Talk to any rock ’n’ roll fan who was around in the late ’80s about their favorite albums and you’re likely to hear Appetite for Destruction near the top of their list. The gritty, raunchy, dirty album blew apart the L.A. hair-band scene and secured Guns N’ Roses a place in history as one of the most important bands. Ever.
Read more new and notable nonfiction this October.
In true Behind the Music style, Guns imploded in the ’90s, its members taking on other projects here and there, including front man Axl Rose’s epic quest to put out Chinese Democracy with a new line-up. Bassist Duff McKagan has not only built himself a happy life as a husband and father, but also continued playing in Velvet Revolver and now his own band, Loaded. And he writes. McKagan is a columnist for his hometown’s alternative newspaper, the Seattle Weekly, ESPN.com and Playboy.com.
Here, McKagan talks to us about his latest writing project—his life—in his memoir It’s So Easy.
Why the book now?
For me, I started getting my writing chops about three years ago, out of nowhere really, to write an article for Italian Men’s Vogue about 1987 in Hollywood…I wrote a 2,500 word article for Men’s Italian Vogue, and I kind of dug it…But from that, one of the editors of Playboy magazine saw that article and asked me to write another 2,500-word article for Playboy on the music business. And then Seattle Weekly had a spot that had just opened up, this is about two and a half years ago, and I started a weekly column, a 1,000-word column. And then Playboy.com offered me a financial weekly column…So, I’m not a journalist, but I’m a writer…
So anyhow, why a book now? Well, because I’ve kind of developed a style. The question I’ve gotten the most is, how bad did it get? How much did you drink, how much drugs did you do? And how did you get sober? And I can’t really ever explain. If I told you on the phone—and I assume you’re probably a “normy,” a normy meaning you don’t drink a gallon of vodka a day, or do a ball of blow every day or smoke heroin—so if I ever tell you how much I did, it wouldn’t make any sense. You would go, “Wow that sounds like a lot,” but you wouldn’t really know what I’m telling you.
So I started experimenting with writing about what that was like and the descent down into that. I was supposed to die at 18, 19. And everybody in Seattle thought I was the chosen one, musically wise. You know, if anyone was going to make it, it was going to be that guy. I was never the one into doing heroin. The influence of doing heroin came to Seattle and I dodged it. I moved to Hollywood away from the heroin. The first band I performed with was Guns N’ Roses [in L.A.]. Three weeks into being in Hollywood I was playing with Slash through an ad in the paper. So it kind of chronicles the whole story. It’s really about my descent, and then my rise out of addiction.
Obviously, what you guys lived through was insane and incredible, but when you actually start chronicling the drugs and alcohol [in the book], when I got to the “10 bottles of wine a day” line, I was like, “Holy shit, that’s a lot.” How did it feel to see that on paper?
Not good. It wasn’t good. I sat there and wrote the book myself. I imagine you are a writer. And you write alone. You don’t write holding your wife’s hand, or you don’t write with a therapist in the room. You write alone…
My life now is amazing. I have a teenage daughter and a 10-year-old daughter. Things are pink and fluffy at my house, with two little dogs. It’s pretty funny to be me now. And I’m in on the joke that is my life. People take rock ’n’ roll so seriously, but there is a lot of humor in this thing. There is a lot of humor in the Guns N’ Roses story that hopefully I touch on and reveal.
There are enough rock ’n’ roll books that are boring to me at this point. I know Simon & Schuster would like for me to say this is a rock ’n’ roll book because I guess they sell. And it is, I am a rock ’n’ roll guy. But I think when I got sober in 1994 I realized there’s all this other stuff in life that I gave up hope on ever achieving when I was 26. I thought I would live till 30 and that was it. Things like going to school and having a healthy relationship with kids and dogs and people relying on me for everything? Life’s turned around for me, and I’m used to it now.
I noticed you aren’t paired with a super-journalist rock writer doing the story.
It wasn’t fun, a lot of that stuff, to write about. I think I was probably a little moody and a little dark at times. For me to go back, I’d write a sentence, and I’d go ugh, and then I’d follow up with another sentence that backs up that sentence, and what I started to reveal was my part in things. You look in the rearview mirror, and if there was controversy it was always the other guys’ fault. You always say, “It was that fucking guy, it was their fault, it was them!”
But I started to really find my place in things, and I took accountability, I really did. I took accountability for myself. Hopefully it’s funny at times along the way. If I could go back to where I was in 1993 and read this book—because I never thought I would get out of where I was, I never did—but even me, I did, I got out. And I got out in a big way and life became pretty magical after I got all those monkeys off my back.
You’ve been in many bands, but do you most strongly identify with being in Guns N’ Roses? What does that experience feel like looking back now?
I don’t identify myself with that, and it’s been a long time since. In going back, I went back to when I was 9 years old, in this book. I think that’s why I was in a dark mood. Because I was living in the past for a couple of months, and it took about 14 months to write this book, and for a couple months, maybe three, I was living in the past. And I don’t like to do that at all. You can’t with kids….
I have great memories from them sure. But I see friends of mine from then, and they are stuck there. And life never got any better, so they talk about 1989 or 1991 or 1997. And that happens a lot with some of the people that were in and around us.
And you were on a flight with Kurt Cobain right before he died. And both of your bands had your crucial moments about the same time, right around there. Because everyone was saying Nirvana was the death of the L.A. scene and all that other stuff.
I think everybody but us were saying that. Everyone but the bands were saying that and that shouldn’t be overlooked. It was about two years the press made a sort of big deal, and we were affected by it, by the hoopla. Guns N’ Roses were playing stadiums when that was going down so we weren’t affected businesswise by any new bands coming into the scene. But it sucked, being from Seattle and hearing the press making such a big deal about this being the death of rock. And kid’s rock bands believe it all. And we were all too young to understand how to deal with that stuff. Really too young.
And in my experience, the ordinary guy, really, the ordinary guys were thrown into extraordinary circumstances with no guidance of how to get yourself through it. And you’re left to your own devices, and it’s a miracle all of us survived it. Steven’s got some road marks that will never go away. And lives might be shortened by the excess. But none of us died. But you look at some of the other guys…Nirvana…Excess laid waste to a lot of my contemporaries.
But half of the book really isn’t about that. It’s about the way out. And that’s the fun part of the story was me getting to the martial arts by fate. Someone led me to this martial arts sensei. And it was an amazing journey up and out of that murk. I hope that’s what people come away from this book with is how I got out and how life can change and how you can take ownership, even though you’re in this massive band.
I know you joined Axl [Rose, front man] last fall in London for the first time in ages. How is your relationship with the guys in Guns N’ Roses?
It’s great. I was there on financial business and not rock ’n’ roll at all. Our rooms happened to be right next to each other of all the hotels and all the cities in the world. So I’m a grown-up, and I went over to his room. I think everyone was freaking out that our rooms were next to each other, except for me. I realized it was meant to happen this way. We hadn’t talked for 13 years and that’s dumb. As grown-up adult men, enough’s enough.
So that was just a very personal moment. If there wasn’t a gig that night, and I didn’t go down to the gig with him and get up on stage, nobody would have known about the personal moment we had. And sometimes I wish I wouldn’t have gotten up to play and just kept it a personal moment. But the relationship is fine with everyone.