“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 Overdrive, Kansas, KISS, and other bands, just copying what our heroes were doing. We did our first concert out on the porch of Mike’s farmhouse one night, in front of all the parents. That was the first time I performed live in front of an audience in a rock ’n’ roll band.
The band was called Headstone, because that was the darkest thing we could think of at that age. I wore a cool pair of black platform shoes, because I’d been watching what KISS was doing. I had some bell-bottoms, too, white flashy ones, with a wine-colored satin button-up shirt. I was taking fashion cues from my idols, mostly ’70s rock stars. The parents looked at me with a bit of amusement, raising their eyebrows, but I didn’t care. I was gonna be a rock star, and it was all starting now.
I started to grow my hair out about this time. When I was a little kid, I killed one of my front baby teeth with a Tinkertoy and it went yellow and died. So when my permanent teeth came in they were all messed up, crooked as could be. As a result, I had to get braces at around twelve years of age, which was so not cool for a budding rock star, and I had real bad acne till I was seventeen. It was right about that time that I started to have long hair around my ears. I remember wearing that maroon silk shirt around, which I’d have open, with the buttons undone. I was starting to look at the world in the way that I thought a rock star would, even at this very young age.
My father saw me getting really into this rock star stuff, and one day we went over to a music store in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where they had a Dan Armstrong acrylic bass guitar. It cost five hundred dollars new, and he bought it for me, so now I had a collection: my Gibson EB-0 and my new Dan Armstrong. My father didn’t have a musical bone in his body, but he could tell when something had real value, and even to him this Dan Armstrong bass was something special.
This set a precedent: throughout my whole career, I’ve always had flashy instruments. I’ve never had just a standard Fender Precision bass, for example, even though I temporarily wanted one because many of the 1970s rock bassists seemed to have them. That said, at the store in Sioux Falls, they had a really old, beat-up Ampeg SVT amplifier, and I looked at it as if I was worshipping in front of an altar. Every hero of mine had an SVT, and even though this one didn’t sound that good, it was an iconic piece of gear to me, through which all the arena rock gods played. However, I couldn’t afford it at the time and didn’t buy it, but this was a blessing in disguise because I was able to create my own individual sound. Ironically, not having the standard Fender bass plugged into an Ampeg SVT helped me to develop a unique tone. It was largely because I didn’t have these tools that I was forced to develop a style that would allow me to cut through the mix. One of those was playing the bass with a pick instead of taking the typical two-finger plucking approach.
I initially learned how to play the bass with my fingers, but I found that style awkward, and once I started playing in a loud rock environment, I always felt that a pick sounded better. I could wear the bass in a different position where it felt cooler on my body, too: I never liked the look of the guys who had their bass high up so they could play with their fingers. I thought it looked effeminate, so I would play it down low and rock out with a pick. It made me feel like a rifleman going into battle, and it remains my stage stance to this day.
The first major show I saw was KISS with Uriah Heep opening on their Rock and Roll Over tour, in February 1977, when I was twelve. We all went up to Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis, to the Met Center, where the Minnesota North Stars played hockey. My mom and her friend Sheri took me and Eliot, his friend Mike, my friend Greg, and Sheri’s daughter Marci to the show. It was amazing. I’d seen the pictures of the band and watched them on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special on TV, but in the arena it was a whole different experience. I just remember how enormous it was and wondering how KISS had gotten to this point. It seemed almost overwhelming, like looking at a jet airplane and wondering how in the world that thing could ever get off the ground.
I remember there being pot smoke everywhere—this was still the ’70s. As the night wore on, it seemed as if everyone in the audience was smoking pot. At one point in the night, these heads in front of us turned and offered some to me and Greg, and we said, “Oh no, we don’t do that!” I was completely naïve, and my mother was somewhere close by, chaperoning the trip, and she certainly would have frowned upon this. After the show I remember buying a T-shirt outside for six dollars; it fell apart after only a few washes in the washing machine. I now know that it was a bootleg shirt but when you’re a young, naïve fan, you just want to take something home as a souvenir. Things in the concert business were much looser in those days than they are now.
Right about this time, Mike and Kent from my band Headstone had started to play with two other guys, Lee Meecham and Jim Tusa, both of whom were very accomplished guitar players in the area. They were about sixteen years old and went to high school, Jim in Jackson and Lee in the neighboring town of Fairmont, where I’d bought my Gibson EB-0 bass a few years earlier. They had cool gear: Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedals, Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Paul copies, plus big amps. They had great licks and really looked like rock stars. Kent and another bassist, who played in our high school jazz band, came and played with these guys on a regular basis, but suddenly he couldn’t do it. So Kent and Mike said, “Let’s get Ellefson in!”
Here I am at thirteen, and I’ve joined a band with a bunch of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. I was always in bands where guys were older than me, which has helped me become a much better musician. I now knew what it felt like to be brought in as the new guy, plug my gear in and play with good tone, and have people say, “Wow, this kid is a good addition to what we’re doing.” Every gig I’ve done since then, I’ve always wanted to be that guy: the guy who can improve the band, not take something away from it. What’s more, by joining this band, I discovered that those Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedals could make guitars distort and sound like real rock guitars, just like on the records I was listening to.
We called ourselves the River City Band, largely because Jackson had the Des Moines River running through the middle of town and it was our connection to the area. It only lasted a short time: we played a couple of school functions and that was about it. In fact, I recall getting a gig at Riverside Elementary to play for the students, and it was truly electrifying. We had lights, sound, roadies, a dressing area, stage clothes—the whole bit. But from there it was a fun summertime thing to do after I’d been playing for a year or so. As with a lot of bands, interest waned and people got sidetracked by other things, but we did play live a few times.
Another time, I remember going to Fairmont and playing a teen hall or something like that. We had to learn a lot of material and play three or four forty-five-minute sets that night, which was standard for hired-out bands in those days, in that part of the country. I liked learning about show business. You’d have a stage time, start with an intro tape, and play your set. You’d take breaks in between and then play another set. It definitely got your chops up, as well as your endurance. Usually by the end of the night I was really tired from the energy of it all, and I wouldn’t get home till almost 3 A.M. I wouldn’t call it rock stardom so much as just working in a rock ’n’ roll band . . . usually for free, after the travel expenses ate up the band’s fee.
That was one of the first times I saw musicians drinking beer at a gig, and girls coming around backstage to smoke pot and get friendly with the band. After the midshow parties at the breaks, the guys would go back onstage and their playing was terrible. I was really bummed out by this. I was like, “Why did you do that? You ruined our show!” I was in the pursuit of excellence, and because I wasn’t taking part in the party life, I didn’t yet understand that aspect of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. My passion for music was all encompassing, and as a result, when I saw guys smoking pot and drinking and getting distracted by girls, I looked at them as if they were a bunch of losers.
I wasn’t involved with the church much by this point. There was a disturbing period when I was around fifteen years old, when a religious group called the Peters Brothers out of Minneapolis embarked on a crusade of burning rock ’n’ roll records. Their point of view was that KISS was an acronym for “Knights In Satan’s Service,” and that Rush was about injecting heroin, and so on: they really took the morality angle to the edge. My mom came home one night from one of their seminars in Jackson, quite shocked and obviously reconsidering everything I was listening to. That, more than anything, turned me away from the church, although my mother eventually relaxed on the whole issue.
I was becoming rebellious at this point, though. I’m sure part of it was the allure of rock ’n’ roll mixed with typical teenager stuff. I remember coming home with a pierced ear and, although I kept my hair over my ear to hide it, one day we were sitting at the kitchen table and my dad looked at me with the most disapproving glare. I thought he was going to kill me. He supported me in music, but seeing his son dress the part of a rock star never really sat well with him.
Greg Handevidt and I were close friends—he was probably my best friend throughout most of my teenage school years. He had moved to Jackson in the fifth or sixth grade, and he was a troublemaker. He was always getting yelled at by the teachers, which I didn’t like so much, but I liked the fact that he was into KISS and had started to play a copy of a Les Paul guitar. He had lived in bigger cities than Jackson prior to moving there, so he was cocky and had an air about him as if he knew what was going on more than the rest of us. I’d go to his house, and he’d play BTO and KISS records on his stereo. We’d watch TV if there was any kind of rock ’n’ roll show on, especially The Midnight Special, featuring Wolfman Jack, and also Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Greg seemed to know rock history and was quite diverse in his tastes. I remember arguing with him once about what KISS wore on the Halloween TV special, which they played during the Destroyer tour, and even the details of Gene Simmons’s bass at the concert we attended in Bloomington. We were passionate about rock ’n’ roll and about making it big as musicians. Plus, he had a real street-smart sense about him, whereas I was pretty wholesome and naïve, being from the farm.
Greg was a mentor to me. He had lived in the city, and even though he was a few months younger than me, he was way more worldly than I was. He was into sports, which I wasn’t. He would tell me, “You need to get into sports so you can get in shape.” He was great when it came to teaching me not to be a dork from the farm. Pretty soon Greg and I got together with a drummer and formed a band called Toz. I have no idea what the name means, although I found out later that the fifth row down of an ophthalmologist’s eye chart is made up of those letters.
Greg Handevidt (school friend):
We were going to call the band Toyz, but then we realized how wimpy that sounded, so we dropped the y.
This is about the time I started drinking and using drugs myself. It’s interesting: from the ages of fifteen to twenty-five, which were the years I participated in drugs and alcohol, the people I hung with were all defined by the chemicals they were using.
When it came to alcohol, I had been quite sheltered from it all. I’d had a couple sips of my father’s beer and taken communion in church, which of course involved wine, and there were a couple of instances at Thanksgiving where I’d have a little glass of wine. I’d have that feeling of the alcohol hitting my head, and then I’d get really tired and sleepy. I liked the taste of grape juice better, so I wondered why people drank wine. I never liked the taste of alcohol, actually. Kind of ironic, considering the events that were about to happen next.
Religion: Opiate for the Masses?
I spent the early years of my life on the farm in and around the church. Nothing fanatical, but I still had the fundamentals of a Christian ideology put upon me. Years later I would philosophize and question these teachings, even though they were the basis of my upbringing.
Because of this moral compass, as a young man, I looked down my nose in disgust at older musicians who would partake of booze and drugs before we performed. I simply thought they played better when they weren’t stoned. That all changed once I took my first hard drink, though, and for the next ten years of my life I sought to feel good just like they did, usually with whatever they were offering. In many ways, I left religion behind, only to get caught up in a different type of opiate for my soul.
Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll
My Life with Deth
Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll
In My Life with Deth, cofounder and bassist of Megadeth David Ellefson reveals the behind-the-scenes details of life in one of the world’s most popular heavy metal bands. If you’re looking for revelations, they’re here, including the drug habits that brought the band members to their knees. You’ll learn of David’s unsuccessful attempts at rehab and the period when he was strung out on methadone, cocaine, and heroin—all at the same time.
But My Life with Deth is far more than just another memoir of debauchery. Ellefson also shares the story of his faith journey, which began when he decided his only choice for survival was to get free from his addiction. In his recovery, he returned to his childhood roots in the Lutheran church and embraced his Christianity that continues to inform his life and work today.
In the pages of this book, you’ll find insightful comments from some of the biggest names in heavy metal, along with life lessons for every reader. Whether religious or not, you’ll be enthralled, informed, and inspired by this tell-all book on discovering meaning in a life of rock and roll.