Paul Juser: Born of Fire

I can say without hesitation the only musicians I’ve loved longer than Slayer are Def Leppard and Weird Al. Both of those began in elementary school and I make no excuses for either. I was 14 when I put Scotch tape on the notches of a Poison cassette to redub it with Seasons in the Abyss. I listened to the tape until it was eaten by my radio and I was forced to buy the CD. No other band fortified my desire to win, and few other bands were playing in the background as I fought the day-to-day battles of teenage life. Slayer made me a man.

When the other kids were reading Shakespeare and “A Separate Peace,” I was studying the lyrics to Reign in Blood. When the other kids were going to church on a Sunday, I was in my bedroom blasting South of Heaven and painting Warhammer figurines. Dr. Filth was still in regular contact with Mastodon, and they’d sent backstage passes to hang out with them and Slayer backstage at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, NJ.

After sleeping on the floor and masturbating in my roommate’s bed, Mastodon went on to open Wembley for Metallica. And in 2006 were preparing the stage on the Unholy Alliance tour for Slayer. Not just Slayer, but the fully restored Slayer that wrote Show No Mercy through Seasons in the Abyss, the series of albums that undoubtedly shaped my life more than any other. We met Mastodon backstage for beers and broccoli during Children of Bodem, because seriously, who cares about Children of Bodem?

Brent recounted to all the time he slept with his head in my litter box. As I reported last month, this is not true. That was a surfer dude named Wes who was filling in on guitar for a band called Up Hill Battle. They had slept at my place the week before Mastodon, and the apartment was still wrecked from the party. Mastodon all slept in litter-free areas.

I’d recently become a professional photographer and came into the show with a camera around my neck. Troy scored me a photo pass that let me in the enclosure between the stage and the crowd to spend the first two songs of each set snapping the shutter as fast as I could. The prize for me that night was this pic of Brent Hinds:

Brent 1
After the photographers were ushered out for Mastodon, Doc Filth and I found ourselves at the foot of the stairs to Brahn’s drum risers. No philosophy in life has taken me further than “it’s better to apologize than ask permission.” Only a few short steps blocked our view of thousands of heads impatiently awaiting Slayer. We looked at each other. We had no other choice. We walked up those steps and stood behind the drums.

A security goon crab walked frantically, ordering us to kneel. When we obeyed, we were left alone to watch with an almost unobstructed view. The pit was full. The bleachers were full. The lights were spinning, and we could see by the faces that ten thousand people were screaming together, but it couldn’t be heard over the music. That night is probably the single biggest reason I can’t hear a goddamn thing anymore, and it was all worth it. I stood on the same stage as Slayer.

When Mastodon finished, we joined them in their dressing room. Lamb of God was up next, and I don’t give a shit about Lamb of God. I’m happy Randy Blythe is home from wrongful foreign imprisonment, and I salute the outlet they’ve created for thousands of other awkward teenage boys, just like Slayer did for me. I still couldn’t care less about them. Don’t try to debate me, because that’s the best I’ve got. We hung out backstage drinking free beer until security pushed us back to the public area to make way for Slayer to take the stage.

My freshman year in high school I still believed in fairy tales, and maintained a serious worry the wrong type of music could send me straight to H-E-double-hockey-sticks. Iron Maiden broke my Heavy Metal hymen when my English teacher played “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” for class after reading the poem. Nothing that came out of Public School could be bad for me, right? I bought a second-hand copy of Powerslave from a kid behind the bleachers and began my decent to no life ‘till leather. Slayer took time to wear me down, with their strong Satanic motif. Not until I heard the Maiden-style galloping bass of “Show No Mercy” did I begin to question if Slayer was too evil for listening. A year later, I’d gone full-bore into Deicide and Death Metal, the more blood-soaked the better.

I still get the same shiver down my spine when I hear “Born of Fire” as I did in high school. My entire wardrobe consisted of black pants, a black trench coat, and a different Slayer T-shirt for every day of the week. I literally wore them until they disintegrated, and then decorated the walls of my first apartment with those ghoulish images of melting demons ripping the guts from screaming human victims.

I listened to a lot of bands that said Satan was cool. But after more than twenty years of fandom, most are impossible to take seriously. I find any religion inherently silly. I don’t believe in Zeus, I don’t believe in Ahura Mazda, and I stopped believing in Satan a long time ago. I know, he still believes in me. But if I don’t think he’s real that isn’t a very strong argument. However, without fail, I will have the car windows down, screaming, “Praise Hell, Satan!” with my fist in the air every time “Altar of Sacrifice” comes on the shuffle. Not very far back in our recorded history, pretty much all I did simply as a Slayer fan would have seen me imprisoned or killed. In fact, that’s near exactly what happened to Damien Echols in 1994. His case is legendary, so I won’t dedicate much space here. That year I was a junior in high school. I had long hair and wore a black trench coat. I brought the Satanic Bible and spellbooks of books of black magick to school and read them in class. I drew Slayer logos and lyrics on every blank piece of paper I could find.

Damien Echols and I were living nearly identical lives at the same time, only difference being that I was in a reasonably civilized area of Upstate New York, and he was in a backwater hell hole off the map in Arkansas. The music inspired me to learn and grow and explore. The music was used as a weapon against Echols. He was wrongfully convicted of the “ritualistic” murder and mutilation of three young boys. Those Slayer lyrics on his notebooks were among the strongest pieces of evidence against him. Damien Echols is finally walking free today, after 16 years of captivity. Arkansas will not declare him innocent, but no longer feel this supposed vicious murderer is dangerous. Must be the power of the Lord.

I don’t worry that I’m going to Hell when I listen to Slayer. I don’t worry the Devil is going to claim me for his eternal submission, or whatever dumb shit is being peddled these days. I didn’t worry about that when I played Dungeons & Dragons, and I don’t worry about it when I watch Sci Fi movies. The notion of demons stalking our daily lives seems horrifically funny, but still I meet people for whom this is a serious concern. Slayer sings about this subject, and it’s fun. But the real Devil lies in their political and historical songs.

Slayer loves Nazis. That’s not to say Slayer approves of Nazi ideology. I find it hard to believe they would come this far if they did, and I would certainly stop listening if I found out that was true. The content has made for several songs, and served as inspiration for logos and imagery on countless T-shirts and posters for more than three decades of aggression. Jeff Hannemen needed to point out that because he wrote “Angel of Death” about Joseph Mengele that did not mean he was saying Joseph Mengele was cool. The song is cool though, and is undoubtedly the most famous of all Slayer songs. “Reign in Blood” was the album that set the parameters of what Heavy Metal would become, and Angel of the Death is the leading track.

I did not first see Slayer live until 1998, touring with Fear Factory for the Diablos en Musica album, and again that summer on Ozzfest. Unholy Alliance was the first time I’d seen the band that wrote Reign in Blood. Dave Lombardo always maintained an on-again-off-again relationship as the drummer and had been fired in the early 90’s. He was replaced for four albums by Paul Bostaph. In 2005 Bostaph lied about an elbow injury so he could join Exodus, and Lombardo was readmitted to the ranks.

When Henry Rollins interviewed Slayer on his show in 2006, Lombardo faced away from Rollins and said nothing. According to Heavy Metal legend, the reason Lombardo quit after recording Reign in Blood was because the band was still small and poor and couldn’t afford to take his wife with them on the tour. In the weeks between when I started writing this story and today, Lombardo has been trash-talking all over the Twitterverse, slagging the upcoming album, claiming Slayer’s management will keep the band touring even after all the original members have died or been replaced. With the arrival of Vulvatron, this seems to be a profitable strategy for Gwar.

The disconnection in the members of Slayer was apparent backstage at Unholy Alliance. Each opener got one dressing room, but each member of Slayer had a room to himself. Hannemen and Lombardo did not emerge until the hall had been cleared and curtained and it was time to walk on stage. Araya spent the evening walking around with his wife and kid, but did not interact with fans. That was Kerry’s role. He delighted in signing autographs and talking pictures. Here is a picture of me with Kerry King:

Paul and Kerry King
In the photo pit I chatted with actual Rock photographers working for actual Rock magazines. One even took pity on the kit lens on my Canon Rebel and lent me a backup lens as long as my arm. Above the stage more than a dozen animated crosses were projected on a screen. Smoke pumped from behind the amps. The crosses were getting larger and rotating, turning down. The intro to South of Heaven began. The band took the stage to a deafening roar. The beast was out of the cage. When Slayer hit their marks, I was no more than ten feet beneath Araya’s microphone. I had an actual, physical nerdgasm.

Every other time I’ve seen Slayer, I walked away a little disappointed. They played all the songs I’ve loved all my life. But there was no performance, no life beyond the music. A little walking, a little headbanging, but Slayer didn’t move much. This show was different. They were all over the stage, running and energized. This was Slayer. This was the band I imagined alone in my bedroom doing my homework or playing the Genisis with “Chemical Warfare” at full volume. I’m sure my neighbors can still remember all the words to “Reborn.” And their houses were not close. Without pause, South of Heaven went into Silent Scream, one single masterpiece, as it is on the album. After that song, the photographers were escorted out, and I quickly found Doc Filth.

Want to know a disappointing fact about me? I’ve never been in a Slayer pit. I used to pretend to be all Metal with my leather jacket and Iron Maiden T-shirts, but when that yawning void opened before me, I took a step back.

The thing about Slayer is that everyone loves Slayer. The Skinheads love Slayer because of course the Skinheads would love Slayer. The Metalheads love Slayer because there really wasn’t Heavy Metal until Slayer arrived, and there probably wouldn’t be Metal today if it hadn’t been for Slayer. The Punks love Slayer because Thrash Metal is really just Punk played by competent musicians. Even Tori Amos loves Slayer. When the music starts, all of those people are standing in the same place, and most of them don’t like each other. All of them have unlimited license to inflict as much bodily harm on each other as anyone can endure.  At the end of the night everyone calls it “fun” and walks away with no peace broken. Every time I’ve gone to see Slayer, I saw the chaos unfold, and decided I was just there to enjoy the music.

Unholy Alliance 2006 is likely the last time I’ll see Slayer. The music changed at Divine Intervention. It sounded plastic and produced, an attempt to catch some of Metallica’s success with an identically molded Black album. Punk became popular and Slayer followed suit. The golden age of Slayer was over, and from that album on, they rode waves instead of making waves. For me, Slayer died with Jeff, and then the corpse beheaded by Lombardo’s recent Twitter-tantrums.

I want to remember Slayer as they were at Unholy Alliance 2006. That was the band I always imagined them to be. Wise and well-traveled, and still angry after all these years. Slayer was alive that night, and it made my blood burn the same way it burned when they were on my discman on the school bus getting me in a mindset for school, or in my car speakers was I prepare for a tough day at work. I’ll be 37 next month, and it’s safe to say I still listen to Slayer at least once every day. Slayer made me, and Slayer continues to inspire me. Even though Tom Araya forgot the words to The Anti-Christ, that night in June 2006 was perfect.

JOIN US!

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Paul Juser writes Laugh at Yourself First, an online collection of his art, fiction, scripts, and very little poetry. Updated weekly since 2008. pauljuser.blogspot.com

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