Bruce Corbitt was my friend, which isn’t unusual to say. He had a lot of friends. He also had a lot of fans. Bruce first made a name for himself while fronting the speed metal quartet known as Rigor Mortis. Their 1988 debut on Capitol Records became a genre landmark, in large part thanks to the late Mike Scaccia‘s guitar heroics and Bruce’s deranged howl. As a horror film fanatic, Bruce’s lyrics oozed with the fascination of gore and death. He was the scary guy with the glazed stare, the grasping clawed hand and the chain-link microphone stand. Those were the parts of himself he brought onstage to inspire an army of fans and fellow musicians. He and the rest of the band had a legitimately fearsome reputation in their early days; they once attacked an entire bar full of people after a gig across town fell through. Bruce subsequently survived being stabbed repeatedly by an attendee after a different concert. One of his signature songs, Bodily Dismemberment, was a sadistic description of the torture and murder of a woman. What kind of guy would sing a song like that? A really nice guy with a big heart, as it happens.

Despite his infamy as a performer, Bruce was in reality a kind soul who was easy to know. After listening to Rigor Mortis for years, I met him at the end of his long hiatus from the Dallas-Fort Worth metal scene. The band had re-formed the original lineup and placed him at the helm once more. It was exciting to become friends with one of the original leaders of the Texas metal movement, the same scary guy on the back of the record sleeve. Before long, he was just good old Bruce, always there with a smile and a Batman ball cap, receiving people wherever he went. He had time for everyone, and he never took his fans for granted. He remained grounded and modest until it was time to step onto the stage and reveal the fiend within.

Bruce Corbitt

Bruce also brought his voice to Warbeast, a band he co-founded in the early 2000s. He forged a path with them that resulted in three albums and several tours. He also continued to appear live with Rigor Mortis, including a special appearance at a festival in Germany and a high-profile set at Ozzfest in Dallas. In the meantime, he married his wife, Jeanna, in the most metal of wedding ceremonies, centre stage at the Rail Club in Fort Worth. No matter what Bruce was doing, heavy metal was always the through-line.

Rigor Mortis had picked up steam after releasing a new album, their second with Bruce, when tragedy struck. Scaccia suffered a fatal heart attack on stage at the Rail Club in December of 2013, on Bruce’s birthday, no less. He took it particularly hard, and his public statements of grief resonated on behalf of everyone who felt the loss. His big heart was broken, but he kept the faith and kept performing. Tribute performances to the fallen guitarist were organised with the remaining members, and Bruce carried them forward with the same conviction that made the band so diabolical from the start.

Bruce’s health crisis began 2015, when he was diagnosed with heart disease and underwent surgery. This was followed by the discovery of esophageal cancer in 2017, and the fight for his life was officially on. Bruce was bold in sharing his situation, including his struggles with the insurance companies. He regularly posted Facebook Live videos to update everyone on his status and his feelings about it. Even when he was in pain, scared or plain miserable, he remained resolved to fight and live as long as he could. He always summed up his determination with, “You know damn well!” This was punctuated by additional live appearances with Warbeast and tracking vocals for what would be their final studio effort, despite his weakness from aggressive chemotherapy.

In early 2018, Bruce’s condition worsened. The cancer had spread. In the face of such grim news, Bruce was characteristically thoughtful and decided to publicly renew his wedding vows at the Rail Club near the end of April. He also wanted one last chance to see as many people as possible and perform live one more time. Backed by members of Warbeast and Rigor Mortis, he mustered enough energy to hammer out choice cuts from both bands. That same deranged howl rang out loud and proud, and he owned the stage with the ghoulish presence that made him famous. For a moment, it was as if nothing was wrong. He renewed his vows to Jeanna in the presence of his daughter, Chyna, along with a roomful of friends and well-wishers who came to support him. This was the last time I got to see Bruce. We exchanged a hug and chatted for a few minutes before he excused himself to take a rest backstage. He was in good spirits and determined to enjoy the evening. The way he carried himself, onstage and off, was one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.

By December, the cancer had progressed again. Bruce was running out of options, and he was very sick and weak. He managed to qualify for a clinical trial that required his daughter to donate a large portion of blood, which she did gladly. Everyone held out hope that maybe it would work, that somehow Bruce would make it. If anyone could, it would be him. Tragically, it was not meant to be. Bruce tried everything to beat this thing, surviving hour by hour, minute by minute. He kept posting updates online despite being heavily medicated and wracked with pain. He knew it was important; a lot of people who loved him needed to know. He finally announced apologetically that he could no longer take the agony and was going into hospice care. Then things got quiet. Bruce made a couple of live updates, along with posting a few photos of him at home, hooked to a morphine drip and watching his beloved Rams win in the playoffs. On Friday, Jan. 25, he passed away. The last evidence of him alive was a photo of his hand in the classic claw position. He was still Bruce to the very end.

Though Bruce lost his battle with cancer, he put up a ferocious fight, one that anyone could look to for inspiration when facing a similar case. Bruce was my friend, and I am glad to have that in common with the countless other people whose lives he touched. He was one of a kind — a singular performer, a loving husband and father, and an undisputed hero. We will honour him in our memories and on our turntables for years to come, and remember his valour in the face of death. He will never be forgotten, because you simply can’t forget a guy like that. You know damn well.

Bruce Corbitt, American Musician, December 22, 1962 – January 25, 2019. R.I.P.

Piece originally printed in the Dallas Observer