Thirteen years ago today, on December 13, 2001, a man named Charles Michael Schuldiner died at age 34 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Chuck was a legend in the heavy metal world, having founded, at the ripe old age of 16, one of the most influential bands in metal history, Death. The band gave the name to an entire genre of metal–a sound that Chuck largely pioneered–and remains a fan favorite more than a quarter century after its founding. But more than that, Chuck Schuldiner touched the metal community and the lives of all his fans in a very unique and almost personal way, which has been reflected in the reverent way in which heavy metal fans continue to remember and speak of him.
December is a tough month for metal fans. Within three years the metal community lost Chuck to cancer in 2001, and also Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, who was assassinated by a deranged fan in December 2004. Browsing the Twitter accounts of metal fans this past week you might have seen a lot of “RIP Dime” and “RIP Chuck” tweets. It’s more than just a fad, though. Metal fans are uniquely close to metal performers in a way that isn’t true of other genres of music. All heavy metal musicians start out as heavy metal fans, because, unlike the world of corporate market-driven popular music, metal bands are not created from whole cloth by record labels hoping to make a buck. They’re labors of love by dedicated musicians who have something to say to the world through music, and their sincerity is their calling card.
Death plays in Chicago on their final tour in November 1998. I saw the band, and Chuck, in a small club in Portland, Oregon a week later.
Chuck Schuldiner was such a musician. Born on Long Island, New York in 1967. Chuck’s entry into the world of music came from tragedy. His brother died at a young age, and his parents, both teachers, gave Chuck a guitar at age 9 hoping it would help him cope with his grief. His was a rocky road to metal stardom, but he never seemed motivated by the glamour of it–the supposedly romantic life of playing gigs and adoring fans, or the gestalt of being a “rock star.” Chuck was known for being modest and unambitious. Yet what he achieved in the world of metal has rarely been matched by people with far greater ambitions than he had.
He was a perfectionist, never seeming satisfied with his own level of skill or dedication. For this reason some musicians who knew him said he was difficult to work with. This is a sign of brilliance and proficiency, but he never seemed to throw it in anyone’s face. I did not know Chuck Schuldiner personally, but I know people who did. Every one of them–every one–said he was one of the nicest, quietest, most laid-back guys you could ever know. He seemed to exude an almost Zen-like calm. That somebody who played and indeed invented death metal would be such a mellow personality might surprise people who don’t know much about metal and who operate on the stereotypical assumptions of what “rock stars” act like and are in the business for. Chuck was in the business because he liked music and wrote and played it well. He wore his sincerity on his sleeve. This is the basis for the respect the metal scene has given him.
Chuck was modest to a fault. Here he is in a rare interview vehemently denying that the band he founded set the pattern for death metal in the 80s.
Cancer is no respecter of youth or of personal qualities. When he got it in 1999, a rare and dangerous form of brain cancer, the long series of grueling treatments–and the financial effect on his family–resulted in the very well-known episode of metalheads the world over sending money to help defray his medical expenses. I remember, in 1999-2000, hearing people at shows say, “Have you given to Chuck’s cancer fund yet?” Nobody had to ask what this question meant. I mailed a check to his mother with a note saying how much we admired her son and how we hoped that his strength and dedication would enable him to beat this disease. Shortly before his death Chuck’s new band, Control Denied, put out a great album called The Fragile Art of Existence. He proved that existence is a fragile art.
It’s also interesting that Death’s final album, released in 1998, was called The Sound of Perseverance. He did not know he had cancer when that album came out, but we all heard what perseverance sounds like. I saw Death live on that tour, on December 2, 1998. It was the greatest metal club show I’ve ever been to. Chuck’s quiet intensity gave the music an almost unworldly power.
The world lost somebody truly special on December 13, 2001. His music and legacy will live on as long as metal is played on this planet. Fads and bands and genres come and go, but true metal fans never forget.