A concert by the thrash/speed/death-metal band Slayer can be the most compelling spectacle in rock 'n' roll. Or at least the scariest. Take their show at the Hollywood Palladium in 1987. Roadies dragged two huge metal crosses onto the stage--and you finally realized that the crew was not going to tilt them right-side up.
Four thousand straight-arm salutes greeted the band; five frenzied packs of slamming bodies spontaneously coalesced, each forming one corner of what looked eerily like a satanic pentagram pointing away from the stage.
Satanism has always seemed more a religion than a pose for Slayer (though, of course, it \o7 is \f7 a pose). When singer Tom Araya asked the crowd to make a sacrifice, it roared its assent, and lights on the inverted crosses onstage blinked their approval.
The music itself is a roar, a rough, guttural, minor-key roar, and as it envelops you it draws you into the dark, oddly comforting crowd energy. You might have thought about the rock 'n' roll fascination with the devil that stretches from Robert Johnson's Delta blues through Jerry Lee Lewis, the Stones and Led Zeppelin.
As you filed out after the concert, you passed flickering lights of squad cars and ambulances, and the shroud-covered body of a young man, one of several hundred denied admission to the sold-out show, who had danced straight into the path of a speeding truck.
A couple of days before Christmas, 1990, late-afternoon light growing dim, Slayer's Tom Araya, linebacker-huge, slumps into a couch in the living room of a Westside condominium, tossing an empty Coke can onto the coffee table and picking up a sheaf of fan letters. He runs his fingers through his thick, black mane.
"It scares me sometimes when I run into our fans," he says softly. "There are so many nutty ones. We just got a letter from a kid whose best friend dies, hit by a car, who says that listening to us broke him out of the little shell he was in, uplifted him, brought him back to life. All I could think of was, \o7 Slayer\f7 ? He was listening to \o7 us\f7 ? We also get a lot of letters from kids who are institutionalized, and I'm talking criminal."
"Or they'll see me across a crowded store and yell out the name of the band: '\o7 SLAYER\f7 !\o7 '\f7 It doesn't matter where they are; they never just just say it, they \o7 yell \f7 it. Or they'll come up and say 'Hail Satan,' and I'll shake their hands and try to calm them down, explain that Satan is a pretty poor solution for whatever they think their problems are--satanism is not a very safe thing to do. It's hard to talk to those particular kids, because they never believe that you're trying to help them."
Araya opens a book, an old worn one about famous murderers, and pulls out an envelope that he had hidden in its pages. From Saudi Arabia, from a soldier in the Desert Shield operation, the envelope is decorated with elaborately inked-in drawings of pentagrams and grinning skulls, emblazoned with the legend "Slatanic Wehrmacht" drawn in slashing strokes, and with a hand-drawn skeleton stamp in the upper right-hand corner that reads "Free Mail." You wonder how it got by the government censors in the Gulf.
"Check it out," he says. "From Saudi. I'm going to have to answer this one.
"Anyway, I'm pretty much a devout Catholic. People tell me you have to be either all one thing or all another, but I'm like this guy who walks the line between good and evil, looking around, enjoying the scenery, humming 'dum-de-dum-dum' . . . I haven't decided yet.
"This girl I knew in high school came up to me a while ago and told me she was worrying about me, that she was praying for me every night. I wasn't who she thought I was but that's cool. Who can't use an extra prayer?"
It was inevitable that metal become the \o7 real \f7 American punk. Punk had everything a rebellious kid could ever want out of a rock 'n' roll movement. The uniform and the music were loud, easy to duplicate and deeply offensive to parents, clergymen and probation officers; punk lyrics raised adolescent whining to the level of an art form.
But punk in the United States always had the feel of an English import: American punk, even at its height, appealed mostly to suburban college students, while working-class kids continued to listen to heavy metal, the old Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath records they'd grown up on.
By 1983, hard-core punk and the thrash metal inspired by British guys like Venom and Diamondhead had evolved to the same place: hard, fast, almost tuneless songs completely divorced from the blues. Both camps sang about mass death and nuclear winter and beer, except the metal bands had longer hair and sold a jillion more records.