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Megadeth's Dave Mustaine Is Metal's MVP

Dave Mustaine has never gotten over his ouster from Metallica. At least not if you believe what he said to former bandmate Lars Ulrich in the documentary Some Kind of Monster.

"It's been hard to watch everything that you guys do and touch turn to gold, and everything I do backfire," he says upon confronting the drummer after 25 years. "And I'm sure there's a lot of people who would consider my backfire complete success. But am I happy being number two? No."

Mustaine has a point. His band, Megadeth, which joins Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer in Indio, California, this weekend for The Big 4 festival, has never achieved the sort of success his former band has since they booted him for partying too hard. Actually, on the official Big 4 bill, Megadeth is listed as thrash metal's number three — not two — below Slayer.

You can understand how that might make Mustaine bitter — especially considering that he's always thought himself a far more talented guitarist than his replacement, Kirk Hammett. I'm really not sure whether Mustaine was hamming it up in Monster (learned opinions vary), but being constantly compared to Metallica has to suck. Especially since it's not a fair comparison.

Metallica is an all-star team. Everyone who's ever been associated with the band — save, perhaps, little-known original bassist Ron McGovney — is fucking awesome. James Hetfield is obviously awesome. Ulrich, despite the Napster thing, is awesome. Hammett is awesome, too, no matter what Mustaine says. Cliff Burton was super-awesome, but when he died in a bus crash, he was replaced by Jason Newsted, who was also awesome. Newsted left and was replaced by Robert Trujillo, the band's awesomest bassist yet, in my opinion.

Mustaine, on the other hand, is just one dude. He's awesome, sure. But he's also, in the parlance of our times, a one-man wolf pack. And this is something he's never been terribly content with, on a constant search for a kindred spirit that'll propel his band where he wants it to go. Mustaine has had some help from steady bassist Dave Ellefson, but his band has employed 22 people over the years — there's a separate Wikipedia page for all the band's former members, if you're interested — none of them up to par with the members of his old band. Obviously, Megadeth has never been able to compete with Metallica. How could they?

This kills Mustaine. The Monster interview will forever be the way people remember things, but his public discontentment with being second chair behind his former band goes back as far as 1988, when he named his third record So Far, So Good . . . So What! Mustaine was ranked number one in Joel McIver's book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists, but all he seems to remember is that he never got to play on Master of Puppets and didn't get credit for writing part of "Leper Messiah."

Here's the thing: If Mustaine wants to compare his team to their team, he'll always lose. Instead, he should compare himself to anyone else who steps on stage this weekend, from Metallica, Anthrax, or Slayer. Mustaine, I'd say, is the most productive man in the lot. He may not be able to single-handedly will his band to Metallica-level greatness — Metallica are The Beatles of metal — but he's certainly done more than any of that band's members individually. Mustaine is the only reason Megadeth is on the Big 4 bill at all — even Anthrax's Scott Ian couldn't make such a claim. Contrary to popular impression, Ian writes the band's lyrics, but most of the music is composed by drummer Charlie Benante. Slayer and Metallica are, of course, total team projects.

So we have Dave Mustaine, metal's rightful MVP. Sounds crazy, right? It's not.

First, consider what Mustaine went through to get where he is. He pulled himself up and started a successful project after getting the boot from one of the world's biggest bands. In fact, Mustaine is probably the most successful musician kicked out of such a big band so close to its birth. Pete Best quickly gave up on his post-Beatles project and went to work for the government. Doug Hopkins, the Gin Blossoms guitarist who wrote several of their biggest hits, was tossed out of the band because of his alcoholism and killed himself a few weeks after getting a gold record for "Hey Jealousy." Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd became a psychotic recluse.

Ulrich and Hetfield more or less left Mustaine for dead when they dropped him off at a bus station in New York, where the band was recording their first record, with his gear and a ticket back to L.A. Miraculously, Dave was done moping — and busy writing lyrics — before he rolled back home.

Second, and more important, metal fans of nearly every bent should concede that Megadeth actually surpassed Metallica at some point in their respective careers. Any cross in the bands' trajectories, for all the reasons above, is nothing short of amazing, and due solely to Dave's maniacal diligence. (Mustaine canceled an interview for this piece because I got swamped with work and called him five minutes late — no hard feelings.)

If you're a hardcore old-school thrash fan, you should concede that 1990's Rust in Peace surpassed Metallica's poorly produced 1988 album . . . And Justice for All. Just listen to the riffs on their respective openers, Megadeth's bone-crushing Northern Ireland-themed "Holy Wars" and Metallica's jerk-off backwards-guitar-bullshit-about-nuclear apocalypse "Blackened." If you're a purist who likes it super-thrashy, you should acknowledge that Megadeth held your candle after Metallica released "One."

Let's say, like me, you prefer a slightly more traditional pop structure for mid-tempo songs with big hooks. It's true that Metallica pretty much perfected that formula on their biggest seller, their self-titled effort known as "The Black Album." But that was also the only thing the band released in an eight-year span and the band's only release of the type. Megadeth, meanwhile, put out two excellent records in that mold, Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia. For my money, the standout tracks on Youthanasia — "Train of Consequences," "À Tout le Monde," and "I Thought I Knew It All" are better than most of "The Black Album."

Youthanasia has always been a personal favorite, which is why it's super-cool to learn it was recorded in Phoenix. Mustaine wanted out of L.A. and came here, where several members of the band had roots, to build a studio in a warehouse. The twists and turns of the recording process are documented in an interesting and now-out-of-print documentary called Evolver: The Making of Youthanasia. The documentary is no Some Kind of Monster, but it's cool to see the band hanging out in Phoenix in the mid-1990s, and it's available on YouTube.

Even if you're unwilling to concede those songs are better than "Enter Sandman," "The Unforgiven," and "Nothing Else Matters," you'd have to agree that factoring "Symphony of Destruction" or a few of Extinction's other standout tracks leaves Megadeth with more to show from the era than Metallica.

Neither Megadeth or Metallica had particularly strong finishes to the 1990s, but as Metallica fell into total disrepute through the sheer shittiness of Load and ReLoad (remember "The Unforgiven II"), Megadeth put out an underrated record called Cryptic Writings, an album that was also more hard rock than metal but not nearly as obnoxiously so. Listen to "Fuel," then "Almost Honest" — I think Megadeth did it better.

Nowadays, Metallica is in the middle of a full-on resurgence, having put out one of the best-ever albums, Death Magnetic, at the end of 2008. Megadeth, on the other hand, is in a weird time, as Mustaine is mostly sober and Born Again. He's back to thrash, and getting good reviews, but he's also making some of Metallica's early-'00s mistakes — rushing out album after album and, in 2007, even re-hashing "À Tout le Monde" with guest vocals from the chick who sings for Italian goth band Lacuna Coil.

Still, I wouldn't count him out for long. Especially not if he sticks around the polo grounds to see the way rapturous fans greet Metallica this weekend. Mustaine is metal's MVP, but ask Dan Marino how he feels without a ring. Seeing his former inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has gotta burn.

It's a shame Mustaine can't feel content with what he's done, but that disappointment is also what's fueled his very impressive output for the past 30 years.

"The biggest misunderstanding is all of the stuff in the past, the disagreements with other bands, stuff that is so old. None of us care about it anymore," he recently told the Chicago Tribune.

Really? Let's hear Metallica play "Leper Messiah" this weekend as Mustaine watches from the wings.

I'd bet he grinds his teeth a little as he watches Hammett shred those solos. As great as he is individually, who could blame him?

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar