April 9th, 2012 | Published in Events
By Pete Roche
Duff McKagan’s autobiography begins in the unlikeliest of settings. Snooping through his own house and backyard, the former hard-charging, world-class bassist is just another concerned father at his teenage daughter’s birthday party. Are the kids drinking? Experimenting with drugs? Making out, or…?
If any Dad had reason to worry, it’d be Duff, who during his tenure as one-fifth of Guns n’ Roses popped every pill, snorted every substance, and siphoned every spirit like there would be no tomorrow. Certainly not a tomorrow whose to-do list included hiring a DJ and picking up snack trays for your thirteen year-old, who protests your presence (as chaperone, “middle-aged dork father,” or otherwise) with a curt “You’re not invited.”
Duff’s collected fatherly fears provide a suitable (perfect, actually) springboard for his own rock and roll retrospective, It’s So Easy (and Other Lies), now available on paperback on Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. And while the bassist concedes that friends and band mates may remember things differently, McKagan observes there’s more than one side to every story.
“This is my truth,” he notes in his preface.
Where most movie icons and music luminaries content themselves with recounting their victories over addiction and celebrity excess, Duff delves deeper into his personal history and expounds upon his ongoing makeover. It’s one thing to quit drinking. It’s quite another to put down the bottle, drop forty pounds, go back to school, become a mountain biking enthusiast, and earn the respect of martial arts action star Benny “The Jet” Urquidez with your determination (and tolerance for pain) in his dojo. Sobriety wasn’t satisfying enough a goal for overachiever McKagan, for whom “getting healthy” meant becoming better than ever before—physically, mentally, and spiritually. His septum ravaged by cocaine, his liver swollen, and his pancreas literally exploding from years of abuse, Duff spent his post G n’ R years completely reinventing himself. Today, he’s still a professional musician, playing and touring with Loaded—and occasionally with super-group Velvet Revolver. But he’s also an avid cyclist, marathon runner, jiu-jitsu expert, and devoted husband and father of two. He’s also a regular columnist for www.SeattleWeekly.com and www.ESPN.com and runs his own wealth consulting firm for musicians. A keen financier, Duff capitalized on early investments on now familiar corporate giants like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon.
Not bad for a guy who—after stepping away from the spotlight in the nineties—fretted over writing his college entrance essay.
McKagan, 48, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Guns n’ Roses this Saturday, April 14. But the bassist will be in Cleveland on April 13th for a mixed-media gig at House of Blues, where he’ll discuss the book and perhaps play a few tunes.
Divided into eight parts with titles inspired by Duff’s music (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Urchin Living Under the Street,” “A Good Day to Die,” etc.), It’s So Easy follows the career trajectory (the word unlikely again comes to mind) of a young Irish-American high school dropout and all-around ne’er-do-well who at age 20 left his native Seattle and its heroin-plagued punk scene for the promise of stardom in Los Angeles. Born into a family of eight kids and raised in a University District that already played home to too many Michaels, the author took the nickname “Duff” early on. He was a competent drummer and guitarist by his teens—but brother Bruce helped Duff master the bass lines he heard on cool records like Prince’s 1999.
Duff’s survival instincts kept him alive in L.A. while living out of his battered ’71 Ford Maverick and (later) in roach-infested apartments near Musician’s Institute of Technology. Answering a want ad for bassist placed by a soft-spoken, snake-wrangling, guitar-playing mama’s boy named “Slash,” Duff found his first—and longest-lasting—musical partner.
It wasn’t long before McKagan was dwelling in a cramped storage space behind a Guitar Center with Slash and other silly-pseudonymed heathens Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin. The dead-end alley on Orchid Street (a half block north of Sunset) became ground zero for the nascent Guns n’ Roses, whose attitude-fueled live shows won them a cult following. Obi-Wan Kenobi might’ve called $400 per month makeshift flophouse a wretched hive of scum and villainy, what with its contingent of musicians, strippers, drug dealers, and hangers-on. Quaaludes were like vitamins, taken liberally to prolong one’s drinking. Tapping Duff’s DIY punk background, the guys became indefatigable self-promoters, printing their own flyers and selling out early (but important) pay-to-play gigs at Madame Wong’s and Stardust Ballroom. At $1.29 a bottle, Night Train was the drink of choice—a nocturnal potion worthy of tribute in song some time later.
McKagan meticulously forages the group’s path to fame, beginning with an ill-fated return to Seattle for a show at Gorilla Gardens. Regular appearances at the fabled Troubadour led to a bidding war over the band by several labels, including Geffen, for whom Guns recorded its landmark debut, Appetite for Destruction. Songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” catapulted Duff and company into the public eye, what with appearances in Dirty Harry movie Dead Pool and heavy rotation on the then music-centric MTV. No one was more surprised by his “sudden” success than McKagan, who until that time earned a living as a paperboy, cook, baker’s apprentice and courier.
Fame brought all the usual privileges, including opening slots on tour with Aerosmith and Motley Crue and swanky accommodations in five-star hotels. But the live-fast lifestyle started taking casualties, and Guns found it necessary to replaced drugged-out drummer Steven Adler with The Cult’s Matt Sorum. Slash, Duff, and Izzy were barely able to maintain the semblance of a work ethic for the 1989 follow-up G n’ R: Lies, which yielded the acoustic gem “Patience” and party anthems “Used to Love Her” and “One in a Million.” Unwittingly dehydrated by his alcohol intake, Duff started bandaging his hands onstage to conceal his chaffed, bleeding skin.
Personal problems on all fronts exacerbated the writing and 1991 releases of twin albums Use Your Illusion I & II. The project produced several hits, with “November Rain,” “You Could Be Mine,” “Civil War,” and “Don’t Cry” topping the charts. But a subsequent team-up tour with Metallica was wrought with difficulty, as singer Axl began his hated habit of hitting the stage late, pushing show times into the wee hours—and often past curfews, costing the tour millions. Hard-pressed to top their own bombast on another studio release, the G n’ R boys issued the covers compilation The Spaghetti Incident? in 1993, with McKagan himself handling vocals on a couple tracks.
By then, both Duff and Slash had suffered Axl’s Napoleonic quirks long enough. Both quit G n’ R, with the bassist devoting himself to getting clean and the top-hatted guitarist moving on with his Snake Pit efforts. McKagan’s nadir brought him to death’s door, his burst pancreas causing third-degree burns on several internal organs. He begged for doctors to kill him, but it wasn’t in the cards. Duff survived the ordeal—just as he’d emerged from a horrific boating accident as a child—imbued with clarity and a dogged determination to reverse his fortunes. Spurred on by one of his mother’s final wishes, he enrolled in classes at a local college and (shockingly) found himself intellectually stimulated by the work. Basic economics courses got him curious enough to reexamine G n’ R’s finances to ensure he and his mates hadn’t been cheated somewhere along the way (they weren’t). Duff would later ply his knowledge as cofounder of Meridian, a firm dedicated to managing wealth for other high-profile musicians.
But the most telling bits of It’s So Easy are McKagan’s passages chronicling his recovery from substance abuse and reconstruction, vis-à-vis martial arts, meditation, and mountain-biking. One visualizes the bassist’s physical transformation from bloated, ruddy-face blonde junky to ripped Renaissance man between McKagan’s words. Duff notes how he had to work harder for fellow bikers, college students, and black-belts to look past his rock and roll pedigree and accept him into their exclusive cliques. And rather than smack of braggadocio, McKagan’s text strikes the heart with its humility. Few of us will ever sink as low as the Loaded front man once was, and it’s inspiring to think a 360-degree comeback is possible after so much slumming.
Then again, few of us will ever receive a fraction of the acclaim afforded McKagan and his rock and roll cronies. But it’s nice to know that the heart of a humble kid from the Seattle suburbs still beats beneath all that leather and tattoo ink. And an articulate one, at that.
Co-written by German journalist (and former Playboy staff editor) Tim Mohr, It’s So Easy transcends the tired genre of rock biography by focusing on humanity and empowerment instead of wallowing in backstage barbarism and hotel room debauchery. Sure, all the nasty nitty-gritty is accounted for—from Duff’s grand theft auto delinquency, dressing room fisticuffs, and lock pendant-wearing warrior years to his airplane panic attacks and prescription drug relapse. But the book’s emphasis never strays from how McKagan recognized these failings, learned from his mistakes, and disciplined himself to overcome them. Hell, in many ways It’s So Easy is more truly a self-help book than any condescending or preachy page-turners lining bookstore shelves with Deepak Chopra. It’s certainly more fun.
You can bow to Sensei Duff in person when his book tour hits the House of Blues this Friday. McKagan will read selections from his book, accompanied by ambient music by friends Paul Huxtler (pedal steel), Mike Squire (mandolin), and Jeff Rouse (bass). Word’s still out on whether any other Guns n’ Roses alumni will join him in a jam at Public Hall on Saturday—but who knows? Maybe a couple celebs will show up for the reading.