When I was 10 years old, Slayer scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t the punishing music or the satanic themes. I worshipped at the altar of Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate and their like in the mid-1980s. Speed, Satan, violence, aggression — that’s what kept me going during my “awkward years.” Yet I was intimidated by Slayer.
It was because of the fans.
Slayer fans were scary. Not demons falling into hell on an album cover scary, but singularly and fervidly devoted to the metal band founded in 1981 by drummer Dave Lombardo and guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, who died yesterday at the age of 49, scary. Like me, those fans from the 1980s have grown into 30- and 40-something-year-old guys (and a few gals, too) who likely have broadened their music tastes a bit. But back when Show No Mercy hit in 1983, to some kids, Slayer was music. Nothing else was as heavy, uncompromising, progressive, and pure as Slayer. Therefore, everything was less than Slayer. The word “poser” got thrown around a lot back in those days, and Slayer fandom defined that ethos. The scruffy kids with bad teenage mustaches who never left the house without t-shirt or jeans jacket emblazoned with the Slayer pentagram logo weren’t metal fans as much as SLAYER fans. When I was 12 or so, I borrowed a tape of Show No Mercy from a friend’s older brother, and it wasn’t the ferocity or violence of the music that scared me. It was the thought that some high school kid who reeked of cigarettes would pummel me for playing a Slayer tape in the same boombox I used to play Motley Crue.
Through 1985’s release of their second album, Hell Awaits, I was too young to even understand, let alone truly relate to, the almost religious devotion it seemed was required to be any kind of fan of Slayer. I was always curious, and frankly, kind of envious of the kids who belonged to that group, but I kept my distance.
That is, until Reign in Blood.
That 29-minutes of crushing speed and brutality finally brought me over. By 1986, I had grown a little older, had a little upper lip fuzz of my own, which certainly helped. But mostly, it was the relentless force of that album that hooked me, the way producer Rick Rubin managed to condense the sound introduced on Slayer’s first two LPs and create a 10-track masterwork that is almost too intense to bear. I remember being in awe the first time I heard that tape, even a little confused. It’s just too much to take in on first listen. But it was the album closer, “Raining Blood,” that sealed the deal. The evil, haunting intro, the disorienting, lighting fast riffage, and jaw-smashing breakdown on that track was impossible to resist. I had descended into hell and witnessed the tribal dance of satan’s army, and it was awesome. I was ready to denounce Motley Crue. I would never cut my hair again. I was a Slayer fan now, dammit. Let it Rain Blood. That song, of course, was written by the late Jeff Hanneman.
Hanneman’s legacy is Slayer itself. He was certainly a brilliant guitarist. It was largely his wailing, screeching guitar work that created the band’s eerie sense of dread. Hanneman shared guitar duties with Kerry King, and together they created a barely controlled chaos unrivaled in their genre. But in addition to being one of the founding members of the band, Hanneman is also credited for writing many of their classic songs. From the aforementioned “Raining Blood,” as well as the Reign in Blood opening track “Angel of Death,” to the title track of their slower tempoed follow-up record, “South of Heaven,” along with concert staples like “War Ensemble,” “Mandatory Suicide,” and “Seasons in the Abyss” — those are all Jeff Hanneman songs.
The lyrical content, and resulting controversy surrounding some of it, was also largely a Hanneman creation. Son of a World War II veteran and a Third Reich memorabilia collector, Hanneman’s fascination with war is present throughout Slayer’s catalog. Most controversially, the Hanneman lyrics in “Angel of Death” are based on Josef Mengele, a Nazi “doctor” who conducted human experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camps during WWII. Hanneman and the band always denied allegations that they are Nazi sympathizers, but they’ve done so more with a shrug and a “Screw you” dismissal than an apology. “I know why people misinterpret it — it’s because they get this knee-jerk reaction to it,” Hanneman said in an interview in 2004. “When they read the lyrics, there’s nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily he was a bad man, because to me — well, isn’t that obvious?!?!?! I shouldn’t have to tell you that. ” The takeaway: Hanneman doesn’t care what you think, and he has faith that his fans are smart enough to figure it out themselves.
I’ve been a Slayer fan now for more than 25 years, and I was heartbroken yesterday to see that Hanneman had died. Slayer’s work has definitely been spotty over the past decade or so (though I really liked World Painted Blood), but they never stopped putting out records and were still great live (I last saw them in 2010 for American Carnage, when they ran through the entire 1990 classic Seasons of the Abyss). I’m not sure if Hanneman’s departure will mean Slayer, too, has been put to rest, but I hope not. The band has toured with Exodus’ Gary Holt since Hanneman got sick, so maybe that will continue. Because while a Slayer show just isn’t the same without Hanneman on stage in his Raiders jersey, shredding riffs alongside King while Tom Araya spews out his lyrics before the worshipping masses, as a member of the Slayer army, I will always crave the euphoria that I feel at a Slayer show when the THUMP THUMP THUMP announcing “Raining Blood” kicks me in the chest. That’s Jeff Hanneman. That’s F—ing SLAYERRRRRRR. RIP, dude.