Metal in all its shapes and incarnations--whether it's called speed or thrash or merely hard rock--is perhaps the most prevalent sound track to suburban youth, and since its inception (with Blue Cheer, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, or the Velvet Underground--depending upon whom you ask), its audience has remained almost unchanged. It's almost like Wooderson, the cruiser in Dazed and Confused, said in explaining his attraction for high school girls so long after graduation: the bands may grow older, but the crowds stay the same age.
Megadeth frontman (and onetime Metallica member) Dave Mustaine was one of those kids for whom metal and hard rock provided asylum from an outside world he considered harsh, cold, and unloving. Whether he's trying too hard to portray himself as a symbol of heavy-metal alienation or just recounting his youth as he remembers it, Mustaine paints his childhood as a bleak, unhappy place--one he seems to often revisit for protracted periods. And, he explains, it's the place to which he can trace Megadeth's worldview--one that's rather apocalyptic and angry, despairing and filled with guys "better left for dead" (as he sings in Blood of Heroes, off Megadeth's latest Youthanasia).
As Mustaine describes it in rather overblown Dickensian terms (imagine, say, Oliver Twist crossed with Fast Times at Ridgemont High), he was an unloved kid who covered his room in AC/DC and Led Zeppelin posters and cranked his stereo to tune out the sounds of parents who yelled at him and of friends who belittled him. He describes himself as a "very lonely and very skinny" kid, as someone "people just didn't want to hear from," and so he turned to friendly faces like Angus Young and Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne--friends he knew wouldn't make fun of him.
"There was this undeniable loneliness I had growing up on my own," Mustaine says, portraying himself as the angst-ridden EveryBeavis. "Since I was 15, I was livin' on the streets, and that's about 11 years old by today's standards, and I was so incredibly lonely that I realized I needed a friend that would never say, 'No, I'm not coming out to play,' and that wasn't a make-believe friend where people would think I'm the kid from The Shining.
"For me, the guitar was that friend. We fell in love with each other till I started beatin' its guts out, and now it's kind of my slave. I never practice at all. It's something I just pick up. It's one of those things where if you possess that power and you don't misuse it, it's an incredible thing. There's a lot of people that just crank their amps up and play crap, and I feel for them. I feel very, very sorry for them because they don't know how to make the instrument come alive."
Mustaine likes to speak of himself as a split personality--as the rational man who created a Megadeth Internet page to speak to fans and prove he is no madman, and as the wild-child who was once notorious for his self-destructive tendencies. He refers to his condition as "borderline schizophrenia" that has landed him in years of psychotherapy; but without the ability to go in and out of character, he explains, he would be unable to write.
Mustaine not long ago was legendary among metal circles for his drug addiction and bad-boy behavior, which usually meant bad-mouthing every band Megadeth toured with--during the tours. The band was booted from a tour with Slayer, banned from ever sharing a stage with Testament again (no great loss), and dumped from a primo bill it shared with Aerosmith when Mustaine went on record as saying Steve Tyler and the boys were putting the "elder" in elder statesmen. Publicists who worked with the band during the height of Mustaine's drug and alcohol days relate, off the record, dozens of horror stories that one woman simply summarizes as "terrifying."
"The difference between me and that character," Mustaine says as though speaking about someone else entirely, "is the look in my eyes, the way I walk, the way I talk to people, the tension in my voice, and my acceptance and tolerance. Plus, the wit is just so sharp and barbed when I'm in character.
"But I like that because it's a part of me that's something I can put up on the shelf when I don't want it because I can be gentle and loving and genuine when I want to be. People just go, 'God, I don't believe you're the same person.' And I think that's what the kids on the Internet see--they see me as a real person. But when I get pissed off, though, fuckin' watch out because that's when the character comes out. It's like when the Hulk's eyes turn green."
Megadeth performs January 19 at the Bomb Factory. Corrosion of Conformity opens.