Interview: Duff McKagan Talks About His New Book, 'It's So Easy: and Other Lies'
As a proud Guns N' Roses historian, I've read my fair share of GNR-related books and in a way was kind of dreading another one. I had read Slash's autobiography the day it came out, and while it proved to be a very informative read and a good look into Slash's side of the Guns saga, it ultimately felt like the voice of my longtime guitar hero was a bit lacking.
Fortunately, when I got into It's So Easy, I remembered that not only was Duff a writer, but he was damn good one. Duff didn't sit down to write the exclusive, tell-all story of the "World's Most Dangerous Band," but to give us his story, for better or worse, in the form of very original, non-linear narrative. Throughout all the hardships and triumphs, the book often veers between first-person narrative and stream-of-conscious style of writing that puts you right into the author's head.
Long story short, if you're looking for the dirt on Axl, Slash & Co., skip this one. But if you're a fan of one of the truly great rock 'n' roll bands of all time and want to get an insider's perspective on the guy who provided an integral part of that signature Guns sound, move this one to the top of your "Must Read" list and be prepared to get through it in one sitting.
GUITAR WORLD: So your book just came out. How does it feel knowing so many strangers now know so much about your personal life?
I gotta lot of practice writing for Seattle Weekly and ESPN, and you know, because you're a writer ... I found that I can explain my thoughts and views, and really you don't have to give out your whole story. I keep what's really private to me private.
So many people ask me, "How'd you end up in the hospital? How'd your pancreas burst? How much did you do, dude? What were you drinking?" -- all of those questions -- and if I were to explain that I drank a gallon of vodka and a eightball of blow and 20 valiums a day, you would just kind of be like, "Uh, that sounds like a lot." But you'd have no reference to that ...
[Laughs] Hopefully. Most people don't. And a lot of people ask me how I got out of that. I started experimenting and writing about my descent into insanity, which it kind of is, and it's my rock 'n' roll story. It's about me going through Guns N' Roses and bouncing around inside that big machine, trying to find out who I was, who my band was, being a player and how much I loved music, and how much I wasn't ready for it.
It's kind of taking responsibility for my own crap, you know? Saying, "It's not everyone else's fault, maybe. Maybe I had something to do with it."
So people know some more stuff about me now, you're right. It kind of freaked me out last Tuesday when the book came out and I was at my first book event at Strand [in New York City] and there were all these people looking at me. It sold out, and it's a different kind of sell out -- it's not a rock show sell out, it's a book thing. And they know your deal now, and they're looking at you and it's fucking freaky.
But we'll see. I think I'm satisfied with the story I told. Of course now that it's out, I'm like, "God damnit I would have changed that part." [laughs] But that's probably going to happen with anything you do.
The book doesn't really read like a straight autobiography, but more like a memoir that covers a certain story arch about your life without really trying to be the definitive story. How would you classify it?
I'd call it a memoir. I read a shit load, I read every night, and I kind of put it in the category of ... you know, it's not my full story like an autobiography would be. Nobody really cares about my childhood. Nobody really cares about a guy when everything is joyous in his life, they're like, "No, give me the dirt!" It's a memoir ... ish.
Guns N' Roses obviously plays a huge role in the book, as that was a big chunk of your life, but it doesn't read like you were writing with the sole intention of getting your side of the Guns story out there. Did that ever cross your mind as a motivation?
No. My side of any story, I think, is kind of irrelevant, at least in the context of this book. It's my experience.
I think a lot of people might have been expecting a tell-all about the band.
You know, when you're in a band, a marriage -- whatever, it's kind of the same deal -- there's a lot of things that you see, and people trust you with information about their lives. Call it a "bro code" or whatever you wanna call it, but there are certain things you do not tell. At least I don't.
It seems like when Slash wrote his book, he definitely wanted to get his side of the story out there. Maybe Axl's side is that one that kept getting all the coverage.
I learned from Slash's book, 'cause I know what his intention was. I was there when he and Anthony [Bozza] were working on it. I think Slash was fed up -- we'd be on Velvet Revolver tours and a lot of time had passed, but he and I get asked old-school GNR questions all the time. I think he thought his book would answer all of their questions and they wouldn't ask him GNR questions anymore. [laughs]
I think that was his hope, but that's just never going to happen. I learned from that. I don't have any disillusions that this is going to stop people from asking me, "Hey if you guys are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, are you gonna get back together?" I think you'll see my experience and will be able to see my answer for yourself when you read the book.
As a fellow bass player, I really appreciate how much time you spent talking about the work you put into developing a distinct style and sound as a bass player. Do you think bassists sometimes get overlooked in the rock world?
Well, they are. It's funny, when I started playing bass in 1984, you had guys like Paul Simonon fron the Clash, John Paul Jones, Lemmy and Nikki Sixx was the head guy in Motley Crue, and you had all this post-punk stuff like Magazine and Killing Joke where the bass sort of lead the way. Not that I picked it to sort of be a main dude, but it intrigued me. Especially Paul Simonon, just the way he rolled. His whole thing was just killer.
I grew up with this band called D.O.A. from Vancouver, and their bass player Randy Rampage was just fucking amazing. So in my time maybe it was a cooler instrument than it is now.
It's weird because a lot of lead guitar types -- and I started as a lead guitarist -- tend to have to swallow some pride to "step down" and play bass, but if you listen to bands like Gang of Four and Wire, the bass is so important in those bands.
Bass in all of that stuff was just so pronounced. It was just a different time. I tried to touch on that, but that's a whole other thing. I could write a small treatise on bass playing and the importance of the rhythm section. If you don't have a good rhythm section, your band is toast, you're a bar band. Good rhythm section, you've got a chance to get out of the bar. You can be a great singer, but you'll stay in the bar without a good rhythm section. But you do get passed over. I never got into this thing for the accolades, I just wanted to be in a good fucking band. I'm a team guy.
It was really cool to read about the work you and Steven [Adler, Guns N' Roses drummer] put into becoming such a tight rhythm section.
Steven and I worked our asses off to try and be the best that we could be. Lo and behold, through him listening to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and me listening to Prince, we came up with this really weird but cool, swinging rhythm section that was hard and melodic and really to the point.
Since it's the 20th anniversary of albums like Nevermind and Ten, a lot is being made right now about the Seattle scene, and I know you came out of an earlier version of that. I always hear that the Seattle scene was so weird because it was such an isolated city, but with the rise of the internet, it doesn't seem like anywhere is that isolated anymore. Do you think a scene like that could ever happen again?
I think we may be too connected. I think that scene was able to grow because Seattle's weird and separate. It always was. But it's not so weird and separate anymore because it can't be. I don't know if any place can be. Newfoundland, maybe? [laughs]
People in Seattle -- and I'm speaking from experience -- are indoors more. It used to just rain a ton and, as a result, you'd be inside listening to music all the time and playing. You'd all rehearse at each other's houses and share ideas. There was no competition. When I got to L.A. I was really stunned by the competition. "We're better than them!" and all that kind of stuff.
There are a lot of points in the book -- usually pretty emotional moments, like when your pancreas burst -- that you lapse into a sort of stream-of-conscious style of writing. Was it tough putting yourself back in the headspace of those moments?
Yeah, it was. I was reading Cormac McCarthy at the time. I don't know if you read Cormac at all, but it's dark and hard. I actually forced myself to sit on this couch that's in my friend's garage -- it's like 40 years old, no springs in it, and it actually hurts to sit on it after about 10 minutes. So I made myself, right or wrong, sit there while I wrote those parts.
My wife, after about six weeks of doing this, was like, "Hey, dude, are you cool? Are you gonna be alright?" Nobody goes back -- unless you're writing a book, I suppose -- and really studies their deal. And for a while there, my life got pretty dark. And who would imagine this punk rock kid who just wanted to play music -- who would have picked me to be in the closet with a fucking shotgun, you know?
Going back through all that stuff ... it was an experience.
A big subplot of the book, I think, is you finding ways to deal with panic attacks, which I can definitely sympathize with.
Yeah, I found ways to self-medicate as kind of a quick fix. I just really thought, "In a couple months I'll be able to get to this," you know? Like, I'd have some time to address this, to go to a professional or whatever. Guess what? Life doesn't just get busy and then you're fine, life is just busy.
If I was the guy I am now then, I would have said, "I need to take the fucking time to deal with this, otherwise I'm going to kill myself with alcohol." But I just didn't have the knowledge or wherewithal to do that then.
Writing this book probably gave you a good chance to sort of reflect on your musical legacy, and it's funny that it came out the same week it was announced that Guns were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
How's that for timing? I was in New York last week, so I was in the belly of the beast when that happened. You know, my legacy as a musician, I mean, it's really fuckin' cool. I meet a lot of people who really were affected by the music. Even kids, man. Yesterday at my book signing, this band of 14-year-old kids came out wearing Appetite shirts and they've got a rock band. Kids. So it's affecting this whole new generation, too.
Sometimes I don't even have words for them, I'm just like, "Oh wow," and I'm really sort of honored and touched and scratching my head.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... I wouldn't even know what to say. I've probably been asked 60 times in the past week and I just don't have an answer. Whatever happens, there's just a can of worms that's sitting there and everyone knew that it might be coming up and now's it here. I just hope we're able to achieve a little bit of grace and honesty, and just roll like we did then. That's why people loved us, because we were real.
I'm not going to go down the road of asking you if the original lineup is going to perform at the ceremony, as I can probably look up on every other website what you've already said.
[laughs] Right, you probably can!
I'll leave you with this question, then, since you're part of the book community now. What's on Duff McKagan's reading list right now?
I'm reading The Lamb by Christopher Moore. Have you read that?
I haven't, but it's been recommended to me recently.
Read it, man! I read a lot of heavy shit. I'll read a lot of Cormac McCarthy and then go to something like One Bullet Away, or The Forever War, or something like that. And a friend of mine said, "You've got to get off this. Read this book, The Lamb." And it's really thoroughly entertaining, for sure.
Duff McKagan's new book, It's So Easy: and Other Lies, is out now. You can check it out on Amazon here.