Life, death, and Slayer

ImageHappy birthday, Gary Holt. Gary is one of the originators of the thrash metal genre, and, by all accounts, he’s a really decent guy. He turns 50 years old today. He’s the lead guitarist for Exodus and, more recently, Slayer. He joined Slayer after their original guitarist, Jeff Hanneman, died one year ago this past Friday. Jeff was the quiet creative force behind Slayer’s music. It was ironic that a man who produced such aggressive music, music that could not be ignored as it pummeled me in the ears, was so private. His style of playing and the music and lyrics he composed were brutal and uncompromising. Hanneman was an important figure in the metal genre. He made truly original contributions to the music. He had to step away from Slayer in 2011 after suffering from necrotizing fasciitis, likely caused by a spider bite. He died from liver failure at age 49.

ImageSlayer’s music is very important to me, and I wrote about it in my new book, Metal Fatigue. In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, here’s a brief excerpt about the first time I bought a Slayer record:

I walked into the record store in downtown Juneau that had recently opened. The store was small, but the owner did his best to offer more unusual and interesting recordings than what was available at Alaska Music Supply. I flipped through the bins of vinyl albums and came across records by Voivod and Celtic Frost, bands I had only read about and never had the chance to hear before. It was like being in a farmer’s market in some distant corner of the world wondering how the exotic and beautiful fruits and vegetables taste. In the “S” section, I found a copy of Slayer’s Reign in Blood. I held the record in my hands and stared at the cover. I had never seen an album cover like it. The artwork was a hellscape with grotesque faces peering out from shadows. Dark figures carry a goat-headed man on a wooden throne as they float over a lake of blood. One figure wears a catholic cardinal’s hat. Another has a serpent’s tongue. Everywhere my eyes darted, I saw satanic horror. The artwork was so disturbing that I was uncomfortable allowing myself to focus on the imagery. I flipped the album over to see if there was any relief on the other side. The back cover featured a photo of the band members clutching cans of beer and snarling into the camera. Printed above their heads was the song listing. The text was a deep red color, as if the words had been stamped in blood. As I read the titles, I thought about the devil, and I thought about my soul. The song titles were as follows: “Angel of Death,” “Piece by Piece,” “Necrophobic,” “Altar of Sacrifice,” “Jesus Saves,” “Criminally Insane,” “Reborn,” “Epidemic,” “Postmortem,” and “Raining Blood.” My unease was palpable as my heart beat fast, I began to sweat, and my hands grew cold. I returned the record to the bin and walked out of the store like I was leaving the scene of a crime. I just wasn’t ready.

Temptation is a funny thing. The next day, I returned to the store, held the record in my hands, and read the list of songs again. I felt compelled to hear this music, but I also believed that I could be crossing a line I had heretofore managed to avoid. I tried to understand what it would mean to willingly listen to music performed by Satan-worshipers. I think it’s like deciding to break the law. You can’t go back from that. You would be a criminal. So, what would happen if I listened to music made by satanists? Would I change as a person? Would I be a participant in their rituals? Would I be satanic?

I eventually bought that album, and I loved it. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to Hell because of it. I’ve seen Slayer perform many times, and I had the chance to see Jeff Hanneman and Gary Holt playing guitar for the band. They are both amazing musicians.

RIP, Jeff; happy birthday, Gary; and cheers to metal heads everywhere.

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