REVIEW: Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir

[Since many of my posts tend to ruminate on specific works. I thought that we might as well make blog posts in the book review format. So here goes…]

Dave Mustaine, and Megadeth, which are largely one and the same thing from a creative and business perspective; is an iconic band and figure to my personal musical interests. To read his memoir reminds me both of what I love about Megadeth, but also reminds me about why I don’t listen to it very much anymore. Mustaine’s Heavy Metal journey is more than just a narrative or band biography, it addresses many of the urban legends and heresay around the persona of ‘Megadave’. Mustaine is well known for notorious reasons: such as the substance abuse, being kicked out of Metallica (and replaced by Kirk Hammett) right before they made it big, and having a reputation for confrontational behaviour with many of his peers in the industry giving him the nickname of ‘angry Dave’.

When I read reviews about this book I was totally thrown by it, partly because I was half way through already. Many of the reviews called it a work of ‘Christian Apologetics’ or something to the effect of ‘confessional Christianity’. At the point I was reading it this seemed as far from an apt description as possible. Mustaine was describing himself from a difficult family background who found heavy metal and the trappings of drugs and sex part and parcel of his rock star life. For a work of Christian apologetics it contained references to things that one would not associate with Christendom such as how to use a certain brand of barbeque sauce (you’ll have to read that one for yourself).

This story reminds me of the Aeneid, or perhaps the Oddessy in that it’s a side story, a spinoff to what is the main pop culture narrative of Metallica’s success. Everyone knows that the Greek alliance beat the Trojans in the mythic Trojan war, but fewer still remember Odysseus’ journey home, or Aeneas’ perspective of the loser. In a sense Mustaine’s story begins as the loser, the one who got kicked out of Metallica before they made their name as one of the all time greats of the Rock pantheon.

Mustaine’s story is one of redemption on many levels. Despite his departure from Metallica, Mustaine forged his own band and infused his own distinctive creativity to create his own empire. Despite the drug fuelled lifestyle which led to toxic relationships both with men and women, Mustaine found a way to sobriety. Despite losing the ability to play guitar in the early 2000s and virtually losing his wife and children due to a relapse into addiction, Mustaine developed a spiritual side and eventually learned to let go. It is odd that at the point that he realised that his career and his music were not the important things in his life was exactly the point at which his creativity and success returned again speaks of some kind of spiritual significance I don’t really comprehend.

Mustaine is a person who admits of his own flaws. Who else but the most depraved of them can ask for redemption, which is what makes this work a particularly interesting (albeit surprising to me) biography which ended up as some kind of Christian apologetical (perhaps apologism is not the apt term here as he doesn’t ‘preach’ to anyone as such).

In terms of the band, Mustaine addresses important issues of the band. At the beginning, Megadeth was an edgy and hungry band full of anger and political relevance. Consider for instance the music video ‘Peace Sells’ where at one point, a father changes the tv channel and says “What is this garbage you’re watching? I want to watch the news!”, to which the son replies: This is the news. Despite the anacrhonistic temptation to see a religious or gospel like aspect to that now, it showed then that the music was distinctly relevant to the age. Social decline and the destructive economic situation that fuelled it was expressed through Thrash metal.

Eventually, as the poverty stricken Megadeth ceased to be poor (due to record sales and touring), their music became less relevant to the cutting edge of heavy metal. While there was a honeymoon period of making Thrash slightly more accessible and slightly more mainstream (such as the albums Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia), eventually Megadeth lost their way to Mustaine’s own admission in the album Risk. While I quite like Risk as an album not judging by heavy metal terms to judge the album by the bar set by Megadeth’s previous records fares very poorly on the band. A lot can be said about ‘Risk’ and its overt commercialism. For instance, many in personal conversations I’ve had say that Risk is comparable to Metallica’s St. Anger album (ie. it’s their worst album) although in terms of the comparisons I’d say Risk is more like Megadeths’ ‘Load’ or ‘Reload’. If one could ever accuse Megadeth with selling out at this period, it would be even easier to say that Metallica sold their souls long ago.

Interesting background characters emerge in the story of Mustaine and Megadeth. Dave Ellefson, the long time bassist of Megadeth and perhaps the second longest member of the band, has a relationship with the protagonist which varies from brotherhood to outright enemies. How a friendship can endure and survive with all that happens to Megadeth is really a story of how many long term friendships of real people survive or are put under pressure. My personal favourite background character is Marty Friedman: the virtuoso guitarist who came from a neoclassical metal background. Friedman is a character of interest because he becomes in a similar vein to Mustaine, an industry savvy fellow. Mustaine complains that Friedman (and the same point applies to Ellefson) started giving guitar clinics and promoted guitar playing and advice on how to advance in the popular music world. Friedman eventually grew tired of Megadeth for a variety of stylistic reasons (many which seem not consistent) and is now in Japan as a minor celebrity/television presenter. I hear he even has a video game about him.

Megadeth started as a band on an ideological frontier and ended up as a commercial machine. Mustaine has returned to his thrash metal roots since Risk but his later albums show their age. I’m of the conviction that thrash has lost its fresh and would soon one day enter into the specter of ‘dadrock’. People make the distinction between Megadeth the band and Mustaine the person. Many have also complimented on the band’s greatness but not of the nice frontman’s personality. If this book shows anything it is the opposite. Mustaine makes for an interesting character who distinctively has had his flaws in the past. The band was once great and relevant to an audience, but now it is a commercial engine which runs on the steam that it was as a fact, once that great band of the 1980s and early 1990s. Success is a blessing and a curse for any career venture, as one solution to a problem becomes a new problem. The story of Thrash is perhaps this: being biting and relevant cannot last after success infects. It leads me to think of another Metal documentary ‘Until the Light Takes us‘ where a member of Darkthrone curses the international reptuation of Black metal because it meant as a consequence, its uniqueness was taken away from Norway. I wonder if Black Metal will go the way of Thrash, or if the perpetual underground nature of it will never take its frontline spirit away.


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