American guitarist Jeff Hanneman, a co-founder of the heavy metal band Slayer, died in southern California on Thursday, the band said in a statement posted on their website. He was 49.
South of Heaven was one of the very first thrash metal records I ever got. A metalhead friend and I skipped our afternoon class one beautiful September day and spent a couple hours sitting in his old diesel rattletrap Mercedes listening to his collection of cassettes. I went immediately out and bought my own copy of that record, along with Exodus’s Impact is Imminent and Sacred Reich’s The American Way (the latter two didn’t hold up quite so well once the novelty faded, but I can still enjoy listening to Slayer un-ironically). A few weeks after that, as it happened, Seasons in the Abyss came out, and the slightly less-aggressive atmosphere of eerie dread pervading those two records still make them my favorites. Less than a year later, the Clash of the Titans, with Alice in Chains, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer, was my first concert.
One of the trade-offs of increasing maturity and sophistication is the tendency to experience things from a distance, via critical perspective. Seeing how this or that event fits into a larger narrative takes away some of the spontaneous enjoyment, the direct immersion in the experience. Late-eighties thrash is a strange little subculture: influenced but not accepted by punk rock, not really related to the hairspray glitz and glamour of their mainstream lite-metal peers, and not culturally significant enough to merit wider sociological notice the way grunge did a few years later. And a lot of the music is nowhere near being timeless. What I’m getting at is, it’s hard to look back nostalgically now without being fully aware of what a relatively small cultural space thrash metal occupied and feeling somewhat old and self-conscious about it. And yet, that knowledge exists in tandem with the strong perception, perfectly preserved, still just as intensely vivid after more than two decades, of a vast new world opening up in front of me as I sat there in that old car listening to those twin guitar lines, that manic, chaotic drumming, and those trademark Tom Araya shrieks. That moment, at least, is timeless.
Thanks for everything, Jeff.