In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: Megadeth frontman and original Metallica lead guitarist Dave Mustaine is a metal god. And he’s been busy in 2011, playing stadium dates with his comrades in “The Big 4” (Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax), readying deluxe reissues of Rust In Peace and Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?, and recording Megadeth’s upcoming new LP. Mustaine rarely pulls himself away from the boards when he’s in the studio, but the outspoken singer-guitarist recently took some time to run The A.V. Club through the better part of three decades in a life of metal.
“Peace Sells” (from 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?)
Dave Mustaine: The funny thing was, the lyrics were handwritten on a pole inside of a room in Vernon where I was living when I was homeless. I was living in a rehearsal room, which was absolutely horrible. The title to that song, I got from a Reader’s Digest. This girl I was trying to survive off of—it sounds so terrible saying that—we would get together, we would party, and one day I woke up at her apartment and this magazine was there, and it said, “Peace sells, but no one would buy.” And I went “Oh my God,” and I adjusted it and made it my line, and then I wrote the lyric around it.
The A.V. Club: The opening bass lick was used as the theme for MTV’s The Week In Rock. How did that come about?
DM: We did a lot of work with MTV with Rock The Vote, Night Of The Living Megadeth, and the MTV News crew was on my hip the whole time we did the Democratic National Convention in 1992. It’s funny, because we went up to John Kerry, and he wasn’t a very nice guy, and it’s on tape, so if it ever came down to it and people wanted to see how this dude was, the way he treated MTV back then, it was pretty bad.
“In My Darkest Hour” (from 1988’s So Far, So Good… So What!)
DM: Looking back, I can have my entire career go flying through my mind in just a couple of seconds. You can, too, with your life. I think of what I’ve accomplished, where I’ve been, the fun I’ve had, the friends I’ve made, and it’s mind-blowing. I was always the new kid in school, I’m the kid from a broken family, I’m the kid who had no dad showing up at the father-son stuff, I’m the kid that was using food stamps at the grocery store. So all of these terrible things and bad decisions that my parents made caused me all those things. I feel them, and when I go through my life right now, and I look at what I’ve been able to do, with the fans’ love and support, I am eternally grateful.
There’s something really rewarding when you can get outside yourself and have that connection with the fans, and I think that’s one of the things [late Metallica bassist] Cliff Burton had. He had this ability to get outside of himself. He was the anti-rock star. I thought it was really cool how he just did not care about fame. When we would ride to rehearsal, he’d be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, driving a Volkswagen station wagon, and smoking home-grown marijuana. But he was happy with that. I sold pot for a living as a kid, so I was not. When we were driving to rehearsal, I would smoke whatever he had ’cause I was desperate, and by the time we got to rehearsal, it didn’t matter anymore. We were talkin’ about stuff and having fun and just loving life, and that’s part of the reason I had such a hard time when he died. This girl named Maria Ferrero called me up and said Cliff had died, and I started crying, and I went straight to Los Angeles downtown and bought heroin, and I wrote the song “In My Darkest Hour” in one sitting.
AVC: “In My Darkest Hour” was featured in The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. You had mixed feelings about that movie, but do you have fonder memories of the actual video shoot for that song with Penelope Spheeris?
DM: Penelope Spheeris is a wonderful lady. She’s a very talented director, and I curse better because of her. So anything that has been said about that movie by me that was negative, I was kidding, or somebody misinterpreted. I don’t have any hard feelings about that movie. Now the people in it, I think a lot of them were hysterical. I think they’re absolute, 100 percent posers. Who even says the word poser anymore? Hardly anybody, because it was so politically incorrect to be caught dead looking like that. People just knew, “Don’t ever dress like that.” The flipside is now, everybody’s so hyper-cool, you can go into a library and the person behind the counter will have her nose pierced.
“Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” (from 1990’s Rust In Peace)
AVC: “Holy Wars” came about after you inadvertently sparked controversy at a show in Antrim, Ireland, when you introduced “Anarchy In The U.K.” with what was perceived as an IRA rally cry, and wound up having to ride in a bulletproof bus afterward.
DM: You know what? I would love to say it was disorienting, but I was disoriented for a totally different reason. I had been having some problems with my personal life, and the band was struggling really bad. It just looked like we were gonna go through another breakup. I had gone outside to say hello to the fans, and I walked up to this fence, and there was this little kid there, and he goes, “Fuck you, Dave Mustaine,” and he spit on me. So I went inside of the venue and got cleaned up and was really mad, and I started drinking, which was pretty normal back then. I had a Guinness, and this guy there said, “If you have a Guinness and you draw a smiley face in the foam, you’ll have a drinking partner.” So I did that, and that was fun. And right as that happened, someone said, “Hey, find The General. There’s a guy in the venue selling T-shirts.” The General’s my nickname. So I said, “What? Somebody’s in the venue selling bootleg T-shirts? That’s pretty ballsy.” So they said he was for “the cause,” and “the cause” was an organization that was trying help balance out prejudice between the Catholics and the Protestants. And I went, “Oh shit, that’s cool. Let him sell it in there.”
Meanwhile, I’m still drinking this Guinness, and I’m starting to make friends with my foam, and I get ready to go onstage, and the kids are fired up. Somebody throws an English coin up on the stage, which is like three quarters taped together, so it’s solid and it hurts like a son of a gun if you get hit with it. So I get hit with it, and I look down at the kid who hit me with it, and he’s flipping me off, and I finally said, “You wanna do something, buddy? Come up onstage.” I took my guitar up, and I was getting ready to crack him with it. It was just one of those nights. He didn’t make it up there, so I went behind the amp line, because they had to restore order, and the tech for the guitars and the tech for the drums were back there doing drugs, partying with stuff lined up on a mirror. And I was like, “What are you guys doing back here?!” And I went back out to the microphone, and I was so blown away, because it was like walking onto the set of Caligula, and I said, “This one’s for the cause, give Ireland back to the Irish, anarchy in Antrim.” I had no idea what I’d said, because there was prejudice, and I was thinking, “C’mon man, God doesn’t want you to be fighting with each other.” So immediately, the audience parted ways. I flipped, and the next morning I woke up down in Dublin, and of course I don’t remember what happened after saying that. And [bassist] David Ellefson won’t talk to me. When we were druggin’ and runnin’ and gunnin’, every morning we would party together, but this day, he didn’t want to talk to me. And I was like, “What’s wrong?” “Don’t you know what you did last night?!” And I was like, “No.” “You got us escorted out of Antrim in a bulletproof bus! The whole city could have killed us!” And I was like, “I’m so sorry, I don’t remember saying that.”
“Symphony Of Destruction” (from 1992’s Countdown To Extinction)
DM: “Symphony Of Destruction” was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. I had been on my way back from martial-arts class, and I was going to get some sushi, because I thought I was gonna do the whole David Carradine bullshit. I grabbed the receipt and I flipped it over, and I wrote down what ended up being the chorus on there. I went home, I looked at it, and I was thinking about the whole Manchurian Candidate kind of thing, and like I said, the song wrote itself. Now the riff, I don’t know where the riff came from. I can’t tell you for the life of me. That song is one of the most popular songs we’ve got, besides “Peace Sells” and “A Tout Le Monde” and “Holy Wars…” That’s our fab four right there.
“Sweating Bullets” (from 1992’s Countdown To Extinction)
DM: I was going through the process of healing over everything that happened with Metallica, and even though I had the No. 2 record in the nation, I wasn’t happy, and I kept thinking, “I want a No. 1.” I mean, who in their right mind gets up in the morning and says, “I’m gonna be okay with being No. 2?” Nobody. And that’s how I was when I saw the results. I was mad. I wasn’t sitting back and going, “Yep, it’s good to be two.” I wanted that No. 1 spot, and we were fighting for it, and the bummer was the guy we were fighting with. It was Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart.” And all those fat fuckin’ housewives in the Midwest, and this guy with this funny haircut, and that song, it just resonated with the American people and people bought into it, and there was no shaking it. His song was a novelty. I don’t want to put the guy down. He obviously worked hard to make that record work, and had the success of making that record work, but I wasn’t happy at the time.
“Trust” (from 1997’s Cryptic Writings)/“Breadline” (from 1999’s Risk)
DM: When we got a chance to [re-master] the catalog proper for Capitol, we had money, we had support, we went in and we did almost every single record that we’d done up to that point. Going over the back catalog and listening to all of these songs, the one track that I wanted to listen to the most would have been “Trust.” That record was pretty much when [ex-guitarist] Marty [Friedman] and I started to make our final drifting apart, where it became irreparable. So much so, when the one song, “Breadline,” we’d been getting ready to play that track for Marty, and Marty had done this beautiful solo, and of course I didn’t like it, because it was a little too flowery. But we sent the song to management, and they said they hated it, and I needed to change it. I said “The only way I can do this is fly him back out and have him do the solo, or do it myself, or mute it.” They said they wanted me to do it. I said, “Oh shit, do you know what this is gonna cost?” So we’re in the control room and we play the song, and Marty actually started crying when it happened, because he heard my solo where his solo was supposed to be. That was one of the songs I wanted to do too, because I wanted to get back and listen to, “What was the solo that made Marty Friedman cry?”