Slayer's Jeff Hanneman Remembered | Revolver

Slayer's Jeff Hanneman Remembered

Surviving founding band members, Tom Araya, Kerry King, and Dave Lombardo — as well as his widow, Kathryn — remember the thrash legend
Jeff Hanneman 2013 Travis Shinn, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

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. 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," 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. For nearly three decades, Jeff Hanneman was a blonde symbol of young headbangers who fell in love with heavy-metal aggression and never looked back well into their adulthood.

But for all the reverence the heavy-music community had for 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 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," Slayer vocalist-bassist Araya says. "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," King recalls. "So I started talking to him and just said, 'Hey, you want to start a band?'"

Not long after the new friends started their band, with Araya and drummer Dave Lombardo, Hanneman had another fateful encounter. In March 1983, nine months before the release of the band's debut album, Show No Mercy, the guitarist met a girl named Kathryn. They hooked up as teenagers—he 19, she 15—and stuck together like glue 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. "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."

Jeff and Kathryn's relationship grew quickly as did Slayer's standing within the underground metal community. While Kathryn has always taken careful steps to shield herself from the spotlight, she did play a key role in Slayer's early '80s 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."

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 was made over a mid-afternoon breakfast at a local Denny's a few weeks before.

"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, 'OK, let's just fucking do it.' And I said, 'OK, let's just fucking do what?' And he said, 'Let's just take off and get married.' I said OK and asked him if he was sure, and he said, 'Yes, I'm sure. I marry you, I marry you for life.'"

slayer 1980s GETTY, Tony Mottram/Getty Images
Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, circa mid 1980s
photograph by Tony Mottram/Getty Images

Hanneman's official cause of death was alcohol-related cirrhosis, a result of a lifetime of drinking. "Jeff and I always drank," King says. "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."

While many rockers will drink socially, in the context of partying, as time went on Hanneman spent more of his time on the road on the tour bus by himself, drinking antisocially while watching the History Channel or reading a book about World War II.

The guitarist's 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; ever since, Hanneman was morbidly fascinated by the Second World War and Nazi Germany, collecting large amounts of related memorabilia. 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 hanging out with fans a top priority—or hanging out with his bandmates, for that matter. As the years wore on, returning home from tour usually meant the rest of the group had seen the last of Hanneman for a while. "He would just go home and detach," King says. "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. The TV was always on Seinfeld, Frasier, Cheers, Scrubs. And of course, football or hockey."

Pets, football, Seinfeld, video games—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!"

When it came to playing guitar and writing songs at home, Jeff never had any kind of set structure. "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."

Hanneman established himself as Slayer's principal songwriter early on. By the late '80s and early '90s, 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.' I always liked working with Jeff because 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."

Jeff Hanneman 2013 Travis Shinn, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

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 by 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." Kathryn tried to convince him to go to the ER, but since he was drunk and set on sleep, she was unable to get him to go until he had sobered up the next morning.

"When we got to the hospital, they took one look at him and they immediately knew what it was. 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 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. It wasn't until after about the fourth day that Jeff could breath on his own.

Back home soon afterward, he 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. Physically, Jeff's arm was on the mend. Emotionally, however, he was struggling.

"I couldn't get Jeff to go to rehab or therapy," Kathryn says. "I think he thought he could do this on his own—that he would just to go to 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 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. 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 2011. 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. "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 stand-ins 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 OK 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."

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. Behind the scenes, however, a different story was emerging.

"It was after that that I think he realized that he could only play for a little bit and then had to stop," Araya says. "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 stopped coming to rehearsal."

"We were holding out hope until the day he died," King says. "If he ever came to us and said, 'OK, 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 reality of 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.

"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 passed away.

"I was home with my family when I found out he had died," Araya recalls. "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."

While Slayer will continue to tour without Hanneman, as they did when he was sidelined, it's beyond dispute that, with his death, a void has been left in the band that can never be truly filled.

"You can have someone sit in for him, but there's no one on this planet that can do what Jeff did," Araya says. "There's no replacing him."