COCAINE, METHADONE, HEROIN AND ALCOHOL- the Four Horsemen of the Chemical Apocalypse.
Addiction to any one of them unleashes an incomprehensible wake of personal wreckage; find yourself addicted to all three and you’d better make sure that your affairs (what’s left of them) are in order for that day when some random sheriff finds you lying in a room, alone and dead, with a blood-encrusted syringe piercing your swollen, purple forearm.
In the mid-80s, as his band Megadeth carved their seminal contribution into the back of the nascent thrash movement, bassist David Ellefson found himself on a collision course with precisely such a grisly demise. Withered, strung out and emotionally fried after a ten year campaign of heroic substance abuse, David’s odds of seeing the end of the Reagan administration rivaled those of the weekly Mega Millions draw. Worse, it wasn’t as if the twentysomething rock star could easily shelter himself from the seditious temptations of booze and drugs; they lurked around seemingly every corner- in the alleys behind the venues, in the well-stocked dressing rooms and even on his very stage.
This was a time when rehab still carried an odious stigma- among the denim-and-leather, testosterone-soaked legions of the rock and roll faithful, wanton excess was not simply tolerated among its golden gods—it was expected. It would be many years before recovery would enjoy positive regard in the music industry.
Eviscerating the odds, David eventually found a path out of his crippling addictions, charting a new course as a sober, successful musician at age 25. Unlike many of his peers, David’s early entry into recovery afforded him an uncommonly clear vision throughout the majority of his band’s historic career- the rise and ebbing of thrash metal, the stormy tensions within his own band (the band’s mercurial founder, Dave Mustaine, endured his own grim battle with addiction through much of the band’s formative years), and his eventual departure from the band in 2004 and return to Megadeth in 2010 for the Rust in Peace 20th Anniversary tour.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. Since their inception, Megadeth have sold over fifty million albums worldwide and notched eleven Grammy nominations. Not too shabby for a noisy bunch of hard-charging headbangers.
This year saw the now-legendary rhythm man release his autobiography, My Life with Deth, co-authored by the planet’s foremost heavy metal scribe, Joel McIver. While the account would certainly need to confront some of David’s own past depravity, one of the thorniest issues was not chronicling the wanton substance abuse but Ellefson’s eventual conversion to Christianity and his subsequent involvement in the Lutheran Church. Metal fans and rock bio enthusiasts alike can readily celebrate a good recovery story (provided the dirt quotient charts sufficiently high), but they tend to cast a dim view upon even the most casual reference to religion. How could David include his spiritual journey within his heavy metal odyssey without coming across as preachy?
The reaction to the biography has squarely established that David found the sweet spot, spinning a ripping saga full of jaw-dropping depravity, captivating creative insights and yes, an inspirational spiritual transformation.
We caught up with Dave while he and Megadeth were in Brazil, touring with the legendary Black Sabbath.
David Ellefson: I was talking to Ozzy (Osbourne) the other day and he described South America as the “last vestige of Beatlemania.” In Japan, Europe and America these days, no one really gives a shit anymore because they see everything. But down here, it’s full-on. We’ve got fans at the hotel, security at the airport and the whole thing, which is really cool.
The most obvious question is that you’ve had enough material for a book for an awfully long time- why now?
Well, it seems to be a trend in our business for people to write these books. I was talking to Slash recently and I mentioned to him that he was one of the first ones- he kind of led the wave of these, and I think in his situation there was so much going on, members and former members, that it was a good book to read because it straightened some of the facts out. I think that what’s cool about my book is that Dave (Mustaine) and I are the only two guys, maybe next to Joey Kramer and Steven Tyler, who wrote books and who are still in the same band together. Most of these books tend be like, “Throw everyone under the bus,” and “We’re never working together again,” like the old Spinal Tap moments. I think it’s pretty cool that Dave and I were about to write our books, tell our stories and certainly the Megadeth history—his from center stage, mine from stage right—and have something that’s cool and fun and enjoyable for the fans, but we can also get personal and talk about things in our personal lives.
Motley Crue set the bar– “The Dirt Standard,” if you will– for decadent rock bios, which sort of cuts both ways; there can be an expectation that such a book will contain jaw-dropping tales of excess, while at the same time, that approach can feed into certain cliches. What were your thoughts on approaching that topic?
Initially I would have never written a book like this, except Joel really urged me to approach it from the perspective of Megadeth’s legacy—something that would really be cool for the fans, so I wrote it with the view of the fan reading it in mind. Probably the biggest struggles for me in writing this were some of the lifestyle and sobriety issues—just by the nature of them, you just don’t talk about them so much. It’s part of the process of getting through it is that it’s not something you brag about, but if I can disclose it and talk about it in a way that might be helpful or inspiring to someone else who’s going through those things, then it’s a good thing. Faith issues in rock and roll are already somewhat prejudiced and can be seen in a negative light. So I really wanted to be careful that I could tell my story but not in a way that came off as preachy and that kind of thing, because that never worked for me. I’d never want to read a book like that, so at the end of the day I tried to write a book that I would want to read.
Dave’s book didn’t really feel like it pulled a lot of punches. Many of his observations, including those concerning you, were quite candid, especially in regard to some of your struggles. Did his book inform the way you approached your story at all?
Dave and I are two very different people, and it’s interesting that two guys in the same band named “Dave” could be so different. (laughing) Yet you have the same aspirations, and I think that’s kind of the beauty of the story of Dave and me—we come from very different backgrounds, very different upbringings; we met at the epicenter of heavy metal in Hollywood in 1983, both with the aspirations of starting the most kickass band on the planet, and the two different viewpoints that we both have, by and large, is the chemistry of Megadeth. I’ve done things on my own and they’re not Megadeth and Dave did Megadeth without me for a few years, while there was the thrust of Megadeth behind that, I think we all agree that when harmony came back between me and Dave and we both got back on stage together, everybody relaxed and it was kind of like, “Yeah, this is the Megadeth that we’ve been used to seeing and hearing all these years,” you know?
Was it difficult mining the memory banks for the details within these stories?
When you’re going through drug and alcohol recovery, these revelations happen and the lights come on… those happened for me at a very young age—at age 25—I was still a very young man, not yet fully matured as a man. I’m glad I got sober at such a young age because I was at least given the opportunity to have clarity because when you’re in the haze of drugs and alcohol and you’re young and not fully matured, you don’t have the gift of clarity. I saw so many people wake up—if they even woke up at all—in the later years of their life and realize that they’d missed the best years of their life and the best years of their career. I think that for me, that clarity that came at age 25 when I got clean allowed me, I’d like to think, to take a more mature look at my life as I wrote in the pages of my book.
For me, it was a ten year journey because really, by age twenty-three, I was done, and it took me another eighteen months to get out of it, and through that struggle, that’s when I realized how powerful it was, because even when I wanted to stop using, I couldn’t. That’s true addiction, when it has more power than you’re capable of mustering. Of course, that moment is one when you turn to something, somewhere for a desperate cry for help. That is an age-old remedy of gathering strength through surrendering to faith—the surrender to win adage. I think that that part of my book is the hopeful part. There’s the experience of my past, the strength of what happened when I met my match and the hope of what has come of my life since then. For me, I see a lot of these books that are sensationalized- someone gets out of rehab and then they write a book and then they’re on the talk show circuit and while everyone has a story to tell, people are at a very frail point right there and I’m just glad that I’ve had all these years of stability under my belt, that probably answers your first question as to why this was the better time to write it, as opposed to trying to write it twenty years ago.
Speaking of timing, many of these biographies carry the implicit nudge that the subject’s halcyon creative days are behind them, and now they’re going to reflect on them. Where do you see yourself in the arc of your own career?
I’d say that Megadeth and I are entering into the legacy years. I say that because we get to be creative and write new music, yet clearly the fans like a trip down memory lane and want to visit yesteryear, and that was made clear to us when we did the 20th Anniversary Rust in Peace tour in 2010, which is when I came back and rejoined Megadeth. That tour, which was only supposed to be a month, turned into a year-long world tour. (laughing) It was almost like a reunion tour of sorts because of the music from that record. That led to us doing Countdown to Extinction live a few years ago, which was released just a couple weeks ago as a DVD, and as I started to look at it, so many of those records in the 80s and into the 90s… those were big, big years for Megadeth commercially and certainly from a creative point of view, our contribution really put our stamp on the face of heavy metal. The good news for me is that I was clean through all of that and so I got to experience everything, from Rust in Peace until now, through sober eyes, clear memory and clear judgment and I think that maybe that’s… as I was writing my story out, it was cool that once I put down the party favors, that’s when the party really began. For me, it’s almost like the good Lord hit the reset button and gave me a second chance and I got to do it the right way, rather than the wrong way. As a result, I get to remember it, too.
Megadeth also released a new album this year—Super Collider. Where do you see this fitting in with your overall catalog?
New records are always interesting for Megadeth because probably 50% of the fan base would love to just hit repeat on Rust in Peace– that’s the soundtrack to their lives and if that’s all we ever did, they could die and go to heaven, you know? But there’s the other half of the fan base who came into the Megadeth fold at various points along the way, maybe with Countdown to Extinction, which was a more song-oriented and melodic record. Same with Youthanasia, same with Cryptic Writings. Some of our younger fans got introduced to Megadeth when the thrash metal movement became really popular again in the mid-00s, led largely by the next wave of bands like Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God and those kind of bands. But making a Megadeth record now, we realize we’re not a one-trick pony and while we can write “Holy Wars” or “Hangar 18,” there’s also a tendency to write “Symphony of Destruction” and those kinds of songs. So a new Megadeth album like Super Collider is going to have a title track like “Super Collider,” which is a very melodic, very mainstream kind of rock song, yet also have things like “Built for War,” “Kingmaker” and other songs that have very much the traditional Megadeth thrash elements in them.
You know, I will a little bit. Every once in awhile, I’ll pop open YouTube or something and watch a Kreator video or something from Overkill or maybe I’ll go check out the latest Soulfly record or the new Motorhead. Probably the ones that caught my ear most recently are the new Carcass record and the new Trivium album. So yeah, I think a lot of our friends from our era are making new records and a lot of these younger bands are coming up and clearly have noted Megadeth as being one of their big inspirations, and it’s cool to see what they’re doing, which is hopefully not just doing what we do, because we don’t need another Megadeth- we need inspiration that comes from us to then inspire the next generation. That’s how this thing works and that’s what keeps heavy metal alive, it’s what keeps it fresh, what innovates, recreates itself and it’s a story that will continue to be told. It’s kind of ironic to say that since we’re out here on the road with Black Sabbath, who to me were really the inventors of heavy metal. There were Zep, Sabbath and Deep Purple, but for me Sabbath was my Led Zeppelin; they were the band that wrote the riff; the coolest riffs, the darkest lyrics with this dark, ominous vibe… music today doesn’t sound like old Black Sabbath, nor should it- times have changed and music has changed and I think we all can tip our hat and point back to Black Sabbath as a core inspiration to so many of us and it’s nice to see that with Megadeth now, thirty years into our career, we’re inspiring the next and maybe the second generation to be coming up behind us.
If you could script the next ten for Megadeth, how would they look?
To some degree I don’t think they’d look too different from what we’re doing right now. I think that for us, more than anything, going into new countries to play our songs is one of the greatest thrills because we’ve been to a lot of places and it’s easy to go, “Yeah, been there, done that,” but when you open the door to a new country, it’s such a thrill to know that there’s still uncharted territory here on Planet Earth, where they are so thrilled and so grateful that you made the effort to get to their country and play, and that to me is the real connection of heavy metal.
With special thanks to Kaley Nelson.