The first song Dave Mustaine remembers writing was "Jump in the Fire," a foot-stomping rager, which he brought to Metallica in 1982, helping to set the template for thrash metal. "I was writing about myself being young and sitting in my room and feeling dejected – I had my head in my hands and didn't know what to do," he tells Rolling Stone. "I felt I had to get with my friends because I was at an age and a time when my mom was always gone and I was by myself and the only time I felt like I belonged was when I was with my friends." As fate would have it, however, he would never get the chance to record that song or any others with the band, other than on a few demos.
Instead, Mustaine found a new outlet for his sadness and rage in Megadeth, the aggressive thrash group he formed in 1983 after Metallica kicked him out over allegations of drug use, and he went on to write classics that rivaled his earliest songs. The funky "Peace Sells" expressed his dissatisfaction with the American mainstream and resonated for years as MTV News intro music; the grinding metal blues of "Sweating Bullets," a song seemingly about schizophrenia, showed his sense of humor; the ballad "À Tout le Monde" imagined the sadness of death from the viewpoint of the dead (in French). The band's 1992 album, Countdown to Extinction, debuted at Number Two – just behind Billy Ray Cyrus – and has been certified double platinum; their most recent album, last year's Dystopia, debuted at Number Three; and they've racked up 12 Grammy nominations over the years. The song "Dystopia" is currently up for Best Metal Performance next month.
Despite the success, Mustaine struggled for much of his career with substance abuse until he shook most of his demons in 2003 after becoming a born-again Christian. He's also come to terms with his legacy in Metallica. Last year, when Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett speculated that it was "super-cathartic" for Mustaine to play with the band again in 2011 after feeling "really, really sad, really angry, really frustrated" for years, Mustaine tweeted that Hammett's assessment was "almost 100 percent accurate … almost." "There wasn't anything that wasn't right, I just didn't want to say he was right," Mustaine says now. "I was just being playful. I think you have to have a little levity in life."
Similarly, Mustaine, now age 55, is mostly lighthearted when reflecting on his oeuvre, leaning way back in a chair in Rolling Stone's boardroom, and rapping his fingers on the table and making eye contact to underscore his points. For this installment of "My Life in 15 Songs" (or "My Deth in 15 Songs," as the case may be), Mustaine selected tracks that represented various turning points in his career, from locomotive-charging Metallica numbers to Megadeth ruminations on heroin addiction.
Curiously, he omitted nearly 20 years' worth of songs leading up to Dystopia – including a period when he ended the band for two years in 2002 after he injured a nerve in his arm by sleeping on it wrong. He chalks up the jump in chronology to his happiness with the band's current lineup. "I didn't think about it," he says. "Those are kind of lost years because [bassist and Megadeth founder] David Ellefson wasn't around. I've reprogrammed myself to think that this lineup is all that matters. It's just so great playing with these guys that I blank out on some of the older stuff."
When he looks back on his whole career, though, and his meager beginnings as a gas-station attendant, he's just amazed that he's gotten as far has. "I started playing music because my sister was really awful playing piano," he says. "It's almost laughable, because I never thought I would be able to make money playing music."