Rock and roll was once the domain of the rebel and the renegade, where those who didn’t quite fit could find a place to be themselves. In a time when even rock music was becoming increasingly safe and sanitised, Vinnie Paul remained true to the rock and roll spirit.
Larger than life, as colourful as his ever-present bandanas, he was a character as big as his home state of Texas. A heavy-hitting drummer who, like Bonham, smashed his kit with the thick end of the sticks, his groove and polyrhythmic style formed the rock solid foundation of his most famous band Pantera and those he played in after. While their first four albums remain little more than curiosities for completists and collectors, Pantera’s next five records are some of the most influential in metal’s history. Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power injected groove and aggression into their sound, laying the groundwork for 1994’s commercial pinnacle, Far Beyond Driven, which helped to reignite mainstream America’s interest in heavy metal in the wake of grunge by topping the charts in the US – it also went to #1 in Australia, only the second metal album to ever do so up to that point (Metallica’s Black album was the first).
Yet no matter how big Pantera got and how aggressive their music became, Vinnie Paul remained committed to the fans and he never stopped being a party animal. After his brother Dimebag Darrell was gunned down in December 2004, Vinnie dropped out of the music scene altogether before returning as the drummer with Hellyeah alongside members of Mudvayne and Nothingface. The band’s name, he once told this writer, summed up their collective attitude – “Hell Yeah, let’s do it!”. “Every night’s Saturday night with Hellyeah,” Vinnie said to me in the lobby of his hotel in 2011. Rather than coming to an end, the party was ramping up all over again.
While other artists cleaned up their acts and still more developed squeaky clean images in direct contrast to the spirit of rock music’s outlaw heritage, Vinnie proudly continued his wild ways. No matter how old he got, he once claimed, he always felt like he was 19. In 2014, in a podcast interview with Jamey Jasta he said that with Darrell gone he felt obliged to party for the both of them. Crucially, he never allowed those partying ways to interfere with his performance on stage – his booming, rolling drums thundered out behind the bands he played in without ever missing a beat.
Vinnie never made any apologies for his lifestyle, and while it’s likely that it was that lifestyle that caught up with him on June 22, 2018 at the still relatively young age of 54, there can be little doubt that he would be proud of the fact that he lived his life to the beat of his own drums to the very end. His impact on the music scene was enormous. His legend as perhaps one of the last uncompromisingly free-spirited rock stars was larger still.