Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jeff Hanneman

In my first few weeks of high school, I can remember about three people talking to me. One of them told me I should listen to Slayer.

As usual when I found out about a band, I started with their most recent album. This was Undisputed Attitude, Slayer's 1996 punk tribute record whose cover graces the poster I still sleep under to this day. From the first eruption of Hanneman and King's feedback, combined with Tom Araya's vow to disintegrate us bastards, I knew it was going to demolish all my conceptions about music. I remember reading my new friend's AOL profile, in the last year that such a thing mattered, and taking note of his message, "You listen to Santana, but I say listen to Jeff Hanneman." That seemed like the right attitude.

I learned a lot from Slayer that year, but nearly two decades of aggression later, I'm still learning about the deep bond that Slayer fans form. Shortly after that first endorsement, my buddy drove me to my first Slayer show. Years later, I surprised him with Slayer tickets for his birthday. We celebrated our move to Brooklyn by seeing Slayer turn the Continental Airlines Arena into a war zone. We go to the only bar in history that ever had to take "South of Heaven" off the jukebox after too many people requested it. We once performed "Dead Skin Mask" for our high school assembly, resulting in me getting sent home early that day. That Undisputed Attitude poster, which is taller than either of us, has graced both of our rooms and our common area over the years. It's gone from Virginia to New York, from being a record store poster to a reminder of the kind of unholy alliance that you can only find with that person who introduces you to Slayer.

There was, and still is, something weirdly upsetting about their music. It's like comparing David Cronenberg to today's legions of splatter films--bands got louder and gorier, but were never as eerie. It was an eerieness that stayed with Slayer, one of the only great bands--and by far the heaviest one--to never tone it down. Every 21st century neo-thrash band is still bowing down to God Hates Us All. Slayer, and Jeff Hanneman in particular, were every metahead's idea of how to age. Who knows what we'll do now.

The news that Jeff Hanneman had caught a flesh-eating disease from a spider bite earned much more fan awe than sympathy, but it wasn't entirely our fault. Hanneman, usually the most taciturn of metal gods, quietly re-assured us that he was fine ("Satan had my back," was the soundbite,) and in general he seemed too invincible for the disease to be a threat. When people talked about how metal it was that the guy from Slayer had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, it wasn't badass that he'd been bitten, but that even the scariest-sounding disease in the world would surely come up short against the Incredible Jeff Hanneman.

Hanneman wasn't the spokesman, lead singer or drumming god, and therefore probably the least-recognized member of Slayer. But he was also the band's best songwriter. Kerry King is one of the most brutal composers in history, and yet none of his music beats down as hard as "War Ensemble," "Disciple," "God Send Death," "Seasons in the Abyss," or even "Psychopathy Red," from Slayer's final album. Through their last shows and albums, Slayer were making their younger tour mates look like amateurs and sending their older contemporaries back to the drawing board.

Reign in Blood is arguably metal's most pivotal document, that rare, perfect combination of something that's both universal and offensive (most people complain about the lyrics, but did you ever look at the cover?) A metalhead without Reign in Blood is like a rock historian without Pet Sounds or a literature scholar without Moby Dick. In less than one half-hour, Slayer packed the complexity of bands like Metallica into hardcore-based compositions, resulting in a new standard for loud and fast. There has never been a greater intro in metal history than "Angel of Death," nor a more haunting closing than "Raining Blood." A progression from Reign in Blood can contain enough energy to create entire songs when they're sampled by Public Enemy to KMFDM, but for Jeff Hanneman and Slayer, it's just one movement in a mile-a-minute riff-fest.

The last time I saw Slayer was at New York's Big Four show, one of only two US performances honoring Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, all four faces on thrash metal's Mt. Rushmore. Metalheads have the rest of time to argue who was the best, but one undisputed fact is that there was only one band on the bill that did not care at all about anything that wasn't music. With Slayer, there was no mention of New York, Yankee Stadium, the other bands, the crowd, the festival, or even the thank you and good night. Just four guys unleashing bombs like "Mandatory Suicide" on possibly the biggest audience that they'd ever had, 30 years into their career. The Big Four debate will outlast all of us, but there's no question who was the loudest, or the most dangerous.

When someone great dies, it's common to say "Rest in peace" or "A moment of silence." But there was nothing common about Jeff Hanneman, a man who did not live in peace or silence. Reign on, Jeff Hanneman.


bearicaquinn said...

This is terribly sweet and wonderful.

Ben Apatoff said...

Thank you, Bear.