Mark Ellis remembers the groundbreaking singer songwriter of thrash-death-speed metal band Slayer, who passed away earlier this month.
When Slayer bludgeoned its way onto the scene in the mid-eighties, heavy metal was in dire need of a transfusion.
Ozzy was still flying high, but was doing so in sequined capes, his hair having apparently undergone a permanent. Motley Crue’s raucous and debauched glam rock had splashed down big time, outfitted in torn spandex, big hair, and makeup. Judas Priest seemed to have stylistically mainstreamed, sounding slick on Turbo Lover with their locks suspiciously coifed.
Make no mistake; I bought every cassette tape released by the aforementioned artists. But I had no idea that a page was turning in the annals of metal. When the Four Horsemen of thrash-death-speed—namely Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax—rode down out of a glittery and enervated sky, I was more ready than I knew for a hostile make-over of my favorite genre.
After listening to 1985’s Hell Awaits I realized that the birth of metal and its subsequent early-eighties New Wave renaissance had been outrun and transcended by an unforgiving process of natural selection.
I bought tickets for my first Slayer show well in advance, and by the night of the concert at The Stone in San Francisco I had come down with a vitality-sapping flu. I went anyway, sicker than the triceratops in Jurassic Park, and I must have looked bad because when the band came out and bassist Tom Araya looked out over the crowd, it seemed he was looking right at me when he said, “We’ll see who can take it.”
I took it, even as the viral purge left me sodden as a Portland deck-top in March.
There was Araya, hammering and calling up Hades like one of H.G. Wells’ Morlocks. Guitarist Kerry King, Dracul’s own minstrel. The metronomic fury of drummer Dave Lombardo, his sticks loosed like a closet-full of reanimated skeletons.
And Jeff Hanneman, an Oakland native just like me, he of the angry white hair, the Visigoth meat and muscle, the place where the tortured solos came home to roost.
Reign in Blood was released, the apotheosis, and the Hanneman-penned paean to Joseph Mengele, “Angel of Death” got the band into trouble. Listening to the exhilaratingly downer track conjured up those arrested moments in metal when you think you are condemning something and you realize that on some level you’re really celebrating it, reveling in it. Hanneman wrote many of the best Slayer songs.
My second Slayer ticket took me south from Portland, to the Salem Armory. I wasn’t sick, but the acoustics were terrible on that low-ceilinged February night in 1990. The band had a big laser-light show behind them now; that plus the undifferentiated static generated by the soulless venue rendered the night’s performance as a collapsing black hole.
Seasons in the Abyss came, and a title track for the ages. In the “Seasons” official video we find Slayer on a raft, four Charons in a land of tombs, metalloid sunlight, and unnerving Arab horseman at full gallop.
My last Slayer ticket got me into Portland’s newly-refurbished Roseland Theater in 2001. I wasn’t sick, and the acoustics were great. The concert had the aura of a Greatest Hits cavalcade from perdition.
After the show, as the 3000 or so of us filed out onto Sixth Street, we saw that Portland’s finest had amassed its own cavalry, lined up like the King’s army from Braveheart: thirty mounted officers waiting for metal’s most hardcore, insane, extreme and devoted fans.
Hanneman died on May 2 at age 49. Original reports mentioned the famous hot tub spider bite which some speculated had led to the “flesh-eating” necrotizing fasciitis that afflicted his arm and took him out of the line-up. It was all so Slayer.
Ultimately it was the less dramatic alcohol-related cirrhosis which ended a career over which Hanneman had engraved his name in rock with uncompromising innovation, a killer instinct about where metal’s edge needed to be, and a songbook, if you can call it that, containing some of the most brutal, darkly-illuminating music of all time.
In an unsavory endnote, news came that the execrable Westboro Baptist Church was planning to picket Hanneman’s funeral. The religious extremist group has earned bipartisan condemnation and universal contempt for its appearances at military funerals with signs (God Hates Fags) suggesting that the deaths of our soldiers are evidence of God’s judgment on a society too accepting of non-heterosexual unions. They tweeted their intention to demonstrate at Hanneman’s service because, among other things, “he played the Devil’s chords.”
A thorough scour of the internet shed no light on the place or time of Jeff’s interment, but as a life-long Slayer fan I can say this. Veterans and those who love them are ostensibly bound by military discipline, rules of engagement, and a professional sense of propriety. As much as the Westboro kooks are despised, I venture that they are probably safe at the cemetery gates when our fighting men and women are laid to rest.
When Jeff Hanneman is buried—assuming that has not already happened—not so much.
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