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RIP Jeff Hanneman

A few words on the late, great guitarist from DX Ferris, author of Slayer’s Reign in Blood (# 57 in the series).

Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman died Thursday, May 2. He had been on the sidelines for two years, following some extreme after-effects of a spider bite.

Hanneman was Slayer’s soul. He wasn’t its most skilled musician, but he was its best writer. Hanneman made the difference between Slayer being an underground legend like, say, Mercyful Fate or Exodus, and Slayer being Slayer, a Grammy-winning, iconic metal band with crossover appeal.

Hanneman made Slayer’s songs tight. He was the group’s biggest fan of hardcore punk. Co-guitarist Kerry King, the band’s second-most-prolific writer, grew up on traditional metal like Judas Priest, and he hated punk. Slayer’s second album, Hell Awaits, features seven-minute songs about vampires and demons. After that album, Hanneman had convinced King that hardcore was good. The band’s next record, Reign in Blood, crammed ten songs into 29 minutes. Some people credit that permanent shift to producer Rick Rubin — a top-notch songsmith who later worked with Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and about 10% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inductee groups. But Reign was written before he arrived in California on a mission to sign Slayer.

Without Hanneman, maybe Slayer will keep writing six-minute epics about necrophilia.

He was an intuitive talent; much of his unconventional technique was self-taught. As a Californian with long blonde hair, he wasn’t the kind of guy who looked like he paid attention in English class. But he was the member of the band most likely to pull out a thesaurus while writing lyrics. He’s the one who called bullshit on hokey, lame lyrics like “spit on your grave.” He had a hand in writing nine of the ten songs on Slayer’s signature album, 1986’s Reign in Blood.

Hanneman recorded the first Reign in Blood demos at home, filling in the percussion parts with a drum machine. Not many metal dudes owned a drum machine in 1986. He was willing to take risks and give people a chance. Hanneman was a rap fan. Who knows, without him, maybe Slayer wouldn’t have signed with Def Jam, which at the time was strictly a hip-hop label.

Reign in Blood was engineered by Andy Wallace, who mixed Nevermind and produced Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Kurt Cobain reportedly picked Wallace because of his work on Reign in Blood. If Slayer’s wasn’t on Def Jam, there’s no way that they would have worked with Wallace. Without Hanneman’s extra effort, maybe Nevermind wouldn’t have sounded so good.

Hanneman wrote the music and lyrics for “Angel of Death” — maybe the most infamous metal song of all time, maybe tied with “Raining Blood,” for which he also wrote the music and half the lyrics.  “Angel of Death” was a disapproving account of atrocities committed by Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele.

Without Hanneman, there’s no “Raining Blood,” which began as one of his nightmares. Tori Amos covered the song. And her version inspired a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name. Rick Rubin, Tori Amos, Neil Gaiman, Andy Wallace. Play Six (Six Six) Degrees of Jeff Hanneman, and you can connect to pretty much anybody. He made ripples that reverberated through the whole rock community.

Hanneman was not a social guy, and he wasn’t a self-promoter. So he wasn’t the most visible member of the band. But Jeff Hanneman is the reason everybody — not just a small cult of metalheads — is talking about Slayer today.

R.I.P.

— Ferris

ps. Click here to hear Hanneman singing and playing guitar on Pap Smear, a hardcore side project he formed with then-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Rocky George, the former Suicidal Tendencies guitarist.

33 1/3’s Reign in Blood is the first English-language book about Slayer. A documentary in book form, it traces the album’s creation and ongoing influence, with profiles of Hanneman and the other members of the team that created the influential classic. The book is available in paperback, Kindle, and audio versions (click here).

D.X. Ferris is an Ohio Society of Professional Journalists Reporter of the year. As a teenager, he was thrown out of Slayer concert when a misdirected crowdsurf landed him onstage. But he brushed against Hanneman’s leather jacket on the way out.

3 comments

  1. Very nice. One point I would disagree with is that “Angel of Death” was a “disapproving” account of Mengele’s atrocities. What made/makes that song so disturbing was that it was such a straightforward account of these events, without much in the way of commentary or judgment. This “just the facts” reportage of evil found in their lyrics, which as you hinted at was much more frequently of the natural than the supernatural kind after Reign in Blood, became Slayer’s trademark.

  2. drziggles

    Very nice. One thing I would disagree with was that Angel of Death was a “disapproving” account of Mengele’s atrocities. While it was also not laudatory, as some critics contended at the time, what made/makes the song so disturbing was that the lyrics were so straighforward, without much in the way of commentary or judgment. This “just the facts” style of reportage about evil, which as you mentioned was much more frequently of the natural than supernatural variety after Reign in Blood, became Slayer’s trademark, just as much as their frenetic leadwork or intense live shows.

  3. It was largely objective; as Hanneman says in my book, “Just read the lyrics. But writing that, I wasn’t going to state the obvious. That’s like talking down to whoever’s reading it. I think they know he’s a bad guy. I don’t have to say, “Angel of Death / Bad guy.’ That would be stupid. I thought it was a great documentary.”

    But the lyrics do say “rancid Angel of Death” and “sickening ways to achieve the Holocaust.”

    Thanks for reading!

    – ferris

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