Gone Three Years: Our Cover Story on Jeff Hanneman's Life and Legacy

Three years ago today Slayer's iconic guitarist and songwriter Jeff Hanneman died. On that afternoon, Decibel #105 was almost a wrap. Just days before we were set to go to the print, we scrapped the planned issue and instead printed a nine-page tribute to Hanneman. To honor Hanneman, we are reprinting the main feature from that issue. There are less than 50 issues of the issue left in stock

Thank you, Jeff Hanneman. 

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WAR ENSEMBLE

The life and legacy of Jeff Hanneman

By Justin M. Norton

When I think of Jeff Hanneman I inevitably think of the back cover of Slayer’s Reign In Blood. It was the unexpected joke dropped into the horror movie set to ease tension, a reminder that the guys making this scary music weren’t much different than you. It stood in defiance of the front cover: a goat-like Satan lording over some antechamber in Hell; impaled bodies that look paralyzed by suffering. Somehow, even that cover couldn’t do justice to the darkness – and irresistible tug – of the music.

In the photo, Hanneman and the rest of Slayer grimaced for the camera, four guys in their 20s who appear to be having the time of their life. Hanneman is wedged between bandmates Kerry King and Tom Araya, a six-pack dangling near his face, teeth clenched. It’s the same face he often made in photos. The picture could have fit in a college yearbook. Slayer probably was having the time of their life. They were partnered with future producer to legends Rick Rubin; they were ascendant stars in the international metal community and they had just released a masterpiece that required 29 minutes and three seconds, not weeks of reading or a master’s degree.  

Despite the accolades that followed, Hanneman never got haughty or struggled with hubris, never veered off course outside of a few modest changes in 1998 with Diabolus In Musica. You could imagine meeting him at his favorite TGI Friday’s and sharing a Heineken and a shot. A lot of people might have passed him in line at the DMV. At the same time, this inconceivably modest guy was the musician who wrote “Angel Of Death,” co-wrote “Raining Blood” and reimagined what was possible in a genre that in the early 80s still could feel stale or programmatic.  

Hanneman was at the peak of his powers in the mid-to-late 80s; Reign In Blood contained multiple masterpieces and was the benchmark for thrash metal. While the entire album is unstoppable, the fireworks start with roughly ten minutes left when Hanneman and King dig into Post Mortem; the final salvo is a tutorial in tension and release, punctuated by the sound of rain clouds at the end. How could you not flip the tape and listen again?

Slayer and Hanneman – arguably the band’s creative nexus during their best years – achieved all of this without altering  their work to accommodate industry executives or boost sales. They didn’t just break rules, they flaunted their vision. This is best exemplified by “Angel Of Death,” Hanneman’s album opener on Reign In Blood that described – in painstaking detail -- the horrors of Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele. “Forced in/like cattle you run/Stripped of, your life’s worth/Human mice, for the Angel Of Death/400,000 more to die.” Decades later, Hanneman still tried to explain that the song was no different than what the History Channel airs each night, albeit with a soundtrack.  It wasn’t an endorsement; it was a documentary.

For three-plus decades, Slayer continued to write worthy additions to one of metal’s masterpieces.  Hanneman and Slayer’s career would be complete with just Reign In Blood but they did so much more: recently minted Hall of Fame inductee South Of Heaven; the brooding Seasons In The Abyss and underappreciated gem Divine Intervention, featuring the now infamous photo of “Slayer” carved in a fan’s forearm. There was also God Hates Us All, released on September 11, 2001, a day when any higher power seemed absent.

Hanneman was a cipher but hinted at his passions.  Undisputed Attitude was his love letter to the 80s hardcore bands that molded him: Minor Threat, D.I.  and T.S.O.L., among others.  Hanneman, a player gifted with ability beyond most punk artists, never forgot the power of a good song or what was important before he was a fixture in guitar magazines.  While some listeners thought of Undisputed Attitude as a gigantic aside it was a rare moment when Hanneman showed listeners what moved him, a passion project with a big assist from the rest of Slayer.

There were hints that Slayer was getting older. Fans that once scared their neighbors had kids and were replaced by a new generation of kids in the pit. King lost his hair and got a tattoo; Araya needed neck surgery after a life of headbanging, forcing Slayer to cancel a tour. Hanneman’s once golden locks and beard started to fade to grey. Irreplaceable drummer Dave Lombardo was replaced and returned roughly a decade later when they learned that no one could play quite like him. Then there was the spider bite and skin illness – something seemingly lifted from a metal song – that led to Hanneman's eventual death at 49.

Youth isn’t just expendable. It’s also fleeting.  

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Music might have changed but Slayer never went through a radio friendly phrase, even if they eventually won a Grammy.  I’ve seen them more times live than I ever did on television. A Grammy was a way for the industry to cry Uncle and admit Slayer had become a cultural institution, despite essentially no support – if not outright contempt -- from the contemporary music scene. The only thing that could have made the honor more improbable was if Slayer played “Die By The Sword” to the suits and Hanneman flipped the bird to the audience, an audience that had no part in Slayer’s success.

That success was built by their rabid fan base, listeners that stuck with the band for life. As their fans grew up, Slayer and Hanneman remained consistent. There were no concessions, no emo lyrics, no Benedict Arnold moves. The blade they waved early in their career remained fixed on the neck. There’s a linear thread from their earliest work until their last album featuring Hanneman, World Painted Blood.  I was a kid when I first put a cassette in a Sony Walkman and heard “Evil Has No Boundaries;” well into adulthood, Hanneman was a part of my life with “Psychopathy Red” on my iPod.

That consistency is almost unheard of in music, especially in metal, where band lineups shift on a weekly basis.  Slayer and Hanneman aged with all of us, but were also there for younger generations learning the ropes. It’s become common for metal fans to give their version of our family tree but we can all agree that Slayer sits at the top with Sabbath, much like the simple single-celled organism seeded life on Earth. Every band ever featured in this magazine owes them something.

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I don’t remember how I got a copy of Slayer’s debut Show No Mercy. Hanneman hadn’t become the stern, sometimes grumpy Sphinx who looked like he’d rather be anywhere except taking photos. There’s another photo – again on the back cover -- where a baby-faced Hanneman is shown in makeup, holding an upside down cross that’s as big as his guitar. Show No Mercy was occasionally rough but there was clearly something special.

Slayer opened the floodgates on Hell Awaits, and no band ever kept up after. Venom was powerful but too primitive; Iron Maiden made too many concessions; hair metal doesn’t count. Even Metallica – who went on to mainstream commercial success -- couldn’t keep pace. The creeping gallop of the title track; the manic pace of “Kill Again” and the pensive horror of “At Dawn They Sleep” showed a band that was much more developed – and far more adept at otherworldly solos.

Reign In Blood was the record that changed everything, not just for metal but for music. A marvel of songwriting, economy and purpose, it’s one of the few albums that deserves all the posthumous accolades.  As soon as Hanneman passed away everyone pulled out the record again and started playing it – that is, if it wasn’t still on the turntable. The resounding sentiment: this is still better than almost anything that followed, as fresh and vital as when it was released in 1986.

Reign In Blood also, strangely, worked its way into the public consciousness. Slayer’s Def Jam label mates Public Enemy – who also stoked controversy in the 80s– sampled “Angel Of Death” for “She Watch Channel Zero,” an-anti television salvo on their masterpiece It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. In the early 00s, “Angel Of Death” blared during the opening skit of Jackass as Johnny Knoxville crashes a rental car in demolition derby, a pair of sex dolls in the back seat.  Eric Cartman played “Raining Blood,” to scare hippies in South Park; the song is also considered the Holy Grail in the Guitar Hero series.

Slayer dominated the face of metal in the 80s and even beyond, much like Black Sabbath dominated the 70s. Slayer offered an acceleration of Sabbath’s vision, a candid view for more pessimistic times. The triumvirate of Araya, King and Hanneman crystallized the band’s vision: Araya wrote sociopathic screeds; King railed against religion and government and Hanneman, an amateur World War II historian, wrote almost singularly about war. Whereas Sabbath spoke in simile (just like witches at black masses) and metaphor,  Hanneman offered a perspective from the bunker, the front-line view. Consider a few lines from “War Ensemble,” (co-written with Araya) a blunt update of “Children Of The Grave” : “Bombard till submission/take all to their graves/Indication of triumph/The number that are dead.

Hanneman’s fascination with twisted ideologies and how they often lead to combat continued throughout his career. Warfare, however, changed during  Slayer’s three-decade run; it became less about large powers and failed détentes and more about isolated terrorists preying on the vulnerable and unsuspecting. “Jihad” – also written with an assist from Araya – offered the first-hand perspective of a suicidal Islamic terrorist. It stirred the pot again -- although perhaps not as much as “Angel Of Death” two decades earlier. As Slayer had grown so had the public; it’s much harder to shock and offend in a world where you can watch beheadings on the Internet. ButHanneman’s preoccupations proved prescient; just weeks before his passing two terrorists detonated homemade bombs during the Boston Marathon, reigniting the fears that drove the country to invade Iraq a decade earlier.

And then there was his guitar. His playing would make you drop your jaw and stand agape, wondering where it came from.  There have been countless tutorials, in magazines and on the Internet, from people offering to teach you to play Hanneman’s licks. But let’s face it: no one really can.

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Throughout his life, Hanneman trafficked in the dark side, challenged societal conventions and social norms, even mocked the laws of music. Despite that he was a part of music that helped all of us feel more alive. If you’ve ever attended a Slayer concert you know it’s the unofficial Festivus for metal fans. One fan yells “Slayer!” and the rest cry out like a bunch of Orcs, even the people smoking joints in the bathroom. That type of reaction was partially seeded by Hanneman’s virtuosity and his songs, among the best in the Slayer catalog.

Hanneman was about both consistency and drive. I’ve seen Slayer numerous times: in the late 80s, during the remarkable streak that started with Reign;  in the late 90s, as they played for audiences during the day at Ozzfest 99; and in the early 00s, when they reunited with Lombardo and restored their classic lineup.  During a Slayer set you were almost inevitably drawn to Araya’s surfer banter – the only soothing aside in the performance – and Lombardo’s percussive mastery.  Hanneman was sweating and shredding in an Oakland Raiders jersey.  But if you removed Hanneman from the stage it wouldn’t have been the same.

Many fans couldn’t explain what it was about Slayer or Jeff Hanneman that left them so transfixed, that would lead a few to carve their devotion into their flesh. In the concert video War At The Warfield, a cameraman walks around the streets of San Francisco and asks fans about the band. Usually they don’t even know how to respond except to scream “SLAYER!”  The reaction on comment boards was the same when we learned Hanneman had died.

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There’s a final photograph of Hanneman where he looks fragile and gaunt, his arm scarred from skin disease. Although it’s one of the last photographs of him on stage it’s not how we should remember him. We also shouldn’t belabor the cause of his passing; we’re all headed in the same direction, and the way we get there is ultimately secondary, whether it’s largely intact or piece by piece. Instead, I’ll look back to the images from the 1980s when Hanneman was single-minded, driven, and poised to create music that helped build this subculture.

Slayer continued on when Hanneman was in repose. Initially, Pat O’Brien of Cannibal Corpse toured with the band.  Gary Holt of Exodus, who had known Hanneman and Slayer since their early days, later joined and appeared poised to stay a while. That Slayer continued on was no surprise: people want to hear the songs Hanneman and Slayer wrote, even with different players.  But Slayer, ultimately, was about the power of the original four.  If you took Hanneman out, it wasn’t really Slayer.  

Jeff Hanneman never talked a lot or gave many interviews. He didn’t need to; his hands could express things the human voice could never achieve.  His guitar will speak for generations. I’d like to think of Jeff Hanneman's death as the return to power hinted at in “Raining Blood,” a return to the source that fueled his best playing. Jeff Hanneman left us with so many gifts and cherished songs and taught generations of guitarists. Yes, he was young and could have done much more.  But there’s no south of heaven for Jeff Hanneman, despite a lifetime of protestation, just a series of licks in the climb to eternity

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