Still Riveting

Metalheads keep up the rawk in the Fort.
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Posted February 29, 2012 by STEVE STEWARD in News
Fort Worth Weekly

From behind the steel mesh and pipe of the Rail Club’s stage security fence, Homer Jimenez held a red raffle ticket aloft. The pudgy, silver-haired man waved it in the air, pushing up his glasses toward a pair of eyebrows as black as a burnt fuse.

“Twenty-four sixty-three!” he called, repeating the winning number over the din of the crowd. “Anybody? We’ve got a Dimebag calendar — who’s got twenty-four sixty-three?” Mini-spotlights whirled as overhead gels bathed the room in pastels. A gorgeous, leggy blonde showed the calendar to the crowd. Jimenez looked around the room. “Twenty-four sixty-three!”

Jimenez, former bouncer, bar manager, and sometime-booking agent of the long-departed Tattoo Bar, was emceeing the two-night “Tattoo Bar Reunion Show” at the Rail, a Westside venue that hosts heavy metal concerts almost exclusively.

Filling the cavernous space of what was formerly a sports bar called Charlie’s Half-Time were about 300 people, many of them well onto the untrustworthy side of 30, when Roth IRAs are supposed to take precedence over the new Motörhead album. Still, amid the faded tattoos and skullet haircuts were high school kids, 20-something women in tight dresses, and hard-partying dudes with ragged facial hair, lots of piercings, and fists in the air, here to relive the glory days of one of Fort Worth’s rowdiest metal mainstay clubs.

The young folks in the crowd are proof that metal, that Satanic teenage delinquent version of rock, is still partying hard and fierce in Fort Worth, as it has been for more than three decades, kept alive by some dedicated originators and the clubs they started. From its beginnings at keg parties in Arlington fields to the national attention lavished on Joe’s Garage to the slaphappy debauchery at the Tattoo Bar, Fort Worth’s metal scene has been an unsung hallmark of the city’s culture — even if most people know it only from some portentous name on a marquee.

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There’s a compelling argument that  heavy metal originated with Led Zeppelin, but it was Black Sabbath’s gloomy lyrics and predilection for flatted fifths (notes referred to once upon a time as “the devil’s interval”) that turned hard rock and heavy blues down its path of righteous ruin. The music made its way across the pond in the late ’70s with bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, vanguards of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

You could say the genre got its Tarrant County start in Arlington and that Jerry Warden was there at the birth, or at least for the christening.

Warden these days sports a graying beard woven into tight braids and a ring of long brown hair drifting from a bald spot on his head to the shoulders of his sleeveless t-shirt. His house is an archive of fliers, records, and knickknacks from the days when parents thought Twisted Sister was a dangerous band. Back in the day, he was the lead singer for Warlock, one of the earliest North Texas metal bands, with a huge impact on the scene.

But he was more than just a band member. Under the names of several companies — Heavy Meadows, Jerry Warden’s Heavy Metal Productions, and KMA (Kiss My Ass) Productions among them — Warden put on heavy metal shows. Really more like open-air keg parties, they centered around sets by local bands like Iron Cross or Eruption.

“For a few bucks, you’d get all-you-could-drink beer and a wild-ass concert,” he said.

Metal was kind of a logical followup to the ’70s hard rock that was fresh in the minds of every longhaired dude hammering the frets of a Gibson Flying V, and Warlock was at the forefront. Warden’s brother David played guitar, and bassist Casey Orr and drummer Hardin Harrison made up the rhythm section. (Orr would later join famed shock-rockers Gwar, and Harrison played in the ’90s heavy rocker Speedealer.) They started out playing long nights at mainstream rock clubs like Savvy’s, keeping mostly to the Top 40 and Album Oriented Rock covers mandated by club owners, occasionally slipping originals in between REO Speedwagon medleys.

Guitarist Rick Perry, who met the band one day while camping out for Judas Priest tickets, discovered a mutual affinity for British bands like Priest, Angel Witch, and Diamond Head, as well as the partying endemic to livin’ after midnight. Before long, he joined the band on guitar. Perry describes Warlock’s original material as a mélange of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, with a dash of the glam metal that was beginning to catch on in Hollywood. The band “kind of had a classic metal sound,” he said.

Orr and Harrison left in ’83, but Warden and his band soldiered on, replacing the two with the late Eric Roy on bass and Les Choate on drums, building a sizable fan base from the gigs at keggers and corner bars into which Jerry routinely booked them. In May 1985, he started booking and then managing Rascal’s, a smallish bar in south Arlington, “the only metal club in North Texas at the time,” he said. “There was no place else for a metal fan to go, and that place got packed.”

“Jerry’s the man,” said John Perez, guitarist of ’80s thrashers Rotting Corpse and doom metal purveyors Solitude Aeturnus. “He really kick-started the whole scene around here, and he’s one of Fort Worth metal’s most important figures.”

But by February 1986, the metal shows had gotten too hairy for Rascal’s owners, and Warden was out. By August of that year, he had another spot, an even tinier cinderblock building off Sun Valley Road in Fort Worth called the Tombstone Factory, “because it actually used to be a tombstone factory,” Jerry said. The shows he put on in there during the ’80s were the stuff of legend. From 1986 to ’89, he would pack the joint all week long. “It was as wild as you can imagine,” he said. “Nothin’ but sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.”

Perez agrees. “Everything you’ve heard about the Tombstone is probably true. Seeing that stuff at 13, 14 years old really makes an impact.”

In between bands, the party would spill out into the parking lot, no doubt because the Tombstone lacked any central air conditioning. “We always had the cops coming, because the shows were always nuts — we even had a police helicopter come out and spotlight everybody one time,” Warden said.

The shows Warden booked at Rascal’s and the Tombstone Factory were huge steps for the local metal crowd, but by ’86 the scene was shifting stylistically. When the new subgenre of thrash metal hit hard and fast, Rascal’s and the Tombstone became sonic temples for the new sound, spelling the end for older bands like Warlock.

After Orr and Harrison left Warlock, the two had formed a hyper-fast band called Rigor Mortis. When Perry also split, he took replacement bassist Eric Roy with him, intending to play metal at similar, lightning-fast tempos.

“Warlock disbanded because I wanted to play faster, more aggressive stuff, but Jerry wanted to stay the course,” Perry said. Warlock disbanded in 1986, having introduced hundreds of Tarrant teens to the metal lifestyle of fast music, easy sex, and never-ending parties.

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Warlock’s “graduates” went on to form two top bands in the new style. Thrash metal, a Bay Area export cultivated by then-little-known bands like Metallica and Exodus, blended punk’s aggressive fury with the technical prowess and classical-leaning solos of British bands like Mercyful Fate. Thrash burned hotter than napalm, especially in 1986.

That was the year that three of Thrash’s Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath, and Anthrax) came out with landmark albums: Metallica released Master of Puppets, Megadeath dropped Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, and Slayer’s Reign in Blood took off around the country like a lunatic pterodactyl. Metal’s latest iteration was massively popular, and guys like Perry couldn’t get enough.

Perry and Roy, along with drummer Jamey Milford and Louisiana transplant Varnam Ponville on vocals, formed Gammacide, which would soon become one of the area’s top thrash-metal draws, even gaining  some success in England when famed metal magazine Kerrang! favorably reviewed their demo.

Perry attributes some of his fascin-ation with thrash to the hardcore shows he and his buds watched at the Circle A Ranch, a punk club in downtown Dallas. “We saw Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, all those ’80s hardcore bands that came through town, and I think that had a lot to do with why I wanted to move away from that old sound,” he said.

Gammacide often played on bills with Rigor Mortis, the band formed in ’84 by Orr and Harrison. That pair added guitarist Mike Scaccia and singer Bruce Corbitt to the lineup. Corbitt remembers joining the band because he’d seen Scaccia play in a band called Spectrum and was blown away because Scaccia could play Van Halen’s inimitable “Eruption.”

“Rigor Mortis had a singer, but he didn’t really fit in because he was like this Jim Morrison guy,” said Corbitt. One night, after an evening of drinking beer and smoking weed at Corbitt’s apartment, the guys in Rigor Mortis were bemoaning the square peg in their vocal hole. “I said, ‘Shit, I’ll do it,’ ” recalled Corbitt. “Mike goes, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. You have long hair and know how to party,’ and from then on, I was the lead singer.”

Scaccia’s speed and finesse on the fretboard were already legend. He would later join renowned Chicago industrial metal act Ministry, but in the thrash heyday of the mid to late ’80s, Rigor Mortis was one of the scene’s undisputed kings.

“Rigor Mortis was the first thrash band from Texas to get a record deal,” said Corbitt. “The band signed with Capitol in ’87.”

Rigor Mortis’ record deal wasn’t the only game-changer around this time. The thrash movement they were leading spawned a new club that put Fort Worth on the metal map even more firmly.

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On Highway 80 just west of Loop 820 was a restaurant-turned-club run by Lebanese businessman Abboud Greig. Like the Fort Worth rock clubs of the ’70s, Joe’s Garage, which opened in 1984, booked cover bands throughout the week.

Warden, who at that time was the first host of KNON’s long-running metal show, saw another opportunity to promote metal and approached Greig about booking bands.

“Abb told me, ‘Jerry, I hate that metal music. Nobody will come to hear that noise,’ ” recalled Warden. “So I bugged him until he let me book Sundays. I told him my shows were going to do better than his Friday and Saturday nights,” he said, “and that’s exactly what happened.”

Despite his antipathy for the music, Greig saw the potential profit in a bunch of metalheads getting drunk and gnarly. He started booking metal shows throughout the week on his own. Soon Warden couldn’t find bands to play the designated  Sunday night shows, because Greig had already booked them on better nights.

“I’d call up Bruce Corbitt and try to book Rigor on a Sunday, and he’d be like, ‘Sorry, man, we’re already playing there Friday,’ ” Warden said.

Greig, who died in 2009, helped metal flourish here unintentionally, with bands like Rotting Corpse, Hammerwitch, and Sentinel joining the burgeoning scene.

“Joe’s really became the hot hangout,” said Corbitt. “People from Dallas would drive an hour to see bands there. Pretty soon, all the national bands started playing there, and us local guys got to play with all of our out-of-town idols.”

When thrash metal was at its peak, national acts like Exodus, Death Angel, and Testament played Joe’s.

“Around ’89, Joe’s Garage was one of the top spots in the country for extreme metal,” said Perry. “Bands would have a big show in New York, and then they’d play to nobody until they got to Fort Worth, and a lot of times they’d open for the local guys. Even Tool opened for Gammacide once, right around the time their Opiate EP was out.”

But just as Jerry Warden’s Judas Priest-inspired  heavy rock fell out of favor, thrash’s popularity petered out by the early 1990s. Rigor Mortis’ record deal fell apart due to the youth of the musicians and their lack of business acumen. Gammacide put out a well-received album, 1991’s Victim of Science, but by then, metal fans were abandoning the punk-influenced thrash for the greater extremes of death metal, a subgenre born in New York and incubated in Florida by bands like Obituary and Cannibal Corpse.

Death metal gave up any undercurrent of melody in trade for guttural vocals and faster-than-thought-possible blast beats. When someone derides a band for having “Cookie Monster” vocals, death metal is usually what they’re talking about.

Death metal’s bony grip on the scene was relentless, and during the ’90s, local bands like Prophecy and Demonseed hit their stride. “Death metal got pretty big, back in the ’90s. Prophecy did some big tours and played a lot of major metal festivals back then,” said James Parks II, guitarist and vocalist for Prophecy.

The (slightly) elder statesmen of metal looked for something else to do.

“In the ’90s, I felt kind of lost,” said Corbitt. “I still wanted to do thrash, but nobody else seemed interested.” In that decade, many thrash bands died, and heavy metal in general became something of an anachronism, particularly when a fledgling, sarcastic band from Seattle suddenly blew up in 1991.

“Grunge killed metal,” said Corbitt. “When Nirvana got big, I thought metal was over, but then it got worse, because all those nü metal bands got popular. I don’t want to take away from any of those bands, but for me, the ’90s was the weakest.”

Corbitt refers, of course, to yet another new bough on the metal family tree, the stunted, much-maligned branch influenced by gangsta rap’s misogyny, beats, and fashion sense, popularized by aggro boneheads like Korn and Limp Bizkit. “I like guitar leads in my metal, but with nü metal, nobody wanted to do solos. I couldn’t get into it,” he said.

Joe’s Garage closed in 1994. Warden went to prison in 1995 for assault, and nationwide, with the exception of Metallica’s poppy 1991 self-titled album, metal’s popularity gave way to grunge and hip hop. While the death metal bands drew crowds, the mid-’80s wildness of Fort Worth metal became mostly a footnote in the original headbangers’ memories. But metal is malleable. Like an unholy cockroach, it adapts and finds a home. The scene was about to make a new nest.

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Located on East Lancaster Avenue next to Randy Adams Tattoo parlor, in what is now the Ozzie Rabbit Lodge, the Tattoo Bar was the demented brainchild of entrepreneur Mike Thibodeau and Darrell Abbott of Arlington, who by this time had adopted Dimebag as his nom de guerre. By 1997, when the Tattoo opened, his band Pantera had long since jettisoned its early ’80s glam incarnation, acquiring a ferocious new singer in ’87 with New Orleans immigrant Phil Anselmo. Pantera evolved into thrash with 1988’s Power Metal. In 1990, Cowboys from Hell and then ’92’s Vulgar Display of Power were smash hits, a groundbreaking pair of albums arguably responsible for inventing “groove metal,” yet another evil genus in heavy music’s taxonomy.

Despite their wealth and fame, Pantera members remained local boys, partying with their friends at home whenever breaks in their tour schedule allowed. The Tattoo Bar became something of a clubhouse for the band, its crew, and just about everyone they’d ever been friends with.

Randy Bell, a former  Tattoo bartender (and bass player in the Abbotts’ pre-Pantera middle school incarnation, Hot Rox), remembered the Tattoo Bar as much for its sense of camaraderie as for the hard partying that bounced off its walls. “The Tattoo Bar was a lifestyle,” Bell said. “We lived metal and loved to party. Everyone was buddies. You’d just go there to hang out with your fellow metalheads, and the music was pretty much the soundtrack to our lives.”

The soundtrack came from a variety of heavy bands, a couple of which even included Dimebag on occasion. Henry Vasquez (who currently plays drums in long-running Maryland doom stalwarts St. Vitus and Fort Worth ’70s throwback Blood of the Sun) caught onto the Tattoo Bar during his days in a band called Archie Bunker.

“Archie Bunker might as well have been the house band,” Vasquez said. “You’d also get a lot of local bands like Speedealer and Slow Roosevelt, bands that were playing this down-tuned heavy music.” A professional record collector and reseller, Vasquez sought out tons of new records from bands no one had heard of, flogging them to everyone who came into his Haltom City record shop. From all those indie record labels, he made a lot of contacts.

“I was in touch with a lot of dudes from these Man’s Ruin [Records] bands — Eyehategod, Crowbar, Alabama Thunderpussy — and I was like, ‘Homer [Jimenez, the bar’s bouncer and booking agent], we gotta get these guys in there,’ ” Vasquez said. Soon the Tattoo Bar, along with Brian Forella’s Wreck Room on West 7th Street, was booking heavy rawk from across the country.

“The Tattoo Bar, for being such a small place, had a ton of big bands play there,” Vasquez said. Acts as diverse as Eyehategod, Nebula, Honky, and Superjoint Ritual soon were regularly deafening the Tattoo’s capacity crowds.

When the Pantera dudes were in the house, anything could happen. “On any given night, Vince [Abbott, Pantera’s drummer] and Dime and Phil [Anselmo] would be there, and they’d close the doors, and there’d be an all-night dodgeball party in the back,” Vasquez said. “I remember playing dodgeball with Phil and Pepper [Keenan, of the band Corrosion of Conformity]” while a couple was having raucous sex on the roof of the tattoo shop. “It was a fun time.”

The wild nights at the Tattoo Bar were numbered, however. The club closed in May 2003, when Thibodeau turned it into a bar-bar called The Power Plant.

“I owned other businesses, and honestly, they kept the Tattoo Bar alive,” said Thibodeau. After the Tattoo’s novelty wore off, there weren’t enough different metal bands in the area to keep the crowds coming back.

“When a band plays your club after playing the one down the street the week before, it’s hard to get the same crowd in again and again,” he said. “Still, the Tattoo Bar is special to a lot of people.” The year the bar closed, Pantera dissolved too, bringing an end to a party-hearty era centered around one of Fort Worth’s most beloved bands and its bar. In a tragic coda, a crazed fan shot and killed Dimebag. He was onstage, playing a gig in  Columbus, Ohio, with Damageplan, the post-Pantera project he’d formed with his brother.

Pantera’s legacy didn’t end with the Tattoo Bar. A new generation of kids shamelessly copied the band’s grinding, Southern-metal blueprint, mixing it with death metal’s incomprehensible growls and,  occasionally,  rap’s  misogynistic trashiness.

In light of the ubiquitous presence of indie rock and emo in the first part of the decade, the “Pantera rip-off” stereotype of metal was perhaps more alienating to the general public than ever.

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In 2012, the casual Fort Worth music fan probably associates that type of band with the Ridglea Theater. From about 2004 to 2010, the now-historic building hosted a cavalcade of metal festivals packed with long lists of metal bands, many of which were easily pigeonholed as lousy Pantera knockoffs. Taken over in 1998 by Richard and Wesley Hathaway, the Ridglea was one of Fort Worth’s biggest venues, both in terms of capacity and the names on its marquee. Big-time non-metal bands like Fugazi, Death Cab for Cutie, and Stereolab would draw long lines at the box office.

“Then Sept. 11 happened,” Wesley remembered. “The economy tanked, and people just quit going to concerts — except metal fans,” she said. “For whatever reason, the metal fans always came out, so that’s what we started putting on.”

The early-oughts metal scene at the Ridglea was huge. Local bands like Black Belt Jones and Sweetooth would bring out massive crowds. That many of them were lackluster Pantera clones or rap-rock hybrids didn’t do the venue any favors with non-metal fans, but money is money, especially when rent is due. Pimpadelic, Blue Mound’s most notorious rap-metal hassle, drew hundreds whenever they played.

Even Christmas couldn’t keep away the crowds — a Hellafied Funk Crew show on Christmas night 2003 brought in 700 people, though most were more naughty than nice. “All they did was fight, so that was bad,” said Wesley, “but they had a gigantic crowd.”

The pierced-and-tattooed masses who came to hear metal kept the theater’s doors open until 2010.

“It’s too bad, really,” said Wesley, of the fact that metal became the only thing the Ridglea was known for in those years. “We did do other stuff besides metal, but the metal bands paid the bills. And you know what? I thought they were great,” she said. “I love all those bands and those people — they’re like family. When Richard got pneumonia really bad and had to be hospitalized, bands and their families would just show up to help us keep the place clean.”

A zoning issue predicated on the Ridglea’s lack of parking may doom the theater’s return as a restaurant/event space instead of a dedicated concert venue. But the Fort Worth metal era isn’t over. In fact, the movement seems to be revving up again, with many bands breaking out of the ’90s’ groove-metal mold. Groups like Earthrot and Turbid North have built sizable fan bases by breaking stylistic constraints, blending death metal brutality with occasional ambient touches clearly inspired by Pink Floyd.

Doom metal, the sludgy, stoner-friendly descendant of Black Sabbath, is all the rage locally as bands like Orthodox Fuzz, FTW, and Wo Fat mix doom’s deliberate heaviness with road-chargin’ ZZ Top boogie. Even old bands like Solitude, Prophecy, and Warbeast are big in Europe.

Warbeast, essentially a supergroup made up of musicians culled from Gammacide and Rigor Mortis, is so busy that Perry, guitarist for Gammacide (and initially, Warbeast) could no longer keep up with the national tour schedule and had to bow out. “Warbeast just wrapped up an album with Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, and their schedule is about to get even more hectic,” he said.

In other words, Fort Worth metal might be entering a new era. Jerry Warden got out of jail in 2010; he waited all of about six months before he started putting on shows again, holding them at the Alamo, a Highway 80 rehearsal space cum concert venue not far from the used car lot where Joe’s Garage used to be. He currently books touring acts at the Ranch in Arlington, under the name Elmo Jones Productions.

He may no longer be singing, but Jerry is hard at work bringing metal back to Arlington. While he was still in jail, he applied for the trademark for the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame. For now, the nascent museum is part of The Ranch, but he has bigger ideas. He wants it to become a legitimate, internationally recognized shrine to the music’s past.

“I’m going to get it in its own spot. That’s the goal,” he said. “And I want Ozzy Osbourne to be its first inductee.”

As far as Rick Perry is concerned, metal will never die, neither in Fort Worth nor anywhere else.

“If you’ve ever blasted a power chord through a big Marshall amp, you know how good that feels,” he said. “Kids are never going to outgrow that.”

 

 

Fort Worth freelance writer and musician Steve Steward can be reached at stevesteward16@gmail.com.


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