On Sept. 7, Fairfax County metal band King Giant played its biggest show yet. It was at the 9:30 Club, where the music careers of many of its members began, and about 400 family members and friends were in the crowd. A microphone was placed center stage, flanked by two tables holding vases of white lilies, but nobody was singing that night. Less than a month earlier, lead singer Bob Dotolo Jr. ended his decades-long battle with depression by hanging himself, at 43. The show was booked before Dotolo’s suicide, but his bandmates decided to play regardless, in tribute to him.
“The hardest part was the soundcheck,” says lead guitarist John Looney, 37. “I paced around for hours. I wanted to run away.” But the jitters disappeared soon after he took the stage. “I threw some feedback and put my heavy metal horns up there, and the response was so loud it scared me,” he says.
Dotolo worked at the old 9:30 Club and met Looney there in 1989. Looney was a teenager at the time, and with his red hair extending down to his waist, friends called him Axl Rose or Dave Mustaine. When he went to D.C. shows, he and Dotolo sometimes seemed a bit out of place. “At the 9:30 Club, there were a lot of people who looked more punk rock,” he says. “They kind of had spiky hair and the Billy Idol look,” Looney says. “Bob was the one who looked different from everyone else.” People called him Heavy Metal Bob.
One night, Looney went to the club to see the thrash band Testament, but the show was sold out. Dotolo, who was working the door, decided to let him in anyway. “Bob said, ‘You were at the Nuclear Assault show last week’ and stamped my hand.”
Their friendship grew close, and in the early ’90s, Looney joined Dotolo’s band Thud. “He had an incredible stage presence,” Looney says. “When I saw him play [guitar], I was really blown away.” He recalls that Dotolo suffered from depression then and was using heroin “very heavily.” Lisa White, the 9:30 Club’s booking manager, first met Dotolo in the mid-’80s. “The term tortured artist is overused, but it fit him,” she says. “It was pretty well-known that he was a heroin addict. He struggled with it for a long time.”
In 1993, another Thud member, guitarist Adam Rutland, died of a heroin overdose, prompting Dotolo to leave town. He first fled to San Francisco, Looney says, and then to his parents’ home in Connecticut. “He didn’t play music for 12 years,” Looney says. Then, in 2000, he came back to the D.C. area, and the two reunited at a Concrete Blonde show at the Black Cat. By 2002, Dotolo had gotten clean, and three years later, he helped form King Giant. “We wanted to play some really heavy music,” Looney says. “We didn’t want anything hokey, Dungeons & Dragons, like ‘We will kill, kill, yeah.’” Instead, they wanted to be “grounded in the bleak realities of life,” he says, playing simple compositions with slow tempos. They envisioned a fusion of Black Flag and Black Sabbath and invited some friends to join. Looney brought in guitarist David Kowalski and drummer Brooks, former bandmates from his previous group, the City Bleeds. Floyd Lee III, who had been in the band Blue Balls Deluxe with Looney, played bass. “Everybody came out of musical retirement,” says the band’s manager, Jeff Mozingo.
King Giant played its first gig at Baltimore’s Sidebar Tavern in July 2006. The crowd was small—only 20 people attended. “It was like starting over,” says Kowalski. When the band took the stage, however, everyone stood stunned, Mozingo says, as if to say, “‘Look at those old guys throw down.’” Over the next year, King Giant played gigs at the Velvet Lounge, Strangeland Records, and the Warehouse Next Door, among other venues.
The musicians were surprised by the response they got from younger audience members. “Kids asked what we listen to. I said, ‘Aerosmith, AC/DC, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Clutch.’ There’s a whole generation of kids who don’t know that music,” Looney says. “That was a good sign for us, that younger people were going to dig what we old folks were doing.”
According to his bandmates, Dotolo was excited to be part of King Giant. “There was good stuff going on,” Looney says. “He was in a band he loved more than everything he had ever done. He had a girlfriend he was excited about. We were getting ready to record our first album. We had a 9:30 Club show lined up.” But by last summer, Dotolo’s depression had returned with renewed force. “I live my life with highs and lows,” Looney says. “Bob was low to low.” He took anti-depressant medication, Looney says, but it wasn’t helping. He wrote a song for King Giant called “Futility,” with lyrics that spoke of “the quiet sound of failure,” Mozingo says.
“There was a lot of self-loathing there,” Looney says. “We did a lot of pushing him from the back.” In July, Dotolo called Looney to tell him he was having suicidal thoughts again. (The singer had attempted suicide in 2001, Looney says.) The next day, Looney drove him to a treatment center. Dotolo was hospitalized for a week before being released. “He came out seeming better,” Looney says.
On Aug. 12, the two spoke over the phone. Dotolo had quit his job at an Alexandria Target in midshift. “We talked for almost two hours,” Looney says. “He couldn’t understand why he was so unhappy and in so much despair when he had so many of the things he wanted in life. He and I had so many conversations where I was analytical, but this was the first time I told him I felt sorry about how he felt, and I loved him.…He said, ‘Thank you for telling me what you have [told me] and thank you for being my friend.’” Two days later, Looney received a call from a mutual friend informing him that Dotolo had died. (His father, Robert Dotolo Sr., declined to comment.)
The band members got together the next day at Lee’s home in Pimmit Hills, Va., to grieve. The house was also the band’s practice space, and that same day they were jamming again. “We kicked the amps on,” Looney says. “That’s what he would have wanted.” There was no question that the band would keep playing. “We knew we were going to stay together,” Lee says. They had already booked the Sept. 7 show at the 9:30 Club, playing between 9353 and Rustbuckit, and they decided to go ahead with the gig without a singer. They also recently finished an EP, Identity, featuring the last songs Dotolo wrote.
And they found a new lead singer. On Dec. 15, Dave Hammerly, another veteran of the City Bleeds, will make his King Giant debut at Baltimore’s Ottobar. “With Bob’s passing…there’s a chance to help out some friends as well as help myself,” says Hammerly. “I kind of thought of myself as getting fat, growing old, and playing country music,” he says. “I’m pretty excited to play music again.”
The band is now looking to sign with an independent label and tour Europe. Obviously, Dotolo will be greatly missed. “I think he was on the cusp of being great,” Looney says. “He still had a lot of good music left in him.” But, he says, “I’m not mad at him at all for the choice he made.”
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