Bringer of attitude – an essential component of any true Classic Heavy Metal band? Or major league asshole? It’s a fine line, and one trodden relentlessly by Megadeth frontman / guitarist Dave Mustaine. But what made him the character he was? Here is a guy who would on one hand become widely regarded as one of the most influential metallers of all time; whilst at the same time following a perverse instinct for self-destruction. Let’s have a little wander down some of Mustaine’s life story, and see if we can make some sense of Mustaine the Man.
An Angry Kid…
Mustaine was probably always destined to be full of anger – his life has been visited by traumas time after time. The product of a broken home in California with 2 alcoholic parents, his father would often beat him in fits of drunken rage before walking out on the family for good when Dave was only 4. Terrified of him returning, Dave’s mother moved the family around regularly (usually in the dead of night), putting the kibosh on any hopes of normal friendships or a stable education. When Mustaine was 7, she converted the family to become Jehovah’s Witnesses, robbing the poor kid of Christmas on top of everything else.
He did have music as a constant comforting thread running through his early years – though it was a fairly bland diet of 60s and 70s pop to begin with – The Righteous Brothers, if you can believe that, alongside the Beatles and Cat Stevens. Jamming on guitar with a few like-minded kids in a band at school, his first song was David Bowie’s ‘Panic in Detroit’. Unlike some though, Mustaine did not follow the Bowie influences into the Glam world, in spite of the burgeoning Glam scene in nearby LA. He soon discovered some metal influences – KISS was an early favourite – and his ambition to be a rock star was locked in.
The ‘Mustaine Attitude’ was starting to form by now, though it didn’t yet manifesting itself as full-on rage the whole time. In fact, his introduction to weed even as a teenager took a lot of that edge off. As Mustaine himself noted, most weed smokers don’t go out looking for trouble – they just take care to ensure there are enough snacks at home. But, anyway, his godless lifestyle of music, pot and skipping school did not earn the approval of his mother, who moved out, leaving him alone to fend for himself.
The only constant adult figure in his life was now gone, but Mustaine was not too traumatized by this development. He had music, a girlfriend, and could make a bit of cash selling pot himself. Total freedom. But still no escape from the dark hand of fate.
Mustaine formed his first proper band, ‘Panic’, with a diet of Judas Priest covers in the rehearsal room (garage), and a side-line earner of pot dealing. But then, Panic’s drummer was killed in a car accident after their first gig – and we can only imagine the effect on the still-only-17 years old Mustaine. The aftermath was anyway more than the young band could deal with, and after a few more gigs, they drifted apart.
At about the same time, Mustaine tracked down his father and arranged a meeting – possibly a path to reconciliation with the past. But before that meeting could happen, his father died suddenly from an aneurism. Turning up drunk at the hospital to hear the news, Mustaine was well on the road to his own addiction – as was now accurately predicted by his sister. His rage deepened.
A Family At Last
Music continued to offer an outlet though. He answered an advert for a guitarist in a local paper placed by some upstart outfit named Metallica.
Famously, he was hired by Metallica for his attitude as much as his guitar prowess. In fact, his guitar prowess didn’t come into it at much at all, since the band offered him the gig before they’d even heard him play anything – his ‘Screw You All’ approach to life was enough to swing it. (That and his impressive collection of guitars and amps – possibly funded by dope dealing profits.) Mustaine’s attitude lent him the charisma on stage that the others in Metallica lacked in those early years – he was fearless on stage, and was the only one who would address the crowd between songs. And as a bonus, he was handy to have on your side in a fight – he’d never take a backward step. All this is well covered territory in Metallica books – The Hawk recommends ‘Enter Night – Metallica – The Biography’ by sometime Kerrang magazine journalist Mick Wall.
Mustaine also had plenty to contribute as a writer (more than he was eventually credited for according to him) but he is on record as the main force behind early classics like ‘Jump in the Fire’.
But as is well documented, that same attitude that got him hired proved to be more than even Metallica could put up with. After endless rows covering anything from what style of footwear to wear on stage to the musical direction of the band itself, mostly accompanied by booze, drugs and wild behaviour they’d had enough. As many bands have discovered, it’s not a democracy, and with one big personality too many, things had hit the wall. They dumped him at a New York bus station, fired, and with only a one-way bus ticket back home as a parting gift.
Mustaine pretended to be cool with the band’s decision to dump him (‘I wasn’t upset at all, I wanted to start a solo project anyway…’), but in reality, ‘devastated’ didn’t even begin to cover it. Fortunately for Classic Heavy Metal fans, the firing proved to be a blessing in disguise. Mustaine’s eventual response – Megadeth – was basically a musical revenge mission on Metallica. He was determined to out-pace, out-sell, out-shock, basically just OUT-METAL Metallica. And the first steps of that mission were plotted on that agonized 4-day bus ride from New York back to the West Coast.
But this all-consuming rage could only act as a sticking plaster to cover up this latest trauma. Mustaine had seen Metallica as more than just a band – they had been his first real a family, maybe a substitute for the family he’d never had as a kid. It may have been somewhat of a frat house atmosphere, but they were brothers. So, the sense of betrayal ran deep, and was only compounded when Metallica soon released their first album, ‘Kill Em All,’ on which Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield including Mustaine-penned songs he claimed to have asked them to leave out.
Megadeth are Born
Plotting revenge, the first piece of the puzzle fell into place immediately. Coming across a leaflet about the likely impacts of a nuclear holocaust, an ever-present threat in the mid-1980s, the writer had talked about the number of mega-deaths that could be expected in the event. The band instantly had a name and a mission. All it was lacking was members and songs.
By happy coincidence, once back in LA, Mustaine moved into an apartment above a bass player who’d turned up all the way from Missouri seeking rock stardom. After a brief set-to about the volume of Dave Ellefson’s bass amplifier, the two bonded over beer and pot, and Megadeth now had another member. Mustaine was in no rush – he auditioned various other musicians. Even Kerry King, famously of Slayer, tried out with them at a couple of gigs. Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson eventually joined on guitar and drums respectively. But Mustaine couldn’t find a singer to match his own intensity level – after a fruitless search, he modestly decided to do that job himself.
Self-destruction was an ever present from the outset of Megadeth. The first ‘stable’ line-up featured 4 members, Mustaine, Ellefson, Poland and Samuelson who all had a penchant for hard drugs – pretty much anything would do. Samuelson and Poland introduced the others to heroin, and it was an easy sell. A good chunk of the advance the band received for their first album (‘Killing is my Business … and Businesses is Good’) went on drugs. They were already out of control.
As always, music provided Mustaine’s only constructive outlet. The mascot, Vic Rattlehead was born – a skull with eyes and ears covered, mouth clamped. Mustaine’s design evoked all his pent-up feelings of repression. The lyrics on the early songs were aggressive and violent covering war, politics.
The band and its crew were plagued by constant in-fighting in those early years. Success was coming, but lagged Metallica’s, a constant source of burn for Mustaine. Substance abuse continued. Whilst opening for rock legend Alice Cooper on one tour, Cooper summoned the band and warned them to change – that they would burn out or die if they carried on as they were. But the warning fell on deaf ears, and live Megadeth performances often suffered with the band going on stage wrecked. The train was rushing headlong towards the buffers.
Death and Destruction
Tragedy continued to follow Mustaine around like a bad smell. He was badly affected by the death on tour of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton – they were still family after all, even after years being estranged. Then there were fan deaths, trampled underfoot at what should have been a triumphant gig at the Monsters of Rock festival at Donnington, UK. It was all too much for Dave Ellefson, who quit the tour to enter rehab. Mustaine shortly followed – the first of at least 15 rehabs attempts in total. But where Ellefson succeeded in getting clean, Mustaine failed, alienating him from his band yet again.
Against the odds, great music was still being churned out, to ever higher standards, and with better and better success on each release. There was the all-time trash classic of ‘Rust in Peace‘, then the smash of ‘Countdown to Extinction’. Debuting at #2 in the US album charts, it propelled the band to new heights, with songs like ‘Symphony of Destruction’ receiving radio and MTY play. But the Metallica curse struck again, when Megadeth’s massive success was outdone by Metallica’s ‘Black’ album, which went in at #1. At the pinnacle of his career, Mustaine could only see the comparison with Metallica and considered himself a failure. Addictions came roaring back, and he went downhill fast. Following a disastrous, drug impaired gig in Oregon, he was admitted to the emergency room where his heart stopped.
He was resuscitated by the doctors and went into rehab yet again. Did Mustaine’s literal brush with death represent rock bottom, and a relentless determination to finally get clean? Well, not quite. A series of shows with Megadeth and Metallica on the same bill for the first time ever was cathartic up to a point, but still painful for Mustaine as he had to confront face to face what might have been.
He declined once again into heroin use before a final rehab visit appeared to be successful. He was able to rebuild a relationship with Ellefson and stay clean – even after the death of original drummer Gar Samuelson from liver disease, aged only 41. Yet another personal tragedy to add to a growing list for Mustaine.
It wasn’t Mustaine’s only glimpse of his own mortality, either – he battled with throat cancer quite recently, but is now thankfully clear. And that at least couldn’t be blamed on any self-destructive tendencies. After quitting the chemicals, he did, outwardly at least, seem able to manage his demons.
So there you have it. Classic Metal Hawk’s attempt to look into the soul of metal legend Dave Mustaine. To get some picture of what’s made him tick for all these years. To get past the simplistic ‘asshole’ picture. And really, what a story he is. A man of commitment and uncompromising intensity, but cursed by tragedy and addiction throughout most of his life. And still a man who devoted his life to achieving what he did and still does with Megadeth.
In his book, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***’, (highly recommended by the way), psychologist Mark Manson describes Mustaine as a guy who let his life be defined by poor choices – his revenge mission against Metallica meant that his own perceived success would be dependent on factors entirely out of his control – namely, how successful Metallica would go on to be without him.
His propensity to addiction was a family trait inherited from both parents, and the constant grim hand of tragedy on his shoulder made that even harder to battle. It seems to The Hawk that when people are as driven as Mustaine, that can manifest itself as good and bad. The revenge mission drove him, made him the uncompromising force behind Megadeth and at the same time nearly killed him such was the pain at that mission’s perceived failure. Mustaine appears to have found some peace later in life – but has been to hell and back to get it. Classic Metal Hawk wishes him well – he helped define an entire genre within Classic Heavy Metal. It’s just that it came with a heavy price.
With that, we need a play out song. The Hawk has already blogged about the ‘Rust in Peace’ album, with plenty of video tracks, so we need something different. Since we mentioned Alice Cooper, there’s always been a soft spot on here for Megadeth’s cover of his ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ single. That was recorded not long after the infamous Monsters of Rock show mentioned above. It was an uphill battle all the way to make the video, with the director Penelope Spheeris recalling how, during the shoot, Mustaine couldn’t sing and play guitar at the same time because he was so wasted. It ended up as mime central, but it’s still a great song. Listen and enjoy.
The Hawk has quite a bit of sympathy for Dave Mustaine, who has clearly been a tortured soul in many ways, in spite of his talent and success. That self-destruct button has never been far away. Do fellow fans share that view? Or should he have done more to address all those inner demons?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.