It was early 2001 when Chuck Schuldiner's headaches returned. Over the past year, he had begun to feel like his old self again—remarkable, considering that, just one year before, the death-metal guitarist had nearly died. In early January 2000, doctors in New York City had managed to remove more than half of a cancerous tumor dangerously nestled at the base of his brain. Months of physical therapy followed while he recovered at home, in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Chuck had never liked being far from home, away from his family and the Orlando suburb where he'd grown up with his sister Beth and brother Frank. This was where he thrived, where he drew inspiration for the melodies that tempered the jagged shards of music he had crafted for Death, the band with which he pioneered the ferociously manic sounds of the death-metal genre in the mid '80s. And indeed, back home following surgery, Chuck had begun to craft a fresh batch of songs for his new group, Control Denied.
"We spent the summer of 2000 rehearsing and recording demos of the new songs," recalls Richard Christy. "It was fun, and Chuck was doing really well." Though familiar to many as a cast member of the Howard Stern Show since 2004, Christy is also a professional drummer who is best known for his work with Iced Earth, Death, Control Denied, and his current project, Charred Walls of the Damned. At the time of the 2000 recording sessions, Christy had known Chuck for only a few years, but the two men were as close as brothers. "We made each other laugh," he recalls. "We would do prank calls together in the middle of practice. He had this dog that used to make this weird face when it was happy, and it would snort like a pig. So when me and Chuck were happy, we'd snort like pigs."
"He drove himself unmercifully that last year," says his mother, Jane Schuldiner. "We worried so much about him and begged him to rest. As the perfectionist he is, he said it was just OK and that wasn't good enough for him or his fans. He would go on until he couldn't anymore."
"Music was Chuck's focus. It was the thing that gave him strength," says Christy. "It was inspiring to see somebody going through something so hard and still playing guitar and writing music. Chuck was just so committed. He gave it everything he had."
Calling your band Death is either tongue-in-cheek insolence or a proclamation of utter sincerity, and Chuck Schuldiner was not given to flippancy where his music was concerned. Next to his family, music was most important to him, and this clarity drove him. To call his band Death was to equate his life's purpose with the most unimaginable end to which we all will go: It was predestined and non-negotiable. With Death, Chuck affirmed his life.
With Death, he also remembered his brother Frank, who was killed in a car accident when Chuck was 16. "I always thought that the name of the band derived from the death of his brother," says his mother, Jane. "And while the word had such painful memories, I did not object."
Chuck made extreme metal that was personal—and prophetic. When he began making music, death metal didn't exist as a genre but as a virile, yet negligible, strain of heavy metal practiced most evidently by Britain's Venom. Low tunings, guttural vocals, and extreme speed were the musical ingredients, topped off by lyrical praises of the devil, hell, and inglorious black deeds. By the time Chuck appeared with his first group, Mantas, in 1983, scattered pockets of growling dark lords were plying their brand of metal in parts of the U.S., chiefly in Tampa and Orlando, the Bay area, and Chicago. Chuck came to this music with a goal "to bash out the most brutal riffs ever," he told Guitar School, but almost immediately, he set his sights higher. "Though things were very crude back then, I still had a vision of becoming a very musical death metal band."
The vision was everything. It pushed Chuck to create Death, in 1984, and through Death he came to define at last the genre of metal infesting the underground. The release of Death's full-length debut, Scream Bloody Gore, in 1987, gave the scene a united front and furthered the awareness of death metal as a genre. Although the music's standards had long been established, Chuck raised the bar with his technical and melodic riffing, while he upped the horror quotient with lyrics that drew colorfully from gore movies like Make Them Die Slowly and Re-Animator.
As the end of 2000 approached, there was much to be happy about. Chuck was strong and back at work on his music. His new songs sounded great and continued to build upon the technical and progressive metal of Control Denied's 1999 debut, The Fragile Art of Existence.
"And then we went into the studio," recalls Christy. "And his health problems started coming back."
For the next 11 months, Chuck battled against his deteriorating health, trying to win time to work on his music. Responding to Chuck's dire condition, numerous famous friends and fans—including Pantera, Disturbed, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, Korn and Slipknot—donated merchandise for an online auction to raise funds. Chimaira solicited donations while on the road, while benefit concerts were organized by metal acts worldwide. Through it all, on good days, and often on bad ones, Chuck could be found writing new songs, or entrenched in the studio, still at work on the album.
The death-metal scene grew, and as the audience for established acts grew, a host of new bands emerged, each trying to out shock its predecessor. By the early '90s, the scene was overpopulated by speed-riffing Satan-worshipping metalheads. "Death metal has now become exclusively about being evil, Satanic and playing full speed ahead," Chuck complained to U.K.'s Metal Forces in 1991. "It's not what I'm into at all." By then, Chuck had tackled topical subject matter that included abortion ("Altering the Future"), the struggles of the terminally ill ("Suicide Machine"), and the right to die ("Pull the Plug").
Committed to his vision, Chuck gave shape to death metal, then took it to new heights. But it was not without its costs. His demands of himself and his band frequently led to acrimonious partings between him and his musicians. Business dealings left him feeling overwhelmed and depressed: "The biggest frustration with the music business for Chuck were the labels," says Jane Schuldiner. "He told me that if he could bypass the labels and just play for the fans, he would be a happy man." And in the spirit of all pioneers, Chuck could be recklessly impulsive, as when he pulled out of a European tour just days before it was to begin.
But humility tempered his character. "He was always surprised when people would come up and say they were such a huge fan," says Christy. "He was the most humble guy. I don't know if he ever realized how important he was to the metal scene, because he looked at himself as a fan of it."
And so it was, in 2000, during Chuck's brief recovery, that he and Christy were attending a King Diamond show in St. Petersburg, Florida. The corpse-painted thrash metal singer was a favorite of Chuck's, and Diamond's guitarist, Andy LaRocque, had even briefly performed with Death, on 1993's Individual Thought Patterns. With LaRocque's assistance, Chuck and Christy were escorted backstage.
"I just remember us being so nervous to meet King. Chuck was in awe," says Christy. "And for me, it was just so weird: There I was, a Chuck Schuldiner fan since I don't know when, and I'm watching him get tongue tied in front of his hero. But Chuck was just like any other metal fan. That's what made him and his music so great."
Much of that great music, including most of Death's albums, has been reissued over the past few years by Relapse Records, in coordination with Chuck's family, who have worked tirelessly to keep his legacy alive. Needless to say, the records sound as vital today as they did when they originally released.
"His music is timeless," Christie says. "It still sounds as fresh as it did when it came out. Plus, Chuck's style on guitar is unmatched: It's the perfect mix of melody, technicality and brutality. I'm extremely lucky to have been not just part of the band but also a close friend of Chuck's. He inspired me, and he continues to inspire me, every day."
He is clearly not alone.
"I still receive so many emails from Chuck's fans," says Jane. "I know from them that Chuck is remembered not only as a great musician but as someone who made, and continues to make, a difference in their lives. He inspires them still." Not all those fans are adults who grew up with Chuck's music; many, says Jane, are as young as 11. "Just think: Another generation is discovering Chuck's music. He would be so proud."