Heavy Metal Thunder: Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax

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The first test comes an hour later, when Slayer opens the Dallas show. There is nothing in all modern pop like the moment Slayer takes a stage. The whole place rises to its feet as the band slams into "Hell Awaits" at a ludicrous breakneck pace, and hundreds of kids press their way to the front of the stage, where they proceed to throw themselves into one other, moshing with a furious intensity. At first the security force looks a bit edgy – it is not always an enviable position to be caught between Slayer and its fans – but in a short time their patience pays off. Nobody shoves or punches anybody, and the few times that any guards see a kid who looks as if he's trying to hurt other dancers in the mosh pit, Mele makes his way into the crowd and drags the offender out himself. Later, when Anthrax makes its appearance, things go even more smoothly. At that point, even young women find the mosh pit a fun place to hang out – which is rarely the case during a Slayer set.

But then, just before Megadeth is set to perform, the fires begin: eerie-looking eruptions of flame surrounded by thrashing circles of kids, all pushing and shoving to dance as close to the flares as possible.

When you venture up close, though, the fire-dancing doesn't seem particularly threatening or licentious. In fact, there appears to be a rather strict social order at work. First, one or two kids strip off their T-shirts and set them ablaze, waving them over their heads until they attract the attention of other fans. It's almost as if they are setting the fires as a way of drawing each other in closer, as a way of finding other sympathetic souls in a dark landscape. After a bit, the kids toss the burning rags into a heap, along with paper cups and other scraps, until they have something like a watch fire going. Meantime, a growing circle of dancers begins to tramp around the fire in a rhythmic, running stomp, picking up speed and gaining new members as it spreads outward. The scene only gets scary when security guards charge up the hill, pushing the kids aside and extinguishing the flames with chemical sprays. The resulting smoke is harsh and burns the eyes, causing the kids to turn and run, sometimes knocking each other down in the process. Invariably, the fire starts up again, and the circle of dancers reconvenes. It's as if the conflagrations taking place on the hill were an enactment of the defiance and rage that the music onstage has been proclaiming all day long.

Ultimately, not much real damage is done. The next morning there will be a few square feet of torched grass and some predictable local media outrage. But for some of the kids who had gathered here, a genuine power struggle will have taken place – the first that many of them have ever won.

The next day's show, in Lubbock, Texas, proves to be something of a letdown. The turnout is one of the smallest that the tour will see – a little more than 2000 fans show up in an arena that can hold more than twice that many – but a bigger problem seems to be the sound. The members of each of the bands come off-stage complaining that they could not hear themselves playing and that the mix in the sound monitors had been messy and dim. In particular, Megadeth guitarist Mustaine is coldly furious. At the end of the evening, he stands in the backstage area and tells his tour manager that he wants the soundman suspended from the board for the following evening. It is plain that the tour manager will not find this an easy request to accommodate, though it's also plain that Mustaine isn't about to give ground.

Just two days into this trip, Mustaine is already beginning to wear on the nerves of some of the others involved in the tour. A former heavy drug user and drinker, Mustaine these days is scrupulously clean and healthy. As a result he insists on keeping himself at a distance from the members of Slayer, who still enjoy drinking and acting up. In a Los Angeles Times article that appeared at the outset of the tour, Mustaine told an interviewer that he had been embarrassed by Slayer's behavior during their recent European tour together. "There were times where it was detrimental to my sanity," Mustaine said. "When we travel and we're stuck on the same plane, and they're completely inebriated, swearing at the top of their lungs and belching and guzzling . . . I felt like I wanted to crawl off into the bathroom of the plane and die. . . . I have more respect for their luggage than their behavior."

But there is another side to Mustaine, and it can be surprisingly affecting. A few minutes after his tantrum about the sound problem, the thin, blond Mustaine sits aboard the band's bus in the parking lot of the Lubbock Coliseum and talks quietly about all the time and friendships that were lost to his drug abuse. In moments like this, there is nothing in Mustaine's manner that is arrogant or taxing. Instead he comes across as somebody who is smart, conscience stricken and deeply sad – as if he has endured a long nightmare and is just now coming to terms with how he managed to inflict so much damage on himself and others over the years.

In some ways, Mustaine's long bouts of abuse were probably an extension of the ruin he had felt as a child. When he was seven, his parents divorced, leaving Mustaine, his sisters and his mother living in poverty in the suburbs of Southern California. By his early teens, his mother was absent much of the time, and Mustaine spent the next few years residing with his sisters and their husbands. One day, when he was fifteen, says Mustaine, a brother-in-law punched him in the face when he found him listening to Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny. "I decided then," says Mustaine, "that I was going to play this music. That would be my revenge."

In the early 1980s, after playing in a series of pop and metal cover bands, Mustaine hooked up with Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield in Norwalk, California. Together they formed Metallica – a band that within a few years would become the most important heavy-metal ensemble since Led Zeppelin. It was Metallica, in fact, that codified speed metal as a music derived from the rhythmic brutality of hardcore punk and the yowling melodic drive of early-1980s British denim-and-leather metal bands like Motörhead and Iron Maiden. But for all its gifts, the group was beset with serious personality conflicts. Mustaine and the others fought frequently – sometimes about drug use, sometimes about the leadership of the band – and in time the tension became unbearable. "One day," says Mustaine, "they woke me up and said, 'You're out of the band.' And I said, 'What, no warning? No second chance?' And they said, 'No, you're out.'

"To this day," continues Mustaine, "I have a hard time seeing those guys. Something inside me feels like saying, 'You know, you guys are really fucked for firing me. You didn't give me a chance – and I really miss you.' And while they're responsible for their own success, I don't think they ever would have developed the way they did if I hadn't come into the picture."

Back in Los Angeles, Mustaine settled deeper into his drug use and thought for a time about quitting music. But in 1984, after he met Dave Ellefson, a bassist who had just moved to California from rural Minnesota, Mustaine decided to take another stab at band life and formed Megadeth. "I thought of this band as not just the return of Dave Mustaine," he says, "but also my revenge. I thought, 'This is the music I want to play: a jazz-oriented, progressive music that's going to alter heavy metal as we understand it.'" Mustaine made good on his promise. Though Megadeth shared Metallica's passion for hard and fast riffs, the best tracks on albums like Peace Sells . . . but Who's Buying? and So Far, So Good . . . So What! demonstrate a melodic and textural versatility that no other band in metal has matched.

But Megadeth has also seen its share of problems – including numerous band firings, as well as Mustaine's worsening drug use. "One of the earlier members in the band," Mustaine says, "finally got me into heroin. He told me it was like being back in the womb, and, I mean, I was a slut. Pussy was my favorite thing in the world, and for me to be fully inside a pussy was the fantasy of a lifetime. I became like a dope-seeking missile, and after a while I was losing my mind. I got to the point where I just could not play anymore. I knew that I was going to die if I didn't get sober, and even that wasn't enough to make me stop. I would have done anything for coke or heroin. I would have even gone into prostitution.''

One morning in early 1990, while driving home in a drug-and-alcohol-induced stupor, Mustaine was pulled over by the police. He had heroin, cocaine, speed and liquor in his blood system, and he also had some of those same substances in his car. He was arrested, and a short while later he was given a choice: Get clean – and stay clean – or go to jail. It turned out to be the impetus Mustaine needed. Within a few weeks he had joined a twelve-step addiction-recovery program and has stayed clean since. "In fact, tonight," Mustaine says, seated aboard the bus in Lubbock, "is my birthday: A year ago today was the day I quit using drugs. And you know what? Now a lot of my dreams are coming true. In the last year I got married, we put together our best version of Megadeth yet, and we also finished our best record, Rust in Peace. I think it all has to do with the fact now that I pray and meditate a lot. I don't sit at home waiting for some fucking creep to come over with powder.

"A lot of things have changed for me," Mustaine adds. "I think I now have a more genuine concern for others. Also, I don't have the same kind of interest I once had in the occult. I think it's simply that now I know that there is a God, and, uh, it's not me."

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