Phil Anselmo’s music, particularly Pantera, has been a big part of my life. It’s connected to so many positive memories and experiences, and yet, Anselmo’s documented history of racism during shows conflicts with my core beliefs. I had to face this internal conflict when Phillip H. Anselmo & The Illegals came to Sydney because, as much as I disagree with his behaviour, the thought of seeing him live was still pretty damn exciting.
This won’t be a typical live review. Rather than simply cover the show, I’m taking this opportunity to reflect on the conflict I feel over enjoying art created by a person with a problematic past.
My name is Peter. I’m a 29 year old white, middle class male, and I am a fan of Phil Anselmo’s music. Thanks to my socially privileged position, I have not been on the receiving end of racism. I went to see Anselmo perform in Sydney, and I learned something about myself that night - specifically how I reconcile my decision to listen to his music. Why? Because I believe that retaining a sense of deliberate ignorance is irresponsible, and yet I’d engaged in that behaviour for years.
I’ve grappled with this broader conflict for some time now, and I know a number of people that are in a similar position. We’re facing the same questions most people are; can you separate the art from the artist, and, if you engage with art created by problematic people, are you part of the problem?
Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul passed away last year. Not long after, Anselmo announced that he would be playing Pantera songs as a tribute, while touring with The Illegals. My friends and I knew that the Sydney show was our once in a lifetime opportunity, to be as close to the real thing as we could. We grew up with Pantera, but we were too young to see them in their heyday. This show was going to be special.
But I knew that this was an ethically questionable decision. Anselmo has expressed white pride sentiment on stage time and again, during his long career as a vocalist for various bands. The most recent incident occurred in 2016, when Anselmo screamed “white power” and threw a Nazi salute at the end of his performance. At first, he dismissed all criticism and tried to pass it off as a joke, but he eventually apologised and has seemingly changed his ways.
We can speculate on his motivations behind the apology and whether he has truly grown. His actions still follow him to this day, as they should. His New Zealand tour was recently cancelled for example, after the venues became aware of the “white power” incident, and didn’t feel right hosting his performance following the Christchurch terror attacks. But still, in terms of his public behaviour, Anselmo appears to have cleaned up his act.
That’s a good thing. If someone has truly shown remorse along with a desire to change, we should attempt forgiveness (within reason). We should never forget their actions, but falling back on the old “once a racist, always a racist” discourages change and growth. I initially reconciled my decision to attend on these grounds – Anselmo has a problematic past, but he seems to have latched onto his shortcomings to be a better person.
Things rolled along wonderfully at first. Anselmo and The Illegals are a powerhouse on stage. Their original tracks drive and chug like with the force of a giant, intimidating, lumbering vehicle. His presence feels like a ten-tone sledgehammer, smashing down on your skull again and again and again. Everything about that man’s performance is rough, unpolished and yet, so tight and perfectly executed. He’s a one of a kind entertainer, who exudes a kind of brute force and unapologetic assertiveness, that’s still utterly sincere.
You can tell Anselmo and The Illegals are utterly thrilled to be on the road. They don’t take their careers for granted. I lost count of the number of times Anselmo exploded in gritty joy at the opportunity to play in Sydney again. It’s like watching a bunch of weathered kids, hardened by life, yet fueled by their love of metal.
When the Pantera portion of the set kicked in, Sydney became part of heavy metal history. Not only did The Illegals sound almost identical to Pantera, Anselmo somehow tapped his 22 year old self and roared through classics including “Walk,” “I’m Broken,” and of course, “Fucking Hostile.” Everyone from the front to the back was in full, gnarly chorus. People’s passion for Pantera runs deep, and for 45 minutes or so, my friends and I hit one of those giddy highs as we shamelessly screamed, headbanged, moshed and let every chugging riff, every high-speed solo and every caustic vocal line tear through our skin to take control of everything beneath. It was a wonderful feeling, and one that doesn’t come along very often.
But then Anselmo decided to air some grievances. Towards the end of the show, right when the audience was flying high off the back of “Fucking Hostile” and a “Domination” instrumental, he grabbed the mic and said “love the bands you want to love, don’t let somebody writing an uppity opinion piece influence you. Spread love. Don’t kiss nobody’s ass, walk your own line, keep each other safe.”
My heart sank. In that moment, it really felt like Anselmo was asking people to forget past actions of problematic people. Based on the mighty roar that erupted from the floor, I’d say most of his Sydney fans feel the same way. And therein lies a problem.
People should be willing to forgive if someone shows a genuine desire to change, depending on where their moral compass falls. But when we “forgive and forget,” and leave problematic actions in the past, the offender is let off the hook of culpability. This is wrong. Anselmo shouldn’t live with permanent punishment following his apology because that doesn’t provide incentive for change, but neither does wiping the slate clean. That’s why his statement during the show was so disappointing.
I still believe that there is a decent, if flawed, man there, who has changed for the better, but still has some way to go. Nevertheless, if you express these opinions and points of view that the majority considered to be hurtful, then you don’t get a free pass. You can never truly start again. That applies to the listener/viewer as much as it does to the artist.
You often hear people say that the answer is simple – stop listening, watching, giving that individual any attention. That works for some, but for others, including myself, that kind of disconnect with art isn’t as easy as turning off a switch. At the same time, I can’t just turn around and say “sorry, my connection to this work is deep enough to justify ignoring the creator’s flaws.”
I can’t shake my love for the music, which I find troubling. I’m essentially saying that a guitar solo is more important to me than the wellbeing of minority groups. That’s awful, no matter how you slice it. I come from a position where I can choose how I feel, whereas people who come from a minority or aren’t from a privileged background, don’t get to choose how they feel when someone starts screaming “white power” on stage. And this is a flaw I have to accept if I continue to consume work created by problematic people, but I hope I can use it as an opportunity to improve.
I won’t stand here and say I’ll never listen to Anselmo’s music again. That would be a flat out lie. I’m glad I decided to go to the show. But I have to own my decision and identify my flaws, so I can reflect on them in order to grow and be better than the artist that created the work I admire. If I carry it the creators past with me, alongside my love for their art, then hopefully I can engage with the work in its own right, without forgetting where it came from. In other words, I have trouble disconnecting from this art, so I have a responsibility to remember where it came from. If you’re in this position, you have that responsibility too.
And yet, I’m still lining the pockets of these people, and any attempt to dismiss that is irresponsible. In some ways, this is a 1500 word excuse for watching a questionable artist perform. And though I may be forgiven for that by some people, it’s not something I can forget, and neither should they. Instead, I hope that connecting something I love, to an ideology I hate, is a permanent reminder of to do better until I shuffle off this mortal coil.