It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Slayer live. As a metal fan for over twenty years it’s been hard to avoid seeing them, given the frequency with which they tour. Nor would I want to avoid seeing them. They are after all the ur-band, the mother lode of extreme metal, never wavering in their commitment to a tight-riffing, hyper-disciplined sound.
But seeing Slayer live on May 25th, at London’s Alexandra Palace, was very different to my previous encounters with the band.
It was a Friday night. Despite my family’s often variable observance of Shabbat, staying in with the wife and kids on Friday evenings is pretty much an iron rule. To break this rule for Slayer, of all bands, is certainly ironic, given that “Angel of Death“, their vicious sonic depiction of the crimes of Josef Mengele, has meant that they are still held in suspicion in some quarters (almost certainly unjustly, given that Slayer have no history of anti-Semitism, beyond an enduring fascination with evil.)
Yet I pretty much had to go – in fact my wife (a rabbi) even urged me to do so – for one reason alone: I live just behind Alexandra Palace, the huge Victorian ‘pleasure palace’ perched on a hill in North London with dramatic views over the rest of the city. Slayer were playing in my back yard. And what’s more they were going to play Reign In Blood, their 1986 classic, in its entirety, backed up by a mouth-watering bill including Sleep, The Melvins and Wolves in the Throne Room. How could I not go?
Going to see Slayer in my backyard brought up some odd feelings. A weird sense of transgressing my family and my people’s codes, mixed in with the contrary feeling that Slayer were being anointed by my wife and children’s blessing and embedded into the fabric of my neighbourhood.
Slayer have always made me feel funny. In fact, the one time I met them I behaved in such a monumentally odd way that I am starting to cringe even before I tell the story…
It was sometime in 1998. Slayer were playing at the old London Astoria in Charing Cross Road, on a double bill with Sepultura. I had an appointment to interview the then Sepultura drummer Igor Cavalera as part of my PhD research. I was waiting outside Sepultura’s dressing room for Igor to finish another interview and I noticed that most of Slayer were in the dressing room next door, doing nothing in particular.
I wanted to meet them and the best excuse I could come up with was to ask for an autograph for my friend’s birthday present. Fair enough, if a little lame. But somewhere between deciding to approach them and actually doing so, I had a crazy idea.
I was obsessed at the time with a comedy programme called This Morning With Richard Not Judy, a sketch show vehicle for Richard Herring and Stewart Lee. Their humour back then was based almost entirely on catch phrases and in-jokes. In one programme, they showed a series of sketches featuring Anthony Hopkins, in his uptight Englishman rather than his Hannibal Lecter incarnation, corresponding with his female co-stars. The letters would start off incredibly polite and repressed, a la Remains of The Day etc, before Hopkins would suddenly lose it and crudely proposition his correspondent. Every letter ended with Hopkins saying/writing very calmly ‘PS: I am wanking as I write this.’ (You can see the sketches here.)
So I went up to Kerry King, Slayer’s iconic guitarist, resplendent and fearsome in shaved head and full body tattoos, and asked him if he could sign an autograph for my friend. He agreed nonchalantly and started to write. I explained that my friend and I had a private joke and asked Kerry ‘could you write after your signature ‘PS: I am wanking as I write this’?’
King’s reaction was both intimidating and dignified. He stopped writing, mid-signature. He looked for a second straight into my eyes. He pointed with my pen to the door and threw it in that direction. I followed, trying and failing to burble an explanation of the joke. The rest of the band cracked up laughing and closed the door after me.
This little episode perfectly encapsulates my strange relationship to Slayer, to metal in general and to life itself. I displayed guts and bravura in asking one of the most notoriously macho figures in metal to do something he would never do in a million years. I displayed pathetic weakness in feeling crippling embarrassment, and in caring what Kerry King thought. I am attracted to Slayer’s hyper-masculine aggression and can almost hold my own amongst metal Gods – but I’m always haunted by the spectre of my nebbish Jewishness.
Thoughts of the 1998 incident kept returning to me as I waited for Slayer to go on stage at Alexandra Palace. I felt at once utterly at home amongst my metal brethren, and at the same time that the short distance between my home and the gig was unbridgeable. Slayer was a part of me, yet the band occupied another planet.
But maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling strange on that warm May night. The event was not a standard metal gig, but part of a three day festival run by All Tomorrow’s Parties. They put together memorable bills and festivals that have a loyal following. ATP has been a prime mover in hipster metal, building bridges between po-faced followers of cutting edge music and a once-despised genre.
They’d never put anything quite like this before though. While the likes of Sleep and The Melvins are standard hipster fare, Slayer is right on the edge. Even if lovers of noise cannot help but be attracted to Slayer’s incredible power, they are nothing if not metal – in the most blue collar sense of the word.
Maybe ATP had misjudged the market. The rest of the weekend featured the likes of Mogwai and The Afghan Whigs, but I doubt that many people present on the Friday had 3-day tickets. The giant hall was packed, but the hipsters in their Sunn0))) t-shirts, clutching copies of The Wire, were overwhelmed by hoards of paleo-metallurgists. Guys in cut off denim jackets and fading tour shirts stood around heartily knocking back pints, while smaller numbers of girls were squeezed into corsets and leather skirts. It was a hot night and the crowd was sweaty, jovial and above all loud.
Before, during and after Slayer’s set the cries echoed round the hall. After the band came on, the place erupted in headbanging and slamming. Drunk topless guys periodically staggered out of the moshpit. As the band launched into ‘Angel of Death’ half way through the set the energy built up further, to be released in more primal screams in the gaps between songs.
I’ve been to dozens of metal gigs before but somehow that night I saw afresh all these hallmarks of a successful metal show. The location, lingering thoughts of my family and Shabbat, my previous history with Slayer, the heat – all these combined to make me feel the attraction-repulsion that ties me and ejects me from metal more intensively than ever before.
PS: I am being ambivalent as I write this.