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Mega Life: Jackson native shares rock 'n' roll career in new book

JACKSON — David Ellefson may be a big-time rock ’n’ roll musician, but at heart he’s just a small-town farm boy. It’s a dichotomy in his life that never fails to give him a chuckle.

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“People love the dynamic that I play in this big famous heavy metal band, but I’m just a kid from the farm in southwest Minnesota,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It creates a cool dynamic, even in Megadeth.”

Megadeth is the band that Ellefson co-founded 30 years ago. After an eight-year hiatus, he returned to its ranks in 2010 and is considered one of the best bass players in the business. His recently released biography, “My Life with Deth,” chronicles his rock career, including how he beat addictions and embarked on a path of sobriety and faith.

Ellefson’s journey — and the book — begins, of course, on his family’s farm near Jackson. The son of Frances and the late Gordon Ellefson, he has one brother, Eliot, who now operates the family enterprise.

“I grew up about six miles north of Jackson, just off Highway 71,” he said. “I had a really good childhood, great family, great life growing up in Jackson.”

His musical influences came first from his music-loving mother, who caught one of Elvis’ scarves at a concert during her younger years and sang in the choir at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Jackson.

“One day we got a Wurlitzer organ. It had a cassette player, and one of the earliest CDs we had was ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’” recalled Ellefson. “It was just holy enough to have in the house and just dangerous enough to be rock ’n’ roll. I started taking lessons from a neighbor lady who was also a church organist. That was my first experience. Then I played tenor sax in the Jackson Elementary orchestra-band. But I didn’t get serious about music until I started hearing rock ’n’ roll on the school bus. … That’s where I fell in love with rock ’n’ roll.”

Ellefson felt drawn to the bass guitar, and when one was listed for sale in an area newspaper, it became his.

“We paid $150 for that, and then we drove over to Worthington and bought my first Fender bass amp there.”

Country music was more prevalent in the region at the time, but Ellefson only wanted to play rock. He started his first band, TOZ, while in high school. By the time he graduated from Jackson High School in 1983, he had his heart firmly set on a music career and moving to Los Angeles.

“I knew at age 16, when I was rehearsing with TOZ,” he related. “Van Halen was getting popular, and a lot of activity was coming out of LA. It was music I liked — heavy metal, rock. I remember rehearsing out on the farm and thinking, ‘You have got to get to Los Angeles.’ So for the next two years, that was exactly the career path I set out.”

At age 18, he and three buddies drove out to California, Ellefson with the intent to enroll in a one-year vocational program for musicians. Shortly after arrival, he met fellow musician Dave Mustaine, who had just parted ways with Metallica.

“I had moved out there with my good friend Greg Handevidt, and between Dave, Greg and myself, we were the earliest members of Megadeth. Greg ended up coming back home, but it was kind of cool that the formation of Megadeth has deep roots that originate to two kids who grew up in Jackson, Minnesota.”

Within two years of the group’s formation, Megadeth put out its first record: “Killing Is My Business … and Business is Good.” The band paid its dues early on, according to Ellefson, but also rose quite quickly to fame in the heavy metal genre.

“We had huge seminal records and great success at MTV in the early ’90s,” said Ellefson. “We built a worldwide fan base that to this day has grown and grown and grown and continues to propel our activities.”

But with rock ’n’ roll success came the party lifestyle and temptations that Ellefson wasn’t strong enough to resist, even with the strong Midwestern values that he took with him from Jackson.

“The day I called home from rehab and told my mom and dad I was a heroin addict and could they come out and visit me” was a turning point in his life, Ellefson explained.

“Nobody could believe I had gotten involved in it. It’s never the 100th one that gets you, it’s the first one. If there’s a lesson there, it’s that I never had the intention of taking that first one, but once you pop the top off the first one, that’s the beginning of the rest of your life, and that ending is often not good. I think it’s like Russian roulette — once you’ve tried it, it’s too late.

“I’m lucky that at age 25, in 1990, I was able to get out of it and stay out of it. That restored back to me the passion for playing rock ’n’ roll and playing bass. The party lifestyle was just a distraction that caused problems. Once I got out of that life, I got back to the first thing, the love of the bass.”

Today Ellefson lives in the Phoenix, Ariz., area with wife Julie and two kids, Roman and Athena. Due to some interpersonal conflicts in the band, he left Megadeth in 2002 and worked on other musical projects, rejoining in 2010.

After tackling his addiction problems, Ellefson returned to the church, and in 2007 he began doing MEGA Life Ministries worship services at his church in Scottsdale. Those experiences led him to begin studies to become a Lutheran pastor.

“It’s a four-year track, and I did one year of it while I was on tour,” he explained. “Due to scheduling issues, it’s been hard to be back on the campus, and some of the scheduling issues have been a sidestep with this. But the fact is I did one year of seminary, and I’m impressed by that. I’m most happy that we’ve been able to have this great success right now and a greater understanding of the higher good, what I call the Good Orderly Direction in life. Every stage is a pulpit, every audience is a congregation, and it’s made me even more aware of what you are saying, what you are doing from that stage.”

Writing a book wasn’t something to which Ellefson had given much thought until he was broached by a friend.

“Joel McIver is a journalist and a heavy metal historian and also a bass player and bass journalist,” Ellefson said. “He’s publisher of Bass Guitar magazine out of London, and knowing me and the legacy approached me about it when I came back to the band. He said, ‘Now is the time, and it will take a couple of years, so let’s get started on it.’ I trusted Joel, and he was able to take me through the process of writing it, getting an agent, getting it published. There’s that saying that everybody’s got one book in them, so I thought why not?”

The book was released at the end of October, and Ellefson has been pleased by the positive feedback from sharing his story. The forward was written by rock icon Alice Cooper.

“I’m just a kid from an unassuming little farm town area, and out of nowhere this inspiration for playing the bass was put upon me,” he reflected. “I followed my gut against a lot of the naysayers, against all odds, and despite some distractions and speed bumps along the way, I’ve followed it. It’s the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, and I’ve been able to do some pretty special things. As much as I love playing the bass, sometimes it leads to a bigger end.

“… I didn’t have this great spiritual cleansing that needed to happen, didn’t need to vindicate myself or have my side of the story,” he continued. “It wasn’t done from that motive. The greatest joy with it was being able to lift up a lot of other people who were part of my journey, too — some past Megadeth members, some of the current members — and speak to the things that the good Lord has done in my life, honor my upbringing, honor my family. It’s a business and lifestyle that celebrates decadence and rebellion, and my upbringing was very different from that.”

Megadeth’s Super Collider U.S. Tour kicks off Nov. 23 with a concert in St. Paul. For Ellefson that brings an opportunity to return home, see his mom and brother, and also connect with friends and fans in southwest Minnesota. He has agreed to do a meet-and-greet event in his hometown.

“I couldn’t have arranged it better if I’d tried,” he said. “We’re going to do a Q and A time, and I’ll be able to speak with all my friends and family who have supported me over the years. With the book out, I’ll be able to launch it all right there from the hometown where it all started.”

The meet-and-greet with David Ellefson, founding member of heavy metal band Megadeth and author of “My Life with Deth,” will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Jackson County Central High School Performing Arts Center, 1128 North Highway, Jackson. (Parking Lot A, door No. 3 or Parking Lot B, door No. 4). Copies of “My Life with Deth” will be available for purchase and can be autographed following the program. Ellefson will also autograph one Megadeth item with a book purchase.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth

Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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