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Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine: My Life in 15 Songs

Singer/guitarist reflects on nearly four decades of thrash-metal masterpieces

Dave Mustaine: My Deth in 15 Songs

Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine looks back at 15 songs that tell his life story.

Martyn Goodacre/Getty

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."

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“Sweating Bullets”

Countdown to Extinction (1992)

My wife used to have this crazy friend who had anxiety and they would go to parties all the time. Her friend would freak out and get in the car and drive off and then I'd get a call from my wife and she'd say, "Eh, she left me again," and I'd have to get in the car and come get her. And you think it'd be the other way around having a rock-star boyfriend, at the time, that he'd be calling you to come and get him. So I wrote "Sweating Bullets" about her friend. She may have figured out that it was about her – my wife may have told her in a heated moment so her friend would hate me – but I've never named her. I don't think my wife knows where the girl's at now.

And the other thing, too, I was listening to a lot of George Carlin at the time. I think George is a really great comic. I loved his outlook on life. It was a little cynical. He says the kind of stuff that you and I wanna say because our girlfriends or our wives are gonna elbow us or say, like, "You can't say that." Comedy has gotten so handcuffed with all this PC stuff right now. It's like you almost can't come up with anything funny to say. I mean, imagine somebody watching Blazing Saddles nowadays. They would lose their mind.

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“She Wolf”

Cryptic Writings (1997)

I wrote "She Wolf" about something that happened to a manager we had at the time who I was really close with. He had just started dating this girl. I knew she was dating him because she had just broken up with her boyfriend, who was one of my friends who worked at MTV. And I had heard from my wife and Ellefson's wife that they saw her back with her ex while she was dating my friend. We went down to Brazil and she tried to pick up on me down there. 

When I got back to America I told my friend what happened, and she goes, "No, he tried picking up on me." I was really, really mad. "How could you say that about me? You're not even attractive." [Laughs] And I go, "OK, you're it. I'm gonna lay you out." So I wrote "She Wolf" about her. 

In the end he had to apologize to me because he found out she was a hooker, or call it what you will, a "high-priced escort." Anyway, I was right; he was wrong. He had to apologize. He should've believed me. I'm his friend. Why would I go stick my neck out in the noose and say your girlfriend tried picking up on me if I didn't wanna save you from any kind of heartbreak?

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“A Secret Place”

Cryptic Writings (1997)

"A Secret Place" is one of the last songs we wrote on Cryptic Writings and we were out at this place that used to be Al Capone's getaway. It was a hand-cut stone castle, and he would take people out there to go gambling and he'd shoot a plug in them and bury 'em in the backyard. One day this dog comes running up and it had what looked like a human leg bone, because there were a lot of unmarked graves behind the studio. I never knew for sure. 

At the time I was having trouble writing lyrics and I had one more song left to go. When I saw this dog, I just went, "Whoa, man. This is a really secret place." And I was in there singing and I hear this footprint go across the roof [imitates sound] and there's nobody else in the building except for me and the guy on the other side of the glass in the control room. We didn't know if it was the wind creaking or if it was some ghost up there 'cause the place is supposed to be haunted. It's pretty cool.

We did a lot of strumming on this record, and a lot of pop stuff. We had management at the time that was trying to get us to write songs that were more geared toward being popular – something that could get on radio or MTV – instead of being songs we like. But this was a radio hit, like "Trust," and that was great.

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“Use the Man”

Cryptic Writings (1997)

When I was working on the record, I went to a 12-step meeting in a place right next to the studio. The guy who runs it told me he had something to show me, and he had this box and goes, "Check this out." And I'm looking through it and he goes, "That's Bob," for lack of a better name. Then he told me that earlier in the day, a guy had gone to a meeting and then shot up and died at the halfway house and that this box was all his stuff. So he's having me casually look through this stuff and told me it was a dead guy's. I was like, "Fucker." 

He was trying to get a message across to me and it worked – I'm still alive. I wrote the lyrics to "Use the Man" immediately. "I heard somebody fixed today/There was no last goodbyes to say." There's a proverb in China or Japan that goes, "First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man." I thought, "The same thing could be said about the needle." First the man uses the needle, then the needle uses the needle, then the needle uses the man. And that's where the title came from.

These guys come out of prison, go to a halfway house, their systems have cleaned out, but they think they can use half as much and get twice as high. They don't realize that their systems have cleaned out, and they O.D. So that's what "Use the Man" was about. It's a very, very sad song about people overdosing on drugs, and it was also inspired by Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done."

I can't say when I got off of street drugs; I don't look at it like that. But I changed my life when I got saved back in, I think, 2003. God sent me to AA and AA sent me back to God and that's kind of where I'm at right now with everything. So that's when I put scoring heroin and doing cocaine in the past. I can still have a glass of wine. I have a beer company now, so it's kind of hard to say you're sober when you have a beer company. It's not my place to tell you what to drink, or anything like that, but everything in moderation – except for metal.

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“Dystopia”

Dystopia (2016)

"Dystopia" is nominated for a Grammy, which I'm super excited about. People have said, "You have a very narrow vision of the world. Is everything dystopic to you?" It's like, "No, of course not." But fuck, I watched 12 Monkeys. I watched 1984. I know what could very possibly happen. I've played in the Communist side of the world over in Poland. I saw what did happen. I saw the movie on Chernobyl; we were in fucking Russia right where some of those old decrepit nuclear plants are. That's very dystopic-looking. You don't have to have everybody melted to the ground in a neighborhood for it to have credibility as far as looking like something very bad happened there. You go into Detroit, you look at some of the cities there, it's very dystopic.

The song is about loving my fellow man and wanting them – for us – to pull together and to really just try and not be so, just, angsty for one another. People are so quick to jump on somebody if they say something wrong or if they're wearing the wrong thing. We've got the fucking typo police on the net. My family was at the venue [where we played] last night and some girls that were sitting next to them were making all kinds of terrible comments about them because they looked attractive. It's like, why do we not love each other enough where we have to have jealousy for other people? What's wrong with that picture? Why has that person not found someone that would make them feel OK that they would have to say shitty stuff about an 18-year-old girl. What the fuck's wrong with you?

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