Slayer: Soundtrack to the (Black) Magical Summer of 1991

Posted: December 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
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In his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, on which annual holiday marathon flick A Christmas Story is based, Jean Shepherd writes:

“There are about four times in a man’s life, or a woman’s, too, for that matter, when unexpectedly, from out of the darkness, the blazing carbon lamp, the cosmic searchlight of truth shines full upon them. It is how we react to those moments that forever seals our fate. I caught the first one full in the face when I was fourteen. The fourteenth summer is a magic one for all kids.”

And so ‘twas for your intrepid author when, at age 14 in early 1991, I became a Slayer fan. Like all teens in the pre-Internet age that found themselves part of the band’s expansive global support network during their classic era, a conglomerate of life factors ushered me into a long season in the musical abyss from which I have yet to return.

First, in 1991 my family resided in Hawaii, my Marine officer father having been plugged into a three-year tour of duty at the base in Kaneohe on Oahu. In March that year, he returned from a 8-month deployment to the first Gulf War, and Slayer’s lyrics on the detriment of armed conflict, the psychological damage soldiers endure during combat, and the threat of chemical warfare were themes fresh in my adolescent mind. All extreme metal groups broached these topics, but only Slayer’s vivid word-smithing was possessed of sufficient depth to provide the soundtrack to the worried mind of a boy half-convinced his father, far from home, might well evaporate, unheralded, into a cloud of anthrax.

Second, on a determined plod to triumphantly complete 9th grade, I was no longer a freshman in the strict sense of the term, thus less-frequently subject to the martial law the older kids imposed upon newbies. This newfound liberation removed a planet of teenage tension from atop a pubescent Atlas’ shoulders, yet the occasional gut-punch in the boys’ room endured, and your author considered himself in justifiable need of a benefactor for the provision of stiff-jawed conviction when facing down jerkish 15-to-17 year olds. When you’re 14, there is only one benefactor capable of providing such strength, and it is metal. The volume and speed with which the music is executed, diabolic tri-tone, and savage vocals combine to make geeks feel 10 feet tall: the weak become strong, the last become first, all engulfed by a bully-proof sonic force field. Again, enter Slayer.

Third – though in reality most important – I met an older kid who took me under his grizzled elder wing and grandfathered me into Slayer fandom. In the pre-Internet age of the early 1990s, this was the only way it was done. Truly, until you met the older kid who shared the secret handshake giving admission to the coven, your conversion from normal metal fan to sonic belligerent could not commence.

To be fair, his groundwork had been solidly laid in advance, since I had experience (though limited) with the band. I first learned of them in 6th grade when I saw a companion wayward soul meandering down the hall between classes, and he was in a Slayer shirt. Donned by a kid whose parochial musical dignity ne’er permitted him to speak directly to me, his South of Heaven shirt instantly turned the pride I felt for my Motley Crue tee into a puddle of self-conscious flop sweat. In 7th grade, I was about to examine a Slayer tape at the record store when a menacing voice wafted over my shoulder: “Put that back. It’ll ruin your life.” In 8th grade, while at my friend Chris’ house, I finally heard Slayer’s music when he stuck his recently purchased copy of the band’s new album, Seasons in the Abyss, into a boom box, in short order splitting my ears with the first battle cries of lead-off track “War Ensemble”. And I admit, I was impressed: I had been gradually evolving from the glam rock that served as my entrée to metal, to gravitas-infused acts like Metallica (who just released And Justice for All and was yet eating hearty at the trough of the genius-inspired Master of Puppets), Overkill, Exodus, Testament, and Suicidal Tendencies, so my stage was set for something truly exhilarating. The next logical step in my progression of brutality could have only been Slayer. But they just seemed scary, a bridge further than I was willing to extend my musical experimentation.

But in the 9th grade, now 14 years old and attending Christian private school in Hawaii, into my life sprang the catalyst pushing me over the cliff. His name was Mike, and he was a bona-fide juvenile delinquent. He was kicked out of his father’s home in Maryland and banished to Hawaii with his mother. She inexplicably fashioned herself capable of reigning him in, and thought Christian school a worthwhile first step to that end. Once at school together, with metal on his criminal mind, scant time passed before we were drawn into one another’s company like the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star’s tractor beam. Within days of meeting Mike, he’d convinced me to purchase Seasons in the Abyss. Then it was onto Reign in Blood, still the band’s finest hour. Soon thereafter were purchased South of Heaven and Hell Awaits, rounding out my collection of the band’s classic period with Show No Mercy and Haunting the Chapel, with Live Undead thrown in for good evil measure.

All of this occurred in a period approximating 2 months leading into summer 1991. And let the record show: it was a magical summer by all historical accounts, at least as far as music goes. And a good musical summer when you’re 14 is, at its very core, a great summer in general, since at that age all that really matters are the strains of songs criss-crossing through your head from the time you wake ’til the second you slumber.

Between May and September 1991, Metallica released the Black Album (most awesomely on the same day my 7th grade ex-girlfriend Caroline moved away, a pox lifted from my spirit); GNR unleashed the Use Your Illusion double-disc and launched the biggest stadium tour you ever friggin’ witnessed; Queensryche was promoting the Empire album, an apt follow-up to the multi-platinum Operation Mindcrime; Anthrax put out Attack of the Killer B’s and was riding high on the groundswell of support conjured from the first REAL rap-metal crossover song (Run DMC-Aermoth’s “Walk This Way” in 1986 was rap-ROCK, which is different), a cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” duo’d between the two groups; Motley Crue was still reaping the metallic harvest of the Dr. Feelgood album, having already moved 4.5 million copies of the opus by then, and released their first greatest hits package, Decade of Decadence. And best of all (and I really mean this), bands like Nirvana were beginning to make their mark on MTV, their patent variety of pop-punk bearing a few of metal’d distinct hallmarks and inspiring young metal fans to wonder what the future might well hold if the genres blended only a bit more. (It should not be forgotten that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain enlisted Andy Wallace to engineer breakthrough album Nevermind – the one leading off with the massive track “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – because Wallace had also engineered Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Cobain sought a sound equally as aggressive for his still gutter-dwelling Seattle-based alternative act.)

The list could go on forever when it came to summer 1991 and metal’s newfound worldwide success. Slayer were no exception, hitting new heights of mainstream popularity theretofore deemed impossible by extreme music fans worldwide. The Clash of the Titans North American tour kicked off, leaving arenas bludgeoned across the U.S. by the triple thrash threat of Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. They sold out nearly everywhere, including Madison Square Garden in New York City, at which MTV shot a special episode of Headbanger’s Ball. In fact, the music videos “Seasons in the Abyss” and “War Ensemble” were in semi-regular rotation on MTV for a short window of time, and I distinctly remember seeing them each at least once during regular daylight programming. Rolling Stone, mainstream rock’s premier publication, even covered the band. You could therefore not fault me for believing that Slayer was poised for world conquest, ready to lead its legion of youthful devotees to a promised land of quality speed metal.

What happened to me then can only be described as teen obsession, for my very essence became consumed by a single thought: how does one most readily pledge allegiance to the Slayer? In my naïve mind, it seemed wholly reasonable that I could cross paths with the band and, if so, my fandom could be called onto the carpet for scrutiny. Were it so, I would not come up short. And so I set about ensuring my place in the pantheon of Slayer’s most unquestionably faithful.

Thus it was that reveling in conceptual death like every incipient Slayer fan whose path I now followed, I drew up my first will. Into the “special instructions” I ordered that all four members of Slayer be notified immediately in the event of my passing. I listed them ahead of even my own family. I scribbled the band’s logo on all my books at school. I purchased at least four Slayer tee shirts. Suddenly every song lyric I wrote (for the supremely evil band I’d assuredly front one day) was an abiding (and admittedly pirated) ode to Slayer: fifth-rate screeds of Satanism and butchery, all written in first-person prose, just like my blackened idols. Then mid-summer, when I fell irrevocably in love with a local girl named Lissa who promptly traveled to Arizona for two months of family vacation, I began sending love letters. I can only imagine the shock and concern her relatives evinced when fetching the mail routinely resulted in handing Lissa envelopes covered with sketches of cadavers and inverted crosses, my shaky rendering of the Slayer logo overseeing the entire macabre charade. And I played their music voluminously at every opportunity, as ‘twas my fervent belief that if only others could hear, they too would heed the call. This included at the public pool, where fat-bottomed mothers shot us disapproving looks as Hell Awaits blared, certain we were hell-bent on ensnaring their cherubic children in the devil’s sonic temple.

Even my teenage erotic fantasies – the Lord as my witness, there were indeed many – underwent a tectonic shift in course. My brother and I mowed lawns around the neighborhood for pocket money. As luck had it, we labored predominantly for households with physically attractive matrons. Pre-Slayer, I held out distant hope that Mrs. Weber or Mrs. Kowalksi would return home in a bikini and, beholding a yard expertly trimmed yet lacking cash with which to remunerate my efforts, would offer payment via certain favors. Post-Slayer, I began fantasizing about something even less realistic than cavorting scandalously with desirable local housewives: that if I could learn their songs well enough, I’d get to join the band onstage one day.

And so it was that when guitarist Jeff Hanneman died in May 2013, a part of me perished with him. I was fortunate to see Slayer with Jeff in 1995, 2007, and 2010. He wrote most of the band’s most cherished songs, providing the soundtrack to the magical summer of my 14th year.

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