Jesus Sells, But Who's Buying?
by Brent Jensen
Megadeth's Dave Mustaine is.
The other day Mustaine's autobiography got my attention at the bookstore. I looked it over, suspecting that it might be mildly interesting by virtue of Mustaine sharing his version of his dismissal from Metallica. I had never been a Megadeth fan; I had dismissed Mustaine as a whiner long ago. It was possible that as a big Metallica fan back in the day, I was too biased. I knew Mustaine's story then, but it was elementary to take sides. I was also aware of the basic trials and tribulations that shaped Megadeth's career. Lots of substance abuse, lots of vitriol - Mustaine got tossed out of Metallica for excessive drinking and drug use, which is like getting kicked out of Al-Qaeda for being too murderous. I figured I might as well get Mustaine's official side of the story and draw my own conclusions based on whether I thought he was full of shit or not.
I'll admit that Megadeth had always been intriguing. They stood apart from the glut of crappy thrash metal bands that emerged as the scene began to come above ground in the early eighties. And even though Mustaine and Megadeth certainly did demonstrate technical proficiency and musical wherewithal, Mustaine's vocals were an acquired taste and Megadeth's debut record sounded labored with a lousy production. During that time it was easy to conclude that the album was an amateurish version of Metallica's Kill 'Em All, and that Dave Mustaine was just an embittered cast-off that didn't deserve any extra attention.
Beyond Mustaine's peculiar singing style, Megadeth's weakness was that even as the band became increasingly successful after the release of their 1986 breakthrough record Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, Mustaine's sour grapes lamentations just seemed to get more and more toxic, to the point of compromising the music. An apples-to-apples comparison of Megadeth's music against Metallica's legitimized Mustaine's inferiority complex and made him seem whiny. Sure, there was lots of pressure living in the shadow of Metallica. But it wasn't like Mustaine fell into some sort of Pete Best-like obscurity and had to go off and work in a factory or something. Megadeth is considered a musical pioneer; a respected member of the original thrash metal Big Four that still does brisk business today. Megadeth's bass player David Ellefson said it himself recently in the press – without Metallica, there would be no Megadeth.
Mustaine always seemed so overwrought by this intense hatred that made him seem petty and small. Metal bands, even those of the thrash variety, generally have a tone of aggression that comes across in their image without it tempering their – shall we say, likeability. Mustaine always seemed to always have this ultra-nihilistic nastiness about him that went beyond the standard, even for thrash. He seemed to be too affected by the Metallica thing. Everything Megadeth did seemed reactive to something that Metallica had done. The hurt feelings Mustaine suffered from being sacked from Metallica were certainly reflected in the music, particularly in songs like "Mechanix," a reworking of Kill 'Em All 's "The Four Horsemen", co-written by Mustaine while he was still in Metallica. These same feelings provided the intensity Megadeth came to be known for. However, Mustaine's position back then lent itself to the fact that if he deserved any empathy at all it was because while his overt bitterness was the main propulsive element behind Megadeth's fame - the unfortunate outcome being that material he intended to be venomous and malevolent often just came across as juvenile.
The unfortunate aspect of Mustaine's ouster from Metallica is that complicity was initially a wash - Mustaine was a drunken, obnoxious asshole that couldn't be tolerated any longer, and Lars Ulrich and the rest of Metallica sorted the problem by kicking him out of the band and sending him home on a bus from New York to California with no money. Score settled. Until, of course, Metallica went on to dominate the metal world in the eighties and then popular music at large in the early nineties, leaving Mustaine in their wake and never looking back.
It sucked to be Mustaine before, but it really sucked after that – a point Mustaine makes light of in Metallica's documentary Some Kind of Monster. It was a shame that Mustaine had to live most of his life in the long, dark shadow of his former band Metallica, but much more so because of the kind of person he is and the upbringing he had. Mustaine was already an emotional powder keg, seething with fury before joining Metallica as the result of all manner of emotional trauma and weirdness endured in his childhood. Mustaine makes references to his dismissal resulting from his 'disease', meaning his excessive drinking. Alcoholism isn't a disease. It's a coping mechanism. Mustaine had deeper-seated issues that gave rise to his alcoholism and these issues were the real impetus behind his dismissal, but he didn't acknowledge these facts or take responsibility for them in his emotional reunion with Ulrich.
Mustaine's book spells the issues out clearly. There is much evidence of the severe self-esteem damage he'd suffered in his younger travails at so many points throughout. He mentions how badass a fighter he is on numerous occasions. He reminds the reader countless times that he is a superior guitar player. He notes more than once that his 'fingers dance across the fretboard.' Ech. But it's easy to see where that insecurity and overcompensation comes from.
Towards the end of his book, Mustaine describes his seventeenth meltdown, this one different from the first sixteen because it actually puts his marriage in jeopardy along with the prospect of losing his kids. In response, Mustaine gets sorted. At last, he finally beats drugs and alcohol after seventeen rehab visits. At the same time, he finds the lord and becomes a Christian. And by his account, he was only able to get clean because he 'gave' himself to Jesus Christ.
Mustaine's diatribe about finding god is superficially disappointing because of the relationship between religion and life cycle. No one is interested in God when they're young and virile, out drinking and screwing and tearing the world up. Mustaine certainly wasn't. Religious faith comes into the picture later, at a point of weakness. It comes along when people get older. Not necessarily after they've lost their sense of invincibility in their later twenties or early thirties, but not too long after they start to contemplate the inevitability of their own mortality and begin to fear the remainder of the road ahead. They need a magic crutch, and the ambiguity and convenience of the Jesus concept suits this purpose sufficiently. And now, The Original Cynic, Dave Mustaine was leaning on that crutch.
By Mustaine's own account, he seemed to have kicked substances on his own. And yet for some reason, he gave credit to religion for this achievement. This is the source of the real disappointment. Mustaine was faced with a grave dilemma – get sorted or lose your wife and kids, and maybe your life while you're at it – and he dealt with it successfully. The real reason he was successful was because his maturity finally took hold. Mustaine made mention in the book that everyone deals with addictions and substances differently. What that really means is, everyone has varying levels of emotional maturity. Sooner or later, it kicks in and allows you to take stock and suck it up. Which is what Mustaine did.
Dave Mustaine's story isn't the first, and it won't be the last. Horrible home life growing up, mind-warping religious dogma drilled into the head. Defense mechanisms created against it out of fear and anger. Some of us notice that the fear and anger lends itself to great purity in artistic output. But the pain can't last. The intensity subsides and the pain is quelled. Wisdom and maturity present themselves eventually if suicide or recklessness resulting in death was avoided in youth.
From this perspective, Mustaine is finally a winner. A hero maybe. But his heroism is heartbreakingly tragic because for all of his overcompensation bravura, he can't bring himself to accept credit for his greatest achievement of all. Mustaine likely can't comfortably acknowledge the fact that he accomplished such a feat himself, and feels the need to defer to a religious placebo rather than fully embrace the feeling of true pride and genuine self-worth. If anyone feels bad for Dave Mustaine, including Mustaine himself, it should be for this reason. Not for being kicked out of Metallica.
Jesus sells, but Dave Mustaine sold his soul to the wrong devil.
Excerpt taken from the book No Sleep 'til Sudbury by Brent Jensen, available in November 2011 on Amazon.com
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