Letters From the Labyrinth 343
Now with 100% More Coop
Good morning. My name is Brian Keene and this is the 343rd issue of Letters From the Labyrinth — a weekly newsletter for fans, friends, and family. As you read this, I am in Austin, Texas, where — along with Wrath James White — I cohosted the 6th annual Splatterpunk Awards last night. As a result, I’ve asked my long-suffering pal Geoff Cooper to step in and handle this week’s essay portion of the newsletter.
Coop will be known, of course, to readers of my HAIL SATEN series (all of which are available here). Or perhaps you know him from our collaborations — SHADES (available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple) or 4X4 (long out-of-print but maybe one day it will return). Or maybe you know him from his own solo works like Answers of Silence (available in paperback and for Kindle), Retribution Inc. (available in hardcover) or the super rare and sought after Bum Piss and Other City Scents (very rarely available on eBay and the secondary market for a high sum).
Anyway, in last Sunday’s newsletter, I told you that Charlie Benante and Jeremy Wagner were kind enough to provide me with some backstage passes, after party passes, and 4th row tickets for the Pantera concert so that I could give my friends a good time. What follows is Coop’s perspective on that good time. I smiled broadly when reading this, and I hope you will, too, regardless of whether you’re even familiar with the band. Because yes, while it is about Pantera (and Anthrax, Deep Purple, Ozzy, and The Who) it’s really about fandom, getting older, and aging with grace, and what that actually means.
So, here’s Coop, and then, when he’s done, I’ll have a few things further below for you to read, including a rainbow, the Splatterpunk Award winners, and something I’ve decided to do within the next year that has filled Mary with consternation and dread.
* * *
100%: Pantera ’23: One Fan’s Personal Experience, In Context
By Geoff Cooper
Once upon a time, in The Year of Orwell, thirteen-year-old me squealed in a manner which caused others to question my budding masculinity the day I got Deep Purple’s Perfect Strangers LP. 1984’s reunion of the brilliant and volatile Mk II lineup is often heralded as one of the best comeback albums. To me, it was… hope: a rare and expensive bauble I could rarely afford. But I did. I dared hope that one day, I may get to see Ritchie and Ian together, onstage, live.
This was right around the same time that some of the bigger local bands had lesser-known local bands opening up for them. One such bigger local band had an album come out, then, too. I recall it was derisively panned in my school’s newspaper as “bass guitar turned up to distortion and named after a cattle disease” buy a guy who had no business whatsoever reviewing metal anything. That band, of course, was Anthrax, and the album was Fistful of Metal.
If you grew up in Rockland County, NY, and were a metal fan, you were an Anthrax fan, by default. Them’s were the rules.
We – those of us of a certain age, and with a penchant for a certain music — remember how Randy Rhodes was taken from us. While his replacement, Jake E. Lee, was, I thought, pretty fucking good, he had gone, and there was this new kid people were saying was super shit-hot. He was still a fucking teenager, playing with Ozzy. Believe that shit?
So we showed up in The Meadowlands, tailgated at C-22, and once we were both 10 feet tall and bulletproof, we went in to see this kid, Zakk Wylde. 2 K’s and a Y. The One who had apparently realized so many of our dreams for us, there, on stage with fucking Ozzy, ergo, a direct connection to Black Sabbath, that lucky son of a bitch. Then I apologized for talking shit from up in the nosebleed section because this motherfucker shredded. Yeah, man –fucking go. Get some for the rest of us. Fuck yeah. Zach was an absolute goddamned inspiration for an entire generation of could’ve beens and wannabees, of which I was Class of ‘89.
Pantera’s first two albums were relatively unknown to me. If I heard anything from them, it didn’t stick. Cowboys From Hell, however….
There ya go. There is my complete, total, retrospective review of the Cowboys album: “holy shit.” And you can quote me on it.
I’d fucked off from NY shortly after Cowboys was released, and found myself living in southwest Florida. Pantera would come through and play Tampa, or Miami, or maybe Jax/Orlando… whatever. They toured a lot throughout the 90’s, and due to Florida’s geography, we’d see them multiple times every tour that had a Florida leg.
One tour, (I believe it was Far Beyond Driven) Biohazard (another local band for me growing up) was opening for them, and goddamn. That was an absolute bruisefest. My skinny ass got blasted out of one pit, into another, and so on, and in this manner, I got bounced around the arena, drenched in not only my sweat, but also that of roughly 35,000 of my best friends’ as well, and couldn’t breathe too deeply because that guy’s head had impacted under my right armpit pretty hard, and bruised my ribs up pretty good for me.
Good times. Good times.
Until they weren’t.
Bad times came for me right after Trendkill, and my attendance at shows in general was less frequent. I kinda fell in a bit of a hole. Took me a while to get out. Soon after, some scumbag piece of shit shot Dimebag on the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder. Fucking rat bastard.
Dime, you see, along with Vinnie, Rex, and Phil, saved me in my darkest times—when I felt as if I were walking around with sandblasted skin.
And then Vinny was gone.
It was hard. When Vinnie Paul died… it, in an odd manner somewhat unfair to Vinnie himself, solidified Dimebag’s death, and reminded me that those glorious moments of my youth were forever in the past.
Vinnie hit that snare like it owed him money, and every goddamned head in the place would fall in time. He conducted us all to bend –literally—to his will through his kit. He played. We obeyed.
Music, it seemed, had suffered such an immeasurable loss and injustice with both Abbott brothers gone the way of empires and youth. And, like empires and youth, one may struggle to properly mourn their passing.
A few months ago, my girlfriend told me that I’d have to take the 5th of August off of work, because Pantera was touring, and she got tickets for us, as well as her bestie and her boyfriend. I was not asked. I was informed.
Three days later, Keene contacted me to inform me Pantera was touring again, and he was gonna work some Keene magic about it. So we turned it into a party because of course we did.
Getting off for the show was really not an issue because between ticket acquisition and the show, my intestines decided they required more living space and infiltrated my abdominal wall, to forcibly resettle in the greater testicular metropolitan area as if my nether regions were biologically reenacting Crimea circa 2014. I thus had laparoscopic surgery to repair the damage, and was (am) off work for the time being for recovery.
Doc said I was not to lift more than 20 lb.
How heavy is a Pantera riff?
I didn’t ask his opinion, as I would have summarily disregarded any order of prohibition had he dared give it.
So we park in East Zambeezwinot, which is out by bumfuck Egypt, take a left where the Blockbuster used to be, third star to the right and straight on till morning. By the time we made it to the metal detectors and met Brian and Wesley Southard, my stomach was already sore from walking. I was dragging ass and questioning the wisdom of this decision, but everyone kept asking if I was okay, so of course I had to lie and say I was fine.
They knew I was lying.
I knew they knew I was lying, but I never expected them to believe me. I expected to terminate the conversation. I was seeing motherfucking Pantera again come Hell, high water, or hernia.
Due to my slow movement and pain, I missed the opening band, Child Bite, with whom I must admit my complete unfamiliarity. I dug what I heard, though I do recognize that, here, in print, this seems woefully inadequate and rather unprofessional of me. They were just finishing when we got through security, and I could not get a good listen. My most sincere apologies to Child Bite; I did dig what I heard, though. I sincerely did, and I will be, I assure you, seeking out more.
Lamb of God came on next.
If there was a band more perfect to bridge the gap between Pantera’s prime and today, I could not name them. Now I came to Lamb of God rather late. I admit. And thus, I’m not as familiar with them as I would like to be. I did, however, kinda fall in love with them a lotta bit when they trolled the ever living dogsnot out of those Westboro Baptists with kazoos, pennywhistles, and 5 gallon buckets.
This was my first time seeing Lamb of God. I figured that was apropos; for those there markedly younger than I, this was probably their first time seeing Pantera. Whoever was seated in front of us had yet to take their seats, so I was able to stand through the first song or two by holding onto the chair till they showed up. Standing in this way took some pressure off my abdominal muscles, and I was able to kinda splint the holes with my left arm, and guard the sore spot on the right side where the patch was knitting itself in under the scar tissue. I could even almost scream along at close to an acceptable volume (if I can’t hear myself screaming when they’re playing, I’m not loud enough). They were fantastic, and I’m glad I got to see them in their prime. I’ll be going back through and will likely download the rest of their catalogue by the end of the day.
Then Pantera was up.
Pan-goddamned-tera. In 2023. Fuck me dead. Who’d have thought it.
It struck me, between sets, that this… this moment… this was kind of like when I saw The Who at The Meadowlands in ‘89. Except now… now, I was the old guy seated next to my younger self; he saw them back in the day with Keith Moon.
I was just happy to see them. I would have loved to have seen Keith Moon, sure, but I was too young, though I did know who he was, and heard glorious tales of his epic antics, pranks, and general hellraising. I was jealous of that old man’s age—that he got to see them Back When. But fuck me, I got to see The Who.
That, I imagine, is what it was like for the many of those that were there with me last night. But, unlike at The Who show, there didn’t seem to be –to me—to be that much of and “us and them” when it came to the age gap in 2023 as it seemed in 1989. Or, at least, if it were there, I’m too old and oblivious now to really have noticed it. From my end, I was stoked for my younger metal brothers and sisters who were gonna get to see Pantera live for the first time tonight. They did the walk, I figured, and therefore are entitled to the earned respect.
Maybe they heard the tales of those trying to outdrink Dimebag, or found an old copy of Modern Drummer and pored over Vinny’s every word like I did with Keith’s; and only half-believed the epic takes of the absolute debauchery those of us who hit the 90’s with our youth intact recall all too vividly—excepting those we really can’t remember. The stageside video screens gave good photo montage of what it was kinda like, with heavy focus, of course, on Brothers Abbott.
Appropriately, Pantera opened with “A New Level.” I held onto the chair, splinted my guts with my left arm, and lost my goddamned fucking mind. Such power.
From there, straight into “Mouth for War,” then “Strength Beyond Strength.” Here, my lungs burning from screaming my guts out, came that solo.
I closed my eyes, and just… lived it. Every note. The syncopation between drums and bass and guitar. Rex somehow holding the chaotic cacophony together with exquisite precision. I was 23 again: bone, brain, and cock. My eyes could tell the difference, but my ears could not. Hail, kings! Behold your empire.
“Becoming,” I did it again. And in “I’m Broken.”
Phil told an anecdote to set up “Suicide Note, Pt. II.” Friend of mine asked how Phil handled the vocals on it. Honestly, I don’t know. I couldn’t hear him over myself screaming along. He sounded good every place I did hear him, though, throughout the set.
His interactions with the crowd, now, were still unmistakably Phil, but Phil with the wisdom of time and experience. He’s not as much mellowed with age; in many ways, he was a touch more visually intimidating in ’23 than he was in ‘93. Warriors live that long for one reason: even demons can’t beat them.
Often, it falls to the singer to express the band’s appreciation for the crowd. This is true across genres. Hiphop, metal, punk, hardcore, blues, country, electronica, whatever. It’s part of the contract at every show, and because it is so expected, it usually sounds rather much like verbal boilerplate, like it was an EULA no one ever reads, just clicks to accept.
From Phil, last night, it did not feel like boilerplate. Not to me it didn’t. Biased, am I, to consider it more likely to be sincere? Yes. Yes I indeed am. Care, do I? Not in the slightest.
Phil brought us into “5 Minutes Alone,” followed by “This Love,” and my long-time personal favorite: “Fucking Hostile.”
By the end of that, I needed to sit down. I was, actually, kinda glad my guts were on fire at that point. If I hadn’t had surgery a week ago, I’d have been in the pit for that one. Just… the one. I’m 52. I have absolutely no business being in the pit. I know this. I also know that Pantera was playing Fucking Hostile, and I would cheerfully look the attending physician at Hershey Medical Center dead in the eye, when he asked me how I broke my hip, and to even be able to truthfully respond: “in the pit at Pan-fuckin’-tera.” would be far too tempting to not fall out of my facehole.
“Cemetery Gates” was a video tribute to Vinne Paul and Dimebag.
This, to me, was like Ronnie’s hat atop the empty microphone when Skynyrd played “Free Bird” on their reunion tour in ’88.
It was relevant. It was poignant. It was beautiful. It was heartwrenching. It was a most exquisite dirge and my crew didn’t bother asking if it was my stomach hurting.
I cried my old rusted heart right the fuck out. Twenty years of grief streamed down my face.
Next up was the cover of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan.” It was a good spot for a bit of composure for me. I needed a few minutes. I allowed myself to remain seated for this one, and did my people watching. There was a 6 or 7 year old kid sticking water bottle labels on his uncle’s shirt. Uncle didn’t notice. He looked back at me, fearful to have been caught by a grownup. I busted out laughing and gave him a thumbs up. The two gals behind me were snarky, lewd, loud, and hilarious. Dudeman right in front of me was a straight-up thrashing, wailing, arms-up-in-the-air drum-filling maniac. I get it m’dude.
Phil said that 100% of us knew this upcoming song, and had everyone pretty good and riled up by the time Charlie got off the bongos, scooted around the side of the stage and up to the drum riser.
That riff. That fucking glorious, mesmerizing, snarling Dimebag riff. I glanced around, quickly, to see the facial expressions of those there around me. The drums were building. I had to look quickly, because when Rex kicked that fucker in, I knew I’d be gone. My quick assessment of those whose faces I saw confirmed Phil’s percentage suspicions. Even the kid, who was pumping his fist as his old man held him up by his waist to see over the crowd.
Everyone fuckin’ knows “Walk.”
From there, we had a medley of “Domination,” and “Hollow,” and plenty of moments for me to close my eyes and just listen. Remember.
Those who did not survive my youth with me. My heroes. My idols. My friends.
Mostly my friends who could not see them with me one more time. The guys that should have –would have—been there, if only they didn’t fucking die. Survivor’s guilt tastes like salt atop wounded memories.
For Pantera to not close with “Cowboys From Hell” would be unthinkable. It was a fantastic performance, and I didn’t even close my eyes: I didn’t have to anymore. It was okay. I could see it. I was still there even with my eyes open.
I’ve always hated the word “closure.” Always kinda thought it smelled like bullshit, to be honest. Kum-by-ya willful self-delusion.
But if it is a thing…. If it is…
…I think it might be seeing your earliest music inspirations team up with a beloved band you believed gone forever, to give you opportunity to once again come together in common interest and friendship, in celebration for the lives we have, collectively, together, as we are all bound together to varying degrees, and form this experience even as we participate in it.
A metal show is its own organism, has its own needs, and as members of that organism, we, too, have our needs, as each individual cell has its requirements of the body, and the body of each cell. It might be understanding. It might be acceptance.
It might be that we, the cells, are to be forever friends, yet remain perfect strangers; to be able to find each other in a crowd and share a single moment of contact across distance: a single, downward nod as the drums command, similar facial snarls and head-bobbing to the guitar, the shoulder-first hip slide as Rex’s bass dictates, and screaming your guts out trying to hang with Phil. You will fail, and know your role.
Your role is to hail the kings.
After the show, we walked out with Wes, who tried giving us a ride to our car, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there, driving. The footpath went that way, just… not the road.
“Just let me out by the bridge, man. We can hoof it the rest of the way. I know where I’m at.”
“You sure, man? With your stomach…?”
“Dude. It’s cool. I got this.”
Of course I could walk; I had a riff in my head.
I needed that. I did not know how much I needed that. I needed to be there, with fellow citizens of the Pantera empire, to celebrate our icons, our heroes, our friends. To finally, properly mourn those who did not survive with us. To hail the travelers.
To give thanks to have known, at least through their music, Vinnie Paul and Dimebag, who live on not only in the recordings, but in the stories of those of us who remember (with various degrees of embellishment, bullshit, misrememberance, and lie), and the riffs that get stuck in your head for a lifetime.
Zakk and Charlie, both, were spectacular in their roles. From what I have heard of them, I’m pretty sure they’d understand if anyone who’d seen Pantera back in the day needed a few moments to just close their eyes and feel that all again.
Rex does a slide, and you can still see people’s hips swinging in sync. His slight frame has never adequately expressed how broad his shoulders were and always have been for making Pantera sound like the absolute fucking behemoth it is. His bass lines, I am sure, are pored over and studied like some of us used to do with Geezer or Cliff or Roddy.
Phil’s voice still had the power, though his stage presence was, at least last night, less leapy as I remember, but as I required stabilization to stand for extended periods, what fault could I possibly find, there? Phil, at moments, appeared as if he were amazed to have become an elder statesman of metal somewhere along the way, and seemed somewhat, dare I say, humbled (I know, right? “Humbled,” with regards to Phil fucking Anselmo?) to accept the privilege of his own longevity. Or, more likely, that is straight-up projection on my part, but it was, nonetheless, my interpretation and I went with it. I was honestly proud of him.
Hail, the travelers!
Thank you to everyone who made this happen. To Dime and Vinnie Paul and their estates; Rex, Phil, Charlie and Zakk, and the entirety of the Pantera crew (particularly the gentleman who explained what he was putting away was a portable sauna; thank you, bud. I could not for the life of me figure out what that was, and it was driving me nuts!). Additional thanks to Lamb of God, whose performance I enjoyed far, far more than I felt I had room to express here –you will see me again if opportunity presents. I’m kinda pissed delays –mostly mine, for having to walk slowly—prevented me from seeing Child Bite, and I do, sincerely, apologize. Also, thanks to my wonderful girlfriend and crew, and my boys, Wes and Brian.
It was awesome, and I’m honored to have been able to been there. Thank you. I love you all.
Now this old punk is going to take 800mg of ibuprofen, plop my skinny ass in my recliner, and pretend not to fall asleep thinking about those times when I was still cool, and we’d be driving across the state in a rented cargo van we all chipped in for to do it all the fuck over again.
Which, if your situation permits, is probably a horrible idea, particularly if doing so impromptu, and you didn’t take tomorrow night off work.
I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
You do not see a Pantera show.
They force you to live it.
Compel you to live.
I recommend that, always, and to occasionally splurge on some hope.
Sometimes, it actually works out.
* * *
Thanks, Coop, for filling in for me this week!
* * *
The second of our two special livestreams to benefit the HWA’s Scholarship fund is now available for you to watch. My guests are three more living legends — Steve Rasnic Tem, Ellen Datlow, and Linda Addison. We discussed what has changed in publishing and horror fiction over the years... and what hasn't. It’s free to watch. Tune in here.
* * *
In case you missed it live last night, here are the 2023 Splatterpunk Award winners (in bold):
-- Playground by Aron Beauregard (Independently Published)
-- The Television by Edward Lee (Madness Heart Press)
-- Faces of Beth by Carver Pike (Independently Published)
-- Last of the Ravagers by Bryan Smith (Thunderstorm Books / Death’s Head Press)
-- Mastodon by Steve Stred (Black Void Publishing)
-- Ex-Boogeyman (Slasher vs The Remake) by Kristopher Triana (Bad Dream Books / Thunderstorm Books)
-- Charcoal by Garrett Cook (Clash Books)
-- Grandpappy by Patrick C. Harrison III (Independently Published)
-- Mr. Tilling’s Basement by Edward Lee (Deadite Press)
-- #thighgap by Chandler Morrison (Cemetery Gates Media)
-- Plastic Monsters by Daniel J. Volpe (Independently Published)
BEST SHORT STORY
-- “Just Another Bloodbath at Camp Woe-Be-Gone” by R.J. Benetti (Independently Published)
-- “Of The Worm” by Ryan Harding (from Splatterpunk Zine issue 13)
-- “My Chopping List” by Stephen Kozeniewski (from Counting Bodies Like Sheep, The Evil Cookie Publishing)
-- “Gutted” by Bracken MacLeod (from Splatterpunk Zine issue 13)
-- “Jinx” by Bridgett Nelson (from A Bouquet of Viscera)
-- Always Listen To Her Hurt: Collected Works by Kenzie Jennings (Blistered Siren Press)
-- Mr. Tilling’s Basement and Other Stories by Edward Lee (Deadite Press)
-- Horrorsmut by Christine Morgan (The Evil Cookie Publishing)
-- A Bouquet of Viscera by Bridgett Nelson (Independently Published)
-- Pornography For the End of the World by Brendan Vidito (Weirdpunk Books)
-- Human Monsters edited by Sadie Hartmann and Ashley Sawyers (Dark Matter Ink)
-- Camp Slasher Lake, Volume 1 edited by D.W. Hitz and Candace Nola (Fedowar Press)
-- Counting Bodies Like Sheep edited by K. Trap Jones (The Evil Cookie Publishing)
-- Call Me Hoop edited by SC Mendes & Lucy Leitner, created by Drew Stepek (Blood Bound Books)
-- Czech Extreme edited by Lisa Lee Tone and Edward Lee (Madness Heart Press)
J. F. GONZALEZ LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD**
-- Monica J. O’Rourke
HALL OF LEGENDS INDUCTEE***
-- Jay Wilburn
We also announced on Saturday night that next year’s J. F. Gonzalez Lifetime Achievement Award honorees will be Craig Spector and Ray Garton.
The recommendation process for next year’s ballot is open to readers, critics, and the general public. Eligible works must be first published in 2023, and must meet the definitions of either Splatterpunk or Extreme Horror. Email recommendations to email@example.com. The recommendation window will close at 11:59pm (EST) on December 31, 2023. THERE WILL BE NO EXTENSIONS. Thank you for your attention in this matter.
* Tie category
** The previous J. F. Gonzalez Lifetime Achievement Award recipients are David J. Schow, David G. Barnett, Edward Lee, John Skipp, and Clive Barker.
*** The previous Hall of Legends inductees are Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, Charlee Jacob, J. F. Gonzalez, David G. Barnett, John Pelan, and Gak.
* * *
Currently Playing: Fallout 76 and Clash of Clans
Currently Listening: Desert Oracle Radio, Operation: Mindcrime II by Queensryche, and Songs In The Key of X by Various Artists.
Currently Watching: What We Do In The Shadows season 5 (Hulu). The Outer Limits season 2 (Blu-Ray), and 60 Days In season 1 (Hulu)
Currently Reading: A Bad Case of Tinnitus by Tony Evans, Lost Echoes Volume Two by Brian James Freeman, and Cyclops Road by Jeff Strand
* * *
Work this past week was compressed into three days — Monday through Wednesday. That’s because I flew out to Austin on Thursday morning, and I am currently between laptops, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to haul my Mac desktop around on an airplane.
Lots of emails regarding OPERATION WALKABOUT (the codename I’ve given to a Top Secret project Christopher Golden and I are working on so that I can talk about it without violating any NDAs). I also continued writing the first draft of BENEATH THE LOST LEVEL, as well as a new short story exclusive for Patreon subscribers, and a Lost Level story for H. Casper. And I worked on edits for LOVE AND HATE IN THE TIME OF COVID: SELECTED NONFICTION 2015 - 2022 and INVISIBLE MONSTERS (which will get a title change, because David J. Schow threatened to beat me up if I didn’t, but I don’t know what that title will be yet).
* * *
I took this picture off of our dock a few weeks ago, and forgot to put it online. The shoreline the rainbow is touching down on is Lancaster County, south of Columbia and just north of Turkey Hill.
* * *
I turn 56 next month. I’ve decided that some point between 56 and 57, I’m going to hike the entirety of the Mason-Dixon Trail, which runs 200 miles through the wilderness regions of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. To get ready for that, I’ve increased my daily walk from two miles per day to four miles per day. I wish that Google hadn’t gutted Fitbit’s social aspects and made them unusable, because I sure would love to see my step count up against Tod Clark, Jeff Strand, Mike Oliveri, Martel Sardina, and everyone else on our old step group now.
I’ll make the hike either next spring or (more likely) around this time next year. I’m very much looking forward to it. Mary was adamant that I shouldn’t go. She pointed out that even experienced woodsmen like myself go missing on such adventures. When I said it was either do this or buy a motorcycle, she relented.
* * *
And that does it for this week. Thanks to Geoff Cooper for filling in for me. And thanks to all of you for reading, sharing, and commenting. I’ll see you back here next Sunday!
— Brian Keene