The Guardian
Wed. Jan. 24, 2001

Slayer named in lawsuit

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  Even in a nation where 12 schoolchildren a day are killed by guns, the death of Elyse Pahler stood out from the welter of cold statistics. The adventurous 15-year-old Californian thought she was sneaking into a eucalyptus grove to share a marijuana joint with three boys: but they had other intentions.

First they choked her with a belt; then they took turns with a hunting knife to slash and stab her more than a dozen times; and as she fell to the ground, praying and crying out for her mother, the three friends stamped their feet on the back of her neck.

Not long afterwards, according to a lawsuit, Joseph Fiorella, 14, Jacob Delashmutt, 16, and Royce Casey, 16, returned to where Elyse had bled to death and had sex with her corpse.

That was five years ago in San Luis Obispo and now her killers are serving sentences of 25 years to life. They were problem kids who devoted most of their leisure time to marijuana, methamphetamine and LSD, but they had something else swirling around in their heads. This was death-metal music, and specifically the records made by Slayer, the veteran pioneers of thrash from Huntington Beach, California.

The band's lyrics might be taken to have a risible, cartoonish, flavour about them. Try these from Kill Again: Homicidal maniac

Trapped in mortal solitude Lift the gleaming blade Slice her flesh to shreds Watch the blood flow free.

While there are those who regard these words as a vehicle for no more genuine menace than a Robbie Williams video, 53-year-old David Pahler and his wife Lisanne, 43, are not among them. They believe that Slayer's paens to serial killers and necrophilia contributed to their daughter's death and are suing the band and the companies that have distributed their music.

"This case isn't about art," says David Pahler. "It's about marketing. Slayer and others in the industry have developed sophisticated strategies to sell death metal music to adolescent boys. They don't care whether the violent, mysogynistic message in these lyrics causes children to do harmful things. They couldn't care less what their fans did to our daughter. All they care about is money."

For their part, Slayer are not talking about the case. But two years ago Paul Bostaph, the drummer, said: "They're trying to blame the whole thing on us. That's such nonsense. If you're gonna do something stupid like that, you should get in trouble for it." He supported Slayer's case by observing that the killers had not done their homework properly: they had failed to follow the rituals of necrophilia sacrifice set out in the songs.

The Pahlers are simply the latest bereaved parents to try to hold accountable purveyors of popular, and not so popular, culture for the deaths of their children.

Their predecessors include the parents of a 19-year-old who commited suicide after listening to the music of Ozzy Osbourne and the families of children shot in a Kentucky schoolyard who tried to sue the makers of video games. Both cases foundered in the path of the first amendment to the US constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

The shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, too, was a convenient lightning rod after the Columbine school massacre in Denver, Colorado, nearly two years ago when the fact that the teenage killers were members of a Trenchcoat Mafia appealed to the demand for instant answers.

But the California lawsuit is different. Here the lawyers for the Pahlers hope to body-swerve the first amendment by relying on the argument that the companies sold materials harmful to minors in the knowledge that the music's violent creed was simply a tool to sell records. The firm handling the case is Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, who persuaded a court case that the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co had marketed the Joe Camel character to children.

"The distribution and marketing of this obscene and harmful material to adolescent males constituted aiding and abetting of the criminal acts described in this complaint," says the lawsuit. "None of the vicious crimes committed against Elyse Marie Pahler would have occurred without the intentional marketing strategy of the death-metal band Slayer."

Attorneys for the band and the music companies - including Def Jam Music, Columbia Records, Sony Music Entertainment and American Recordings - say that Slayer's work is ring-fenced by the right to free speech enshrined in the constitution.

No one can be sure that this guarantee is worth what it was. Next month at the Grammys it will become known whether the music industry has found a way to avoid giving one of four awards to the confrontational rapper Eminem, variously hailed as a bigot and the most vital young artist in America or anywhere else.

No sooner had he been nominated than there was a foretaste of the ructions to follow, whether he wins or not. "We're not really endorsing him," said Michael Greene, head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. "There are very few people in this organisation who wouldn't agree that Eminem's record is probably the most repugnant album of the year. However, the craft around it ... it's a remarkable recording."

Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, says that his lyrics are not meant to be taken literally, any more than Slayer wish to be certified as necrophilia salesmen. "We're part-evil," says Slayer singer Tom Araya. "If we were really evil, we would be doing everything we're writing about."

Naturally, this distinction does not impress David Pahler. "What are we talking about here? We have children ending their lives because the lyrics say they're worthless. It's about money. That's the driving force. I can't imagine the adults in the band, in the distribution end, really think this so-called music or the lyrics are good." His wife Lisanne says: "They have families of their own. Where's their conscience?"

Advocates of the first amendment believe that the Slayer case could be a turning point and are not over-confident about the outcome. "We're kidding ourselves if we don't think the cultural climate affects judges and their decisions," says Peter Eliasberg, of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're getting to the point, if we let these cases go forward, that someone can say [the blaxploitation movie] Shaft glorifies vigilantism. There is a really serious danger to decide to not make a movie or not write a book."

That danger, as he perceives it, was not diminished by a report last week from the US surgeon general's office that identified a "scientific link between graphically violent television programming and increased aggression in children." The paper, commissioned by the White House after the Columbine shootings, says: "Research to date justifies sustained efforts to curb the adverse effects of media violence on youths. Although our knowledge is incomplete, it is sufficient to develop a coherent public health approach to violence prevention that builds upon what is known, even as more research is under way."

The surgeon-general's finding followed a study last autumn by the federal trade commission which concluded that Hollywood is marketing violent movies to children.

Perhaps the starkest if not the best evidence, though, comes not via august government bodies, but rather from Elyse's killers.

Delashmutt, now a 21-year-old, says: "It was harmless at first. We used to smoke weed, play guitar, kick it. I was just into heavy-metal music." But Fiorello had taken his hobby further. "It gets inside your head," he told a police counsellor a year after the girl's death. "It's almost embarrassing that I was so influenced by the music. The music started to influence the way I looked at things."

Delashmutt says that one day Fiorella asked "if I'd be down for sacrificing a, whatever, a virgin. I didn't take it seriously. I said 'whatever' ".

Slayer are in Canada this week, working on the record they hope will become the sixth gold disc by the outfit who have awarded themselves the title of "the world's most grisly band".

Other than their back catalogue of collections such as Seasons in the Abyss, Reign in Blood and Diabolus in Musica, fans have had only the band's contribution to the soundtrack for Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 to tide them over lately.

"They're the nicest people," says Chris Ferrara, their long-serving publicist. "It's a matter of opinion how you take in the music, but I think it's fiction, period. They're nice, conservative people, believe it or not."

Devil's own: the music of death Caroline Sullivan

Birmingham hard rockers Judas Priest, whose releases include the album Killing Machine, were sued over a 1985 suicide pact made by two Nevada schoolboys. One survived, and he and the other boy's parents charged that a 1978 album contained hidden messages. The words "Do it" allegedly can be heard when the record is played backwards, and the letters S U I (for "suicide") are in the sleeve artwork. The case was dismissed after evidence that the boys had grown up in "violent and depressed" surroundings.

Marilyn Manson, who is also known as Antichrist Superstar and the God of Fuck, was blamed by the media for the 1999 Columbine High massacre in which students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 classmates and a teacher. Despite a suicide note left by the pair that said, "Don't blame anyone else for our actions. This is the way we want to go out," Manson's ghoulish image and self-confessed Satanism were thought to have inspired them.

It emerged that they were not fans, but not before Manson was approached by "every media organisation in America" for his reaction. He said the shootings were "horrendous and sad, but they got what they wanted - fame"

Tennessee teenagers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were accused of killing three younger boys. The platinum-selling California thrash-metal act Metallica were implicated when lyrics were found in Echols' diary. The teenagers were found guilty despite lack of evidence.

Heavy metal veteran Ozzy Osbourne has been sued by the parents of three American teenagers who committed suicide after listening to his records. In 1984 a teenage boy shot himself while listening to the song Suicide Solution, which allegedly contained the line "I tell you to end your life." The case was dismissed when it was proved the line was "I tell you to enjoy life."

In 1986, 16-year-old Michael Waller killed himself after telling his father that Osbourne had "the solution". In 1988 a 17-year-old killed himself in his car. An Osbourne live album with tracks such as Shot in the Dark and Road to Nowhere was found in his stereo. Both cases were thrown out of court.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001