One of the founding fathers of American Thrash, Jon Zazula left behind a beautiful legacy of brutality
On February 1st, Jon Zazula passed away from complications of the rare neuropathic disorder CIDP, COPD, and osteopenia in his Florida home, surrounded by family and friends.
His passing was mourned throughout a metal community that was cognizant of the fact that metal music would not have been the same without him.
As he detailed in his 2019 memoir Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As Lived By Jon Zazula, Zazula came up in an abusive household, was homeless for a time, and subsequently left a Wall Street job to sell imports from the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene at a New Jersey flea market stall he dubbed Rock n/ Roll Heaven.
He famously came across No Life ‘Til Leather, a demo tape by an unknown West Coast band called Metallica. He became their biggest champion and risked financial ruin to start his own label, Megaforce Records, to release the band’s 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All when nobody else could (legend has it Brian Slagel of Metal Blade would have but couldn’t come up with the money at the time).
The mythos surrounding Metallica at the time is well known – the band was on the East Coast, completely broke, and they sent Dave Mustaine on a Greyhound back to San Francisco. Everyone has dissected this moment in metal history, but Zazula was one of the people closest to it when it happened. Here was a band Zazula risked his personal finances on suddenly firing the guitarist who wrote half of the band’s material to date.
I asked him about this in an interview for New Noise Magazine that ran when the book came out:
“I respected Metallica’s young vision and I actually trusted them very much in their artistic judgments,” he recalled. “I understood what they were doing because I was witness to everything that went on. They were serious as a heart attack about really being out there and blowing people away.”
This philosophy of trusting people he decided to work with would become the overarching philosophy behind Megaforce Records and later Crazed Management. The fact is that one of his first customers in that flea market, “Metal” Maria Ferraro, would become Megaforce’s publicist and continue working with him even releasing the press release announcing his passing.
It is impossible to overstate how Johnny Z, as he started to call himself in order to get people to answer his calls when nobody heard of him, impacted Metallica. It’s hard to imagine a universe where the determination and talent of the band didn’t eventually come to the surface even without his mentorship and belief. But ask the band. They don’t think things would have been the same for them without him and who can argue?
Even if he didn’t help bring Metallica to the masses, Megaforce Records was responsible for so many more watershed moments in metal. He brought Anthrax to light, releasing their Fistful of Metal debut in 1984 and guiding their career through gold records on Island. When you consider that Dave Mustaine was in Metallica when he first approached them, Zazula had a hand in 75% of thrash metal’s celebrated Big Four.
Megaforce would also release early records from Overkill, who now have nineteen albums to their credit. The first thrash metal debut on a major label was The Legacy by Testament, who Zazula discovered when Ferraro brought them to his attention. The infamous Stormtroopers of Death side project released their crossover masterpiece Speak English or Die for Megaforce. He brought the psychedelic crunch of King’s X to the world as well.
Through the label and his CraZed Management, he helped reform Blue Cheer, restrain Al Jourgensen and Mike Muir when Ministry and Suicidal Tendencies were at their creative peaks, reinvigorate NWOBHM pioneers Raven, and was working with Venom Inc – featuring some of the same Venom alumni whose earliest US shows he promoted when he was first starting out – when he retired in 2018.
So Zazula was more than just Metallica. And he was more than just metal – he assisted former Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes’ solo career, jam band Disco Biscuits, and released the last album by hardcore pioneers Bad Brains.
But he was more than just music too. He was always quick to point out those that helped him along the way and he was fiercely loyal to those who stuck with him. Aside from Ferraro, there was his wife Marsha. In interviews, Jon would heap praise and give thanks for having her in his life. During industry parties in the ‘90s in New York he would hold court in his kimono, and she was constantly by his side.
Marsha passed on 1/10/2021 of cancer, thirteen months before her husband would join her.
Johnny Z was brash and as loud as the bands he championed. But it was his passion that drove him, a passion for a demo tape from some unknown band and for his friends and family. But the world isn’t any quieter now that he’s gone. The bands he touched still perform, the records he released are still played, and his legacy is forever.
AUDIO: Jonny Z on Talk Is Jericho