The surviving members of California thrash titans SLAYER have opened up to Guitar World magazine about the passing of the band’s founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who died on May 2 from alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver, a result of a lifetime of drinking.
“Jeff was always a drinker,” former SLAYER drummer Dave Lombardo tells the publication for its August 2013 issue. “He always had a Coors Light tall can in his hand. Always.”
“Jeff and I always drank,” SLAYER guitarist Kerry 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.”
“I would express my concern [about his alcohol intake], and he would back off for a few months — but then he would go right back to drinking,” says Kathryn Hanneman, Jeff‘s wife of 24 years. “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 l couldn’t beat him, join him. But eventually I realized that I couldn’t go on like that, and that if l 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.”
Hanneman‘s SLAYER bandmates also spoke about the arthritic condition that he had been battling for many years and that was progressively worsening to the point of interfering with his playing. “His ability to play was slowly deteriorating,” SLAYER frontman Tom 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.”
In January 2011, Jeff was bitten on his right arm by an insect that was carrying a flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. The infection ravaged the flesh and tissues of Hanneman‘s arm, leading to numerous surgeries, skin grafts and intense periods of rehab that forced him into semi-retirement and left him near death at several points.
“For me it was really difficult to make the decision to go on without Jeff,” Araya tells Guitar World. “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.”
“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 [Holt, EXODUS guitarist] 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.”
“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.
“People have to make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives,” Araya says. ”You can’t start dictating 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. 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. 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.”
Regarding SLAYER‘s future plans, King tells Guitar World, “I plan on continuing. I don’t think we should throw in the towel just because Jeff‘s not here.”
Lombardo, who recently split from SLAYER — for at least the third time — due to a contract dispute, tells Guitar World he is open to reconnecting with his former bandmates.
“If they want to talk, I’m here,” he says. “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, meanwhile, seems to be unsure of what SLAYER‘s future holds.
“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.”
To read more of the interview, purchase a copy of the August 2013 issue of Guitar World magazine.