Former Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan has lived the rock and roll lifestyle about as thoroughly as anyone, and somehow managed to survive it all. As he makes clear in his new autobiography It’s So Easy (And Other Lies), this was never a sure thing.
His bona fides were there right from the start. McKagan started out in some of the leading Seattle punk bands of the early eighties. Two of these, The Fartz and Ten Minute Warning, were direct precursors to what became grunge. In 1984 though, Seattle was a backwater as far as the music business was concerned. For someone who really wanted a career as a musician, other than being in a Top 40 cover band, getting out of town was imperative. So Duff did just that. He headed for Los Angeles with nothing but the clothes on his back.
He quickly fell in with a like-minded crowd, while supporting himself at a day job at the Black Angus restaurant. McKagan’s conversationalist tone serves him well as he describes those early, skid row times — and the eventual formation of Guns.
His account of their first tour is hilarious. The idea was to string a few West Coast gigs together, starting in Seattle and working their way back to L.A. Through some old contacts, Duff managed to secure a gig for the band in Seattle, and they headed out. Their van broke down just outside of Bakersfield, less than two hours out of town. The guys were forced to basically hitchhike the 1,000 miles to Seattle. The fact that they actually made the date is incredible, and the ten people in the audience must have been ecstatic.
Still, the trip was a bonding experience for them, one which Duff thought would last a lifetime. Of course, we all know how that turned out. There is a wistfulness in McKagan’s writing about those days that is palpable. What followed was the writing and recording of one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time, Appetite For Destruction. With the huge success of that record, and the endless touring that followed, the carefully constructed bonds between the group began to fray.
After hearing so many sides to this story, McKagan’s rings truest. Even Axl Rose comes off (somewhat) sympathetically, as a guy who just basically lost the plot. But this is Duff McKagan’s story, and his descent into drugs, and especially alcohol is harrowing. His eventual sobriety really was a life or death choice. Thankfully, rather than taking on the self-righteous tone of many newly sober people, he lays it out in a completely straightforward manner. He also does not revel in the glory days of his addictions, which is another common practice among the recently “converted.”
What emerges today is a pretty mundane lifestyle, albeit a wealthy one, thanks to Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. He went back to school, eventually earning a degree from Seattle University. He also has a family, and revels in the fact that his children are not doing what he was doing at their ages. As a guy who was born just a couple of weeks after Duff, I can certainly relate. It is a wonderful feeling to have teenagers who do not think of drugs and petty theft as cool.
Duff McKagan lived the dream, and found out that the other side is pretty much what most parents hope for their kids in the first place — that an education and a stable family are worth a fortune. If this sounds like the “feel good” story of the year, then so be it. The conclusion of his tale certainly made me feel good.