Hanneman and the great leveler
Fan shot of Slayer performing in front of Jeff Hanneman's Heineken logo at MSG Theater, November 2013
I drink too much. More than twice a week, I drink to what I consider excess. The numbness and abandon created by alcohol is something I consider not simply enjoyable, but intrinsic to my life. It is part of my belief system, something I hold dear.
I drink too much because I am unhappy. This not the only factor in my drinking — I love to laugh, I love to headbang wildly, I look for any excuse to eat 7-11 food at odd hours — but this is chief among them. There is no reason for this unhappiness, other than the injustices of the world, the basic strains of financial pressure and cosmic confusion, and my inability to be a man unlike any other. This sadness doesn’t ruin the lives of those around me in a grand scheme of things, and I have no intention of ever killing myself or anyone else. My love for my family and friends is unwavering and brilliant. Most find me jovial and easy to talk to. And yet I am more often than not depressed, and have grown to understand unhappiness and discomfort and the anger they spawn as the most basic tenets of everyday life. To ease these maladies, I drink.
When I discovered that Jeff Hanneman, lead guitarist of my favorite band, had passed away, I somehow knew that alcohol was involved. Clutch was just finishing up their set at Terminal Five, and I had just barely missed the announcement of Hanneman’s passing by showing up early for the show; indeed, I spent mid-show pauses wondering why the sound tech would blast South of Heaven between ultra-crunchy stoner metal acts. As I stepped out of the pit for a breath of fresh air and another beer, a friend text-messaged me the news, freezing me to the spot. Immediately, something in my brain clicked in place: the booze must have killed him. My clarity in this thought surprises me now, primarily because at the time I was shitfaced.
Jeff Hanneman was always the punk of Slayer, the member who seemed to instill the band with that extra sense of far-out vitriol and mental anguish. When you think of Slayer’s bizarrely infectious riffs or their lyrics on the gut-wrenching psychology of war, you’re thinking of Hanneman’s work. If you look at the band’s song-writing credits, you sees Hanneman involved in the musical construction of every track, while guitarist Kerry King covered the majority of the lyrical duties. (Not to say that Hanneman was not a lyricist, as apparent in his and Tom Araya’s strangely poetic words for everything from ragers like “War Ensemble” to creeping doom epics like “Spill The Blood.”) But though prolific and driven, Jeff was less of a public persona than King, whose image and attitude have come to embody Slayer; it was surprising to many fans, this writer included, to examine just how much of the band’s music was written by Hanneman, given his down-to-earth Cali punk appearance and lack of interview controversy.
Everyone wanted to believe it was the spider bite and the necrotizing fasciitis that sprang from it that killed Jeff Hanneman. This is understandable — the bite of a venomous animal causing a flesh-eating disease is the stuff of Slayer songs, and would be a fitting end for such an innovator of metal. But these ailments were only part of a larger story, one that is too common in rock and roll. Hanneman was sponsored by Heineken, even rocking a guitar with his name featured inside of their green logo. The image of Jeff with a Stella Artois in hand on the back of the band’s groundbreaking release Reign In Blood is iconic within the metal world. Yes, the spider bite, sickness, and skin grafts were massive contributing factors to Hanneman’s untimely passing. The beer and vodka, though, appear to have been the real culprits.
It seems to me that Jeff Hanneman drank for a lot of the same reasons I do. Having never known or spoken to Jeff, I can’t say for sure, and I certainly don’t have the pressures of year-round touring and a sometimes-suffocating legion of rabid fans to excuse my behavior. But it makes sense. Looking at lyrics alone, Kerry King seems to take on the world with menacing strength, while Jeff Hanneman thrashes violently against its clutches. That rage and disgust came out in Slayer’s music, exorcised like the demons that populate their songs and album covers. And when that catharsis was taken away, when Jeff could no longer play due to his injury, the unhappiness and the booze reached a fevered pitch that resulted in the cirrhosis of the liver that killed him.
This is not to portray Jeff Hanneman as some drunken lout. Hanneman liked watching TV, hanging out at home, giving gifts at Christmas, peanut butter. The man’s obsession with war paraphernalia, specifically that of WWII, seems dangerous and bizarre to some, but truly nerdy and childlike to this reporter; Hanneman had family who served in the war, and so looked at it as a fascinating example of man fighting true evil. It sounds like he loved the shit out of his family, especially his wife Kathryn, who he met at an early Slayer show. This is a man whose quiet pleasures are hilariously at odds with Slayer’s public image of arms-folded fuck-off thrash metal footsoldiers. Kerry King is known for raising pythons and selling Jagermeister; Jeff was the member who introduced the rest of Slayer to rap, and wore skull-covered shorts or soccer shin guards onstage.
But painting too romantic a story of Jeff’s final days, weeks, months, would do his memory injustice. In interviews since Hanneman’s death, Kerry King, so often demonized as Slayer’s money-hungry driving force, seems both frustrated and heartbroken by his fellow guitarist’s behavior. When talking to Guitar World shortly after Jeff’s passing, both King and Kathy Hanneman paint a picture of someone who was feeling abandoned and eventually gave up. No rehab, no physical therapy, no relinquishing the things he loved (beer, red meat). It did not help that Jeff was already battling an arthritic condition that made playing uncomfortable. With the inability to play came a sense of fatalism that led to further boozing, further depression. Regrettably, the liver transplant that could have saved his life — and the hope that reportedly arrived with it, reinvigorating Jeff’s spirits — came too late.
In our heroes, we are provided mirrors in which we see our own dreams, minds, and perfect selves. We often make them out to be larger than life, because to admit their humanity is to admit that they are no better than we are. This is never clearer than in their passing, because it reminds us of our own mortality, of the very real and inevitable end that approaches us all, often in distinctly clumsy and unattractive ways. Jeff Hanneman was one of my heroes. He drank, like me, seemingly because he was unhappy, like me. The dumb language of this is staggering, but also strangely heartwarming. The man whose mind and heart expressed the untamable rage and bottomless shadow that I myself so respect and understand was in many basic, genuine ways, just like me.
With Jeff’s death, I felt the unexpected passing of a part of myself. What I learn from that, how I use that knowledge, that’s up to me. Maybe I’ll delve further into the life of the man I admire, or leave him on his pedestal. Maybe I’ll have a drink. Hopefully, I will embrace the great uncertain of a world without him, strengthened in my convictions as I move towards an unforeseen future, nestled somewhere in time.