It’s easy to assume that It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, the new autobiography by former Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan, is just another rockstar tell-all replete with repetitive tales of groupies, drugs and shit-talking. If you want that, read The Dirt. As a punk-obsessed Seattle teenager, McKagan began playing in bands at 15, eventually joining influential pop-punk group The Fastbacks and forming his own band 10 Minute Warning, whose sludgy brand of punk was grunge years before it had a name.
It’s So Easy delves into the seedier side of Guns N’ Roses — the infamous alley where the group partied harder than anyone in Los Angeles, the mind-boggling amounts of drugs, the eventual constant infighting that led to the band’s unofficial breakup in 1994 – but proves that the influential band was only a part of McKagan’s life. After nearly dying from alcohol-induced pancreatitis in 1994, McKagan found sobriety and discovered a love of writing, eventually becoming a columnist for Seattle Weekly and Playboy. (And yes, he wrote the book himself.) Most recently, the 47-year-old began Meridian Rock, a wealth management firm targeted at musicians, after receiving his finance degree from Seattle University’s Albers School of Business.
Hive caught up with McKagan before his European and South American tour to discuss those early Guns N’ Roses’ shows, partying with NWA and why even rock stars don’t make cool dads.
The book opens with your near-death experience and later, you write about putting a loaded shotgun in your mouth. How difficult was it to revisit these events?
It was just weird because when I wrote the initial passages, I didn’t really know what I was writing toward. I was just a practicing writer writing two columns a week [for Seattle Weekly] and I started to find this voice. I could articulate myself way better with the written word than I ever could talking. For me, writing about these events was about uncovering some stuff.
I had no idea where I was going [with the book]. [Collaborator] Tim [Mohr] would fly out to Los Angeles and say, “Let’s drive around to places where you lived and all this stuff.” “Why?” “Let’s just do it.” And it was great — these tricky little writer things — to jog your memory. It got to a point where I wrote about stuff that I remembered and didn’t try to remember stuff I couldn’t remember.
I’ve never said this in an interview, but after reading the book, it’s amazing you’re still alive.
[Laughs] It’s true. I really thought that [suicide] was how it was going to go and you know it’s fucking bad when you’re okay with that in your head and just resigned to the fact, like, “Oh well.” I’ve always had a work ethic and I’m a guy that follows through, so when I was in that darkened place, that scared the shit out of me.
Did you reach out to any of the original Guns N’ Roses lineup while you were writing the book?
I didn’t really feel like I needed to. I made the people in my life part of the story only as much as I needed them to tell my story. I scoured the book like “Am I throwing anybody under the bus?” Am I having any resentment here that I’m not seeing? Because it’s easy to happen. You could write something like “Fuck, what a dick.” Wow, resentment much? But really, I was trying to find where I fell short, not where anybody else fell short.
Did you read a lot of other rock bios to decide what does or doesn’t work?
I don’t read a lot of rock bios in general. I read Slash’s book and I really enjoyed it because I was along for that ride in a different seat. And the ride was different from my perspective, but it’s great to see his perspective as he remembers it now. It’s not important what’s true or not as far as my truth is concerned when it come to his book. This was how he remembers it and this is how he’s comfortable telling the story and that’s great. I read other stuff. I read Cormac McCarthy, Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War,” [Upton Sinclair’s] “The Jungle.” It’s like good music. As a musician, you take all your influences in and don’t copy it, but it influences you.
In retrospect, Guns N’ Roses is seen as the late ’80s link between punk, glam and metal. Did you get a sense of that during those early shows?
Yeah, you look at our early crowds at the Troubadour and that’s when we started to sell out venues. ‘Cause punkers would come to our shows, the metal kids from the Valley would come, and chicks would come. No other band was pulling in this different sort of crowd. I guess it was a bridge. When I moved down to Los Angeles [in 1983], we didn’t know what the “next thing” was, but we felt like our age group was going to do it.
Having been in numerous bands before GNR, was there an epiphany where it felt different than previous ventures?
[Answers immediately] It was the first moment the five us of were in a room. It was musically powerful. It was like, “This is completely different than anything that I’d experienced.” We all felt it and it was like, “Holy fuck.” Axl was more punk rock than any punk rock singers because it was fucking real. And more metal than anyone; second maybe to Rob Halford. And more Freddy Mercury. It was all real. And Slash was an old soul guitar player in a 19-year-old body like, “Where in the hell did you come from?”
You briefly mention in the book that GNR used to party with NWA. I don’t really have a question; I’m just trying to picture that in my mind.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was crazy. It was an easy sort of friendship because we were the “them” of north, white L.A., and they were the “us” of south L.A and we recognized it as such. I love that band and they liked us. I just remember having a party over at my house like, “Do you guys want to come to my party?” And we had the best fucking barbecue with kegs of beer and a mixture of all kinds of people.
So for the record, you’re only giving me a barbecue and diverse people at a Guns N’ Roses/NWA party.
[Laughs] I’m not going to ever tell anything beyond that. Let’s just say it was an easy friendship.
At one point in the book, you write that your daughters look at you like the “nerdiest coot ever to walk the face of the earth.” So even globe-trotting rock stars can still embarrass their kids?
Of course! I’m a dad. It doesn’t matter. My life right now has dropped me back down to earth, if I ever left earth. So many things are bringing me back down.
What was your definition of success when GNR first got big and how does it compare to now?
I don’t know if I had a definition for success back then. It was simple things, like selling out the Troubadour for the first time. Like, “Holy fuck, nobody can take that away from you. You sold out a club in Los Angeles; one of the biggest cities in the world.” Getting a major label deal gave us free rein on everything — production, artwork, the whole deal. The definition of success kept getting redefined. When I got my first gold record, it was like “Well fuck that! I got a gold record!” I was so in the moment that I didn’t really look at long-term success. It never really meant money to me and then when the money started to come, I was terrified and I didn’t know what to do. I think now that I’ve had success and sold records in two different bands, the underdog thing happened again with Velvet Revolver. It was like “What are Duff and Slash going to do? Come back out and be Guns N’ Roses with a new singer?” We were getting all that bullshit. That’s why we didn’t do it for so long. Slash and I played this benefit show with [Former GNR drummer and Velvet Revolver member] Matt [Sorum] for the first time since 1994 and it was just too good. Okay, fuck this, it’s 2003. We’ve all grown up a bit more. Let’s put the blinders and earmuffs on and go write some songs.
In the book, you talk about signing the name “Guns N’ Roses” over to Axl. What was your initial reaction when he rebooted the band with different members? Anger? Frustration? Resignation? Indifference?
It was probably all those things at different times. A name is what you make of it and it was a particular group that made that name. We could have been called “Bedpan” or whatever; it didn’t really matter. Pearl Jam isn’t the best name in the word — probably one of the dumber names in the world — but it’s what that band makes of it. So there was hurt, but I was growing up and had gotten some sober years behind me. It wasn’t in my realm a ton because I was in school full-time, having kids and starting Velvet Revolver. I was way too chock full of life. It was only when we started doing press for Velvet Revolver and people would ask us, then it was like, “Yeah, we have to deal with it. Where do I put this in my head? How do I feel about it?” And now, it’s all good.
What’s the status of your wealth management firm Meridian Rock?
I’d say we’re a few weeks out right now. We’re all very close. But I’m never going to stop music. I don’t ever want to become one of them. I’m one of us. The challenge will be, how fast do we grow the business because I want to be there for every turn and every client. So the secret is, don’t grow too fast. Don’t take every person who wants to be a client.
I have a surreal image of you in a three-piece suit finessing clients.
I go to Canary Wharf or Wall Street looking the way I do now: wearing my fucked up pants.
You mention “us” and “them.” Having been on both sides of the financial spectrum, what are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and Americans’ growing frustrations with the financial systems?
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I voted for Obama; finally a president around my age and a guy who’s smarter than me. Even when he took office, he ran on healthcare, but I think the best thing he could have done straight in that would have set the bar on so many levels was say “Taxpayers, here’s the deal: I know I ran on healthcare. I’ll get to that. We can all agree that we’re in a recession and our economy is in peril right now, correct?” And everyone would go “Yes, yes.” “Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to spend a bit more of your money and get 100 lawyers — fucking, the best lawyers money can buy — and we’re going to go down to Wall Street and I’m going make 1,000 arrests and seize all of their assets. And I’m going to disperse that back to you guys and it will pay for these lawyers and get your money back.” And the ripple effect down through the financial ranks will be “Oh, there’s a consequence?” Because they’re going to jail; real jail. They ripped us off once with mortgage-backed securities and how many other ways and we bailed them out and now they’re ripping us off again. They went right back to their old ways.
If they ever do a GNR movie, who would you want to play you?
Well, obviously it could only be the best looking actors, like the Brad Pitts of the world. [Laughs] Then my wife would go see the movie.
You could finally convince your daughters you’re cool.
But then they’d go “He’s a dad too. He’s probably a dork.”
It’s So Easy: And Other Lies is out now via Touchstone.