Alice in Chains‘ Jerry Cantrell knew late Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul longer, he says, “than I’ve known the guys in my own band.” It was a relationship that began when Cantrell, Paul and Paul’s brother/bandmate Dimebag Darrell were living in Texas in the mid-Eighties, and continued as they all rose to fame in the early Nineties. During the ensuing decades Cantrell and Paul shared incredible highs and lows – not to mention many Christmases and Thanksgivings – together. While on tour with Alice in Chains in Europe, Cantrell took a few minutes to talk with Rolling Stone and pay tribute to his friend.
I met Vinnie and Dime in ’85. Thirty-three years ago. That’s a fucking trip, man – Vinnie and Dime always had a thing about threes. Back then, I had quit college with a couple buddies of mine and was working doing asbestos abatement all around the Dallas and Houston area, where I lived for about a year. We got paid really well to do it because it’s a shit job, but what we would do is we’d work all day and then we’d go to clubs at night and check out bands. And there was a great club called Cardi’s where rock bands came through all the time. I saw Yngwie Malmsteen there. I saw Talas there. And I saw Pantera there, when they had Terry Glaze singing. I loved their band. I was mesmerized by Darrell, and I loved how Vinnie played. I remember we talked a little bit after their show and we just hit it off. So, actually, I knew Vinnie and Dime longer than I’ve known the guys in my own band. I didn’t meet Layne [Staley] and Sean [Kinney] and Mike [Starr] until I was 21. I was 19 when I met Vinnie. That’s a long time, man.
We reconnected a few years later when they had found Phil [Anselmo], and Pantera came out with Cowboys From Hell and we came out with Facelift. There were a lot of parallels between our two bands, and we always got along. We were brothers. I’d also see Vinnie and Dime when I was off the road. My dad is from southeast Oklahoma, and I’d always visit him for the holidays. It’s easier to fly into Dallas than it is Oklahoma City, so every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, like clockwork, I’d roll in and hang out with Vinnie and Dime in Dallas before I headed to the ranch in Oklahoma. And then I’d hit ’em again on the way out! Even after Vinnie moved out to Vegas he’d come back to Dallas for the holidays and we’d get together. I’d go deer hunting with my dad, and we’d get a deer at Thanksgiving. By Christmas we’d be into sausage, and so my dad would always have me drop off some deer sausage at Vinnie’s before hitting the airport.
I always looked forward to that time in Dallas. Because with both of those guys, Dime and Vinnie, it was always an adventure. You didn’t know where it was gonna end up when you got on their train, but you knew it was gonna be fun and it was gonna be interesting. And we had a lot of good times, man. I remember seeing the dent in the fucking Stanley Cup that went into Vinnie’s pool – when the [Dallas] Stars won the Stanley Cup they brought it over to his house, and they were trying to launch it from the upper balcony into the water. But it didn’t quite make it [laughs]. I remember the time Dime stole my car and somebody detailed it with stickers and all sort of flames, put cow horns on the fucking hood. It was fun stuff, you know? Vinnie and Dime, they both had such a great sense of humor.
At the same time, Vinnie was a guy who was extremely driven. A smart guy who could think on a lot of different levels – not just rockin’ out, but also about business. I think early on he was probably the guy who handled a lot of that stuff. He was a smart cookie. And he was a true fan of rock & roll, like myself. That’s why we both wanted to do it. We wanted to do what our heroes did, and do it well, at the top level you could do it at.
And Vinnie did that. Pantera were a revolutionary band for metal, and he completely influenced a whole generation of drummers. The way he played, the way he sounded – he had a kind of industrial sound to his drum – nobody else was like him. And the motherfucker’s meter was just spot on. I never heard him get off the groove or miss a beat, ever. He was a fucking machine.
In whatever he did, Vinnie lived his life unapologetically. I always respected that about him. He was a guy who achieved his dreams, and worked his ass off to get there. And he always tried to have a good time doing it. And he and Dime were always really great with their fans. No matter the circumstance or how shitty they might be feeling, they wouldn’t miss an opportunity to take a picture with somebody or have a shot with them. They went out of their way to make every person feel welcome and at ease and create a good time for them. And, you know, when Dime was killed, that was such a shock to all of us. But the fact that Vinnie had to live with the vision of that, it still haunts me to this day. Goddamn. I can’t even get my mind around that. But he had his own path.
I heard Vinnie had passed when Alice in Chains was in Copenhagen on our European tour. We always give a shout-out to Layne and Mike when we play “Nutshell” [Staley passed in 2002, and Starr in 2011], and at our next show we dedicated it to Vinnie.
To me, personally, Vinnie was one of the few people in my life – and there’s only a handful of ’em – where it doesn’t matter if I don’t see you for a year or two years or 10 years, it’s always consistent. Vinnie was always consistent. He was someone I could rely on – a friendly pair of eyes. Every time you’d look in ’em they’d look the same looking back at you. I’m gonna miss the hell out of him. We’ve been moving so fast out here on the road that I don’t think it’s even really sunk in for me. Today we’re in Zagreb. It kills me that I won’t be there for Vinnie’s service, but my family is going to go and represent.
As for me, I’m gonna go out and play a rock show tonight, and that’s exactly what Vinnie would’ve wanted me to do. And I’ll be thinking of him when I do it.
As told to Richard Bienstock