Eddie Van Halen is a legendary name in music. The rocker is, after all, considered to be the best guitarist in the world – someone who redefined how the instrument is played. So, needless to say, guitars with a connection to the great musician normally sell for a small fortune. Yet Van Halen once used one of his own priceless axes to make a touching gesture to a fallen comrade.
You see, Van Halen had been friends with musician Darrell Abbott – or Dimebag Darrell, as the influential guitarist of the band Pantera was more widely known. In December 2004, though, a crazed fan tragically murdered Darrell on stage at a Columbus, Ohio, nightclub. The gunman also took the lives of three more people before the police finally brought him down.
Hearing about this event was no doubt upsetting for many – and it seems likely that Van Halen would have been troubled by the news too. Because although Van Halen had only befriended Darrell weeks before Dimebag’s death, the pair had apparently become close in that very short time. So perhaps that’s why Van Halen wanted to make sure that he paid proper tribute to the man and his talent.
And that opportunity came after a phone call with Darrell’s partner, Rita Haney. After Dimebag’s murder, you see, Haney knew that she wanted the musician buried with something special. That’s when, before the funeral, Van Halen stepped in. Yes, the rock star contributed a unique personal memento to be buried with Darrell. And years after the tragic shooting, details have finally emerged as to precisely what the gift really meant.
The reason lies within Darrell’s personal history. Dimebag had, after all, lived a remarkable life and achieved a great deal of success. And as we’ve seen, the guitarist also fulfilled his lifelong dream of meeting Eddie Van Halen. Right from the beginning, in fact, Darrell had loved the famous musician and considered him one of his biggest influences and idols.
In 1993, for instance, Darrell talked about his favorite metal tunes with Guitar World. And during the interview, he sang the praises of Van Halen and the 1978 hit “Eruption.” “Van Halen was a huge influence on me, and ‘Eruption’ was the song that really leaped off that first Van Halen album,” Darrell said.
Darrell went on, “I was a little kid when I first heard it, and I couldn’t believe how Eddie just ripped the strings off his guitar. He played with a fierce aggression – and his guitar sound was unbeatable. That dive bomb sound effect at the song’s end sounded like the world was coming to an end. Because Eddie was so hardcore about his guitar, he made me look at the instrument in a different way — more as a tool to screw around with than something you must play very carefully.”
Darrell spoke about other inspirations for his music too. As well as loving Van Halen, then, the rocker also adored Kiss. So by the time Darrell had turned 12 years old, he had already started learning the guitar. And fortunately his parents had been supportive of his music interests and those of his brother, Vinnie. In fact, their father, Jerry, had taught himself Kiss songs so that he could, in turn, teach them to Darrell.
Darrell and Vinnie had therefore grown as musicians alongside each other. They had also been inspired by how Eddie Van Halen and his brother played together. “We both started playing drums when I was 14, and he was two years younger than me,” Vinnie told Metal Hammer in 2016, 12 years after Darrell’s death. “I just got better than him and wouldn’t let him play them anymore. So he told our dad, ‘I gotta have an instrument to play: get me a guitar!’”
In 1981 Darrell and Vinnie, along with Terry Glaze and Rex Brown, formed the band Pantera. Then in the latter half of the ’80s Glaze quit and was replaced by Phil Anselmo. And throughout the next decade, Pantera grew bigger and bigger. They’re in fact credited with helping to create a whole new genre of sound: groove metal.
But major tensions between Anselmo and the Abbott brothers caused Pantera to break up in 2003. Darrell and Vinnie then formed a new band: Damageplan. And it was while performing with Damageplan in 2005 that Darrell and three others were fatally shot.
The perpetrator was an ex-Marine and crazed fan called Nathan Gale. Gale had actually interacted with the band before too. At a Damageplan show in 2004, in fact, the fan had invaded the stage and pushed over a lighting rig. The band members had decided not to press charges at the time, though. Yet it obviously transpired that Gale was more dangerous than anybody had realized.
The three people besides Darrell who lost their lives in the 2005 mass shooting reportedly behaved heroically as soon as they heard the gunshots. For instance, Jeff Thompson – head of security for Damageplan – actually intercepted Gale. Elsewhere, concertgoer Nathan Bray attempted to save Darrell and Thompson with CPR, while club employee Erin Halk tried to overpower the gunman too.
Police officer James Niggemeyer was another hero. Because even though the cop entered the nightclub with no backup, Niggemeyer still faced the shooter. And by that point, Gale had taken a hostage: John “Kat” Brooks. Niggemeyer then fired on Gale and freed Brooks – who had also been shot twice in the leg. Gale still had 30 rounds of ammo that he could have used too.
In 2014 ten years after the shooting, Niggemeyer revealed that he was still undergoing counselling for PTSD. He also felt that the “true heroes” of the incident were Thompson, Halk and Bray. “When tragedy strikes, there are people in this world who will step up and try to stop it. There are people who will stand up in the face of death and give their life to try to save others… They did that with no police there, with no guns,” he told the Columbus Dispatch.
Another, much more minor, casualty of the event was the friendship between Darrell’s brother, Vinnie, and former Pantera band member Anselmo. It transpired that before the tragedy, you see, Anselmo had given an interview to Metal Hammer where he said Darrell should be “beaten severely.” And once Vinnie heard audio of the comment, he would never speak to Anselmo again.
Vinnie was naturally left shattered after his brother’s murder – especially since he had been right there when it’d happened. In 2016, for instance, the drummer shared the final memory that he had of Darrell with Metal Hammer. “The last thing that really matters to me is the last thing we said to each other before we went on stage,” he said.
“Our code word to let it all hang out and have a good time was ‘Van Halen,’ man!” Vinnie remembered. “And that’s the last two words we ever said to each other. I said, ‘Van Halen,’ and he said, ‘Van Halen,’ and we high-fived each other and went on the deck to do our thing… and a minute-and-a-half later I’ll never see him again.”
Van Halen clearly meant a huge amount to Darrell, then. In 2015 Vinnie even talked to fans about how deep that admiration went. “Eddie and Alex [Van Halen] inspired me and my brother so much. It was really just unbelievable the parallels that we had between ourselves,” he said during a Q & A session in Dallas, Texas.
Vinnie also spoke about the time he and Darrell had met Van Halen in Dallas for the first time. “He was in town, and I was off doing something, and my brother was in Phoenix,” he said. “And my manager at the Clubhouse [a strip club co-owned by Vinnie] calls me and says, ‘Hey, man, Eddie Van Halen is in the club. He wants to see you.’”
Vinnie immediately headed to the club. “I came in, and we gave each other a big hug,” he said. “We’d been talking maybe ten minutes, and he goes, ‘You know, man? It’s crazy. We’ve only been talking, like, ten minutes, but it’s unbelievable how much we’ve got in common — you and your brother, and me and Al.’”
Vinnie went on to describe “an amazing thing that happened.” It seems that Van Halen had invited Damageplan to one of his shows. “Eddie sent a limo to pick us up, which was very cool. And we came in, and he brought us right up on stage and hung out at soundcheck and everything. And the show was amazing.”
He remembered what Darrell had said to him at the end of the night too. “We got on the plane, and when we were flying back to Dallas, my brother looked at me, and he goes, ‘Man, you know what? If this plane was to go down in a crash right now, I’d be okay with it. I finally got to meet the dude that made me wanna play guitar.’ It was really special.”
Dimebag’s girlfriend, Rita Haney, also told the media the story of that meeting. “Dime even got to play on his rig at soundcheck. He was like a kid in a candy store… the way his eyes were lit up,” she said to Metal Monthly in 2007. “He told me later in the limo — which Van Halen provided — ‘How cool is that?’”
Haney continued, “Anyway, he leaned over and looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘If I died tonight, it wouldn’t matter, ’cause I’ve done everything now, I’ve met Eddie Van Halen!’ and he had the biggest smile on his face… he was so happy.” Clearly, then, it was a fantastic night for everybody.
Yet the happiness was painfully short-lived. Just a few weeks later, in fact, Darrell’s girlfriend and brother would be planning his funeral. “I remember talking with Vinnie, trying to decide what guitar to bury him with,” Haney told Billboard in 2014. “Three hours later, Eddie called to see if he could do anything for us and for Dime.”
And fortunately, Van Halen could do something. “We’d met him just a few weeks earlier for the first time, and Dime was ready to cut him a $30,000 check that night for one of his striped guitars, but Eddie told him he’d do one special for him,” Haney said. “So I asked him if he’d stripe up a guitar for Darrell.”
Haney continued, “He said, ‘One of the red, white and black ones?’ And I said, ‘No — Darrell always said that the yellow and black was your toughest guitar!’” But what Van Halen did next went above and beyond that initial request. Haney revealed, “When [Van Halen] came for the funeral, he brought his original yellow and black from 1979. He said, ‘An original should have an original.’”
Van Halen was even present throughout the funeral arrangements, she recalled. “We were walking down the hallway of the funeral parlor, me, Eddie and John ‘Bushman,’ who had been out with Damageplan as a tech — he’s the one who dragged Vinnie off the drum stand and threw himself on top of him to protect him,” she said. “We got to the room where Dime was, and you could see [his] feet through the doorway.”
Haney continued, “Eddie said, ‘I can’t go in there; I can’t see him like that. I want to remember him like he was that night I met him.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, Eddie; we’ll take [the guitar] to him,’ so John and I went in and placed it with him.’” And in 2007 she had told Metal Monthly exactly what she’d said at that moment: “See, baby, you didn’t get a replica! You got THE one.”
Yet Darrell was buried with some other items too. “There were so many things in there — and people kept putting airplane bottles of Crown [Royal Whisky] in there during the service,” Haney told Billboard. “The pallbearers definitely complained about how heavy the coffin was. It was such a weird day, but the feeling of family was so wonderful. It was like Darrell was there, throwing one more party for everyone.”
Other rock legends contributed to the funeral as well. “I remember Ozzy [Osbourne] and Sharon sent a beautiful arrangement made out of Crown Royal bags, and the Slayer guys sent a flower arrangement in the shape of a Crown Royal bottle,” Haney remembered. Darrell was also buried in a limited-edition Kiss Kasket coffin contributed by Gene Simmons.
Van Halen then attended the public memorial service for Darrell at the Arlington Convention Center in Texas. It was a proper rock and roll funeral, too, with lots of drink and lots of music. “I’m here for the same reason as everyone else: to give some love back,” said Van Halen in tribute.
Van Halen spoke movingly of his friendship with Darrell. “This guy was full of life. He lived and breathed rock and roll.” Then he held his phone up to the microphone and played the message Darrell had left him after their first meeting. In it, the musician thanked his idol for “the most awesome, uplifting, euphoric, spiritual rock and roll extravaganza ever.”
But one person not at the memorial was Anselmo, who was told he couldn’t come. “I never got a chance to say goodbye in the right way, and it kills me,” he said in a statement afterwards. “I wish to God I could’ve gone to his funeral, but I have to respect his family’s wishes, and they do not want me there.”
A dozen years after Dimebag’s death, Vinnie reflected upon his brother’s legacy to Metal Hammer. “He was really loved and he lives on, through his music and through his spirit,” he said. “And I’m so proud to have been a part of everything that he ever did. He’s up there with Jimi Hendrix and the Bon Scotts.”
Sadly, however, Vinnie himself died just two years after that interview, at the age of 54. In June 2018, in fact, the drummer was found dead from heart failure at his home. He had been suffering from a heart condition. “Vincent Paul Abbott died from natural causes, specifically, dilated cardiomyopathy,” his representative told the media.
There was then another outpouring of sadness. “I’m struggling to write this, but we want to thank you all for your kind words and support in this tragic time,” Tom Maxwell, guitarist for Vinnie’s band Hellyeah, wrote on Facebook. “We don’t have much info to give you other than Vinnie is now with Dime, and they are together in a better place.”
Vinnie was buried in a similar fashion to his brother – surrounded with rock memorabilia. And just like Darrell, he was buried in a Kiss Kasket. Vinnie also had a public memorial service. The event was called “Vinnie Paul: A Public Celebration of Life,” and it started at exactly 3:33 p.m. That was the time that Vinnie had always called “Dime Time” – because he associated his brother with the number three.
Vinnie was then buried next to his brother and their mom. At the gravesite, fans can read the inscription, “Don’t ever think it’s not a good time, if you do think it’s not a good time. A good time is a good time, a bad time is a bad time, and a wonderful time is irreplaceable. Hellyeah!” And buried underneath those words, Van Halen’s yellow-and-black guitar is still there.