He influenced a generation and changed the course of metal forever. Guitar World presents the complete, untold story of Jeff Hanneman, Slayer’s guitarist for more than 30 years and the man behind such legendary thrash anthems as “Angel of Death,” “South of Heaven” and “War Ensemble.”
: Slayer frontman/bassist
: Slayer guitarist
: Former Slayer drummer
: Wife of Jeff Hanneman
: Longtime friend of Jeff Hanneman and current Slayer fill-in guitarist
When news broke in the early evening of May 2, 2013, that longtime Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman had succumbed to liver failure at age 49, a shockwave of atomic force rippled its way across the metal community that left many stunned.
As Facebook and Twitter became overrun with postings of shock, grief and recollections from fans who had spent the better part of their lives following Slayer like Rottweiler puppies, you could feel it—this one was different. This one hurt.
To anyone who came of age in the mid Eighties wearing a denim jacket and studded wristband, Slayer was their introduction to aggressive speed metal, with riffs that cut like a buzzsaw blade and dark lyrical themes that often crossed into objectionable territory—and Hanneman was the primary force behind it.
“By all accounts, he was the band,” says Slayer frontman and bassist Tom Araya.
For those who had spent a lifetime in a perpetual state of whiplash from headbanging to such Hanneman-penned Slayer anthems as “Angel of Death,” “South of Heaven,” “Chemical Warfare” and “Raining Blood,” the reason he meant so much to so many was simple: because you could always count on Jeff to be Jeff, in the same way you could always count on Slayer to be Slayer.
He didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to. He wrote the lion’s share of the band’s most beloved songs and lived to come out from behind a wall of Marshalls every time the band took the stage, raise his fist triumphantly to the rafters, and destroy. For nearly three decades, Jeff Hanneman was a fixture of that stage—a blonde symbol of young headbangers who fell in love with satanic-infused heavy metal aggression and never looked back well into their adulthood.
“I’m amazed at how many people he touched,” Araya says. “They hardly knew him, but he affected a lot of people. And he didn’t even realize it.”
But for all the love the heavy metal community had for Jeff Hanneman, there was a dark side to the guitarist that confused many of those who came into contact with him. Unlike, say, Dimebag Darrell, Jeff wasn’t everybody’s “bro.” He didn’t pose happily for pictures, glad-hand his way across the NAMM convention floor every January or help needy children. He had no love for the media.
He also had a morbid fascination with Nazi Germany and derived a perverse sense of joy from proudly—and controversially—displaying Nazi iconography on his guitars. And he drank. A lot.
“If he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t be hanging with you,” says Araya from his family farmstead in Buffalo, Texas. “He could pick at you and make you feel like crap. But if you tolerated it and stuck it out and showed that you could deal with the bullshit, then that’s how you became friends with him.”
Slayer’s origins date back to 1981 in the South Gate and Huntington Park areas of Los Angeles. King and Hanneman met at a warehouse complex after King had gone there to investigate a band that was holding auditions for a guitar player.
“As I was leaving, I saw Jeff just kinda standing around playing guitar, and he was playing stuff that I was into, like Def Leppard’s ‘Wasted’ and AC/DC and Priest. So I started talking to him and just said, ‘Hey, you want to start a band?’ I already knew Dave [Lombardo, drummer] and we had been playing together in his parents’ garage a bit, and so I brought Jeff in, then went to Tom [Araya, vocalist/bassist], who I was playing with in another band, and said, ‘Hey man, I have a different band if you’re interested.’ And that was it.”
Lombardo remembers the first time he met Hanneman: “Kerry brought him to rehearsal in the garage one day. He had a small Fender Twin and the black Les Paul that’s on the back of
Show No Mercy
, and he was kinda quiet.
Jeff hadn’t been playing for very long at that point, and everything he did know he basically taught himself. But something about it just felt right from the get-go. It worked.”
This fearsome foursome was now a unit, hell-bent on fusing elements of Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Dead Kennedys and Venom into an aggressive style of thrash metal that would ultimately alter the course of music. They were four youngsters with a shared vision, though Hanneman did stand apart from his cohorts in one respect: he didn’t drive.
So while everyone else was able to get to and from rehearsal via their own wheels, Hanneman—who, depending on whom you ask, either never had a driver’s license or lost it early on after various DUI infractions—needed to be shuttled back and forth whenever the band got together.
“When we started the band, Kerry would pick him up from his house in Long Beach and I would drop him off after rehearsal,” Araya says. “That was the trade-off. So we spent a lot of time in the car together, usually drinking beer. I would drop him off, and sometimes I’d hang with him at his house with his parents.”
It was around this time—April-May 1983 to be exact, nine months before the release of the band’s debut album,
Show No Mercy
—that Hanneman met a girl named Kathryn. They hooked up as teenagers—he 19, she 15—and stuck together like glue for the remainder of Jeff’s life, up until the day he died. It’s safe to say their fate as a couple was sealed by the bizarre circumstances of their introduction.
“My girlfriend and I were getting tired of going to the movies every weekend, so we decided to go see this band called Slayer at a little club in Buena Park called the Woodstock,” says Kathryn, who is now 46, from her home in southern California. “They were playing with a band called Leatherwolf. I begged my father to let us go to the show, knowing that I would be home later than my 10 o’clock curfew, and he was okay with that. There may have been 15 or 20 people at the show, so I was able to stand up front against the stage, on Jeff’s side. And before I knew it, he kneeled down, grabbed me by the hair, and started making out with me. I was blown away, and that was how we met.”
Had Hanneman attempted this act of onstage molestation with a different girl that night, he may have found himself in the back of a squad car. Instead, he found himself getting messages from the band’s manager that Kathryn—who had reached out to management to share photos she had taken that night—wanted Jeff to call her.
“I asked the manager if he could have Jeff call me, and he told me Jeff was in Vegas visiting his grandmother,” she says. “I thought that was so sweet. About three weeks later, I was at home and my phone rang one night, and I picked it up and the voice on the other end said, ‘Hi, Kathy, this is Jeff from Slayer.’ And my heart started racing. I asked him how his grandmother was, and he said to me, ‘I wasn’t visiting my grandmother. I went to Vegas to break up with my girlfriend.’ And that was what I loved about Jeff—he was honest from the get-go.”
Jeff and Kathryn’s relationship continued to grow as Slayer gained traction within the underground metal community—that is, as long they could figure out a way to travel the 20 or so miles between her home in Buena Park and his in Long Beach.
“Since neither of us drove we either had to rely on Tom to pick me up and drive me to rehearsal to see Jeff or get my mom to drive me to Long Beach to see him,” Kathryn says. “And whenever Jeff could, he would take a bus to come see me. That’s how our relationship started, and eventually we just never separated unless he was on the road. We spent as much time together as we possibly could.
“At first my dad was a little nervous when this guy showed up at our house wearing a leather jacket with black makeup around his eyes, but it didn’t take long before they were all getting along great. My parents loved him. All my girlfriends fell in love with him too. And they were always quick to say so.”
While Kathryn has always taken careful steps to shield herself from the spotlight, she did play a key role in Slayer’s early Eighties reputation as a group parents abhorred when she agreed to pose in an early band promotional photo as a bloodied, lingerie-clad corpse.
“I was around 16 at the time,” she says. “Jeff called me one evening and said they were about to do this photo shoot and that the girl they were going to use broke her toe and had to cancel, so he asked if I would fill in. And that I needed to bring some sort of black lingerie. I told him I had to get permission from my parents but that I’d be happy to do it. And since neither of us had driver’s licenses, Tom came out and picked me up and we went to the garage at Tom’s parents’ house, which is where they would rehearse, and we did the shoot. I was very shy and conservative in those days, but it was the least I could do. I was honored that they chose me.”
Contrary to internet reports of them marrying in 1997, Jeff and Kathryn wed in Las Vegas in 1989 in a simple ceremony consisting of the happy heavy metal couple and the bride’s parents. The decision to marry wasn’t difficult for either Jeff or Kathryn, as they learned over a mid-afternoon breakfast at a local Denny’s a few weeks before heading to Vegas.
“We ordered breakfast and we each ordered a beer, and Jeff was just very quiet,” Kathryn says. “I looked at him and just said, ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking—but whatever you ask me, I’ll say yes to.’ He waited, and then he looked up at me and said, ‘Okay, let’s just fucking do it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, let’s just fucking do what?’ And he said, ‘Let’s just take off and get married.’ I said okay and asked him if he was sure, and he said, ‘Yes, I’m sure. I marry you, I marry you for life.’ ”
Hanneman’s official cause of death was alcohol-related cirrhosis, a result of a lifetime of drinking. “Jeff was always a drinker,” says Lombardo, who left the band (for the third time at least) earlier this year. “He always had a Coors Light tall can in his hand. Always.”
“Jeff and I always drank,” King adds. “They called Steven Tyler and Joe Perry the Toxic Twins. We were the Drunk Brothers.” He laughs. “The difference being that I don’t wake up in the morning and need a beer. Jeff didn’t know how not to drink.”
“We partied and we partied hard,” says Exodus founder—and current Slayer touring guitarist—Gary Holt, who became friends with Hanneman in the early Eighties. “I have a million photos of us back in the day, just hanging out and drinking, beers in hand in the middle of the day at load-in.”
For Kathryn, memories of Jeff and her father bonding over martinis in the evening are still vivid. “About a year or so after we met, Jeff moved in with me and my parents, and my dad would always love to come home and have a couple martinis. And he would offer Jeff a drink and they would sit and have their martinis and play video games. So I have known Jeff to drink from the day that I met him. I never really understood it, but drinking was always very much a part of Jeff’s life.”
Hanneman’s reliance on alcohol was obvious to anyone who spent enough time with him. However, he did manage to stay away from hard drugs for most of his life, except for a few years in the mid Eighties when cocaine use became a common activity for Jeff and Tom.
“You start making a little money, and the next thing you know, it’s there,” Araya says. “It’s readily available and people are eager to provide it. After a weekend binge, you find yourself driving down the 405 at six in the morning—I’m driving, Jeff’s feeding my nose, he’s feeding his nose. And you suddenly realize how easily this could have turned bad. I remember stopping, looking all around us—nobody else on the highway—and I looked at Jeff and said, ‘Man, this is fucking crazy. Look at us. We can’t be doing this.’ And we stopped, threw what we had out the window and never touched it again. He stuck with his alcohol and I stuck with my ‘greenery,’ and we went about our existence.
“We had our vices, but we didn’t let them control our lives like you see with a lot of other bands that are just starting out. That was the one thing that I thought was really cool about us—we didn’t let those things destroy us. We had control of ourselves to some extent.”
The extent to which Hanneman had control of his alcohol intake became questionable in the mid Nineties, when it started becoming more apparent to his wife and bandmates that Jeff was no longer just a hard-partying goofball metalhead from L.A. but a serious adult drinker.
“I would express my concern, and he would back off for a few months—but then he would go right back to drinking,” Kathryn says. “A few years before his dad died in 2008, I did notice that Jeff was relying on alcohol to start off his day. But I couldn’t say much at that point, because I just knew we’d wind up in a verbal confrontation about it. And I’m not going to say I didn’t drink with him—I did drink with him, sometimes quite heavily. I figured if I couldn’t beat him, join him. But eventually I realized that I couldn’t go on like that, and that if I stopped I might be able to help him get away from it too. But I couldn’t. He just relied on it too much to get him through the day.”
His bandmates are quick to point out that Hanneman’s drinking rarely became an issue within the group, though it did creep in on occasion.
“The only thing that comes to mind,” says King, “was when we were on the Divine Intervention tour [in 1994/95], when Paul [Bostaph] was with us, and we wanted to play ‘Sex. Murder. Art.’ live. But on that album I pretty much played everything in the studio, so I don’t think Jeff had ever played that song. And he was just too messed up all the time to learn it, so Paul, Tom and I just did it as a three-piece because Jeff would not come onstage and play it. After that, we said, ‘Listen dude, like it or not, you’re a part of this band, and if we decide to play a song, you gotta play that fucking song.’ ”
On the road, particularly in later years, Jeff spent most of his time on the tour bus after gigs by himself, watching the History Channel or reading a book about World War II. “Jeff was super intelligent about history—World War II became his thing,” says King.
Hanneman, whose German-American father fought as an American soldier in World War II and brought home medals from dead Nazi soldiers that he gave to his son, was morbidly fascinated by the Second World War and Nazi Germany, collecting dozens of German soldier action figures and naming his various dogs and cats after Nazi officials and elements of WWII-era Germany. His own wedding ring was a collectable replica of a skull-emblazoned band worn by high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich. While objects connected to this time in history are understandably offensive to many, to Jeff they were just symbols of the same darkness that energizes metal’s imagery.
“Jeff wrote what he wrote,” says Araya. “And people would analyze it and come up with their own conclusions—but to Jeff it was just a song about this or that. There was no deep meaning behind anything. And a lot of the stuff he did, he knew that it would cause a reaction—he knew it would get a response. And if you’re going to make a big stink about it, that’s your problem—that was his attitude about it.”
As the “quiet one” in Slayer, the guitarist never made socializing with fans a top priority.
“He’d stay on the bus for a long time after a show,” Araya says. “And then when the crowds would thin out and all the VIPs were gone—all the wannabes who were hanging out and partying—once they dissipated, he would make his way out and see who was still hanging out. There are people who want to hang out just because it’s cool, but Jeff didn’t want to hang out with those people, so he would wait. If he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t hang with you.”
And when it came to sightseeing, “Jeff pretty much only went to war museums, as you can imagine,” King says. “I remember the first time we went to Moscow, maybe around 1998. His whole thing was going to one of the Moscow war museums, so I was like, ‘Hey, that sounds cool,’ so I went with him. And it was just windy and cold as fuck there. But Jeff loved that stuff.”
For Kathryn, who preferred to remain at home when Jeff went on tour, all she could do was count the days until he returned. “It was extremely hard for me,” she says. “The first tour they did was a three-week tour from southern California up to San Francisco, and in those days there were no cell phones or internet, and it was difficult for him to stay in touch with me. And at first I just thought, Oh my god, I’m gonna die. When the band finally started touring Europe, he made sure to send me letters and postcards almost every day, and that was the only thing that kept me going, because I really didn’t know when I would talk to him again.”
As the years wore on, returning home from tour usually meant the rest of the band had seen the last of Hanneman for a while. “He would just go home and detach,” King says. “He might have lived only 45 minutes away, but unless you were part of his inner circle, it was hard to stay in touch with him. And it took me a few years to understand that. For a while I was just like, ‘Why isn’t this guy calling me back?’ But as I got older I just realized that that was who Jeff was.
“I don’t think Jeff and I were ever best friends,” continues King. “I think we were probably the closest in the band, but never best friends. To put it in a way that everyone could understand, Jeff and I were like business partners. Was he my friend? Of course he was my friend. But we didn’t really act like that. The last time I was at Jeff’s house was January 2003. We went to his place to watch the Raiders in the playoffs. And it sounds horrible, but it wasn’t horrible. That was just how it was.”
“When Jeff was home, Jeff liked to be home and stay home,” Kathryn says. “He was over it—over the road, over people, over everything. He just wanted to hibernate for a while, and I always respected that. When he was home he liked to sleep in and just kick back during the day. Sometimes he’d get an idea for a song and run down to his music room and start working on music.
And video games—Jeff was a huge video game buff. It started around 1983 with Intellivision, and after that it was Sega and Nintendo and everything else. If any new system came out, we went out and got it immediately. First-person shooters were his thing. He kept up to date on all of them.
“The TV was always on
Seinfeld, Frasier, Cheers, Scrubs
. And of course football or hockey. Sometimes all the TVs in the house would be on, and we’d be watching different games in every room.”
, video games, music—yes, home life for Jeff and Kathryn Hanneman was almost surprisingly wholesome, particularly around the holidays.
“Christmas was his absolute favorite holiday,” Kathryn says. “He loved giving gifts, and he would always get me quite a few gifts. He started me on a German nutcracker collection and a bear collection, so he was always buying me new pieces for those. For Jeff, the bigger the tree, the better. Our house has 24-foot-high cathedral ceilings, and I remember one year him coming home with a tree that was 22 feet high! [laughs] And of course I would be the one climbing up and down the ladder decorating it. Jeff liked to just sit back and watch me decorate the tree.”
When it came to playing guitar and writing songs at home, Jeff never had any kind of set structure. He would go long stretches without picking up a guitar when the band wasn’t active, and songwriting was done on the spur of the moment, whenever inspiration struck.
“He would never ever say, ‘I need to go and write a song,’ ” Kathryn says. “It would just hit him out of nowhere. He never planned it or was preoccupied with it. If we were at a restaurant, he would ask me if I had the recorder with me, and I’d pull it out and he’d basically hum the riff or speak the lyric into the recorder. And if we were home in the middle of watching TV, he’d get up and run down to the music room and start laying out the drums. That’s how many of his Slayer songs came about.”
Hanneman established himself as Slayer’s principal songwriter early on. By the late Eighties and early Nineties, he had formed a close working relationship with Araya, who handled lyrics for many of Hanneman’s most iconic songs, including “South of Heaven,” “War Ensemble” and “Seasons in the Abyss.”
“We seemed to connect on ideas and themes,” Araya says. “He would have an idea that was half-written, and I’d read it and work on it and disappear and put thoughts together and then I’d say, ‘What do you think?’ and he’d say, ‘This is great. This is exactly what I was hoping you’d come up with.’ He was very encouraging about me putting my ideas down and the two of us working together. I always liked working with Jeff because he allowed me to do things that came naturally. There was a lot of freedom between the two of us when we wrote music and created songs. I think I’m really going to miss that.
“Of all the songs that we’ve ever written as a band, the two songs that ended up getting Grammys—‘Eyes of the Insane’ and ‘Final Six’—were songs that Jeff and I worked on together. That’s something I’m really proud of and something I always tried to make him proud of. I would say, ‘Look, you wrote two Grammy-winning songs. You can’t get any better than that. That’s a milestone.’ ”
Lombardo, too, had great respect for Hanneman as a songwriter and admired the fact that Jeff would present his songs with a basic drum-machine beat already in place. “So many guitar players can’t program a drum machine or play along with their own songs,” says Lombardo, who is currently performing and writing with his band, Philm. “Doing it the way he did takes a lot more talent because you’re thinking of all the instrumentation in a song rather than relying on other people. He heard everything in his mind before anyone else did.
“The ‘vibey’ quality of Jeff’s songs allowed me to create these crescendos and decrescendos, making the song dynamically louder or bringing it back down with the drums. His songs were never just a constant roar of guitar playing—they were dynamic, and it gave me the opportunity to decorate the songs a little more in a form that made sense.”
While news of Hanneman’s death in May came as a shock to all but his closest friends and family—“Was I surprised by how he died? No,” King says. “Was it a surprise that it was that quick? Yes.”—there were events that occurred in the previous few years that could be viewed as contributing factors in the guitarist’s downward spiral. One was the death of his father in 2008.
“That’s when things really started to go downhill for him,” Kathryn says. “It was probably the hardest thing he ever had to face in his entire life. When I met Jeff he didn’t have all that great of a relationship with his father. But as time went on they became very close. So that took a toll on him. He was never quite the same after that. I just don’t think he cared anymore.”
It was also around this time that Jeff was quietly battling an arthritic condition that had been progressing over many years and was now beginning to worsen to the point of interfering with his playing. “His ability to play was slowly deteriorating,” Araya says, “but he didn’t let anybody know that. We could just tell that things were going wrong. It was becoming hard to get stuff out of him. He was very proud and didn’t want to make anyone worry about anything. Jeff would show up and play, and he didn’t want anyone to know or worry about what else was going on with him. He tried to be really strong and sometimes that can weigh you down.”
“You would notice it in his hands and a little bit in his walk,” Lombardo says. “It seemed like he was struggling with his playing—it wasn’t fluid. You could hear it in the leads. His playing just wasn’t as tight as it could have been.”
According to Kathryn, uric acid buildup from alcohol consumption no doubt contributed to Jeff’s arthritis, but there wasn’t much she could do about either problem that was plaguing the guitarist. “We took him to a specialist and got him diagnosed,” she says. “But as you can imagine, Jeff didn’t want to deal with any medication to help the problem. Jeff wasn’t a pill popper. When I would see him take an Aleve, I would know that he was in extreme pain from the arthritis and the Aleve would help him get through rehearsal or whatever he had to do. He dealt with that for many, many years.
“Doctors wanted him to stay away from three of his favorite things—beer, red meat and peanut butter—but Jeff was going to do this his way, and he would just deal with the pain on his own terms.”
In January 2011, an incident occurred that many would later assume was the cause of his death but wasn’t. Jeff was bitten on his right arm an insect that was carrying a flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. Reports circulated that it was a spider that bit Jeff, but that was never confirmed. Whatever bit him, it was enough send the guitarist’s life into a tailspin.
“Jeff had been visiting a friend in the L.A. area,” Kathryn says. “He was in the Jacuzzi one night relaxing, and he had his arm over the side, and he felt something, like a bite or a prick. But of course he didn’t think anything of it. He came home about a week later, and he was pretty well lit when he came through the front door. He wasn’t feeling well, and 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.’ But all he wanted to do was go to bed and sleep, and I knew that I was trying to rationalize with a very intoxicated person. So there was nothing I could do that night. But the next morning I convinced him to let me take him in. He didn’t have a lot of strength, but I was able to get him into the car.
“When we got to the hospital in Loma Linda, they took one look at him and they immediate knew what it was, so they took him right in. Jeff told me to go home because we both knew he’d be there for hours and neither of us thought it would be a life-or-death situation. About three or four hours later, Jeff called me and said, ‘Kath, it’s not good. They may have to amputate. I think you need to come back here.’
"When I got there, Jeff was on the stretcher waiting to go into surgery, and the doctor put it in perspective for me. He said, ‘I need you to see your husband. He may not make it.’ The doctor looked at Jeff and told him, ‘First I’m going to try to save your life. Then I’m going to try to save your arm. Then I’m going to try to save your career.’ And looking at Jeff on that stretcher and possibly saying goodbye, knowing that I may never see him again…”—she pauses—“…was one of the hardest moments of my life.”
The next few days for the Hannemans could only be described as nerve-wracking. Jeff was in the ICU in an induced coma after the initial surgery and breathing through a tube, his arm, for the most part, intact. Doctors attempted to remove the breathing tube at one point, but Jeff was unable to breathe on his own. Finally, after about the fourth day, the tube was removed and Jeff was breathing again. Her husband was alive, but as soon as they removed the bandages from Jeff’s arm, Kathryn knew the road to recovery would be long.
“I’ll never forget it—I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she recalls. “All I could do was look up at the doctor and say, ‘How the hell do you fix this?’ And he said, ‘You know, Mrs. Hanneman, you’d be very surprised.’ And at that moment I had all the faith in the world that this doctor could fix his arm.”
Back home soon afterward, Jeff could begin the process of rehabilitating his arm in the hopes of regaining his ability to play guitar. The next few weeks saw more surgeries, staples and multiple grafts using skin from his left thigh. Wound-care suction devices were on hand to draw out the infection and help the skin grafts take. Physically, Jeff’s arm was on the mend. Emotionally, however, he was struggling. Depression was setting in.
“I couldn’t get Jeff to go to rehab or therapy,” Kathryn says. “I think he was letting the visual of his arm get to his emotions, and it was messing with his mind. It was hard to keep him upbeat at that point.
“I think he thought he could do this on his own—that he would just to go rehearsal and play, and that that would be his rehab. But I think he started to learn, once he tried rehearsing, that he wasn’t playing up to his ability and that he wasn’t able to play guitar at the speed he was used to. And I think that really hit him hard, and he started to lose hope.”
The incident with Jeff’s arm couldn’t have come at a worse time for the band. A European tour was booked for March and April 2011, and the legendary Big 4 tour, which saw Slayer sharing a stage with fellow thrash pioneers Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, was on the schedule between April and September. These shows were immensely important for the band, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that Jeff wouldn’t be able to participate.
“For me it was really difficult to make the decision to go on without Jeff,” Araya says. “They started naming names to take his place, and I’m like, How can you guys even think about this? We can’t do this without Jeff. But we had to do something. Slayer, aside from being band members and really tight-knit, we are a business. Those are aspects of what we do that fans have a tough time understanding. So we had to make decisions because we were obligated to do these tours.”
Of all the possible replacements for Hanneman being bandied about, everyone was most comfortable with Exodus mainstay Gary Holt, a longtime friend of the band’s.
“I remember when the tour came up, Jeff said to me, ‘No. No. There’s no way in hell this band is going out without me,’ ” Kathryn says. “He was definitely hurt by the fact that, for the first time ever, the band had to go on without him, but eventually he became okay with it, and a lot of that was because it was his friend Gary that was going to fill in for him. He knew the band had to go on.”
“Gary was a friend, he wasn’t an outsider,” Araya says. “We’ve known him for 30 years and he was a good friend of Jeff’s. When we first met Exodus, he and Jeff were inseparable.”
Fans were hopeful that Hanneman was well on his way to a full recovery when the guitarist joined his bandmates onstage for two songs—“Angel of Death” and “South of Heaven”—at the Big 4 show in Indio, California, on April 23, 2011, four months after the bite on his arm. Behind the scenes, however, a different story was emerging.
“He wasn’t at his best that night, but he was able to come out and do those two songs,” Araya says. “It was after that that I think he realized that he could only play for a little bit and then had to stop. He would come in to rehearse and he would jam out some parts and then he’d stop and just kind of fiddle with his guitar. He did that a few times, but then he just stop coming to rehearsal.
“We told him, ‘Listen, we understand that you’re having a tough time playing your guitar, having a tough time coming back 100 percent, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a part of what we do, which is write songs. You are still Slayer, you are a big part of this band, you can still write music and you can still put ideas together. Sit in the studio and work with us, make us what we are.’ He was a big part of this band. I knew it and realized it a long time ago.”
“We were holding out hope until the day he died,” King says. “If he ever came to us and said, ‘Okay, I can do this,’ there was no question. This was his gig. Now, did I think that would actually happen? No, I didn’t.”
“I think part of him knew that he wasn’t going to be back in the band,” Kathryn adds.
As the realism about his situation began to set in, Jeff was forced to accept the fact that his livelihood was being stripped away, no doubt fueling his alcohol-induced decline over the next year and a half. Factor in Hanneman’s uncommunicative, reclusive nature, and there wasn’t much his bandmates could do but carry on.
“People have to make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives,” Araya says. “You can’t start dictating to people how they should live because it just pushes them away. It doesn’t help anything. It wasn’t easy but it’s not like we were blind to what was going on. We knew. And there were points that we tried to help and encourage him to come back—tell him he could still be a part of what we do, even if it wasn’t full time.
“But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he didn’t want to let us down. He didn’t want to disappoint us. He was very prideful and wanted to make sure he could come back at 100 percent. I think when he was having real difficulty over that last year, he just didn’t want us to know about it. He kept saying that he needed more time. And the isolation didn’t help much either. I think that no matter how things would have worked out, the end result would have been the same.”
“It eats you up because you think, Why can’t I fix this guy?” King says. “And it’s not that he didn’t want to be fixed. I mean, he didn’t want to die. But he also couldn’t help himself before it was too late.”
On May 2, 2013, the sudden news took the metal community by storm: Jeff Hanneman had died. Araya recalls his final communications with his longtime friend and bandmate: “I had been texting with him, and he even sent me a song that he had been working on. So it seemed like he was doing okay. But when I got the call that he was back in intensive care, I became concerned. Eventually he stopped responding to my texts. It was like a one-sided conversation.
“I was home with my family when I found out he had died. 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.
“It hit my family hard, because they really liked Jeff, they knew him really well. My mother was really upset, my sisters really loved Jeff, and my brother too—he was Jeff’s tech for a long time. Everyone in my family knew him and loved him a lot.”
Currently, the future of Slayer is uncertain. Upcoming short tours of Europe and South America will go on as planned, but what happens after that is anyone’s guess.
“I plan on continuing,” King says. “I don’t think we should throw in the towel just because Jeff’s not here.”
As for Lombardo, even though his split from the band a few months ago was publicly acrimonious, he says his door is open for any future discussions with his former bandmates. “If they want to talk, I’m here. I don’t want any kind of animosity between us. Life is too short and we’re too old for that shit. I’m ready and willing, so we’ll see what happens.”
Araya, on the other hand, has no idea what the future holds for this band. And it’s a decision he’s currently struggling with.
“After 30 years, it would literally be like starting over,” he says. “To move forward without Jeff just wouldn’t be the same, and I’m not sure the fans would be so accepting of that drastic a change. Especially when you consider how much he contributed to the band musically. And you can have someone sit in for him, but there’s no one on this planet that can do what Jeff did.
“There’s no replacing him.”
This feature is from the 2013 issue of Guitar World magazine. For more information, visit the Guitar World Online Store.