I saw what was arguably the best iteration of Megadeth, featuring Marty Friedman and Nick Menza, in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1990s. It was a brutal, rib crushing affair. I hung onto the fence up front for 3/4 of the show, right in front of Dave Mustaine, until I absolutely couldn’t take it anymore. I was in pain for days. It was worth it.
There are two totems from that show that I have carried with me every day for almost twenty years. In my wallet, there is a guitar pick that has Nick Menza’s signature stenciled on it. He threw those out into the crowd after he had run out of drum sticks to toss. This didn’t make sense to me at the time until one of my friends pointed out how expensive drum sticks are, and how cheap picks are. For a guy who was supposed to be so fucking smart I often didn’t put two and two together until I opened my mouth and said something stupid.
The other artifact, a black plastic bottle opener keychain, was handed to me by Marty Friedman on Beale Street before the show with a “here you go.” Little aloof Bobby Talbot didn’t even know what had happened until it was over. My friends laughed at me and told me who had just given it to me. I put it on my keychain and it has been there every day since. It has traveled the world with me. It has opened hundreds of beers. I have walked thousands of miles with it jingling along in my pocket.
This story was a part of my party repertoire for years afterwards, and I finally stopped telling it about five years ago when instead of “fucking cool!” or laughter it received cocked eyebrows and cold stares. The world had moved on.
The world moves on again, today, without Nick Menza, who collapsed and subsequently died on stage at age 51.
I never met Nick Menza. I stood 15 feet in front of him and watched him play the drums. I carried a bit of plastic that he had mass produced for fans. I enjoyed his particular era of Megadeth music.
Someone who knows more than me recently said that every time someone dies he’s a bit pissed off by fans who pour out adulation after it’s too late. A corpse can’t enjoy the thrill of having someone love them. I am guilty of this here, I admit, because I haven’t thought about Mr. Menza in months.
I am 37.5 years old. Every time I read an article or open the obituaries, my mind does the morbid math of “how long.” How old would my kids be? How many years do I have? I try to shove that aside, because for all I know it will be five minutes from now. I keep doing those push-ups. I skip McDonald’s. I check for lumps. I look for reasons. How many drugs did he do? Let me pull the blanket of excuses and blame back over myself. Let me think of Jane Little, age 87, who died on stage playing bass with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Wouldn’t that be nice. Poetic. Beautiful. Fifty more years. Push down Nick (51). Shove down Dad (58).
I cannot tell you how many slow work days I’ve spent gazing into dusty shelves considering the people I knew who went before me, into that “great unknown mystery.” I try to comfort myself with strange philosophies. Maybe consciousness is just a meat-computer status report. Perhaps it’s a trick. Life is just a bowl of cherries. Don’t take it serious. Life’s too mysterious.
You work, you save, you worry so,
but you can’t take your dough
when you go, go, go.
None of this is comforting to Nick Menza.
Here’s the deal:
My good friend Scott, who has taught me much, once suggested that thanking people is one of the things we can do to improve our life and theirs. Just thanking people. It seems simple but really, as I have begun to travel the world to see my heroes, people who entertained me or occupied my mind when it needed distraction, a thank you has never been rejected. In fact, it has almost always been received with great enthusiasm.
Not long ago, Gina and I walked by an autograph table in New Orleans and saw Edward James Olmos seated, fiddling with his smartphone. He was alone except for his handler. I walked up to his assistant and said, “Hey, can I just say hello real quick?” This isn’t always kosher at conventions.
“Sure!” she said. “Go for it.”
So I did.
I approached him (holy shit), said hello, and we shook hands. Then, I launched into a short, arm-flailing, animated speech that went something like “Oh wow, Battlestar Galactica. I wanted to tell you that it’s rare, so rare, when watching a television show, that I am so moved that I stand up, out of my seat and cheer arms raised,” at this point I raised my fists in the air, “and I wanted to thank you for that. Thank you.”
He seemed genuinely pleased. His arm was in a sling so I asked about that. He had dislocated his shoulder. I asked him if he was okay, and we had a short conversation about his arm. I wished him well. He wished me well, and that was that.
As simple as that was, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Right behind having my two kids and marrying Gina, that one is up there with winning the high school band competition at Universal Studios, Florida, when I was a teenager, or flying to London to meet Tom Baker.
I hate to give out advice because I am terrible at it, and I don’t like to draw conclusions about life because there aren’t any, but I have made it a point to tell people what they mean to me. If I can’t see them in person I write them a letter. This is my letter to Nick, post-mortem, unfortunately, because I do not see all, but I will do better.
I am sorry that you are dead, Nick Menza, but you are not forgotten. As long as I breathe there will be a bit of plastic with me that was once, briefly, yours, nestled in my wallet next to the four-leafed clover, which is taped to a playing card, that I have carried with me since I was 12.
It’s the least I can do.