By Jon Wiederhorn
The stage of the Hollywood Palladium was lined with 10 guitars and two walls of Marshall-stack amplifiers on May 23, but nobody was there for a gig. They were there to commemorate the life of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, 49, who died from alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver on May 2.
Over a thousand of Hanneman's friends and fans, some of whom traveled long distances to say goodbye to the metal legend, were in attendance. The venue was mostly dark and flooded with red light, recalling the atmosphere of the always harrowing, ever-powerful Slayer shows the guitarist had played with the band. And when Slayer’s "Raining Blood" blasted over the sound system, hundreds of crowd members burst into a double circle pit, venting their frustration and grief through the aggression of some of their favorite music.
Despite threats from the Westboro Baptist Church that they would picket the memorial and protest Hanneman as an evil role model, nobody from the controversial organization showed up, and the event was peaceful and respectful.
Attendees included Rob Zombie guitarist John 5 (ex-Marilyn Manson), original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, ex-Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph, Slayer road guitarist and Exodus's primary songwriter Gary Holt, Testament vocalist Chuck Billy, Dethklok drummer Gene Hoglan (ex-Testament, ex-Fear Factory, Dark Angel), Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, and Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn.
And that didn't include the musicians and industry execs who stepped up to deliver eulogies behind a podium at the right side of the stage. While some of the speeches were touching, the event was a celebration, and most of the speakers told some of their favorite Hanneman memories while emphasizing his importance as a player.
"He happened to be one of this genre’s greatest riff writers ever, period, right up there with [Black Sabbath] [guitarist Tony] Iommi,” said ex-Grim Reaper guitarist Nick Bowcott, who now works with Marshall amplification. "'South of Heaven,' 'Dead Skin Mask,' 'Reign in Blood,' 'Angel of Death,' 'Seasons in the Abyss,' 'Bloodline,' 'Mandatory Suicide.' Those are just a few of the great riffs Jeff Hanneman wrote."
Bowcott, who also writes a column for Guitar World, told the crowd how he was assigned to interview Hanneman and co-guitarist Kerry King numerous times about their songs but Hanneman never showed up. When he finally pinned down the guitarist after a few beers one night, Hanneman said, "I like playing guitar I don't like talking about it. I like writing riffs, I don’t like explaining them."
The longest and most impacting speech came from King, who first pointed out how ironic it was that Hanneman’s memorial was held at a club Slayer was banned from 20 years ago (because the audience at the 1988 show rioted after the concert sold out). Then he shared stories: He explaned that when he was auditioning for another band in 1981 ("who were terrible"), he met Hanneman working at the front desk of the building, noodling on a guitar. The two started talking about music, and the rest was history.
King also explained how Hanneman was the one who turned him on to punk rock, an integral component of Slayer's sound. "I didn't understand it because I was more into Ronnie James Dio and Judas Priest," King said. "I liked metal music with singers. Punk seemed like a cheapened-down version with s***ty singers. But that's what it's supposed to be. And I didn't get it for a long time. Jeff was my doorway to punk, and that helped Slayer become the bridge between the metal kids and the punk kids. When he shaved his head, I was pissed. It totally upset me. It was great, because that’s what Jeff gave to us."
King also shared an amusing story with the crowd about a night in 1988 when he drank too much and was unable to hold his liquor – a rarity for him – during a drive in a rental car. "I'm lying down in the back seat and I start to roll down the window," King said. "It was one of those child windows. It only went down halfway. I’m doing my best to get this puke out of the car and it didn't make it – maybe a little bit made it. It's all over my arm, my chin. It's all over the place and Hanneman said, 'Dude, that's the best thing I've ever seen!' I went, 'Oh yeah?' And I reached over and wiped it on him and he said, 'That’s the best thing ever!' He was really stoked to have my puke on him because he was having such a good time."
As entertaining as such stories were, King hit the nail on the head when he addressed Hanneman's reputation for being shy, reclusive, and intensely private. "Jeff hated being famous but he loved being onstage," he said. "He might have grumbled about it, but if you hit him up for an autograph and a picture he always made time for you guys. It’s a very sad end to a great story. Remember my brother well."
Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel spoke about how he discovered Slayer and worked with them on their first two albums. He said he remained friends with Hanneman through the years, and how he was honored to have been able to score the guitarist L.A. Kings Stanley Cup playoff tickets in the last year of his life. "We miss you, brother," Slagel said. "Ronnie [James Dio], Dime[bag Darrell], and Jeff must be having an amazing jam [in Heaven] right about now."
Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo stepped up to the podium to deliver words from producer Rick Rubin, who signed Slayer to his label after they left Metal Blade. The speech read in part: "Although he may have been the quietest member of the band personally, Jeff was the heart and soul musically. He was an innovator, an original, and a creative force who we will all miss every day going forward. Thankfully, he left us with recordings we can listen to any time we want to feel his presence."
System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian spoke about the influence Hanneman had on his band. "If there was no Jeff Hanneman there’d be no System of a Down," he said. "He inspired us. He inspired me. He mentored me. They took us on our first tour ever. Jeff was such a funny guy and even when the worst happened, he would make you laugh and make you feel better, and that just makes him larger than life."
At the end of the event, Kristen Mulderig, who works with Slayer's longtime manager Rick Sales, presented a statement from Hanneman's widow, Kathryn. She thanked the musicians, management, and fans, and added that two years ago when Hanneman – ill at the time with a flesh disease caused by a poisonous spider bite – learned that Holt was replacing him on tour, he shouted, "F*** yeah!" The audience erupted in cheers. But the last line from her letter brought a hushed silence to the crowd: "May you continue to reign in Heaven."