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Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine: My Life in 15 Songs

Singer/guitarist reflects on nearly four decades of thrash-metal masterpieces


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Courtesy of Roadrunner Records

Dave Mustaine. Courtesy of Roadrunner Records

The first song Dave Mustaine remembers writing was “Jump in the Fire,” a foot-stomping rager, which he brought to Metallica in 1982, helping to set the template for thrash metal. “I was writing about myself being young and sitting in my room and feeling dejected – I had my head in my hands and didn’t know what to do,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I felt I had to get with my friends because I was at an age and a time when my mom was always gone and I was by myself and the only time I felt like I belonged was when I was with my friends.” As fate would have it, however, he would never get the chance to record that song or any others with the band, other than on a few demos.

Instead, Mustaine found a new outlet for his sadness and rage in Megadeth, the aggressive thrash group he formed in 1983 after Metallica kicked him out over allegations of drug use, and he went on to write classics that rivaled his earliest songs. The funky “Peace Sells” expressed his dissatisfaction with the American mainstream and resonated for years as MTV News intro music; the grinding metal blues of “Sweating Bullets,” a song seemingly about schizophrenia, showed his sense of humor; the ballad “À Tout le Monde” imagined the sadness of death from the viewpoint of the dead (in French). The band’s 1992 album, Countdown to Extinction, debuted at Number Two – just behind Billy Ray Cyrus – and has been certified double platinum; their most recent album, last year’s Dystopia, debuted at Number Three; and they’ve racked up 12 Grammy nominations over the years. The song “Dystopia” is currently up for Best Metal Performance next month.

Despite the success, Mustaine struggled for much of his career with substance abuse until he shook most of his demons in 2003 after becoming a born-again Christian. He’s also come to terms with his legacy in Metallica. Last year, when Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett speculated that it was “super-cathartic” for Mustaine to play with the band again in 2011 after feeling “really, really sad, really angry, really frustrated” for years, Mustaine tweeted that Hammett’s assessment was “almost 100 percent accurate … almost.” “There wasn’t anything that wasn’t right, I just didn’t want to say he was right,” Mustaine says now. “I was just being playful. I think you have to have a little levity in life.”

Similarly, Mustaine, now age 55, is mostly lighthearted when reflecting on his oeuvre, leaning way back in a chair in Rolling Stone’s boardroom, and rapping his fingers on the table and making eye contact to underscore his points. For this installment of “My Life in 15 Songs” (or “My Deth in 15 Songs,” as the case may be), Mustaine selected tracks that represented various turning points in his career, from locomotive-charging Metallica numbers to Megadeth ruminations on heroin addiction.

Curiously, he omitted nearly 20 years’ worth of songs leading up to Dystopia – including a period when he ended the band for two years in 2002 after he injured a nerve in his arm by sleeping on it wrong. He chalks up the jump in chronology to his happiness with the band’s current lineup. “I didn’t think about it,” he says. “Those are kind of lost years because [bassist and Megadeth founder] David Ellefson wasn’t around. I’ve reprogrammed myself to think that this lineup is all that matters. It’s just so great playing with these guys that I blank out on some of the older stuff.”

When he looks back on his whole career, though, and his meager beginnings as a gas-station attendant, he’s just amazed that he’s gotten as far has. “I started playing music because my sister was really awful playing piano,” he says. “It’s almost laughable, because I never thought I would be able to make money playing music.”

 

“Mechanix”

Metallica’s Power Metal and No Life ‘Til Leather demos (1982) / Megadeth’s Killing Is My Business … and Business Is Good! (1985)

I wrote “Mechanix” long before I was in Metallica. When I got into Metallica, we didn’t have a lot of songs. … We were playing cover songs by Killing Joke, Sweet Savage and a lot of Diamond Head, and we played my originals.

The lyrics are about a horny gas-station attendant because I was a horny gas-station attendant. I was a teenager living down in the Huntington Beach Harbor and girls would come into the gas station, driving these really expensive cars in bikinis. Fuck, are you kidding me? And that’s back when they had full service, so you would wash the windows and they would sit there in their bikinis and you got to check ’em out while they were sitting in their cars. I don’t think that they disliked it one bit. If they didn’t like it, they would’ve covered up. You’re a really testosterone-driven young kid with a job where you’re doing something you love with motors and doing something that you also love with seeing women. So it’s just that’s kind of how the song turned out.

“Mechanix” was a song that we played and one day I came to rehearsal with Cliff Burton and Lars goes, “Oh, fuck, man, we’ve gotta change this one part.” I’d been listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the car with Cliff and I figured, “OK, I’ll play ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ he’ll never know.” And he was like, “Fuck, man, that’s the greatest part ever.” And so I went, “Oh, my God. You’re kidding, right?” So “Mechanix” with “Sweet Home Alabama” in the beginning is what we fondly know now as “The Four Horsemen.”

James rewrote a lot of those lyrics for that particular song and “Jump in the Fire,” he rewrote those lyrics, too. Not quite as much, but he didn’t really like the sexual connotations in that song that much. So he changed it more about jumping into a pit where I said, “jump into the fire,” which I think is a little bit more of an innuendo. It could be anything that’s, you know … A pit is one thing.

The version of “Mechanix” I recorded with Megadeth was a lot faster than “The Four Horsemen,” that’s for sure. It’s nowhere near where we did with those guys, because by then I was already way pissed off.

 

“Ride the Lightning”

Metallica’s Ride the Lightning (1984)

There’s certain riffs that you hear, and you just know who the songwriter is. And I’m not talking about just when I write. So there are certain parts of “Ride the Lightning” and “Leper Messiah” and the first album, all that stuff, you can tell little things that are similar with Megadeth’s guitar playing ’cause you know there’s so much you can do with an instrument. I think they did great with it.

I didn’t write all of the music in “Ride the Lightning.” Lars wrote the melodic intro, and then the next part I wrote and then the next part I wrote and then the next part and then it went back to his part and then it went back to my next three parts and then at that point … who’s keeping score?

I got over them using my songs a long time ago. You can obsess on shit like that or you can let it go, and nothing is gonna change it. You’ve got two great bands. We’re friends. Stuff happened. Fuck, I forgave Ellefson after suing me for 18-and-a-half-million dollars, I can forgive those guys for using my songs. And honestly if it hadn’t have been for that vehicle, what we started – and I mean we with a capital fucking W-E – you know, I think they did great. I’m really proud of them.

By the time we put out Killing in 1985, I had moved on. But I had all this stuff in my mind, in my catalog that I didn’t get a chance to show those guys. We were progressing down a very simplistic road with that band. I can’t remember who said it, but someone very prominent, very smart said, “Metallica is like to the Ramones what Megadeth are to the Clash.” And I thought that’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever heard. I saw another comparison “Metallica is Iron Maiden to Megadeth is Led Zeppelin” and I thought, “Hey that’s really a good way to look at it, too.” Because we are a little bit more twisty and turny.

 

“Last Rites/Loved to Deth”

Killing Is My Business … and Business Is Good! (1985)

“Loved to Deth” was a song about a girl that I met as soon as I got to Hollywood, Diana, who was really nice to me. We kind of dated, but she had a girlfriend who was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life. I would date this one girl so she would bring her friend, who ended up dating [Megadeth bassist] David Ellefson. The funny thing was, at the drive-in movies one night, Ellefson and I had talked in the bathroom and we said, “I wanna switch,” and our two dates had gone to the bathroom and they said, “We wanna switch.” When we got back to the van, I saw Ellefson had his hand on my date’s foot and I was not aware that there’s a plan. So I’m like, “You little fucker.” [Laughs] It was funny. It bothered me at first because we were driving home and I didn’t know they switched. But everything worked out great.

I wrote the song about her because I couldn’t have her and she was just so far outside of my batting average when I first started seeing her. It’s the “boy meets girl, girl doesn’t like boy, so boy kills girl so no one else will have girl” kind of mentality. That’s a little disturbing. It’s a classic love story if you’re a psychopath. But I wasn’t; it was just a fantasy kind of thing. I just never thought I’d end up engaged to her, but if we were together a couple more months we would’ve been legally married in California law. It was really close. She’s a great girl, and she’s a great woman now. She inspired a lot of songs.

 

“The Skull Beneath the Skin”

Killing Is My Business … and Business Is Good! (1985)

Me and Dave [Ellefson] were living in Hollywood, kind of squatting apartments and there was this one grocery store that we used to shoplift from. We would usually buy something – anything – just so that we did some kind of business there and then we’d grab something else. I remember waiting in line one time and there was a book that had something similar to that for the title and it showed a skull with the skin pulled back over half of it and I thought, “Well, that’s a really interesting title.” And then I ran with it because of the idea with our whole moniker and the way that the [mascot] character Vic was developed, with the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil stuff.

Vic came to me like really in the early process of making the whole band. I wanted a mascot because Eddie was the mascot for Iron Maiden, and Motörhead had Snaggletooth. I thought it would just be, like, an image. So I came up with a skull with two crisscrossed human bones made into crucifixes so that it signified fucked-up religion, conflict in religion, but also like the symbol for poison, and then came the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil thing. For me, it was all those metaphors in one image. We had this guy named Peyton Tuttle drew the very first version.

I remember I called up Alice Cooper one time later and I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about getting a tattoo. I want to get this tattoo of my mascot and the Billion Dollar Babies thing. What do you think about that?” And he goes, “No, I would get a tattoo of yourself.” Consequently, no Vic tattoo.

 

“Peace Sells”

Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying? (1986)

I was living in a warehouse at the time I wrote “Peace Sells.” We were homeless, and I wrote the lyrics on a wall. I didn’t even have paper. I had a pen and I wrote ’em on the wall. And I’m sure once we moved out of there somebody probably carved that wall out and took it.

I wrote it because I was tired of people mocking metal in general and mocking people who are metal fans. It was hard for me to watch the way we were stereotyped on TV, just as dumbasses. For the most part, I think that a lot of musicians are very intelligent and very talented. It’s a bummer the way people had been stereotyped.

I knew when I wrote that song that I was onto something because prior to that song, everything was just shred-festing and just playing really fast, aggressive stuff. But as soon as “Peace Sells” came out, it was like, “Wow this is really a song-song,” something that, unbeknownst to myself, would stand the test of time, something that would be my friend forever. Never had I gotten that feeling from our previous songs. I never thought, “Hey, you’re gonna be playing this song every night for the rest of your life.”

MTV News used the bass line for a while, but they did it minus one note so I wouldn’t get paid for it for years. We stopped sending Christmas cards to each other a long time ago, MTV and myself, though Headbangers Ball was great for us.

 

“Anarchy in the U.K.”

So Far, So Good … So What! (1986)

I’d met Steve Jones at this point but I don’t remember how, maybe through David Ellefson. I asked him if he would come and play on the record for us and I don’t know if he was trying to be funny or if he was trying to be rude but when I asked him what he wanted for doing it, he said, “Just give me a hundred bucks and some suction.” And I was like, “Surely you don’t mean me.” So I said “OK, we’re gonna give you a thousand bucks and a yellow pages. You can find it yourself.” And he came in the studio and had a cast on his arm and he had just been broadsided by a lady who broke his arm. And in true Sex Pistol fashion, he came in and played over “Anarchy.” You can tell he’s the guitar that’s out of tune. It’s so rock & roll, man. It’s like, fucking-A, there’s a living, breathing Sex Pistol playing on one of my recordings [laughs]. 

I don’t think I changed the lyrics too much but I couldn’t understand Johnny Rotten’s marble mouth. You know in the end when he says “another council tenancy,” I thought he said “cunt-like tendencies.” I could have swore he did. And I don’t go around telling people they’ve got cunt-like tendencies, so that’s not even a saying that I have. He didn’t like it. When somebody asked him about our version about 15 years ago he said, “He fucked up my lyrics!”

 

“In My Darkest Hour”

So Far, So Good … So What! (1988)

I wrote the music when I heard that Cliff [Burton, Metallica bassist] had died. A friend of mine, “Metal” Maria Ferrero, called me to tell me that he had been in a bus accident. I took it really personal because, I figured, “You fuckers, you know we’re all brothers in a band and he dies and you have someone else call me?” So I took it very, very, very bad. I’ve come to understand now that in grief, people do strange things so I’ve changed my outlook towards her calling me, but at the time I was very upset and I wrote the music in one sitting and then I started chipping away at the lyrics as fast as I could. … It was a very, very painful period writing that music.

The last time I’d spoken to Cliff was probably at an odd show that I had gone to. Those guys were still threatened by me so I would never get a backstage pass; I’d always get an after-show pass, which I think is pretty chicken-shit. So whenever we would go to the concerts, me and Ellefson would see them after and we’d get invited to wherever they were partying. I didn’t wanna go to a party; I wanted to come see my friends and hang out. But I guess we’re not friends; the last time I talked to Cliff was probably at one of those shows that they had done in the States.

The “darkest hour” in the song is me knowing that I was alone. The lyrics are about Diana, my muse [laughs], the same woman I was dating around “Loved to Deth.” I wrote “Tornado of Souls,” “Trust,” “This Was My Life,” “99 Ways to Die” – those were all about her, too. I’m very, very happily in love with my wife, but there’s only been one other person who’s really gone to that depth inside my heart. And I think we all have that where we have a relationship with somebody we really fall in love with but it doesn’t necessarily always last.

That song evokes a lot of feelings. The first time I played it, Cliff’s mom and dad were at our show. I could do it in the studio and in rehearsal, but with them there, I could not get through it. You don’t even know where those feelings come from. It’s like, do I have these feelings? And then all of a sudden you do a song and we can’t control … It’s like, shit, those are real. I didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye. I mean, I didn’t even know where he was buried. So that kind of shows how that all went down. But I’ll see him in heaven. That’s the cool thing. At least I believe that.

 

“Holy Wars … the Punishment Due”

Rust in Peace (1990)

I think religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, and spirituality is for people like me who’ve been there. I don’t really write about religion, but I came close with “Holy Wars,” being inspired by the Cause [meaning Irish Republicanism]. One time when I was in Ireland, I saw people selling T-shirts in front of a venue and asked what it was about, and he said the Cause. And when the guy told me what it meant, he just said, “Oh, it’s just prejudiced religion. One religion thinks it’s better than another religion. The Protestants think they’re better than the Catholics.” And I went, “Well, shit, I don’t know if I’m either one of them, but I’m certainly not any one of those two because I don’t judge other religions.” So at the concert, I introduced a song by saying, “This one’s for the Cause” from the stage and [whistles] wrong thing to say. I learned my lesson quick so I don’t talk about religion anymore [laughs].

I was really mad about what happened over there so I was really beating my guitar to make that riff come out. That’s why it was really fast.

The second part of the song, “The Punishment Due” –  which comes in after the Middle Eastern part – is about Frank Castle from Marvel’s The Punisher. We timed that so that part would be at the end, “the could-be messenger of God.” There’s so many people who act like that. So we tried to make a complete shift and make it really melodic, something really Beatles-esque with that sweeping [guitar] pattern that went back and forth. The chorus was definitely like a Beatles pattern. One of the first music books I ever got was an anthology by the Beatles so I learned so many brilliant chord progressions from those guys. And that’s a song that has a lot of chord progressions that they use moving bass lines underneath a chord. 

 

“Hangar 18”

Rust in Peace (1990)

“Hangar 18” was something I had from the band I was in before Metallica [called Panic], also. It was called “N2RHQ” and it was about an environment that was up on another planet, and as it morphed through going into Metallica and us deciding whether we were gonna do that song, I just waited to revisit it in Megadeth, just like in Panic, I had the song “Rust in Peace … Polaris” completely done; it was called “Child Saint” back at that time. And I’m sure that if I would’ve shown it to the guys, Metallica probably would’ve recorded that one also.

The lyrics about Area 51, that was Nick [Menza, drums]. He believed in alien lifeforms; I didn’t. I believe that there’s a spiritual world and there’s stuff that we see and stuff that can’t be seen, but as far as, like, aliens, I’ve never seen one. So what do I know? There could be. I figured it makes great song material [laughs]. “Hangar 18” was a song that, to me, was another song with a really driving [guitar riff], pedaling on the D string and then the moving chord on everything else with a floating bass line like the Beatles thing on “Holy Wars … the Punishment Due.”

The chords and chord movements are similar to [Metallica’s “Call of Ktulu”], but it’s definitely not the same. You can go on the Internet and look up the four-chord songs and you’ll find 300 or 400 of them. “Call” was completely, 100 percent my song. I wrote every fucking note in that song before they changed it from [demo title] “When Hell Freezes Over.” They added this long drawn-out part in the middle of it and I don’t know where that came from. It was really strange the first time actually hearing it because it took on this really, like, orchestral modulation to it. It was one of those pieces that moved me so much that I think, “Hey, my piece with that piece really made something fantastic.”

 

“Symphony of Destruction”

Countdown to Extinction (1992)

“Symphony” was real simple. It came from a Time Life magazine commercial and the movie The Manchurian Candidate, ’cause I had just watched that. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be that person, to have been programmed in your subconscious and not know it and have a job of that importance and then someone just says a word and [snap] flips the switch on you and the fucking jig is up for everybody. That’s what “Symphony of Destruction” was about. And then, during the chorus: I like to always have some positive stuff in there, so I included the Pied Piper, that old proverb, poem, whatever it was called, the story.

I didn’t go as far into my personal life around this record, but there was a very dark period around Countdown. We’d gone out on tour with Stone Temple Pilots and towards the end of that tour, things got really dark. I can’t remember why, but something prompted me to just start going down into a dark place and we ended up having to stop the tour because there was a riot at the venue in Oregon. They broke the barricade, they rushed the stage, trying to flip the bus over and shit. When you’re a kid, you’re like, “Woohoo, this is great. They broke the barricade, they’re flipping the fucking dressing room over.” But you get a little bit older, it’s not just a couple crazy people, but it’s, like, a lot of really mad people. It was scary stuff.

 

“Sweating Bullets”

Countdown to Extinction (1992)

My wife used to have this crazy friend who had anxiety and they would go to parties all the time. Her friend would freak out and get in the car and drive off and then I’d get a call from my wife and she’d say, “Eh, she left me again,” and I’d have to get in the car and come get her. And you think it’d be the other way around having a rock-star boyfriend, at the time, that he’d be calling you to come and get him. So I wrote “Sweating Bullets” about her friend. She may have figured out that it was about her – my wife may have told her in a heated moment so her friend would hate me – but I’ve never named her. I don’t think my wife knows where the girl’s at now.

And the other thing, too, I was listening to a lot of George Carlin at the time. I think George is a really great comic. I loved his outlook on life. It was a little cynical. He says the kind of stuff that you and I wanna say because our girlfriends or our wives are gonna elbow us or say, like, “You can’t say that.” Comedy has gotten so handcuffed with all this PC stuff right now. It’s like you almost can’t come up with anything funny to say. I mean, imagine somebody watching Blazing Saddles nowadays. They would lose their mind.

 

“She Wolf”

Cryptic Writings (1997)

I wrote “She Wolf” about something that happened to a manager we had at the time who I was really close with. He had just started dating this girl. I knew she was dating him because she had just broken up with her boyfriend, who was one of my friends who worked at MTV. And I had heard from my wife and Ellefson’s wife that they saw her back with her ex while she was dating my friend. We went down to Brazil and she tried to pick up on me down there. 

When I got back to America I told my friend what happened, and she goes, “No, he tried picking up on me.” I was really, really mad. “How could you say that about me? You’re not even attractive.” [Laughs] And I go, “OK, you’re it. I’m gonna lay you out.” So I wrote “She Wolf” about her. 

In the end he had to apologize to me because he found out she was a hooker, or call it what you will, a “high-priced escort.” Anyway, I was right; he was wrong. He had to apologize. He should’ve believed me. I’m his friend. Why would I go stick my neck out in the noose and say your girlfriend tried picking up on me if I didn’t wanna save you from any kind of heartbreak?

 

“A Secret Place”

Cryptic Writings (1997)

“A Secret Place” is one of the last songs we wrote on Cryptic Writings and we were out at this place that used to be Al Capone’s getaway. It was a hand-cut stone castle, and he would take people out there to go gambling and he’d shoot a plug in them and bury ’em in the backyard. One day this dog comes running up and it had what looked like a human leg bone, because there were a lot of unmarked graves behind the studio. I never knew for sure. 

At the time I was having trouble writing lyrics and I had one more song left to go. When I saw this dog, I just went, “Whoa, man. This is a really secret place.” And I was in there singing and I hear this footprint go across the roof [imitates sound] and there’s nobody else in the building except for me and the guy on the other side of the glass in the control room. We didn’t know if it was the wind creaking or if it was some ghost up there ’cause the place is supposed to be haunted. It’s pretty cool.

We did a lot of strumming on this record, and a lot of pop stuff. We had management at the time that was trying to get us to write songs that were more geared toward being popular – something that could get on radio or MTV – instead of being songs we like. But this was a radio hit, like “Trust,” and that was great.

 

“Use the Man”

Cryptic Writings (1997)

When I was working on the record, I went to a 12-step meeting in a place right next to the studio. The guy who runs it told me he had something to show me, and he had this box and goes, “Check this out.” And I’m looking through it and he goes, “That’s Bob,” for lack of a better name. Then he told me that earlier in the day, a guy had gone to a meeting and then shot up and died at the halfway house and that this box was all his stuff. So he’s having me casually look through this stuff and told me it was a dead guy’s. I was like, “Fucker.” 

He was trying to get a message across to me and it worked – I’m still alive. I wrote the lyrics to “Use the Man” immediately. “I heard somebody fixed today/There was no last goodbyes to say.” There’s a proverb in China or Japan that goes, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” I thought, “The same thing could be said about the needle.” First the man uses the needle, then the needle uses the needle, then the needle uses the man. And that’s where the title came from.

These guys come out of prison, go to a halfway house, their systems have cleaned out, but they think they can use half as much and get twice as high. They don’t realize that their systems have cleaned out, and they O.D. So that’s what “Use the Man” was about. It’s a very, very sad song about people overdosing on drugs, and it was also inspired by Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done.”

I can’t say when I got off of street drugs; I don’t look at it like that. But I changed my life when I got saved back in, I think, 2003. God sent me to AA and AA sent me back to God and that’s kind of where I’m at right now with everything. So that’s when I put scoring heroin and doing cocaine in the past. I can still have a glass of wine. I have a beer company now, so it’s kind of hard to say you’re sober when you have a beer company. It’s not my place to tell you what to drink, or anything like that, but everything in moderation – except for metal.

 

“Dystopia”

Dystopia (2016)

“Dystopia” is nominated for a Grammy, which I’m super excited about. People have said, “You have a very narrow vision of the world. Is everything dystopic to you?” It’s like, “No, of course not.” But fuck, I watched 12 Monkeys. I watched 1984. I know what could very possibly happen. I’ve played in the Communist side of the world over in Poland. I saw what did happen. I saw the movie on Chernobyl; we were in fucking Russia right where some of those old decrepit nuclear plants are. That’s very dystopic-looking. You don’t have to have everybody melted to the ground in a neighborhood for it to have credibility as far as looking like something very bad happened there. You go into Detroit, you look at some of the cities there, it’s very dystopic.

The song is about loving my fellow man and wanting them – for us – to pull together and to really just try and not be so, just, angsty for one another. People are so quick to jump on somebody if they say something wrong or if they’re wearing the wrong thing. We’ve got the fucking typo police on the net. My family was at the venue [where we played] last night and some girls that were sitting next to them were making all kinds of terrible comments about them because they looked attractive. It’s like, why do we not love each other enough where we have to have jealousy for other people? What’s wrong with that picture? Why has that person not found someone that would make them feel OK that they would have to say shitty stuff about an 18-year-old girl. What the fuck’s wrong with you?

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