If Dave Mustaine is a dreamer, he’s a peculiar one. Often, his dreams may seem like nightmares to everyone else. A heavy drinker and drug user, he has survived as an icon, followed by millions on the heavy metal scene; and despite 17 trips to rehab, he has avoided derailing his career over nearly 40 years of hard living, on the road and off.
Mustaine’s career began in earnest when he joined Metallica as a founding member in 1981. After responding to a newspaper ad placed in the Recycler, a local paper, by the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich, he was given the job without even having to officially audition. Mustaine remembers his initial meeting with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich this way: "I was in the room warming up and I walked out and asked, 'Well, am I gonna audition or what?' and they said, 'No, you've got the gig.' I couldn't believe how easy it had been and suggested that we get some beer to celebrate."
But he eventually fell out of favor with his bandmates. The problem between Mustaine and the rest of the guys in Metallica had been apparent for months. One day, while Mustaine was rehearsing with the band, he took one his two dogs along to the session with unfortunate results: The dog pawed bassist Ron McGovney's car, leaving scratches on the front panel. Hetfield then kicked Mustaine's dog. McGovney says that James yelled, "Get your friggin' dog off Ron's car!" A heated argument ensued and "Dave became unglued and said, "Don't you say this kind of crap about my dogs." Mustaine and James are nose-to-nose, and Mustaine said, "Shut up or I'm going to hit you." McGovney told him that if he was going to hit James, he would have to hit him first. James added, "If you hit him, you're going to have to hit me first. Mustaine said, "You win, James and I belted him in the mouth. He knocked him across the room. According to McGovney, Hetfield hadn't been expecting it. The bass player then jumped Dave and McGovney said, "He threw me against the wall like a big Judo throw." Mustaine was told to "Get out of here. You're out of the band." Mustaine said, "All right, F.U." He then packed up his stuff and left. He came back the next day and asked the band if he could come back and his plea was accepted.
At a later time at McGovney's house when he wasn't there, a drunken Mustaine emptied a full can of beer into the pick-ups on Ron McGovney's bass. When McGovney came home and attempted to play it, he felt a powerful electric shock and later recalled he was "blown across the room" by its force. McGovney extremely angry told Mustaine and Hetfield "I can't take this anymore, get out of my house. Within weeks McGovney was out of the band.
In April 1983, after Metallica had driven in a van to New York City to record their first album, Mustaine was officially fired from the band.” His battles with Hetfield and Ulrich were making him a liability. Mustaine complains that when he was unceremoniously dumped from the band, he was given "no warning, no second chance." The band grabbed Mustaine's belongings and drove him to Rochester, NY and put him a bus headed to Los Angeles.
While on the bus, Mustaine found a pamphlet written by California Senator Alan Cranston that referenced a term that caught his attention. It used the word “megadeath.” He began writing a song with the spelling slightly changed to Megadeth. When he later formed his new band, he took the suggestion of “Lor Kane” (real name Lawrence Renna) who was briefly part of Fallen Angels that they should change their name to Megadeth because he knew that Mustaine had written a song of the same name.
When he returned to LA, Mustaine worked as a telemarketer briefly, quit the job when he had saved enough money to rent an apartment in Hollywood. He recruited musicians for his new band, which he described in his book this way: "We lacked the chemistry, the energy, the spark, or whatever you want to call it, that gives a band life in its infancy." Fallen Angels fell apart quickly.
It was during the transition from Fallen Angels to Megadeth that Mustaine met Dave Ellefson, who became his good friend and long-time bandmate. Their first meeting was something one might imagine having seen in a Hollywood movie. Ellefson was practicing the opening bass line of a Van Halen song, “Runnin’ with the Devil” with a friend in the apartment below and the noise annoyed Mustaine who stomped the floor and shouted at them to stop. Hung over, he threw a potted plant out of his window. It smashed into an air conditioner below and resulted in the two coming upstairs to try to bum some cigarettes. Mustaine responded, "There's a store on the corner" and slammed the door in their faces. A few minutes later, they knocked again, this time asking Mustaine if he could buy them some beer. Mustaine's replied, “Ok, now you’re talking.” The three of them spent the night talking music, and soon after they were bandmates.
Mustaine spent the next four decades seeking his revenge. Forming Megadeth was the first step. Mustaine’s band eventually challenged Metallica's reputation as the most successful heavy metal band in the world. Megadeth was ultimately recognized as one of the “big four” of thrash metal, along with Anthrax, Slayer, and Metallica. Metallica was considered by most music critics to be the best of the four, but Megadeth easily ranked second with the other bands lagging behind.
During his brief time in Metallica, Mustaine had played lead guitar with the band, co-wrote four songs that were included on Kill ‘Em All, the band’s debut album (which was recorded after Mustaine was abruptly fired, and co-wrote two songs that appeared on Metallica’s Ride the Lightning recording. He also claims that he wrote parts of "Leper Messiah" that were recorded on Metallica’s Master of Puppets. He also recorded with the band for its No Life ‘Til Leather demo, which played a large role in their discovery by what was to become their growing fan base. Songs he co-wrote with Hetfield and Ulrich were later re-recorded by Metallica. Mustaine was very unhappy about this and this fueled his anger. Mustaine spent the next four decades seeking his revenge on Metallica.
Over the years, Mustaine was Megadeth. Other musicians came and went but he was the band’s one constant presence, except perhaps for Dave Ellefson who left the band for a time and later re-joined. But Mustaine was always Megadeth's go-to spokesman. Mustaine’s autobiography, A Heavy Metal Memoir, further solidified his position as a heavy metal icon.
Mustaine had been a bad fit even for a hard-partying heavy metal band like Metallica. Megadeth Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records put it this way in an interview: "Dave was an incredibly talented guy but he also had an incredibly large problem with alcohol and drugs. He'd get wasted and become a real crazy person, a raging megalomaniac, and the other guys just couldn't deal with that after a while. I mean, they all drank of course, but Dave drank more, much more. I could see they were beginning to get fed up with seeing Dave drunk out of his mind all the time." Kerry King, the lead guitarist of Slayer, said: “I don’t know how anybody can be in Megadeth for more than a couple of hours, cause that guy’s crazy.”
Kerry King joined the band briefly but left Megadeth after less than a week so he could continue working on his own band, Slayer. Jazz-influenced drummer Gar Samuelson replaced a drummer that Mustaine convinced to play with a broken foot. Megadeth put out a demo as a three-piece band that guitarist Chris Poland, also a jazz player and a friend of Samuelson, who joined the band. In November, the band signed with Combat Records and started to tour.
In May 1985, after Megadeth released Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! their first album on Combat Records, the band toured the U.S. and Canada with Exciter. Mike Albert replaced Chris Poland, who was incarcerated for possession of heroin. After Poland was released, he rejoined the band and they began recording their second studio album. On New Year's Eve, Megadeth played in San Francisco as an opening act for Metallica. It was the only time Megadeth and Metallica were on the same bill until 1991.
The following year, major label Capitol Records signed Megadeth and released Peace Sells... but Who's Buying? The album is now considered a milestone in the history of heavy metal. The title track’s opening bass lick was used to lead into MTV News segments. Following further drug problems for both Poland and Samuelson, and being suspected of stealing the band's equipment and pawning it, Mustaine fired both Poland and Samuelson. With a new drummer and guitarist (by now a continuing pattern for Megadeth), the band released their third album, So Far, So Good... So What! in 1988.
In 1989, and the band recorded as a three-piece for the first time, covering Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" for the horror film, Shocker. Penelope Spheeris would later say, on a Behind the Music episode featuring Megadeth, that Mustaine “showed up to the video shoot so fried on heroin and other drugs that he could not sing and play guitar at the same time.”
His singing and playing had to be recorded separately. Mustaine was arrested for "impaired driving" in March and was found to have seven or more drugs in his system at the time. He was required by the court to enter a rehabilitation program. This was the first of his 17 visits to rehab.
In February 1990, guitarist Marty Friedman, in recent years a huge star in Japan and the known as the face of heavy metal there, despite having left Megadeth because he was interested in pursuing a more versatile sound, left the band. The tour began one month ahead of the band’s release of Rust in Peace, which continued their growing commercial success. Mustaine married and his wife, Pamela, gave birth to their son Justis on February 11, 1992. He hoped this would provide some balance to his life and help him reign in his hard-to-control impulses.
The band was included on another soundtrack album, Super Mario Bros performing the song “Breakpoint," which was also featured on Megadeth's most commercially successful record to date, Countdown to Extinction, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and included some of the band's best-selling song ever, among them "Symphony of Destruction", "Sweating Bullets" and "Skin o' My Teeth". The original version of their "Symphony of Destruction" video was edited to eliminate the depiction of the assassination of a political figure. "Skin o' My Teeth" was only aired on MTV with a disclaimer from Mustaine maintaining that the song was not an endorsement of suicide.
MTV News asked Mustaine to provide commentary at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. It was a busy time for the group. Thanks to Mustaine’s drive, energy, and notoriety, Megadeth was becoming increasingly well-known around the world and they found themselves in great demand. "Angry Again" was heard on the soundtrack of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie Last Action Hero, while the Megadeth song "99 Ways to Die" was featured on The Beavis and Butt-head Experience compilation album. In 1994, Youthanasia was certified gold more quickly than any record in Canadian history and sold two million records worldwide. It was an album that showed the band’s more melodic side with songs like “Tout le Monde. "The album also included "Train of Consequences," which became one of the band’s most well-known music videos. Marty Friedman would have been proud. In 1997, Cryptic Writings included thrash songs like "Vortex" and "FFF" marking a return to form reminiscent of Megadeth's earliest material, alongside more commercial fare like "Trust", which took Megadeth to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart.
In 1994, Youthanasia was certified gold more quickly than any record in Canadian history and sold two million records worldwide. It was an album that showed the band’s more melodic side with songs like “Tout le Monde. "The album also included "Train of Consequences", which became one of the band’s most well-known music videos. Marty Friedman would have been proud. In 1997, Cryptic Writings included thrash songs like "Vortex" and "FFF" marking a return to form reminiscent of Megadeth's earliest material, alongside more commercial fare like "Trust", which took Megadeth to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart.
While on tour in support of the new album, Mustaine told the press that he had rediscovered his roots in classic thrash by bands like Motörhead, Iron Maiden and other early heavy metal favorites. But after hearing that Lars Ulrich had said that he wished Mustaine would take more "risks,” his intentions changed. The “suits” now had more influence over Megadeth’s stylistic choices and wanted them to go further in the pop direction. Lately, Mustaine has blamed much of this period on Friedman's wanting to record more songs with a "pop" feel to them. Recorded in Nashville in 1999, their Risk album did exactly that. Marty Friedman left the band at the end of the year.
The Megadeth renaissance continued until January 2002, when Mustaine entered the hospital to have a kidney stone removed. While undergoing treatment, he was given pain medication that triggered a drug relapse. Upon his release from the hospital, he promptly checked himself into a Texas rehabilitation facility. It was time to detox again. He suffered severe nerve damage to his left arm while in rehab when he fell asleep with his left arm over the back of a chair. He was left unable to make a fist with his left hand and was diagnosed with radial neuropathy.
On April 3, 2002, Mustaine announced that he was disbanding Megadeth. He attributed to his arm injury. For the next four months, he endured intense physical therapy. He slowly began to play guitar again but had to re-train his damaged left hand. He said he had retired because “it hurt so bad.” Problems with his band also made him want to get away from all of them for a while. “Ellefson was all about 'play my songs, play my songs.' I hated being around these guys so when the arm injury happened, it was a welcome relief and an indication that I had to stop."
Around this time, Mustaine's personal life began to change radically as he tired of life as a heavy metal icon. He surprised many of his fans by becoming a born-again Christian. He announced he intended to withdraw from a show in Greece because the bands Rotting Christ and Dissection were scheduled to open for Megadeth.
Mustaine told the Daily Times that becoming a Christian helped him put his dissolute life back together. "I went back to being a Jehovah's Witness [the faith he was raised in as a child by his Jewish-born mother] but I wasn't happy with that." He later said in another interview, "Looking up at the cross, I said six simple words, 'What have I got to lose?' Afterward, my whole life has changed. It's been hard, but I wouldn't change it for anything. Rather go my whole life believing that there is a God and find out there isn't than live my whole life thinking there isn't a God and then find out, when I die, that there is." Mustaine also considers his talent a gift from God. "To be the No. 1 rated guitar player in the world is a gift from God and I'm stoked about it, but I think Christ is better than I am, anyway," he said. "Either way, I don't put too much earthly merit on it." Whether he knew it or not, Megadave was paraphrasing what is known as Pascal’s Wager, formulated by philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century.
For the 2005 Gigantour, Mustaine brought a "spiritual counselor" with him in the hope that he could help him avoid the problems that had almost killed him during his previous struggles with drinking and drug addiction. Greg Puciato, The Dillinger Escape Plan frontman was quoted as saying, "He had a pastor walking around with him on tour and riding on his bus, I think to help keep him on the straight and narrow path."
When his old friend Dave Ellefson rejoined Megadeth, he and Mustaine put their past problems behind them and restored their friendship. Ellefson has since gone on record to say, "Having that time away created a realization for both of us that while we are both productive individually, Megadeth is definitely stronger with both of us in it together."
Ellefson, who had been led from innocence to experience by Mustaine after they met in the Los Angeles apartment complex where they had both lived, studied to become a preacher and returned to his devout Christian roots. His parents, who had raised him in the faith, were overjoyed at the news. Ellefson’s return to religion was likely among the reasons for Mustaine’s conversion.
If anyone thought that his conversion to born-again Christianity in early “oughts” was a clumsy attempt at covering his many sins, it wasn't always very convincing... unless you assume that it was sincere and would result in a real change in his behavior and personality. He may have drunk less and taken fewer drugs than the old Mustaine but he was now prey to highly controversial conspiracy theories, including claiming President Obama had staged the Aurora, Colorado Batman movie shooting to promote gun control. Ellefson, who pleased his parents by stepping away from the abyss to re-embrace Christianity, evidently gave Mustaine his blessing and they eventually renewed their friendship. Mustaine and Megadeth have seemingly done what they needed to do to survive."