Monday, March 21, 2011

Review - Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir

Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir
By Dave Mustaine, with Joe Layden
Published By HarperCollins
346 pages, hardcover
$25.99 US

In Michael Azerrad's Nirvana biography Come As You Are, Kurt Cobain talks about how he identified himself as a punk rocker before he ever heard a punk record. He felt he owned what had to be a relatively accurate sense of the genre from what he learned in magazines and from word-of-mouth. I've never picked up a guitar and my musical education is limited to an Introduction to Piano college course I dropped after the first few classes because it was scheduled too early in the day, so I'm not trying to compare myself to Cobain or any other musician in regards to musical artistry, but I could relate to his visceral sense of genre because I felt the same about thrash metal. Long before I bought an album by Megadeth or Slayer, I felt like it was my music. I was young and angry. I went to a military/christian school whose oppression I was just beginning to identify. It was music that was loud, angry, and fast; music that was no good for dancing unless it meant hurling yourself around like a demon in the throes of exorcism; music filled with imagery that raped the sensibilities not only of the coaches, priests, and retired Army sergeants who laughingly called themselves "teachers" at my school but those of the suburban jock douchebags who made up the student body; and it was music I felt I never had to hear in order to feel or own. But eventually, like Cobain, I figured I should get some of the material myself. So I went to the local mall and bought Metallica's And Justice For All..., Anthrax's Among the Living, Slayer's South of Heaven, and - what remains my favorite album by the band - Megadeth's Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?

Among my circle of friends and in my own heavy metal pantheon, Megadeth didn't hold the top spot but its place was unique. One day I noticed that - though he was the head of Megadeth and I had never heard of him having anything to do with any other bands - Dave Mustaine's name was all over not one but two of Metallica's albums: Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning. In the days before the Internet was king, I learned mainly from friends that Mustaine was a founding member of Metallica who had been given the boot before the first album was released. Why was he kicked out? The answer changed every time I asked it, though usually it involved Mustaine hitting the drugs and the booze too hard for the rest of Metallica to endure. The story never rang true to me, mainly because the idea of a metal band - or any rock band really - ejecting a member for drug use seemed laughable. Regardless, knowing that Mustaine helped create the world's biggest heavy metal band, that he'd been kicked out, and that he'd risen from the ashes to create his own metal monster just made him seem that much cooler. He was the heavy metal version of Wolverine - even among rebels, he was too rebellious. He's always piqued my curiosity, and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that before Megadeth broke into the mainstream with 1992's Countdown to Extinction (at which point I was listening to more punk and alternative rock and had all but forgotten metal), I hardly heard or read anything about him. I was a music news/factoid junkie, but Megadeth didn't get a lot of coverage in the days before Metallica's Black Album officially rendered thrash metal acceptable to the masses. Thrash metal hardly received any coverage on MTV News or in Rolling Stone and Spin; and when it did it was often tongue-in-cheek. You got the sense a Rolling Stone or Spin writer covering a thrash band felt like a New Yorker writer covering Jackass 3D.

So when I saw Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir on a co-worker's bookshelf, it caught my attention right away. I hadn't thought about the name in years, but once I saw it on a book cover, it was instantly irresistible.

Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir opens in 2002, with Mustaine learning that because of nerve damage to his left arm, there's a good chance he'll never play the guitar again. Leaving us with that cruel little cliffhanger, Mustaine and co-author Joe Layden jump back to Mustaine's stormy childhood. We learn of how Mustaine's mother took him and his sisters away from his allegedly abusive father (Mustaine maintains his father was not as abusive as his sisters claim, though he does this right before describing his father dragging him home by the ear with a pair of pliers) and eventually brought her and her family into the world of Jehovah's Witnesses. Reacting exactly as you'd expect he would, Mustaine rejects the Witnesses, gravitates towards music and drugs as a teenager, becomes a drug dealer for a number of years, and one day answers an ad in the local alternative weekly placed by Lars Ulrich. After helping to create what would become the most successful heavy metal band to date, Mustaine is kicked out during the band's trip to New York City. He's given a bus ticket back to California. With no money on a 4-day bus ride, he's forced to panhandle for food. During the trip he picks up a pamphlet about nuclear proliferation and flips through it just to pass the time. A line of the pamphlet reads, "The arsenal of megadeath can't be rid no matter what the peace treaties come to." When he forms a new metal band, the name Megadeth sticks. With a line-up that changes so often it would make the guys from Spinal Tap laugh (Mustaine makes this comparison himself several times), Megadeth wins success after success - occasionally making enemies of bands like Aerosmith, Pantera, and Dissection - but never quite reaching the level of fame and fortune of the four-man group that is Mustaine's white whale; Metallica. Through it all, Mustaine is never shy about the drug use that helped define his career in the public eye, just as he's not shy about copping to what could be considered a glaring hypocrisy: the fact that in spite of how much anger he's harbored towards Metallica over the years, if you added up all the people who have ever been in Metallica, it wouldn't even come close to equaling the number of musicians Dave Mustaine has fired from Megadeth (not to mention the producers, managers, and other non-musician professionals attached to Megadeth he's given the boot). We learn about Mustaine's many grasps at sobriety, his more recent conversion to Christianity, and his plans for the future.

I don't read many memoirs; at least not memoirs by celebrities. Mustaine may actually be the first such book I've read cover-to-cover, and what distinguishes it from the others is that, for the most part, I believe the narrator. I have no doubt his own history is, like anyone's, colored by his perception and so perhaps warped and misremembered in places. Particularly when it comes to the subject of his conflicts with Metallica, it's good to remember that two-sides-to-every-story cliché. Still, you get the sense reading Mustaine that its author is being as candid and honest as he can. On one hand, Mustaine obviously thinks very highly of himself; particularly in regards to his musicianship, his contributions to thrash metal in particular and rock in general, and specifically the credit he's owed for Metallica's success. He tended to rub me the wrong way whenever he talked about his many physical altercations with other musicians, including his own bandmates (though to be fair this is mostly my own coloring - Mustaine learned martial arts from an early age and I have a knee-jerk I-Call-Bullshit reaction to anyone telling a story that involves them using martial arts and winding up on the winning side of fisticuffs; which is perhaps unfair since no one would learn martial arts if they weren't at least occasionally effective, but 9-times-out-of-10 you know and I know that most assholes with kung-fu stories are full of shit). But what constantly wins me back to Mustaine's side is his admission of his own hypocrisy, his faults, and his bullshit.

What he writes about Metallica is a perfect example of this. It becomes clear very early on that of all the members of Metallica, the one with whom Mustaine held the biggest grudge was Lars Ulrich. He confirms what seems to be the general view of Ulrich and James Hetfield's Master/Blaster relationship. He goes so far as to refer to Ulrich as "Machiavellian." Regardless, he will often say of Ulrich's actions that, as much as it pissed him off at the time, he would've done the same. And later on, in some cases, he did do the same. The simple fact that Mustaine writes as much as he does about his feelings of frustration and betrayal towards Metallica is impressive. After all, one of his guiding mission statements of Megadeth was to overtake Metallica, and that clearly never happened. It would seem easy for Mustaine to try to downplay the humiliation he was dealt not only with his initial ejection from the band, but subsequent betrayals (such as being included in the documentary Some Kind of Monster in spite of his request to the contrary and Metallica's supposed assurances his request would be honored).

As far as whether or not Mustaine's version of the Mustaine/Metallica conflict should be believed; well, there's that whole two-sides-to-every-story thing again. I haven't read or heard much of Metallica's side of things, and obviously I wasn't there, though I do have two thoughts. First, the one and only thing about Mustaine's version of events that triggered any alarms on my part is the fact that, according to him, when they kicked him out, he didn't ask why. He describes the firing as occurring the morning after a day of heavy drinking. He was suffering a hangover and was understandably a little hazy. After they tell him he's out they hand him a bus ticket, he tells them not to use his songs, and James Hetfield drives him to Port Authority. Now I remember when I was fired from Subway, I didn't bother asking why because it was fucking Subway and I was happy to leave. But this was Metallica, a band clearly on the rise, and he didn't ask why. Maybe it's just one of those things you can't understand unless you're wearing his shoes, but it seems strange. Second, regardless of the old two-sides cliché, if even half of what Mustaine says about the things Metallica did to him over the years is true; Ulrich, Hetfield, and the rest should forgo any future group therapy and just have someone send them a notarized document that reads "Your emotional problems stem from being unrepentant douchebags. Deal with it."

Because Mustaine's firing from Metallica commanded most of my initial curiosity, I was worried I would lose interest in Mustaine as soon as it was covered; and he chronicles it early, in the fifth chapter. I was pleasantly surprised. Mustaine's career and personal life - neither of which seem independent from one another - are turbulent and interesting and all he needs to keep interest is exactly what he gives: honesty. I am used to testimonials and interviews with rock musicians, particularly with rock singers/frontmen, in which they refuse to admit (perhaps even to themselves) their free will had anything to do with their own careers. In spite of all of their Cobain-like statements to the contrary, rock musicians don't get famous by accident. Rock musicians don't get famous without trying to be famous. Rock musicians don't get famous without carefully cultivating an image that will sell. Mustaine never minces words about this. He wanted to be famous, he wanted money, he wanted to be worshiped by women, he wanted to be a rock 'n' roll god, and he wanted the heads of his old Metallica bandmates on pikes at the foot of his heavy metal kingdom. His candor is refreshing it makes the telling of his career's trajectory hypnotic. As much as he can be self-serving at times and occasionally merciless in his dealings with former bandmates, it's tough not to like him and root for him.

Perhaps the most impressive testament I can think of is the interest in thrash metal reading Mustaine has reawakened. Somewhere in the middle of reading the memoir I realized I no longer owned any of Megadeth's albums. I immediately downloaded Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? and the mostly instrumental "Hangar 18" from Rust in Peace. I've been hunting down old albums from Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Pantera along with asking friends for recommendations of thrash I haven't stumbled upon yet. When I wandered over to Megadeth's website and saw the trailer for an upcoming Metallica/Slayer/Megadeth/Anthrax show in California next month, I briefly humored the idea of looking into a trip to the west coast. If I had known sooner, maybe, but that's okay. I found just the idea of spending time and money on nothing but headbanging to that old, familiar jug-jug-jug-jugga invigorating.

For anyone who's ever had any interest in the metal scene or the rock of the '80s and '90s, there's no good reason not to check out Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir.

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