With no vocational skills besides drug dealing, Mustaine spent an ever-increasing amount of time practicing guitar and writing songs. He joined several metal bands that didn’t go anywhere before responding to a MUSICIANS WANTED ad Ulrich had placed in a local L.A. paper, the Recycler. Through the same ad, the two musicians met guitarist and vocalist James Hetfield, and Metallica was born. The group quickly became renowned for its hard-core tempos and precise metal attack, and in 1982 recorded the now legendary demo “No Life ‘Til Leather.” But in April 1983, shortly after Metallica signed a deal with Megaforce Records and moved to Queens, New York, to record its debut album, Ulrich ousted Mustaine, who was prone to aggressive outbursts and unpredictable behavior. “In a nutshell, I was a violent drunk, and I was more drunk than sober,” Mustaine admits. “I jeopardized their safety, and looking back, I would have asked me to leave too. When you’re around a lot of people [who] like to drink and get silly, they want to drink and have fun. I would drink and have fun until someone would refute something I had said. And then that was war, baby.”
The ejection hit Mustaine like a tire iron to the groin, and he didn’t even have time to recover. Metallica had purchased the penniless exile a bus ticket from New York back to California, and the three-day coach ride was scheduled to leave mere hours after his dismissal. It took many months for Mustaine to get his wind back, but in mid-1983, around the same time that Metallica released its seminal first album, Kill ‘Em All, Mustaine met Ellefson, who lived downstairs from Mwstaine’s shabby Los Angeles apartment, and formed Megadeth. The band’s original lineup featured Mustaine, Ellefson, Slayer guitarist Kerry King, and drummer Lee Rash. King and Rash soon were replaced by Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson. It was the first of many future dismissals. In 1986, Poland and Samuelson were fired and replaced by Jeff Young and Chuck Behler. Then, in 1989, heads rolled again when Mustaine axed Young and Behler, and hired drummer Nick Menza and Marty Friedman. Menza remained with the band until 1998, when he was canned, and Jimmy DeGrasso took the drum seat.
(As this story was being prepared, the Megadeth revolving door rotated again, with Marty Friedman unexpectedly leaving the band mid-tour, citing creative differences with Mustaine. Ex-Alice Cooper and Savatage guitarist Al Pitrelli was tapped to fill in for the remainder of the tour dates, but Megadeth management says he will probably not become a full-time member.)
Because of Mustaine’s pedigree, Megadeth didn’t have to pound the pavement long before signing a record deal in 1984 with indie label Combat. A year later it released the well-received Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good. However, business was bad. The record company wasn’t quick to fork over royalty payments, and to date denies Killing even went gold. Unable to afford to pay rent, the Megadeth guys took turns living in Ellefson’s old Ford van when they couldn’t find some ditzy chick to take them in. Even then, the accommodations were far from sublime. “Dave [Ellefson] was living with the girl singer from this band one time,” says Mustaine. “I remember him telling me how she made him sleep on the floor while she had sex with another girl.”
In early 1986 Megadeth started working on its second album, Peace Sells… but Whos Buying? Mustaine, Ellefson, and then-members Poland and Samuelson moved into a small Los Angeles practice studio without windows or a bathroom. The only time the musicians could shower was when their manager took them to a local gym. “We’d go there high on whatever we could find, in order to not feel the pain and misery of starving to death or actually acknowledge the lifestyle that we were living,” recalls Mustaine.
In November 1986 the band released Peace Sells… and suddenly found plenty of buyers. The video for the title. track became a staple on MTV ‘s “Headbangers’ Ball,” and the album quickly went gold, eventually scoring Megadeth’s first platinum record. But the fellows were blowing all their money on drugs, and before long Mustaine and Ellefson were out of control. “I can remember copping bags of heroin, and having to swallow them because the cops came along,” says Ellefson. “I’d get interrogated and get away with it. And then I’d stop off at a Mobil station and puke my guts out, and weed through my barf to get the balloons of heroin out. Then I’d immediately pop them open and get high, and celebrate the victory of not getting busted. There are a million stories like that-it was almost an everyday occurrence.”
Ellefson managed to kick drugs for good in 1991. Mustaine needed a bit more convincing. He first tried to curb his vices in 1988 by delving into Asian and Middle Eastern philosophies and the Bible. But in 1989 he was arrested for driving under the influence and was ordered to enter a 12-step program. The treatment seemed to work, and Mustaine stayed clean for two years. In March 1991 he married his girlfriend of six months, Pam, a swimsuit model who also worked at the Arbitron ratings company. A year later she gave birth to their son, Justis. (Today the Mustaines also have a daughter, Electra, two.)
On the surface, all seemed blissful. But while touring in Eugene, Oregon, in February 1993, Mustaine not only relapsed, he overdosed. “My wife didn’t like the smell of alcohol on me, but I was too clever to be defeated by something as simple as the smell of alcohol, so I started taking Valium instead,” he says. “I took too many, and my heart stopped. The hospital actually called my wife to say I had died —‘so don’t bother coming.’”
“Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, and spirituality is for people like me who’ve been there.”
That brush with death had a profound effect on Mustaine. Although he didn’t sober up for another two years, he did start reevaluating his life, and decided he was setting a bad example for his fans and family. He began calling to a higher power to help guide him through his troubles. “Some force intervened,” says Mustaine, “and said, ‘We’re not ready to see you yet’ — and that’s when I went, ‘Okay, whatever you want me to do, I’m gonna do it.’ Whatever this force is, it has given me an opportunity to help other people who are going through what I’ve been through.”