that a lot of people are asking now is if it were someone else that had made the gesture, would anyone be defending it. I think that there is a weird answer to that in that because Anselmo has always asked for a meritocratic approach to race and people and that he was one of the only members of Pantera that was trying to disassociate the band from the rebel flag. On the other hand, this isn’t the first time that Phil has been accused of being a racist or a white supremacist. In the past, it was easy for me to dismiss this as him talking openly about race rattled a bunch of feathers and made him a target.
Part of me wants to change this discussion to racism as a general concept and context. The context here is that you have a 50 something year old man that is at a memorial for a friend of his that he grew up with. The people that he was with all had known the friend that had died, and I can only imagine that being around these people is similar as when I congregate with some of my old Army buddies. We all love each other, but whenever we are together, all we can think about are the friends that are no longer with us. It is like being caked in depression and there is a lot of drinking. There is a tension there that longs for release. I know that we tell a lot of “inappropriate” jokes among each other, some racial, but mostly not. I am a big fan of the taboo and honestly do believe when it comes to jokes that involve race are some of the most healthy because they acknowledge difference in a society that seems to take these things too seriously. I know that some of those jokes can go very wrong and especially when you have been drinking and are in front of a large group of people, this can make a person appear a certain way. I also don’t see the joke about Nazi’s or white supremacy, though the one Dave Chapel told about the blind Africa American joining the KKK was hysterical. The reality might be that Phil really is a racist and how we come to term with our heroes being less than we hoped them to be shouldn’t change their ideals.
Celebrities and artists are almost all hypocrites. The Cosby Show was still a great show and still great for what it had to say about race relations, even if Bill is a rapist. The show still holds up the way that it always has. The lyrics and outward message that Phil wrote about isn’t any less poignant because he failed to live up to them. In fact, there are a lot of great people that had sides to them that we often overlook because it tarnishes the image that we have of them. Gandhi was a white supremacist. I know that might be a little weird to think about considering that he was from India, who are kind of brown, but the term Caucasian comes from the Caucus of Asia which is kind of where India is. Same is true of Persians. Martin Luther King had a lot of misogynist beliefs and was a known womanizer. Jefferson talked about freedom and owned slaves. I think as people we sometimes have to look at the ideas and thoughts of these men and possibly take their work and their art away from who they were as people, because if we were so cautious to pick through history to only listen to the men that don’t have a few skeletons hiding in the closet, there are a lot of great thoughts and thinkers that would need to be discarded and we would be a lot worse off as a species.
Update: I finally got around to listening to the Rob Flynn recording. I didn’t want to give it a view at first, because if there is one thing worse than what Phil did, it is bands that are not very good or popular trying to get publicity for these situations. I tend to think Rob says a lot of things to try to get attention and don’t have much respect for him. After watching the video, it first came off to me as someone with a personal grudge. He goes out of his way to point out there was no wine, when Dime’s widow stood up for Phil and said that there was and that she believes, like I had, that Rob posted his video as a response to an unrelated argument they had earlier in the day. The one thing that stood out to me in the video was that Rob claims that Phil had and has always said “white power” in the line from New Level. I called his bullshit and googled live recordings of the song. The ones that are more professional don’t have it, but when you get to the fan recordings that Phil didn’t think he was being recorded on, they are definitely there and so are the Nazi salutes. It changed the whole way I view that and him. I still stand by his songs being powerful, meaningful, and even forward thinking on race, but not sure if knowing that in his mind he is singing about Nazis changes those songs for me like knowing that Mathew Broderick killed a guy right about the time that he shot Ferris Bueller’s Day Off changes that film. You read into them differently.
With all that being said, much like how there were a lot more people that contributed to that movie, there have been a lot of different artists that are part of the songs that he has made, and ultimately they do stand up, I just have to think about what I’m supporting. I saw Pantera back in 2000 and didn’t catch any of that racial stuff, probably because I was too busy in the pit. I’ve seen Down and Superjoint several times each and love those bands. I heard Phil talking about asking those bands to go forward without him and just feel in a weird place about giving this man my money knowing that he not only is part of the band but that he releases those records. He owns them and gets an owner’s cut. There is a part of me that is ok if someone has a private opinion or feeling that is racist. We all are a bit racist whether we think we are or not, but to blatantly try and signal and recruit skinheads during your shows is overt racism and it makes me ashamed to have supported it. I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite but at the same time, I’m not sure if Phil and Down can ever go back to business as usual and the last thing I want to hear is some lame apology track or to try and speak with any kind of authority on racism like he has in the past.
I’m rather selfish as a fan. Down used to be a Super group that made an album once in a blue moon and it was amazing. Then they started being the main band for all those guys and Kirk left because he didn’t have time to do Down and Crowbar. He has called on for Down to get a new singer and go on without him, but at this point, the only “super” part of the band is Pepper and Bower. Down should be something that he earns after a lot of time off. In a lot of ways I want to hear more from the Illegals, the small band that almost no one likes that tours the really small clubs, because I actually did the music but it allows Phil to talk about his own struggles. The first album was mostly about his injury and how that affects him and his motivation from day to day. As someone that has a debilitating injury and knowing that struggle every day when you get up, I Love that record. What I really want to hear is some really struggling personal recovery about his feelings on race. I don’t want to hear about how he isn’t racist, but about why he is now. After a career of him talking about hypocrisy I really want him to own this.