Not Playing By The Rules

By Paul Rigg

Dave Mustaine’s Megadeth have sold over 38 million records, had 12 Grammy nominations and are one of the "big four" American thrash metal bands, along with Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax. Mustaine’s colourful life has included co-founding Metallica, full-blooded commitment to both Satanism and Christianty, and developing medical-grade neck and back problems, which he says has been caused by “too many years of headbanging”. But one of the wildest ‘origin stories’ in rock relates to his well-known love of partying and excessive drinking.   

That story starts with Mustaine being ejected from super-group Metallica (of which more will be said below), and finding himself on his uppers having failed in his attempt to start another band. In April 1983, having scrabbled together enough money to leave his mother’s house and rent a flat in Hollywood, he became increasingly agitated with the noise his downstairs neighbour was making by playing Van Halen’s Runnin’ With The Devil too loud. Like many angry neighbours he banged on the floor and shouted at him to stop but when the racket continued Mustaine grabbed one of his potted plants and hurled it towards the air conditioning unit of the flat below. Two neighbours subsequently appeared at his door and, after an altercation in which Mustaine slammed the door in their faces, they returned and asked if they could buy him a beer, as… the neighbour had access to his father’s credit card. “Okay, now you are talking” replied Mustaine, and the three of them settled down to a night of drinking and talking about music. The neighbours incredibly turned out to be bassist David Ellefson and guitarist Greg Handevidt and, shortly after, they came together to form the first incarnation of Megadeth.


David Scott Mustaine (13 September, 1961) was born in La Mesa, California, from a father of German, French, Irish and Finnish heritage, and a mother of German Jewish descent. His family were Jehova’s Witnesses but his father’s issues with alcohol led to him being absent from Mustaine’s life from the age of four. As Mustaine later himself reflected about that period: "life unraveled in a great many ways."

Things went from bad to worse after Mustaine formed his first band, Panic. The lineup included drummer Mike Leftwych, bassist Bob Evans, rhythm guitarist Tom Quecke, and Pat Voeks on vocals, with Mustaine on lead guitar. However after their second live performance both Mike Leftwych and their sound technician were killed in a horrific car crash. Soon after Quecke also died in a car accident.
I wondered whether I really was supposed to be doing this with all the tragedy that was going on,” Mustaine mused in a later interview.

Around this time Mustaine, like many involved in heavy metal bands, found himself dabbling with the occult. Despite his Jehova’s upbringing, which preaches that ‘the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth is the only solution for humanity’s problems’, Mustaine started making blood pacts with friends, and one day decided to put a Hex (a negative spell) on two people. When both Hex’s were fulfilled – in one case involving a man Mustaine didn’t like being injured in a car crash in exactly the way Mustaine foresaw – it spooked him so much that he decided to turn his back on it. 


Years later he said that “I believe I opened the door to satanic forces that had a profound impact on my life.” In fact it later stopped him covering the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK because he didn’t want to be involved in a song that starts with the words “I am an anti-christ.” Of his relationship with God, he now says that “I didn’t realise that was what I needed, until I realised that was all I had.”

Returning to the story of Mustaine’s musical career, in 1981, Metallica's drummer Lars Ulrich posted an ad in a local newspaper for a guitarist and Mustaine consequently went off to meet Ulrich and James Hetfield: "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 job.' I couldn't believe how easy it had been.” Unsurprisingly, the three decided to celebrate by going off on a drinking session together.

Mustaine wrote a number of hit songs for Metallica but his problems with alcohol became increasingly evident during the recording of 1983’s Kill 'Em All . "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 of seeing Dave drunk out of his mind all the time,” explained Brian Slagel, owner of Metal Blade Records, in one interview.


One breaking point came the day Mustaine brought his dog to rehearsal and it scratched the paint on bassist Ron McGovney’s car. Hetfield reportedly kicked the dog, which led to a fist-fight involving the whole band. Mustaine narrowly avoided being ejected from Metallica on that occasion, but the straw that broke the camel’s back came when he drunkenly poured beer down the neck of McGovney's bass. According to Mustaine the story that McGovney was then thrown across the room by an electric shock is apocraphyl. The way he tells it is that ‘an acquaintance’ tried to make off with some of McGovney’s records and McGovney blamed Mustaine, which he took offence to, and responded by pouring alcohol on his bass. Whatever the truth of it, Mustaine was soon after fired from the band and packed off on a bus to Los Angeles.

Ingeniously, Mustaine began writing songs on that bus trip that would later be used for Megadeth. As he himself says his motivation for songwriting had originally been ‘to have fun and get laid’; but it now changed to getting revenge by creating a band that would be bigger than Metallica. 


As we now know, he formed his new band after throwing one of his pot plants at his neighbours. His musical relationship with Ellefson would only grow but that with Handevidt did not last long and soon they were looking for other members to complete the line up, eventually fixing on Lee Rausch as a drummer. After many unsuccessful auditions Mustaine decided to step up himself as lead singer.

The band went through further line up changes as drummer Gar Samuelson replaced Rausch and guitarist Chris Poland joined the band. In June 1985, Megadeth released their first album, Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good!, began to tour extensively and grow their fanbase.

The band went on to release 15 studio albums, including the classics Peace Sells... but Who's Buying? (1986); Rust in Peace (1990); Countdown to Extinction (1992) - which debuted at No. 2 on the US Billboard charts and spawned several of their most successful songs, including Symphony of Destruction, Sweating Bullets and Skin o' My Teeth -; and Youthanasia (1994), which featured hit singles A Tout le Monde and Train of Consequences. There have been a large number of line up changes, including Chuck Behler becoming the drummer and Jeff Young replacing Chris Poland in the late 1980s, although they were later sacked for allegedly “having thoughts of a relationship with Mustaine's then-girlfriend.” 

Band members came and went, including Ellefson himself for eight years, but in 2015/16 guitarist
Kiko Loureiro  and drummer Dirk Verbeuren joined the band to form their current line up. They have toured with Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Alice Cooper, among many other top acts. 


During this long period of musical success, Mustaine has been through many changes in his life. Starting with his guitar, he moved from a BC Rich Bich 10 string to a Jackson Custom Made King V in the 1990s, before later switching to ESP guitars. Then in 2006 Mustaine announced he was endorsing Dean guitars and specifically a signature model called the Dean VMNT, which he still uses today. The V-shaped guitar that he is known for is very similar to his earlier Jackson and ESP Signature models.

Another radical change in his life has been to ‘clean it up’. There was a time in 1989 when Mustaine showed up for a video shoot so ‘fried on heroin and other drugs’ that he reportedly could not sing and play guitar at the same time, according to film director Penelope Spheeris. As a consequence of that period and many others, he has been in and out of rehab 15 times.

Another dramatic moment occured in January 2002 when Mustaine went to hospital to have a kidney stone removed. However as a consequence of the treatment, he relapsed, and ended up suffering severe nerve damage to his left arm. The injury left him unable to grasp or even make a fist, but while his doctors believed it might be long term, through force of will he ‘relearned’ how to play guitar.


Disagreements with Metallica aside,
Mustaine has also been involved in numerous controversies, including allegedly vocally supporting ‘the Cause’ of the IRA while drunkenly playing a concert in Ireland, which led to a riot. Consequently, the band had to travel in a bulletproof bus back to Dublin.

More positively Mustaine married Pamela Casselberry in 1991, settled in Nashvillle, Tennessee, and they have two children together.
Surprisingly he has said in one recent interview that “the music I listen to a lot now is country music. Everytime I am driving around with my wife and children in the car we listen to country; and I gotta tell you I sure enjoy it!”

Dave Mustaine is considered by many to be one of the leading guitarists in the world but he has also had an incredibly varied and interesting life. He is a unique character who has been hugely successful by doing things his own way. As he says in one of his songs
There's no one playing by the rules anymore”; ironically perhaps that line can actually be applied to himself more than most.