5 Years Ago: Slayer Guitarist Jeff Hanneman Dies
The fifth annual Revolver Golden Gods awards, which took place May 2, 2013, were supposed to be a celebration of the spirit and vitality of heavy metal, but when news spread through the community that Slayer co-founder, guitarist and primary songwriter Jeff Hanneman died earlier that day, the event took a slightly different turn. At the outset of the event, Slayer guitarist Kerry King took the podium looking shaky, but determined to honor the usually silent Hanneman. Standing by his side was his buddy, Black Label Society frontman Zakk Wylde.
“You may notice I got two shot cups up here [in my hands]," King said. “My friend Zakk doesn't drink anymore, so obviously this is for me and my fallen friend Jeff.” King paused for a moment to recompose himself and continued: “I've thought about this. I thought should I do a moment of silence. And I thought, 'F***, no! This is the Golden Gods, man. Jeff f***in' Hanneman, he played in Slayer. He does not want a moment of f***in' silence. Jeff wants a moment of f***in' noise. You got a drink, raise it up, you got a fist, raise it up, and tip one back to our fallen brother."
The declaration would have pleased Hanneman. Even though King and Hanneman were more like business partners then best pals, King knew that his bandmate liked it loud. And he loved to drink. Tragically, the latter led to his death of alcohol-related cirrhosis at the age of 49.
At the time he died, Hanneman had been distanced from Slayer since early 2011, when he was bitten by an insect (believed to be a spider) and contracted necrotizing fasciitis. The rare, but serious condition is a severe bacterial infection that spreads quickly and eats away at the tissue. Hanneman was spending time with a friend near Los Angeles and was relaxing in the Jacuzzi when he felt something bite his arm. He remained at his friend’s for another week, drinking like usual before he came home feeling ill and impaired.
“He was pretty well lit when he came through the front door,” his wife Kathryn told Guitar World. He just wanted to go upstairs and go to sleep. Before he did he said, ‘Kath, I need to show you something, even though I really don’t want to.’ And he took off his shirt, and I just freaked out when I saw his arm. It was bright red and three times the normal size. I said, ‘Jeff, we need to go now! We need to get you to the ER!’”
Doctor’s wrestled over whether they needed to amputate Hanneman’s arm to save his life and ultimately decided to treat the guitarist with heavy doses of antibiotics and monitor him closely. Realizing Hanneman would be unable to continue playing in Slayer – at least for a while – the band hired Exodus guitarist Gary Holt to fill in.
Reports about Hanneman’s progress trickled in following his replacement. At one point, bassist and vocalist Tom Araya explained he was on the mend and on April 23, 2011, Hanneman joined Slayer at the Big 4 show in Indio, Calif., to play “Angel of Death” and “South of Heaven.”
“It was after that that I think he realized that he could only play for a little bit and then had to stop,” Araya said. “He would come in to rehearse and jam out some parts and then he’d stop and just fiddle with his guitar. He did that a few times then he just stop coming to rehearsal.”
Hanneman’s debilitating disease sent him on a tailspin of binge drinking, but he had been a serious drinker for years and after his father died in 2008 he coped with his loss by hitting the bottle. “I did notice that Jeff was relying on alcohol to start off his day,” his wife told Guitar World. “But I couldn’t say much at that point, because I just knew we’d wind up in a verbal confrontation about it.”
It’s not hard to fathom how Hanneman’s inability to perform with the band he co-founded in 1981 was so debilitating. The guitarist played an integral role in fusing steely aggression of Judas Priest with the speed of hardcore and the raw, sinister imagery of Venom. During his 32 years in Slayer, he wrote many of the band’s most popular songs, including “Angel of Death,” “Raining Blood,” “War Ensemble,” “Dead Skin Mask,” and others. And the distinctive rapid fire, minor-key guitar riffing style he developed with King, as well as his flailing, off-the-rails solos influenced generations of thrash, death, black and other extreme metal musicians.
In early 2013, no one but those closest to Hanneman knew how dire his condition was. Even his bandmates and management weren’t aware how ill he had become. Araya was texting him semi-regularly and Hanneman even emailed him a song he had been working on. Then, in April, Araya found out the guitarist was back in intensive care. Soon, Hanneman stopped responding to Araya’s texts.
“I was home with my family when I found out he had died,” Araya told Guitar World. "The phone rang and my wife answered it, and she had this look of dread on her face. She handed me the phone and didn’t say anything, and it was our manager, Rick [Sales], and he told me. I hung up the phone and went to my room and I cried.”
The night of Hanneman’s death, Pantera / Down vocalist Phil Anselmo, a close friend of Kerry King and a huge Slayer fan, took the Golden Gods stage with former Down / Pantera bassist Rex Brown and Anthrax, and ripped through Pantera’s “This Love.” At the end of the song the collective broke into a couple bars of Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” then abruptly stopped.
“Rest in peace, Jeff Hanneman,” Anselmo said. “We love you, man.”
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
See Where Jeff Hanneman Ranks on Our List of the Top 66 Hard Rock + Metal Guitarists
Kerry King Remembers Jeff Hanneman