About the Author
David Ellefson is a founding member of the Grammy-nominated heavy metal band Megadeth and founder of the worship service MEGA Life! Ministries in Arizona. Megadeth has sold more than twenty million albums and received eleven Grammy nominations.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Alice Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) is the leader of the legendary, Grammy-winning rock band that shares his name. Alice and his band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2011.
Joel McIver is the bestselling author of several books on rock music. His writing has appeared in several publications, including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Classic Rock.
My Life with Deth CHAPTER ONE
“If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs.”
I grew up on a farm about six miles north of Jackson, Minnesota, in a little town of about three thousand people. My very first memory, from when I was two years old or even younger, is of my grandmother holding me while I was looking out of the dining-room window, watching the cattle trucks come in and out of the yard.
Ellefson is a Norwegian name, though my combined ancestry encompasses Norway, Germany, England, Denmark, and Sweden. My paternal grandparents were Henry and Anna Ellefson. I didn’t get to know them well as I was very young when they both passed away from congestive heart failure, the same illness that would claim their son, my father, many years later. I knew my mother’s parents, Arthur and Isabel Jorgenson, much better and spent many weekends on their farm in Gillette Grove, Iowa, about twenty minutes southwest of Spencer.
Grandma Isabel was very strict, but Art was a funny little bald grandpa who liked the occasional girlie pinup magazine and firearms and was fascinated with the railroad. He had a terrific Winchester .22 Magnum rifle with which we would target-shoot in the pasture outside the front window of his old farmhouse. I always had great aim and good shooting technique and once even pegged a sparrow right off a telephone wire, although we were expressly forbidden to shoot in that direction because if we hit the wire itself, the house would be out of phone service for several days until the company could get out to repair the line. Once Grandpa Art saw that I was fascinated with guns, he eventually gave me that rifle as a present, which is at my brother’s house to this day. In many ways, firearms were my first obsession, just before I discovered the bass guitar.
My mom, Frances, was a registered nurse and had studied nursing in North Platte, Nebraska. They had my brother, Eliot, on May 15, 1963, and I was born on November 12, 1964. My mother gave up her nursing career to raise my brother and me. She was very hands-on and very sweet and happy: the quintessential good-Samaritan church mom. She was wonderful. My father, by contrast, was very much a no-nonsense kind of man: he would flip out whenever he heard me swearing, for example. He was the stern parent, and my mother was the friendly one.
My dad was a beef farmer in the early days. He had a heart attack when I was two years old, no doubt because he smoked and because the midwestern American diet is rich in meat, so he ended up selling off the beef cattle and transitioned into grain farming. My dad was not a traditional overalls-and-pitchfork farmer: he was an astute businessman. In fact, generations of Ellefsons were astute businessmen. They were a conservative, educated, traditional pack of men.
Ours was an eleven-acre farm in the middle of a square mile of flat farmland. In fact, everywhere in Minnesota where I grew up was sectioned into square miles, with big open areas of either corn or soybean fields. It was great to grow up there because you could shoot guns, fire a bow and arrow, or drive a golf ball, and you wouldn’t hit anything. We were surrounded by wide-open spaces and never had any fear of danger, kidnapping, or burglary. We would even leave our houses unlocked and the keys in our cars. Neighbors would stop by to visit over coffee with my parents for hours at a time. Life on the farm was simple and founded on industry and the strong work ethic that carved out the character of that part of the Midwest.
I was brought up Lutheran, and our family meals always began with a mandatory Lutheran prayer of “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food to us be blessed. Amen.” That was the prayer, said by all in attendance; no negotiation! Meals were very much family times—morning, noon, and night.
I was not silver-spooned by any means, but by today’s standards, much of my upbringing was upper middle class. When I was a small child, my family was of fairly humble means, but there was a period in the 1970s when we did quite well in the farming industry. All of a sudden we were remodeling the house and getting new furniture. Probably the biggest indicator of our newfound prosperity was when my dad built an indoor swimming pool and some new farm buildings, and we had five cars in the garage.
I remember my parents teaching me how to understand our new wealth, saying: “Hey listen, we’re going to have a swimming pool. There are only one or two other families in this entire county who have a pool, so don’t go to school and brag about it.” They were almost warning us that this wealth could lead to us being perceived as arrogant and snotty, and we didn’t want that. The truth is that farming is much like the music business, literally feast or famine, with so many elements that are beyond one’s control. We were taught to continue to work hard on the farm and be humbly thankful for our blessings.
The boom in farming didn’t last, though. After Ronald Reagan came into office, the Russian grain embargo was enacted, which was all part of the continuing Cold War. All of a sudden piles of surplus grain were scattered all over the Midwest, and grain prices came tumbling down.
Between 1978 and 1980, land prices were at an all-time high, and my dad went out—as a bunch of other farmers did—and took out adjustable-rate, high-interest loans, which created the landslide in the farming industry. Suddenly, high mortgages on land, coupled with falling grain prices, created a perfect storm and a lot of families lost their farms. I later chronicled this time period in Megadeth’s hit song “Foreclosure of a Dream.”
I loved the farm, but I didn’t love farming quite so much, so my brother, Eliot, was always the one who was going to take it over from my father when the time came. He showed an aptitude for farming from a very young age. When I started getting into music at eleven or twelve, Eliot was focusing on being disciplined and working around the farm.
Because of that, my dad was comfortable letting me pursue my passion for music. My father’s passion was architecture: as a young man he studied it formally for a year at the University of Minnesota before returning to take over the family farm, and he always had blueprints, plans, and drawings lying around. He built the swimming pool and remodeled the house himself, drafting it all beforehand. It was pretty impressive, looking back on it now.
My family belonged to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Jackson. My dad became very involved in that the church, and my mother sang in the choir. Eliot and I spent our youth there, eventually receiving our Lutheran instruction and confirmation at that church. In fact, he and my mother are still members there to this day, and I visit it every time I go back between world tours.
The pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Pastor Tange, had a son named Dwight who was a longhair—not a disrespectful partier guy, just a typical ’70s kid. He drove the school bus. Dwight would always listen to rock ’n’ roll radio on the bus, especially WLS, which was an AM station out of Chicago, and that’s when I started hearing things like Styx and their songs “Lady” and “Lorelei.” I also heard the Sweet and songs like “Ballroom Blitz” and “Love Is Like Oxygen.” As soon as I heard rock ’n’ roll on the bus, man, my life started to change quickly. I loved distorted guitars: I didn’t know what they were, but I knew I liked them.
My dad had hired a farmhand named Gary Regnier, who had an eight-track cartridge of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile album, which came out in 1974, when I was nine years old. I’d ride with him in the tractor, which was one of the first tractors to have an eight-track player and be soundproofed and air-conditioned: it was a really nice piece of machinery. I’d listen to the music and I loved it. My buddy Greg Handevidt, who eventually moved to Los Angeles with me after we graduated in 1983, had the twelve-inch gatefold LP of that BTO album. You opened it up and it had the full band photo. I remember seeing Randy Bachman with a Fender Stratocaster, Blair Thornton with a Gibson SG, and Fred Turner with a black-and-white Rickenbacker 4001 bass.
Greg Handevidt (school friend):
I first met David in sixth grade, when my family had just moved to Jackson. We were both KISS fans, and that’s how we connected. I saw him in the hallway with “KISS” written on one of his books, and I said to him, “KISS uses Gibson guitars and Pearl drums,” and he shot back, “And Marshall amps!” He was a popular kid; everybody liked him.
I’d never known there was such a thing as a bass guitar. The neck was long, and it had big fat strings, and it sounded different . . . and cool. Then I heard KISS. Their song “Shout It Out Loud” was so special to me: it turned my ear entirely. Gene Simmons was playing a Gibson Grabber bass guitar on the cover of KISS’s Alive LP, and something about that instrument drew me.
Meanwhile, as I was getting into rock ’n’ roll, things were starting to change a little at home on the farm. My family started to attend evening parties at some of the nearby neighbor homes. I had never known my parents to drink, and all of a sudden I’m nine or ten years old, and we’re hanging with these families that drank a lot.
I remember one night coming home from a neighbor’s house, and it was almost like my mom and dad were joyriding. We pulled over, and one of them opened the door and threw up on the side of the road! It was very disturbing. I was like, “This is chaos—what’s going on here?” Even at a young age, I found it scary and I didn’t like it. It was my first introduction to the unsettling ways of drinking and the erratic behavior that came with it.
We also started to go to concerts at the Armory in downtown Jackson, which held about a thousand people in a big dance setting. Country music bands played there, and I would always watch the bass players. I was instantly drawn to the instrument. Back at the house, we’d watch a TV show called Hee Haw, which was very popular. I hated the music, but I was drawn to the instruments and the flash and the showbiz; it just drew me in. I couldn’t get enough of it.
My mom was cool with me getting into rock music. She sang in the church choir, but she had grown up with rock ’n’ roll—she had seen Elvis play at the Veterans’ Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa. She told me that the place wasn’t even full because this was right before Elvis got popular. He tossed a scarf out into the crowd, and my mom actually caught it. She recently told me that when she passes away, she wants Marty Friedman, who later played guitar in Megadeth, to have that scarf because he’s the biggest Elvis fan ever. She loves Marty and thinks the world of him. She was always cool with rock ’n’ roll. She got it.
We had a cassette player in my mother’s Wurlitzer organ at home, which was pretty new technology at the time. One of the tapes we used to listen to all the time was Jesus Christ Superstar, which I loved because it was rock. It felt dangerous, even the title. It was kind of like church, but it didn’t sound like it was approved by the church.
I learned how to play music on that Wurlitzer organ, which was excruciatingly boring. Then in the fifth grade I took up the tenor saxophone, mostly because it looked like the coolest instrument in the ensemble. I later learned that women like a sax man, so I should have gotten better at it, but it just wasn’t my bag. I mostly did it because I wasn’t into being a jock, and I needed to take some sort of elective.
All these things led up to me asking my mom for a Gibson bass in the summer of 1976, when I was eleven years old. I wanted a Gibson because I’d seen the brand name on the back of a KISS album: I figured that if KISS used it, it must be the only one to have. Gibson had to be a go-to brand. We found a used Gibson EB-0 bass that came up for sale in the neighboring town of Fairmont, and we bought it for $150. Then we went to Worthington Music in a town about thirty miles away, and bought a little twelve-watt Fender Bassman amp with a twelve-inch speaker.
It sounded awful, believe me. That combination of a Gibson EB-0, with its single pickup at the neck, plus flatwound strings and that little amplifier was terrible, especially at the volumes I wanted to play it. I got home and plugged in and I thought, “What the heck is this? This doesn’t sound like Gene Simmons at all!” I took note of this in my later career: when a kid buys one of my signature Jackson basses, I want it to sound like Countdown to Extinction or Rust in Peace. Even if the guy can’t play it, just striking the strings should make the bass sound something like “Holy Wars . . . The Punishment Due.”
Even though it sounded terrible, I’d come home after school every day and for many hours I’d sit in the basement and learn to play that Gibson bass.
My brother wasn’t like me: he played trombone for a couple of years in the school band, but my mom and dad had to stay on him the whole time to practice. He didn’t enjoy it; his musical tastes were different. He was into pop acts like Elton John and the Bay City Rollers. I didn’t appreciate Elton John until years later, because I regarded the piano as a lightweight, sissy instrument, and I didn’t care for it. I was into really heavy hard rock. Eliot also integrated more into the community than I did, and he started to get into country music, but music was strictly background for him.
I really diverged from the family in that sense. My parents remained supportive, but both of them were very cautious because they knew about the allure and the dangers of rock ’n’ roll. I remember the father of a friend of mine telling me that I should go down to the Armory and play country music gigs, because I could make fifty bucks a week doing it. I thought, “Forget the fifty bucks. I’d rather play rock ’n’ roll for free!”
I didn’t want to be a working guy: I wanted to be a rock star. The ’70s were such a cool time for rock ’n’ roll: bell-bottoms, platform shoes, long hair, sex appeal, cool guitars, glitter, studs. It was all so attractive to a young, impressionable person like me.
So here I am in the summer of 1976, age eleven and heading toward twelve. KISS’s Destroyer had just come out, and my number-one ambition was to be a rock ’n’ roller. I had the Mel Bay Electric Bass Method Volume 1 and Volume 2 tuition books that I’d bought from the music store, and I basically taught myself to play bass from those books in my basement. I was so desperate to learn the instrument that at one point, I even called on one of the church music leaders, a guitar player, to come over and show me things as best he could. I would go to any lengths in small-town Minnesota to find musical camaraderie, so I could play the bass.
But I didn’t want to just sit in the basement and be a great player for myself; I wanted to play in a band. I wanted to be onstage and emulate the musicians I’d seen. What’s interesting is that I wasn’t an extrovert or a kid who needed attention; I was actually rather shy and didn’t always like being the center of attention. But the bass guitar lit me up: it was the thing that gave my life purpose and direction.
Eliot had two high school buddies, a guitarist named Mike Cushman and a drummer named Kent Libra, who were both pretty good players. We formed a band within three months of me starting to play the bass, and played covers of songs by Bachman Turner Ov...
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