Megadeth bassist David Ellefson's autobiography My Life With Deth follows him from battles with drugs during the band's early days through his religious awakening as a soon-to-be-ordained Lutheran pastor. (It's out tomorrow, the same day he reads at Book Soup and Megadeth performs at Shrine Expo Hall.)
Many will find most compelling his behind-the-scenes tales over the course of Megadeth's thirty-year career. In our exclusive excerpt below, Ellefson details meeting band frontman Dave Mustaine for the first time in 1983 after he and three friends — Brad Schmidt, Brent Giese, and Greg Handevidt — moved to L.A. from Minnesota in pursuit of their rock 'n' roll dreams.
See also: The 20 Greatest Metal Albums in History
From My Life With Deth:
We moved into our apartment around June 1, 1983. We wanted to start meeting some people, and one day Brad said, “I saw this guy walking around. He had long blond hair and he was barefoot, and he looked like a rock 'n' roll guy!” We decided to try and meet this dude: maybe he could become a buddy.
A couple of days later, Greg and I woke up in our little studio apartment and started jamming some tunes. I was playing the introduction to “Running with the Devil” by Van Halen at about nine or ten o'clock in the morning, when all of a sudden we heard this loud “Shut up!” Something came crashing down on our window air conditioner.
We looked out and saw a ceramic flowerpot. We stopped playing. My first thought was, “People in Hollywood aren't very friendly, are they?” Where we grew up on the farm, we left our keys in the car and our houses unlocked, and people would drop by whenever they wanted. Everybody knew each other, and it was very “come as you are.” Now I'm in Hollywood–and this is my first introduction to my neighbors.
Within a day or so, Brad confirmed that the blond-haired, barefoot guy he had seen was the dude who lived upstairs from us. So one night, a day or two later, we went upstairs and knocked on the door. We heard some music playing through the door and thought, “That's got to be him.”
Dave Mustaine cracked the door open, with the chain still on it, looked out and gave us the infamous Mustaine smirk. He had a glass of wine or cognac in his hand and said, “Who is it?”
I said, “Hey, er, we live downstairs. Do you know where we can buy some cigarettes?” He gave us a snarl and said, “Down the street on the corner,” and slammed the door in our faces.
We stood there and Greg said, “That was definitely the guy–but that didn't go very well. Let's try a new approach.” So we knocked again.
He cracked open the door again. “What?” Mustaine asked, clearly annoyed.
We were like, “Hey, do you know where to get any beer?”
He paused for a minute. Then, realizing that although we looked like hoodlums, we were pretty harmless guys who just wanted to hang out, he finally unlatched the chain and said, “All right, come on in.”
Though at first Dave appeared skeptical, he made us feel at home.
There was a singer there named Lor, a big, tall, black-haired, sunglasses-wearing, Nikki Sixx look-alike–a guy Dave was working with on some new songs. He was dark and menacing in appearance, but he was actually a friendly guy. Dave's roommate, Tracy, was there, too. Music was playing, and it wound up being a very casual, sociable evening.
We decided to go down to the corner liquor store, right on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Sycamore, where Dave–who was the California legal drinking age of twenty-one, while the rest of us were eighteen–picked up a case of Heineken for all of us. I noticed as we walked back to the apartment that with his flip-flops and blond hair, Dave had this typical California surfer look. He had the case of beer up on his shoulder as he was walking, and he told us stories about some band he'd been in called Metallica, which none of us had ever heard of, but he was a good storyteller, and we were wide-eyed with wonder.
Although his tone was angry and resentful when he mentioned Metallica, you could tell he was proud of his achievements with them and that he had been around the block a time or two in show business.
I was intimidated but impressed. Having had my own experiences over the last several years gigging in the Midwest bar and ballroom circuits, I was intrigued to learn how the scene operated on the bigger stages, where I soon learned that Dave was a budding celebrity rock star.
In the apartment Dave had two Marshall half-stacks and a B.C. Rich Bich guitar, which he'd brought back on the bus from New York after his stint with Metallica a couple of months before. He played a couple of songs for us. They included an untitled song, which would go on to be “Devil's Island” on the Peace Sells . . . but Who's Buying? album, and essentially his first post-Metallica song, “Megadeath.” That song was later retitled “Set the World Afire” but it didn't get released until the So Far, So Good . . . So What! record in 1988. It had been inspired on his bus ride home from New York [after Mustaine got fired by Metallica], when he'd seen a quote on a handbill from California senator Alan Cranston, who said, “The arsenals of megadeath can't be rid,” meaning that America had built up so much nuclear firepower that we couldn't get rid of it, no matter what we did. That was the basis of the song.
I remember hearing those songs and going, “Wow!” It was really heavy, unique music, and scary-sounding because it was so dark. Immediately, there was something extremely compelling about Dave and his music. While he carried himself with the air of my teenage idol David Lee Roth from Van Halen, he had modern-day skills that went a step beyond the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that had inspired me just a few years prior. Clearly, he was the real deal.
The next day, Greg was really enthused. He was like, “We gotta play with that guy! We should go back up there and hook up with him.” But I was thinking, “Man, I'm way out of my depth here.” I knew I was a good bass player, but playing with this guy would mean taking a huge leap in my life, which was not simply about playing the notes on a bass. I'd be taking a step up to a whole new level, in terms of my lifestyle as well as musically.
But Greg pushed back. He was a loudmouth with an attitude: rebellious toward his parents, and he'd always been in trouble in school.
Simply put, he was the perfect fit for rock 'n' roll. I, on the other hand, was more mild-mannered because I'd been raised in a very different home. Without Greg, I don't know that I would have had the fortitude to go up and knock on Dave's door.
[The music school Ellefson was enrolled in] wasn't scheduled to start for about eight weeks, which allowed me some time to find my way around L.A., find part-time employment, and give my life some stability. But this move to hook up with Dave was like starting a crash course in showbiz only a week after high school, and it instantly changed the direction of my life, possibly forever. I wanted in, but I knew it would be immediate and that there would be no summer vacation. This would be the beginning of the rest of my life. As scared as I was, I knew I had to do it.
As for Dave, he was sizing us up. He is a quick study in people's character, and as much as we thought we were ultra-cool hoodlums, I think he quickly knew we were pretty harmless young lads doing our best to dress the part of rural metalheads.
But there was no going back. A couple of days later, we were hanging with Dave and playing some songs together. Dave had another guy there named Matt Kisselstein, a kid from Beverly Hills who was playing bass. Matt had been a bassist for about a year and I liked him, but he eventually conceded that it made sense for me to be the bass player. In fact, when we went through Dallas on the Risk album tour in 1999, at a radio station we visited, Matt was in upper management. He got to do what he was good at, and so did I. We had a good laugh about how things turned out.
Right from the beginning, Dave was earnestly formulating ideas for a new band, his first post-Metallica venture. This wasn't just some random jamming hangout situation. Dave was creating something totally new, and he was determined to call the shots and be in charge. In most of my bands in Minnesota, I had been largely in charge; but this move now required that I be subordinate to Dave, which was not easy, due to my take-charge attitude. But this was not music that you could hear at the time from any other band. I had been mostly playing bass with my fingers, even though I had been a pick player as well. I'd honed my chops on Steve Harris's playing in early Iron Maiden and Bob Daisley in Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne's band–both of whom were different stylistically from what Dave's music required. Despite the learning curve, Dave said, “You're definitely a good bass player. You've got chops, and you know what you're doing”–which translated to “I can work with you.”
See also: The 20 Greatest Metal Albums in History
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