By Jon Wiederhorn
May 2, 2013 was supposed to be a day to celebrate metal. Hundreds of musicians, press people, and fans were traveling across the country to Los Angeles to attend or take part in the fifth annual Revolver Golden Gods Awards. Then at about 3pm PT, word broke that one of metal’s heroes, Slayer co-founder and guitarist Jeff Hanneman, had died at 11am that day from liver failure, at the age of 49.
Understandably, many artists at the event made onstage dedications to him before performing or announcing trophy winners. In addition, countless members of the metal community have tweeted about Hanneman’s death. "Tonight one less star will be shining and sadly, the stage got just a little bit darker," wrote Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine.
"I’m deeply shocked and speechless," tweeted drummer Dave Lombardo, who recently left Slayer at least temporarily for financial reasons. "It’s difficult for me to write my feelings at this moment."
"Brutal news about Jeff. Like a punch in the gut," tweeted Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian.
Hanneman represented everything metal stood for. He loved it, lived for it, and died shortly after working on new material for Slayer’s next record. Details about Hanneman’s death are scant. His wife Kathy rushed him to Hemet Valley Medical Center near his Southern California home and was with him when he died. At this point, everything else is speculation, including the general assumption that he died from lingering illness from a recluse spider-bite that had kept him from performing for more than two years.
What’s known at this point is who Hanneman was (at least in the public eye) and what he contributed to metal. He formed Slayer in 1981 with guitarist Kerry King, bassist and vocalist Tom Araya, and drummer Dave Lombardo, and while the band started by doing traditional metal covers and playing songs in the vein of their heroes Judas Priest, Hanneman--heavily influenced by early hardcore bands like GBH, Discharge, and Misfits--soon convinced his bandmates to ramp up the tempos, write more aggressive guitar parts, and write more lurid, evil lyrics.
Along with Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth, Slayer soon became leaders of the emerging thrash-metal scene and, along with the aforementioned groups, would be categorized as part of the "Big 4." In performance, Hanneman was a hurricane of activity. He bobbed his head up and down so rapidly that his long blonde hair usually obscured his face, while he played at inhuman speeds, including wild, unconventional solos that made up in intensity what they may have lacked in structure.
"He was a huge influence on my songwriting growing up in particular with arrangements and the bold use of key changes," said Machine Head guitarist and vocalist Robb Flynn in a Facebook post. “The one thing Slayer always had over so many other bands is they were all over the guitar neck when it came to key changes. Leads would be in some of the most random keys ever, but somehow it made it all that much more frantic, and when the chorus kicked back in, BOOM! CRUSHING!"
Hanneman and King wrote most of Slayer’s lyrics, and while they started out by writing writing about Satan and the occult (like their peers in Venom), they expanded their repertoire after 1985’s Hell Awaits and started writing about war, serial killers, and acts of barbarism. Obsessed with all of the above, Hanneman penned lyrics for some of the band’s most well-known songs, including "Raining Blood," "Dead Skin Mask," and the controversial "Angel of Death," which is about the medical experiments of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and caused waves of protest when it was released on Reign in Blood in 1986.
Hanneman didn’t care about controversy and didn’t relish being in the spotlight off the stage. He liked football--especially the L.A. Raiders, whose uniform he often wore onstage--Heineken beer, guitars, reading about man’s inhumanity to man, and collecting war memorabilia--including items from Nazi Germany (he repeatedly insisted he was not a Nazi sympathizer, but took in interest in the evils of history). Most of all, Hanneman wanted to be left alone. He was a private man who lived by his own terms and didn’t care what anyone else thought.
In January 2011, Hanneman contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacterial disease that causes the deep layers of skin and tissues to become infected and rot away. Doctors believe he acquired the condition from the bite of a poisonous recluse spider.
"[I] Didn't even feel it," he said in a statement two years ago. "But an hour later, I knew that I was ill. I could see the flesh corrupting. The arm was real hot. I got to the emergency room, and thank god the nurse knew straight away what it was. By chance, although it's pretty rare, she had seen a case a little while before. At that point, I was an hour away from death."
Doctors immediately operated to remove the dead and dying tissue and stop the infection from spreading any further. They were able to save his muscles and tendons, but Hanneman had to stay in the hospital for two months undergoing extensive skin grafts, while taking heavy doses of antibiotics.
When it became clear that Hanneman couldn't tour with the band, Slayer announced that Exodus guitarist Gary Holt would be his temporary replacement. In a post on their website, Slayer explained the seriousness of Hanneman’s condition and their hope for his recovery.
"There was talk that he might have to have his arm amputated, and we didn't know if he was going to pull through at all. He was in a medically-induced coma for a few days. It's been about a year since he got out of the hospital, and since then, he had to learn to walk again… He's been in rehab doing exercises to regain the strength in his arm; but best of all, he's been playing guitar."
Hanneman was able to join the band in April 11 that year at the Big 4 concert in Indio, California, to perform "South of Heaven" and "Angel of Death"; it would be his last stage appearance.
In a March 1, 2013 interview with MetalObsession.net's Nick Tevelis, Slayer guitarist Kerry King stated about Jeff Hanneman's health status: "I don't have an update. I haven't seen Jeff in forever. He's always been a recluse, and he's even been more of a recluse since he's not going on tour with us. But our manager talks to him from time to time and sees him in L.A. just randomly. But I'm far from L.A., so I'm not in that loop. But I guess he's just getting better. It's just one of those things where he can do anything in life. He could be hanging here having a good time with us. He can probably play 'South Of Heaven,' but he's not gonna be playing 'Jihad,' you know what I mean?! So it's just a muscle memory kind of thing, I guess, at this point."
Asked whether Jeff had been involved in the songwriting process for the new Slayer album, Kerry said: "It's just all my stuff for now. But I did that just in case, 'cause I don't know what Jeff's intentions are. So I wanted to have Slayer covered in case he doesn't come to the party. If he comes to the party, then we've got tons of songs."
Speaking with AndrewHaug.com during this year's Soundwave festival in Australia, Slayer bassist/vocalist Tom Araya stated about Hanneman: "Even though he's not in the picture, he's still part of the picture, it's taken him a lot longer [to recover] than he even thought. He can play and he can work out the material but…It's like everything else, depending on how you are health-wise as a person, that affects how you heal. Even though you haven't seen him live, he's still part of the band."
Sources close to Hanneman have speculated that the damage from his disease and the medications he was one may have contributed to his untimely death, but autopsy results were not available at press time. Hanneman is survived by his wife, his sister Kathy, and two brothers, Michael and Larry.