Tuesday, May 7, 2013

And Hell Followed With Him

Maybe we’re all just getting too old, but when some of the most influential thrash musicians kick their way off the mortal coil, it’s easy to get shaken. That’s what it feels like with the death of Jeff Hanneman, one of the founding guitarists of metal gods Slayer, who succumbed to liver failure last week.

It appears that the root cause of Hanneman’s liver problems was necrotizing fasciitis, a condition that took hold after a spider bit him in 2011. According to Slayer’s Facebook page, the bite became life-threatening; Hanneman was in a coma for a few days and there was talk that they may have to amputate his arm. Instead he underwent several surgeries to remove the dead skin and flesh around the bite area. It’s hard to imagine a more sickly appropriate death for a metal musician; even the name of the condition has the word “necro” in it.

Whether or not you’re a metal fan -- and thrash is the only sub-genre I’ve ever really paid attention to -- Hanneman’s death is a big deal. His playing was brutal and artful all at the same time. He did virtuosic things with his guitar that gripped the listener in a kind of chaotic downward cyclone and cast them much deeper than most musicians of his generation dared to go. At its best, metal has always aspired to a kind of post-electronic Wagnerism; sounds that are as epic as they are foreboding. And Slayer helped restore the style to that level at a time when crimped hair and choreographed kicks were threatening to sterilize it.

More broadly, Hanneman was part of a time and place of extreme flux in music. Los Angeles in the 1980’s was a fuck-fest of daring musicians that waltzed easily between the influence of metal, punk, funk, rap and rock. The economic bottom had dropped out of the Reaganite postmodern metropolis (paging Mike Davis) and the kids -- from just about all backgrounds -- were just straight up pissed.

This was a city both able to create standard bearers of gangster rap like N.W.A and be the gestation pod of hardcore punk cholos like Suicidal Tendencies. What’s more, there were so many acts that were effortlessly able to cross-breed it all -- Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the list goes on.

Slayer might not at first seem to be close to any of this. Their sound is thought of today as about as quintessentially metal as metal can quintessentially be. In the late 80’s though, they were transgressive and even controversial. Thrash, as a rule, was a stripped down, fast and loud, kick-you-in-the-base-of-the-spine alternative to the pampered glitz of hair metal. The very elements that made it thrash in the first place -- use of power and bar chords, a willfulness to growl and scream rather than sing -- were more punk than anything else, albeit cranked up to breakneck speed. It was ugly, it was even quite macho in its rebuff of the primping and makeup of Poison or Twisted Sister. But nobody could really deny that thrash was a lot more real and raw.

Mainstream America didn’t like this. As their Rolling Stone biography says: “If Slayer did not exist, the tabloid press would have to invent it.” Tipper Gore’s Parental Music Resource Center hated Slayer. Even though they knew really nothing about the band. Here was Gore in a 1988 interview:
Q: Have you ever attended a metal concert?

A: No, I have not.

Q: Is there a particular reason for that? Wouldn't you like to see the stage show of some of these groups?

A: Yes I would. In fact, that's something we've been planning to do. Slayer played here at the Warner Theatre (in Washington, D.C.) and I wanted to go and see that. I had heard reports from some parents in San Antonio who had gone to see their concert and I wanted to go and see if they were doing the same kinds of things. I couldn't make it whenever the date was.
All of this dovetailed with the wave of “Satanic panic” that seemed to seize suburban white people in the 90’s, especially in the case of the West Memphis Three. If Ice-T and 2 Live Crew were excuses for the establishment to single out young Black men as particularly perverse and crime-prone, then the next segment of the slippery slope was portraying otherwise well-behaved white kids in the grip of Satan’s hypnotic rhythms. Today, just about the only people we can expect to take a similar tact are those of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose intentions to picket Hanneman's funeral simply don't pack the same punch as Tipper's witch hunts.

Thing was, all the time and energy being spent on whipping up the cultural blame game was time that wasn’t being spent talking about jobs or education, or providing actual opportunity for young people. It was (and is) the logic of the old divide and rule. It also naturally and intentionally dodged the question of why the kids were so damned angry in the first place! In the face of a scary existence, Gore and company just wanted us to sideline the baddies and act like nothing was wrong.

Hanneman’s lyrics themselves were often at the center of the criticism of the band due to their portrayal of violence, war, chaos, and yes, Satanism. The song “Angel of Death” particularly got the hackles of executives at Columbia up, who refused to release the song or its album because of its references to Nazi torture doctor Josef Mengele. Hanneman, when asked about it stated unequivocally that the song was not an endorsement of Mengele’s actions or Nazi ideology (an important move considering the traction that white power groups have long had in the American metal scene).

"I know why people misrepresent it," he told one radio DJ. "It's because they get a knee-jerk reaction to it. There's nothing I put in the lyrics that says necessarily he was a bad man because to me -- well, isn't it obvious? I shouldn't have to tell you that."

Hanneman wasn't really political. What few political opinions reporters have ever been able to squeeze out of him or Slayer vocalist Kerry King are probably best described as vaguely libertarian: Bush is an idiot, war is stupid, but don’t ever get in the way of what I am as an individual. Metallica have dumbed down their sound and become a parody of themselves while going to entertain the troops; Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine has become a born-again Christian. Slayer have steered admirably clear of this for the most part.

At the core of it, though, their music was firmly in the tradition of the dark romantic. The kind of nihilism that they flagpoled at the center of their sound and lyrics were always intended more as a reflection of a basic fact: the world is often a dark, horrible and unforgiving place. If conservative politicians have proven that life really could be nasty, brutish and short, then Slayer at their peak merely provided an honest soundtrack. The question is, who do you really fear more?

Now, twenty years later, Hanneman’s own death proves in a fairly roundabout way that Slayer have been right all along. And obviously so. Death, much as we would love to ignore it, exists. It is inescapable, its power awesome and absolute. It takes away people we love or admire. It comes too early. It shocks us and causes us to feel all the existential angst that just about every worthwhile philosopher and social theorist has had to reckon with. Political and religious figures tell us to have blind hope, pharmaceutical commercials tell us to pop pills. Nobody tells us that it’s okay to be horrified by forces beyond our control.

The same can be said about human suffering in general. What Slayer’s music held in common with so much else of the music that came out of their time and place was a rather simple reminder: our anger does not deserve to be ignored. If you’re going to light a match, then you’re going to have to admit that the darkness exists in the first place.

First appeared in Red Wedge magazine

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