There are musical milestones in life that are impossible to forget. For some of us, it was hearing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or Nirvana usher in the death knell of hair metal in the 90’s. What about hearing the Misfits for the first time while looking one of their records, seeing how spooky and cool their whole attitude was?
These are moments that stay with us; they define us, and our experience as humans. We have songs we toast to fallen comrades to, or songs we slow dance to at weddings – because, for those few moments, something’s unlocked and completely ours.
One of those moments for me was the first time I heard Pantera’s “I’m Broken.” I remember being a 13-year-old kid in 1994; I was into bands like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, the grunge stuff like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and a ton of punk. We’d recently discovered bands like Sepultura and Rollins Band, who were blowing our minds. Primus was also doing their best work at the time, while Black Flag, Misfits, and deep cuts of Black Sabbath were creeping into the collective conscious.
All of these bands, these styles were coalescing into my identity, but I can recall watching Headbangers Ball and being blown away, feeling like the game had changed.
Every Saturday night like clockwork, I’d crash at my friend Joe’s house. We’d watch Headbangers Ball, 120 Minutes and devour movies like “Reservoir Dogs” or “Chasing Amy.” We’d order pizzas or argue about “Star Wars” or if NOFX was a good band or not. But, one night in our early teen ennui where we were flabbergasted: “I’m Broken” stormed onto our basic cable screen. As soon as the image of the lone light bulb swinging with the countdown of 1 2 3 4! and – riffmania started into rock and roll fucking city – we were immediate disciples of Pantera.
Our jaws were on the floor. This was not the heavy metal everyone else liked. This was not the asshole in the all over print AC/DC shirt trying to jive you into thinking Accept rules. This was pissed off, intense, and it was ours.
“I’m Broken” is anthemic, it’s raw, its a call to arms. It’s letting go of the stress in your life, while swinging at a world that’s mighty complicated and always looking to cross sabers on your best day. I didn’t know what I felt at thirteen, but I knew I felt different after feeling my brain crunch like a Coke can from the powerful music of these dudes from Texas.
These guys weren’t posing in a graveyard or playing in front of some clock or something mundane – they were blowing out insane riffs and sounded like a chainsaw straight to your brain. It was just them in a room. No overproduction, no dragons or mystical images. It was just the amps, the drums, the voice and they were killing it. Beer splashing everywhere, no tricks or goofs – just some rock and roll fury.
For those few moments, it left more questions than answers: we’d heard “Walk” a bunch, but how did that kinda cheesy bro anthem band get to be SO HEAVY?
How did the guitar player do that with his fingers?
How could we go back to taking bands like Megadeth and Metallica seriously? Compared to Pantera, they weren’t in the same league, let alone the same sport. How can you go from Sad but True to the visceral scream of Phil Anselmo ripping society a new one with the hook of “I’m Broken?” You couldn’t – we had to investigate more.
We had to go deeper. From that moment, our interest in heavy metal was beyond the veneer because we saw violence and brutality, not as an abstract of the music we were into, but it opened us up the great possibilities of delivering upon its driving force: the energy that this music is our vehicle to express everything in a way that’s primal and individualistic.
Hearing Dime, Vinnie, Phil, and Rex, I wanted to be a bad dude. Not like, stealing cars or spray painting houses or anything, but I wanted to be those guys. The looked like the cool guy at the record shop, they oozed cool. They were the dudes who knew about rad tapes of hardcore bands, or where to buy beer at 3 AM or how to cheat the system and get free tacos. Instead about arguing about NOFX, those dudes wanted to argue about why Venom rules harder than Iron Maiden.
I thought a lot of things at thirteen, and some of them were way off base, but one thing I got right: Pantera’s music stands the test of time, and those are some pretty cool dudes, tacos and all.
All hail “I’m Broken.”