I was a teenage metalhead.
Dateline, 1992: It’s the first game of the season for the Blackford High School Bruins. It’s also my first game on the varsity, and I’ll be starting at outside linebacker and offensive guard. Kevin Whitesell, a senior, brings a giant boom box into the locker room and plays Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” on repeat. Whitey is the kind of high school senior who looks like he’s 35 in terms of chest hair and beard growth. He’s the kind of high school senior whose approval you crave if it’s your first game on the varsity. He has a Camaro with ground effects in the “player’s lot” outside the cleat house. I will return to the locker room at halftime after an on-field fight, with my nose almost broken and gushing blood. I’ll sit stoically on the concrete while the trainer wipes away the blood and shoves cotton up my nose. Whitey will catch my eye and nod approvingly. I’ll be a man, minus the chest hair and Camaro.
I was a Megadeth from then on. Yes, the same Megadeth with the adolescent-looking, semi-scary album covers, the following of long-haired outcast-type kids and (now) long-haired outcast-type middle-aged men. I was a fan of Marty Friedman’s incredible guitar work, Dave Mustaine’s vocals, and primarily the fact that, as an athlete, there’s no better music to get you in the mood to bust heads.
Megadeth would be a part of my life through high school, through a brief college football career, and even into early married life. At that point my cultured wife would snicker at the Megadeth cover art and remind me that, developmentally, most people stop listening to Megadeth right around the time people stop asking you about the game on Friday night and stop asking you how much you can bench press. I was forced to go underground with my appreciation for the band.
Today, I teach at Cornerstone University (formerly Grand Rapids Baptist), which is pretty predictably “Christian college” in terms of how it looks (North Face), and what it listens to (CCM). I teach speech class, and in my 12:45 p.m. section I have a socially anxious student who sits in the far back corner of the classroom, has long hair, never says anything, and wears a different ’80s metal t-shirt every day. Needless to say he falls outside the typical Cornerstone profile. Needless to say, we became fast friends.
One afternoon Joel approached me nervously and asked, “Hey Professor Kluck . . . would you, ah, want to go to a Megadeth show with me . . . they’re gonna be at the Orbit Room in November.”
In Praise of the Dramatic Conversion
Dateline, The Orbit Room in November: The last time I was in this building I was covering a professional boxing show from the kind of ringside proximity where you have to cover the top of your cup with your notebook so the blood doesn’t fly into your coffee. Tonight I’m here, with Joel, to see Megadeth.
At one point Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine was in Metallica, who went on to become the biggest mainstream metal act in music history. They made untold millions and released albums that topped charts because they were hook-heavy and radio-friendly enough to shift units but still “metal” enough for metalheads. Mustaine was replaced by Kirk Hammett long before any of that happened. He went on, of course, to front Megadeth and to engage in the kind of booze/drug/sex-fueled lifestyle that has become something of a cliché in rock music circles thanks to shows like VH1’s Behind the Music.
Still, Megadeth made great records that served a relatively small niche (compared to Metallica’s market share) and partied real hard. Their lives, for the most part, evidenced the “wages of sin” that come from the indulgent lives they led, and they left a trail of addictions and broken relationships in their wake.
But today Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine and bassist David Ellefson both profess what appears to be genuine faith in Christ. Ellefson is currently a seminary student.
“Was it just a rehab thing?” I ask Joel about Mustaine’s conversion. I immediately regret the question because it reveals my smug and cynical attitude.
“It was like ten years ago,” Joel replies, “and he’s still talking about his faith.”
Ellefson and Mustaine have both written memoirs that chronicle their journeys out of sin and into grace. They were, at one point, embroiled in a nasty lawsuit with each other over (essentially) the keys to the Megadeth franchise and were (miraculously) reconciled in a way that can only happen through Christ. “Why am I not getting those ghostwriting gigs?” I ask Joel, over the pre-show hum of the crowd. These are the books I want to be writing. He shrugs his shoulders.
In many Reformed churches we self-consciously praise the “boring testimony,” I think because so many people in our subculture do things pretty much the right way and feel sheepish about not having a more interesting conversion story. I’m talking about the “I grew up in a Christian home in Grand Rapids and my parents were in ministry” kind of testimony. This is of course fine and good, provided we’re in fact convicted of our sins and not inwardly convinced that we’re actually pretty fantastic.
God of the Dark Corners
With Mustaine and Ellefson, God saw fit to save some of the most cynical, aggressive, hardest-partying public individuals he could find. In sports this would be akin to a Mike Tyson conversion. Ellefson and Mustaine reached a point in their lives when they could no longer explain away their choices. They could reckon with their sins no longer. Conversions like these bring a ton of glory to God and untold joy to my heart because they remind me that there are no unredeemable sinners. There’s no case too hopeless or difficult for God if the individual repents and comes to Christ in humility and faith. It means, of course, that I’m not hopeless either.
Mustaine was in another stint in rehab when he fell asleep in a chair with his arm draped over the back. The pressure exerted by the chair on the nerves in Mustaine’s arm—a one-in-a-million type thing—threatened to permanently injure him and end his music career. He reached a personal and professional rock bottom, and at that moment cried out in repentance.
“At some point you have to wonder,” Mustaine wrote in his book, “how many times does God have to say, ‘Dude, I love you,’ before I straighten up for good?”
As Megadeth takes the stage, I wonder how their art has changed. They obviously haven’t traded in their long hair for skinnies, cowboy shirt, and faux-hawk (the official/unofficial uniform for praise bands and church planters). The music is essentially the same—fast, loud, and aggressive. Mustaine’s autobiography reveals that he’s still the same semi-vulgar, ready-for-a-fight guy he was pre-conversion. But Christ has begun to smooth away many of his rough edges (and by “rough edges” I really mean sins like infidelity, drug abuse, and alcoholism). Still, it’s clear from the very beginning riffs of “Hangar 18” that this isn’t going to be a James Taylor or Cat Stevens  show. The music is still going to be an auditory beating, in the best possible way.
Like all worthwhile writers Megadeth are, I think, trying to make sense of and understand the world they live in. “My body aches from mistakes . . . betrayed by lust,” Mustaine sings, perhaps, about the wages of sin that he lived. I connected with the lyrics as a teenager, and I still do.
Sonically, I am taken to some specific places as I watch Mustaine and Ellefson joyfully and masterfully blast through their set: dorm rooms, weight rooms, locker rooms, recovery rooms, my cousin’s basement, Kirk Logan’s car. In movies, music tells you what to feel and when. In life, music often accompanies and accents our feelings.
Afterward, my wife asks me what I thought of the show, to which I reply, “I’m proud of them.” I’m proud of their musical gifts. I’m buzzed off the show. But mostly I’m proud to have been redeemed by the same God who brought Mustaine and Ellefson out of sin and into the light.
We are, all of us, trophies of God’s grace.