"I look like death," moaned Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, who was having trouble keeping his eyes open while sitting at the bar in a West Hollywood restaurant waiting for a table.
The long-haired, slightly built singer/guitarist really was pale and weak. "It's not drugs," insisted Mustaine, 26, who apologized for not being his usual acerbic, sassy self. "With a band like ours (a raunchy thrash-metal quartet) people figure we're drugged out. But I'm sick. It might be food poisoning from a pizza I had at the Minneapolis airport last night."
Mustaine, whose band is opening for Dio on Saturday at the Long Beach Arena, flew into town during a short break in the Dio tour, to do some promotion for its Top 30 Capitol Records album, "so far, so good . . . so what!" and to visit home. A San Diego native raised in Huntington Beach, Mustaine now lives with Megadeth's bassist and co-founder Dave Ellefson in Hollywood in what Mustaine referred to as "the gangland section."
Mustaine dragged himself off the bar stool to the table waiting in the restaurant's dining room. When he was gone, a middle-aged man at the bar, suspecting Mustaine was a rock star, asked his identity. "Oh, one of those heavy-metal hoodlums," he said snootily. "Looks like he's on drugs to me. You gotta watch out for them. They're the enemy, you know."
This negative judgment isn't anything new for Megadeth, which is usually associated with the dregs of metal. These guys are low men on the metal totem pole.
Heavy metal, considered deathless din by most of the pop music Establishment, has basically two camps--mainstream and thrash metal. Mainstream metal types--like Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Whitesnake and Def Leppard--all sell millions of records. Much of their music is melodic and commercial. It's been tempered and toned down for radio. As Mustaine put it: "The danger has gone out of their music. It's safe, it's glamorous, it's show biz."
Thrash metal--trash metal might be a better term--is a pure form of metal. Calling this kind of metal heavy is an understatement. It's metal without the commercial glitz--all rage, raunch and racing riffs. Since it doesn't get much airplay, many people don't even know what it sounds like.
"We do a lot of shows and sell records by word-of-mouth," noted Mustaine, who, in deference to his flip-flopping stomach, ordered just a small fruit plate.
Vocals, he acknowledged, don't often fit into thrash metal. Megadeth's music is characterized by long, torrid instrumentals. "It's the feel, riffs, the catchy hook lines that hook you in," he pointed out. "The music is fast and powerful. It pumps you up. It's like speeding in a great car."
It's hard to understand Megadeth's lyrics because Mustaine's singing is really an extreme form of shrieking. Often, he sounds like he's trying to scream and gargle at the same time. Still, it's enormously effective. "I get across the feeling of the music," he explained. "I give it everything I have. I pour out my guts on stage."
Mustaine, who writes most of the Megadeth's music, noted another difference between mainstream and thrash metal. "Thrash is more into reality, dealing with social issues and taboo topics and messages. With some of the songs I fashion myself after Aesop, with a moral at the end. On the new album, 'Hook in Mouth' is about censorship and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center); 'Set the World Afire' is about post-nuclear holocaust.
"But mainstream talks too much about love and sex. There are other things to write about. There's been enough said about love and sex."
Anger courses through thrash metal--just like it does through many of the fans who thrive on it, according to Mustaine: "These are kids in their mid teens. They have something to be angry about. They're blue-collar kids. They're from low-income families, from the wrong side of the tracks. I identify with them. Thrash metal ain't yuppie music."
Mustaine contrasted the thrash-metal maniacs with fans at the other end of the spectrum--the U2 audience: "I saw a U2 show and I felt totally out of place. The people there weren't my kind of people. At lot of thrash-metal kids feel out of place and alienated--from everything. I said to myself: 'What am I doing here?' Everybody was clean-cut. It was like being at a yuppie convention. I felt like I was being clean-cut to death."
Illness seemed to have taken the starch out of Mustaine. He wasn't saying anything outrageous, like his sexist women-as-meat remarks that got him into so much trouble two years ago. He claimed he made those comments in jest, but when the issue arose, he couldn't resist a sexist dig: "I like women. I'm engaged. I have three sisters. I understand women. I understand that when they're getting ready to go out, they need more time in the bathroom. I understand when they're getting ready to go out, they're always late."
Mustaine and Ellefson formed Megadeth in 1983, after Mustaine had been booted out of Metallica. A recent reissue of Metallica's 1983 debut album, "Kill 'Em All," features Mustaine's songwriting.
What caused him to be ejected from Metallica, after being a member for nearly two years? "I had this puppy," he explained. "The dog put his paws on this guy's car--a guy in the band. He kicked the dog and I punched the guy out. You don't kick a dog--especially my dog. There was tension and bad blood after that. I was asked to leave. If it hadn't been for that incident, I'd probably still be in that band."
Taking a year-and-a-half to form, Megadeth signed a deal with a small label, Combat Records, and released "Killing Is My Business . . . and Business Is Good" in 1985, which sold 160,000. But since Megadeth and the label's administrators were always locked in combat, the band switched to Capitol.
Its debut Capitol album, "Peace Sells . . . But Who's Buying"--highlighted by the rip-roaring, anti-war "Peace Sells"--sold more than 400,000. The new album, "so far, so good . . . so what!," is already at the 400,000 mark after about a month in release. The best tune is a blistering remake of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," guest-starring ex-Pistol Steve Jones.
The current album marks the debut of guitarist Jeff Young and drummer Chuck Behler. "We had to get rid of the other guys," Mustaine said. "It was a personal problem. Actually, it was drug problem. It was getting in the way of their work. A little drugs here and there, if they're under control, don't get in the way. But in this situation, it got out of hand. This is a good lesson about the harm drugs can do. I'm no saint. I have a cocktail before I go on stage. But I keep it under control."
Mustaine, who had been pale, was slowing turning green. "I'm fading," he announced weakly. "Maybe we should stop. I still think it was that pizza that did me in. I may never eat pizza again."