Penthouse Retrospective

by Jon Wiederhorn Originally Published: May, 2000

Megadeth Reborn | 20 Years Ago This Month

Fightin’ words for sure, but some fans have reacted even more violently. Two days before the Phoenix show, an Indianapolis audience member beaned Mustaine with a full cup of beer during the band’s opening number. The singer toweled off, rinsed his hands, and returned to the stage — only to be pelted by another beer. “Sure, I’m disappointed by some people’s reactions and behavior, but, fuck, there are idiots everywhere,” snaps Mustaine, his penetrating brown eyes fixed on his interviewer like those of a cat on a small bird. “Anyway, I’d have been disappointed even if we would have made it to number one on Billboard and the record didn’t stay there forever. Everything’s relative. It all has to do with your happiness and if you’re okay with yourself, and I am for the first time in years.”

Mustaine may be okay with his new direction, but in the insular metal community, audiences deify, champion, and stick by their favorite bands-as long as they’re credible. The minute a group takes a step perceived as a “sellout,” its fans react as emotionally against it as when they cheered it. “Some people say that what we’re doing now isn’t in our hearts, that we’re not being real and true to ourselves,” says Ellefson. “Maybe people who have been our fans for ten or 15 years see us now and think, ‘Oh, they’re not being who they are.’ Well, guess what? We are not who we were in 1985. The world keeps turning, and if you don’t grow and change and evolve, then you basically become obsolete.”

For Mustaine, who has been a card-carrying member of the heavy-metal community since he helped form the original lineup of Metallica in 1982, being accused of going soft is a harsh blow. A few years ago the musician would have ranted and raved that anyone who thought he’d sold out should meet him in a dark alley, ready for combat (Mustaine holds black belts in tae kwon do and ukidokan). These days, however, Mustaine controls his temper and restrains his massive ego, at least for brief periods of time.

“I think there comes a point in everyone’s life where you have a reckoning with yourself, and I got to that point recently,” he says, referring to Cryptic Writing and Risk. “Am I making music that’s controlled by the past, letting the past control my future? Or am I making music because it makes me feel good? And the answer is the latter. I think people confuse crossing over with selling out. But we want to sell out. We want to sell out venues. We want to sell out record stores. Only a dumb-ass would say that he doesn’t want to sell out. Do you think when the guys from Coca-Cola put the stuff on the shelves, they’re thinking, ‘You know, you gotta have your integrity, so let’s not sell out’?”

Ironically, Mustaine decided to overhaul Megadeth’s sound and to name the new album Risk after reading a 1997 interview with Lars Ulrich, who suggested that Mustaine should take more musical risks. Ulrich, of course, had been the party responsible for firing Mustaine from Metallica in 1983 (more on that later). At first, Mustaine was offended by Ulrich’s comment, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized his ex-bandmate might be right.

“Lars is way more successful with his group than I am with mine,” Mustaine concedes. “So I thought, Okay, you have to look at it like you’re a guy who’s just starting playing in the major leagues. If Cy Young comes up to you and says, ‘Look, here’s how you throw the perfect curve,’ you would be an asshole not to listen. At that point, the respect and recognition of Lars’s talent started to really seep in.”

After a decade-long feud, Megadeth and Metallica are mending fences, and these days they behave like members of a mutual-admiration society. As previously mentioned, Ulrich was responsible for getting “Crush ‘Em” aired on MTV. And Megadeth is now taking DDT — a band Ulrich signed to his new label — on the road. In keeping with his and Mustaine’s new positivity pact, Ulrich has nothing but praise for Risk. “I really, really like the record,” he enthused at an exclusive after-show party for DDT in New York last October. “I think the stuff Dave is doing is really exciting and courageous. I have a lot of respect for him.”

The defining moment of the Mustaine/Metallica reconciliation took place last summer at the annual Big Day Out music festival in London when Mustaine ran into Ulrich and his toddler son, Myles, backstage. Ulrich asked Mustaine to take an Ulrich family photo, and when Mustaine picked up the boy to place him next to his dad, the kid didn’t want to let go of Dave. “That was a good sign,” asserts Mustaine. “Puppies and kids know what’s good and bad inherently, and when Lars saw that his kid wanted to stay with me, it kind of helped make things right between us. Now everything’s great-like a really bad dream that’s finally ended.”

In fact, much of Mustaine’s early life resembles a bad dream. He was born in La Mesa, California, in 1961, son to a housewife and the West Coast division manager of Bank of America. When he was four his parents divorced, and his mom took a job as a house cleaner to support Dave and an older sister (two other sisters had married earlier and moved out ). “We went from being wealthy to having nothing at all,” recalls Mustaine. “We had food stamps, Medicaid, hand-me-down clothes, broken toys. I never celebrated Christmas until I got married.”

“I couldn’t fuck just one girl. I had to have two fucking each other for me to even get excited.”

In addition to struggling with borderline poverty, Mustaine’s mother was trying to keep her whereabouts secret from his father, an alcoholic she feared would become abusive. Every time the father tracked them down, the mother and her two kids would move. By the time he was 15, Mustaine had bounced among homes in California, Arizona, and Idaho, and wound up attending 20 different schools. When his mother was really broke, she would send him to live with one of his married sisters. Then, when Mustaine turned 15, his mom handed him the keys to their tiny Los Angeles apartment and left for good.

“Any insecurity I suffered when I was growing up disappeared at that point because suddenly I was in total control,” Mustaine says. “It was either sink or swim, and I think that’s where a lot of my confidence came from. I had a car, and I had the phone and lights and cable and all the utilities in my name. Sadly, I was selling drugs to pay the bills. And there aren’t really many opportunities for 15-year-olds with no guidance.”

Become famous travelling a certain path, and if you change direction, you'd best hope either fans follow, or you can accomplish a new Megadeth goal.

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