Heavy Metal Thunder: Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax

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The day the Titans tour appears in San Antonio is a Sunday, and one of the local newspapers bears an article on its front page under the headline Face to Face with a Devil. It is a story of a woman who was reportedly exorcised of a demon by a local priest, and it also serves as a reminder that the Texas cities this tour has been visiting are strongholds of conservative religious values. As Donna Gaines points out in Teenage Wasteland (probably the best book written about contemporary youth culture), these communities not only tend to breed a fair amount of repressed anger and resentment but tend to breed conservative fears – like fears of the devil and rock & roll. If you're young and have had to live with these sorts of strictures for too long, what could be a better way of rubbing against the local ethos than subscribing to the symbology and values of heavy metal?

The signs of the local youths' appetite for offense become apparent as the crowd begins to arrive at San Antonio's Sunken Gardens amphitheater. Many of the fans here are young Hispanics, and many of them are wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their favorite metal bands (besides this show's headliners, big favorites include Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Danzig). These shirts are rife with horror-derived imagery, including depictions of rotting ghouls, greenish skulls and apocalyptic demons. The iconography may sound gruesome, and yet, when you're confronted with an endless variety of these shirts in mass quantity, there's actually something mesmerizing about it. Plus, it's simply a kick to draw the attention or disapproval of others by wearing these shirts. It's a way of boasting your toughness and your proud status as an outcast. Conservative moralists can fume all they like about the question of what art is tolerated inside the nation's museums, but they're missing an important point: The canvas has shifted in this culture, and it is kids like the ones who are gathered here in San Antonio who are bearing the defiant new art on their chests. And the best part is, there is no way this art can be shut down or deprived of its funds. It has already spilled over into the streets and into our homes.

At 7:00 p.m., Slayer takes the stage and tears into its set. There is a dense, pummeling quality to the band's sound – the bass rumbles, the drums explode at a rat-a-tat clip, and the guitars blare in buzz-saw unison – but it's all played with a remarkable precision and deftness. Meanwhile, the audience that is jammed up close to the stage erupts in frenzy, with some kids slamming and bounding hard against each other, while others clamber atop one another so they can dive over the barricade. This goes on and on until even the band can't take its eyes off the action. On a night such as this, there isn't anything in all rock & roll like a Slayer show. Watching the melee and hearing the fulmination of the music, you feel like you're seeing the most exciting live band since the Sex Pistols.

At the same time, this is also a band that deals with rather disturbing subject matter. When Slayer first emerged in the early 1980s, the group's repertoire (written at the time by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) was heavy with songs about Satan and hell. But in recent years, under the influence of bassist and vocalist Tom Araya, who is now the band's chief lyricist, the emphasis has shifted. Araya – whose family fled Chile during a time of political unrest and who has lived around some of the rougher sections of Los Angeles and witnessed the effects of gang warfare – decided the band should write more about the human and social horrors of the modern world, and over the course of the band's last three albums he has developed a special affection for such topics as political oppression, modern warfare, gang killings and serial murders. Perhaps the band's most chilling song is "Dead Skin Mask," about Ed Gein, the famous mass murderer who killed numerous people and flayed them and who later served as the inspiration for such films as Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs. In "Dead Skin Mask," Araya enters into Gein's soul and tells the story of his crimes from inside that dark and awful place.

"I know a song like that," says Araya, "where I'm writing it as if I am the person who is doing the killing, freaks people out. They say, 'How could you think that way?' Well, it isn't hard at all. In fact it's very easy. I sit there and I ask myself, 'Now, how would it feel if I really wanted to kill somebody?' And I know: I'd feel an exhilaration. I'd feel awesome.

"See, when I wrote 'Dead Skin Mask,'" Araya continues, "I had just read this book called Deviant, about Ed Gein, and as I read it, I was trying to understand this guy – why he did what he did and how he got that way. The fact that he could seriously skin these people and preserve their body parts – can you imagine doing that and thinking that it's okay and not really knowing the difference between right and wrong? That's just fucking amazing, to do things like that with no heart at all. And then I came across another book about this guy named Albert Fish, who murdered these little boys and then ate their penises. He said he tried eating their testicles, but he found them too chewy."

As he speaks, Araya's face gradually lights up until, by the time he gets to the part about chewy testicles, he is smiling delightedly. After a moment or two, he catches what he's doing and blushes. "You know," Araya says, "I can sit here and talk about mutilation with a smile on my face because of the things these people do, but I do know the difference between wrong and right. I mean, I can sit and think about murder, and sometimes I think it would be real easy to do. And then I write the stuff, and for me it works as kind of a release. I figure, I've thought about it, I know what it would feel like – and that's good enough for me."

Listening to Tom Araya talk about the titillations of murder can be as unnerving as listening to Slayer's music – even more so. It's possible to make a case that Slayer's boldest songs, by presenting horror in such unabashed and unromantic detail, are critiques of violence and evil. But after talking to Araya, you have to wonder if some of the songs aren't precisely what they sound like: celebrations of the ruin of life.

Actually, either interpretation – critique or celebration – seems fine to the members of Slayer, who are amazingly adept at depicting terrible deeds without giving any indication of how they view the moral dimensions of those deeds. But by completely sidestepping any moral reaction, it's possible that Slayer has misjudged just how deep the horror runs in the stories they have chosen to tell. Killers like Gein or Fish may be fascinating to read about or to see portrayed on the screen, but the truth is, real human lives were tortured and destroyed at their hands, and the horror and misery didn't end there: The surviving families and friends of both the victims and the killers had to live the rest of their lives with the effects of those crimes and with the knowledge of all the hopes that were forever transformed and sealed off in those seasons of bloodshed. This is the sort of horror that never knows an end – the sort that lasts beyond death or fiction or art – and it may be a greater evil than Araya and his band are prepared to comprehend or address.

At the same time, for all his creepy interests, there's really nothing unpleasant or evil-seeming about Araya himself. He comes across as a basically funny, courteous and sweet-tempered guy who has a deep affection for his family and fans and who only becomes truly unpleasant when he witnesses security guards roughing up exuberant fans. In short, Araya is a bit like many of the rest of us: He can be fascinated by the depictions of evil in a true-crime book or a piece of fiction like The Silence of the Lambs, but when real violence spills over into his own world, he is genuinely repelled.

And sometimes that violence can spill over in unexpected ways. For example, during the recent Persian Gulf war, Slayer received several letters from troops stationed on the front line – some of whom stated they were anxious to kill the Iraqis ("the fucking ragheads," as one soldier put it) and thanked Slayer for providing them with the morale to do so. Closer to home, Geraldo Rivera presented a show a year or so ago called "Kids Who Kill." It featured a panel of five adolescents, all of whom had killed either other kids or family members and all of whom cited a passion for thrash or speed-metal bands – particularly Slayer. To some critics, incidents like these might suggest that Slayer's art is a dangerous one – that it works as an endorsement of violence or might even help precipitate it. Well, perhaps. But at the same time, what would it be like if the music of Slayer didn't exist? If the band disappeared or were silenced, would it lessen the frequency of murder? Would it have had any impact on the killings committed by the children on Geraldo Rivera's show?

Jeff Hanneman doesn't think so. "Obviously," he says, "a lot of our fans do identify with evil – or at least they think they do. But the truth is, when you come across one of the most hardcore Slayer fans – one of those guys going, 'Sa-tan! Sa-tan! Sa-tan!' – and you say, 'Now calm down, dude; do you really believe in Satan?' he might go, 'Yes! Sa-tan!' and then you go, 'No, no – do you really believe in Satan?' He'll go, 'Uh, well, no, not really.' You know, to him it's cool because it's evil, and evil is rebellion.

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