by Ryan Meehan
Thursday evening I was informed by a colleague of mine that Jeff Hanneman, longtime guitarist for the legendary thrash metal band Slayer had passed away.
I have to admit that although I was aware of some of the medical problems Hanneman had in recent years, this was a bit of a shock to me. As a human being, my heart goes out to Jeff’s family and friends during this difficult time of grief. As a fan, it closes a door on one of the longest and most intense chapters in heavy metal as a genre because it means that there is absolutely no chance that the original lineup of Slayer will ever perform together again. It sounds selfish, but as entertainment consumers we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t say that thought was one of the first things to cross our mind.
A few months back I did a piece on Dave Lombardo’s departure from Slayer and it was full of all sorts of hypothetical scenarios regarding what might have transpired from a legal standpoint, as well as the feelings that different band members had that led to that decision. However, all of that seems very trivial now.
Hanneman suffered something called necrotizing fasciitis, which doctors believe was caused by a spider bite. It’s a condition that is basically a flesh-eating bacterial disease and although I am not a medical expert, it does not look like something that is by any means pleasant. The official cause of death was reported to be liver failure, and I am assuming that it could have very well been a combination of the many years of Slayer’s hard-partying lifestyle and the medication that it probably takes to offset the removal of such infected tissue. Whatever it was, his life was one hell of a ride to be packed into 49 short years and he lived every minute of it to the extreme until the very end.
Hanneman wrote several of Slayer’s most popular tracks, such as “South of Heaven”, “Mandatory Suicide”, “War Ensemble”, “Raining Blood”, and ironically “Angel of Death”, to name a select few. He did all this despite the reality that he was always viewed by the metal community as being “that other guy”. And by that I mean “The guitarist in Slayer that wasn’t Kerry King”. Regardless of the fact that they often split lead duties, Hanneman was considered to be the backup guy even though his contributions to the band when it came to songwriting would have been unprecedented had he not been a band with Kerry King and Tom Araya. To top all of that off, Araya was always kind of viewed as a guitarist himself because of his playing style being more conducive to that of a guitar player as opposed to a bassist.
Nonetheless, his presence on stage was just as intimidating as anyone else who had ever been in any heavy metal band throughout history. The first time I ever saw Slayer was in 1998 in support of their “Diabolus in Musica” record. They were on the road with Clutch, who was still touring behind “The Elephant Riders”, and a very young System of a Down who looked like they had just graduated high school. We drove several hours to get to Columbia, Missouri on the U of M campus to arrive at this club called The Blue Note where the show was being held. After the opening acts were finished, some time passed before Slayer took the stage. When they got on, it was a real education as to how the physical presence of music can actually blow you back from the stage. You could feel everything about Slayer. If you were standing in the first few rows, it was as if you could feel the air being pushed forward by the speakers. You wanted to believe that that cold feeling on that summer evening inside a crowded club was actually the force coming out of Bostaph’s kick drums. And even if neither one of those were the reason that was being felt on your skin, believing it was still good enough. It was a lot to take in at close range, and that’s coming from a guy who had already seen a lot of very loud music at a young age.
Throughout that show, Hanneman remained on his side of the stage and pretty much kept to himself despite his not missing a single beat all show long. I admit that during the 90 plus minutes that Slayer played that night, I myself was guilty of seeing him as “the other guy”. I didn’t walk away from the show having any specific Jeff Hanneman related memories. At the moment that doesn’t stand out as being the most glorious story, but it’s the truth and metal is all about staying true. I think when you know your role and know that you can step up at a second’s notice if need be, the goal is clear and it’s a team effort. As Hanneman once said in a 2004 interview with KNAC: “It’s all just whoever comes up with what. Sometimes I’ll be more on a roll and I’ll have more stuff, same with Kerry — it’s whoever’s hot, really. Anybody can write anything; if it’s good we use it, if not we don’t.” If you want to read the rest of that interview, it’s a good one and it’s right here:
Tonight when I was online, I went to Yahoo! to check something out: I wanted to see amongst the ever-present sea of celebrity bullshit where this story was ranked as far as recently searched topics. I didn’t get a chance to get a screenshot of it as I was at work, but I can honestly assure you with 100% confidence that sometime shortly after 6PM Central Standard Time, “Slayer Guitarist dies” was the most searched story on America’s most popular website. That’s right, it was number one. If there is one silver lining on this extremely grey cloud, it’s the fact that in a 24/7 nonstop media circus where we are constantly pressing articles about what a certain movie star wears to go get coffee – for one space in time a majority of people were thinking about something important for once. I’m sitting here at 11PM and it’s still number five. Enough people realized how big of a story this was, and I hope if anything else that is enough to be of some comfort to us metal fans.
In a genre that’s littered with posers, overtattooed farces, and technically unsound “musicians”, Jeff was the real deal. If the world of heavy metal was a lending institution, Jeff Hanneman had some serious fuck you money. If thrash were a zoo, he’d be the tiger that had chewed through his cage and put the rest of the city on “Oh, shit” watch. And if he were anything else other than himself, he’d be every public execution that had ever been carried out over the past five hundred years because Jeff Hanneman doesn’t need the third analogy of this paragraph to make sense. He was that tough. Whenever you are a part of creating an entire style of music, you’ll always be remembered for that before anything else. The musicianship, the songwriting, the attitude, and everything else that Jeff possessed were simply added bonuses when compared to the fact that until this sorry excuse for a planet finally explodes everybody that wants to write heavy music should look at Jeff as a pioneer and follow his lead even when he’s just playing the rhythm parts.
I had no idea that I was going to be doing this piece when I woke up this morning and I wish I didn’t have to do it, and I don’t usually do the “RIP” stuff but I felt this had to be written about. Simply put, Jeff Hanneman was and always will remain one of the most important guitarists in heavy metal history. Slayer will never be the same, but their music is always going to be great.
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