Of course I read another book written by a Guns N’ Roses band member! Almost a year ago (January 2017), I reviewed Slash and I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d read Duff McKagan’s version of the story as well. While I liked Slash’s book, my two main criticisms were that a) it was too long (over 450 pages) and b) there was way too much discussion about his alcohol and drug use. As I cracked open McKagan’s tale, I was hoping that he would handle those two issues differently than Slash and he did.
Over 100 pages shorter, It’s So Easy And Other Lies is an honest story of redemption about a guy who came from a large, Seattle family and found himself in the biggest rock and roll band on the planet because he wanted it more than anyone else. While there is plenty of discussion about his alcohol and drug use, McKagan is very careful not glamorize any of it. In fact, one of the book’s main themes is how detrimental it was to lose so many people throughout his life to heroin overdoses. But it didn’t stop him from doing it.
Another thread that appears throughout the narrative is his appreciation for people who “believed in his bands.” He mentions those people countless times and it’s clear that, regardless of the severe panic attacks that played a role in his substance abuse, he understood that it takes a village of believers to make rock and roll bands happen. In fact, his 1993 Geffen-released solo album is called Believe in Me.
Throughout the book, readers also gain a clear understanding of the important role family plays in McKagan’s life – especially his mother who he was extremely close with until her death in 1999. He speaks fondly about his siblings, aunts, uncles, childhood friends, his dog Chloe (who was by his side for literally everything), and, of course, his wife and two daughters. Additionally, after getting sober, exercise and education became priorities. Actually they could be more accurately characterized as healthy addictions. I saw none of that coming.
- In 1988 MTV aired a concert during which Axl introduced his bassist as Duff “the King of Beers” McKagan. Shortly after that, a production company working on an animated show called McKagan asking if they could use the name “Duff” for the show’s brand of beer. That show was The Simpsons.
- Early influences included: Johnny Thunders, Prince, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Hanoi Rocks, Fear, Black Flag, the Sex Pistols, and the Rolling Stones, among others.
- He was born Michael McKagan but everyone calls him Duff – a nickname given to him by the grandfather of another Michael who lived next door.
- McKagan was deeply immersed in Seattle’s early punk scene. He also practiced multiple instruments so he could fill any position a band had open.
- When he moved from Seattle to L.A., he saw an ad in the local music paper for a band seeking a bass player. The contact person was Slash.
- The first time he met Izzy Stradlin was when they both turned up at the same girl’s place on the same night. They bonded over music and kept in touch.
- McKagan got pulled over while drinking and driving with a friend. He told the cop they were rushing home to catch Billy Idol on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. They got lucky – the cop let them go.
- In 1985 Stradlin told McKagan about a few guys from L.A. Guns putting together a band that included Axl Rose who the former grew up with in Indiana. Tracii Guns was on lead guitar and the new group was called Guns N’ Roses.
- Both Slash and Steven Adler knew Axl from playing a few gigs with him as Hollywood Rose in 1984.
- McKagan and Stradlin hated “overwrought heavy metal” drum kits so they took away most of Adler’s drum kit and left him with the bare essentials. The first part of the kit to go was the second kick drum.
- The very first gig they played was at the Troubadour where, later in 1986, they would break the liquor sales record because they attracted so many fans.
- The (pre-signed) band hitchhiked from L.A. to Seattle after their car broke down on the way to start their very first west coast tour. Because they had no money to fix it until after their Seattle gig, they knew they had to hitchhike and, with the help of some very kind strangers, miraculously made it on time.
- One of the band’s early secrets to success was their mailing list – they spent a significant amount of time and effort building and maintaining it.
- At $1.29 a bottle, Night Train wine became a band staple and the inspiration for the song “Nightrain” which appears on Appetite For Destruction.
- GNR stole keyboardist Dizzy Reed from a band called Johnny and the Jaguars.
- McKagan describes “Welcome to the Jungle” as one of the band’s first calling cards. Kim Fowley, the shady manager who ruined the Runaways, tried to purchase the publishing rights for “Welcome to the Jungle” for $10,000. When the band refused he came back again with $50,000. He got shut down again.
- Slash’s first advance check from Geffen Records was made out to “Stash.”
- On October 30, 1987, GNR did an acoustic set at CBGB where they debuted “Patience.” It quickly became one of McKagan’s favorite Guns songs to play live.
- His brother Bruce constantly watched Appetite climb the charts and, almost exactly one year after its release, let McKagan know that the album hit number one.
- McKagan’s friend Dave Dederer from junior high, who also happened to be the guitar player for the Presidents of the United States of America band, helped him write an essay when he decided to go back to school. Before writing his admissions essay, he asked Dederer what to write about it and he said to tell his story – from growing up in Seattle to moving to L.A. to GNR to drugs to redemption and getting sober to his wife and baby. He did just that and he earned an interview with the college.
- McKagan was introduced to his wife by a Thrasher magazine writer.
- He was instrumental in getting Scott Weiland sober. Just like with Slash’s book, it’s eerie to read about since Weiland is no longer alive.
- “I was sure I was going to play an important and vital part in whatever music innovation would be next. It was not conceit on my part, it was excitement.”
- His first impression of Slash: “I was absolutely stunned by the raw, emotive power he so easily tapped.”
- First impression of Axl: “[He] let out one of his screams, and it was like nothing I had ever heard. There were two voices coming out at once! There’s a name for that in musicology, but all I knew in that instant was that this dude was different and powerful and fucking serious.”
- “Punk rock tours in those days ran on pure adventure and adrenaline.”
- “From the moment the five us [Slash, Duff, Axl, Steven, and Izzy] leaned into our first song, we could all hear and feel that it was right. The chemistry was immediate, thunderous, and soulful.”
- Kim Warnick of the Fastbacks’ initial reaction to the names of the band members: “Izzy, Axl, Slash – and Duff? What kind of names are those?”
- “Early in our career we played shows with Social Distortion, the Dickies, and Fear…Axl appeared both more punk and more metal than the whole LA scene put together.”
- McKagan on Axl: “He was totally punk rock in my eyes because his fire could not be controlled…He was brazen and unapologetic and his edge helped sharpen the band’s identity and separate us from the pack.”
- “Izzy was probably the most significant force – without his initial vision and his songwriting cues, there would have been no Guns N’ Roses.”
- McKagan describing a conversation he had with Axl in 1994 about the state of Guns: “We talked about how the band had represented family, how that family had started a business, how that family business had gone global.”
- “Confidence was knowing I could do anything, But, I realized, confidence must always be rooted in work…and in honesty.”
- “In an age of paint-by-numbers corporate rock, we fucking needed Alice in Chains.”
Duff’s other bands:
The Vains – early punk band in Seattle.
Ten Minute Warning – very successful punk band in Seattle that began in 1982.
Neurotic Outsiders – super group that included Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, GNR drummer Matt Sorum, and John Taylor of Duran Duran.
Loaded – rock band formed in 1999.
Velvet Revolver – extremely successful super group that featured Dave Kushner of Wasted Youth, Weiland, Slash, and Sorum.
What I found to be the most interesting overall aspect of this book was that it showcases someone who could have been one of the biggest assholes in rock and roll history but chose not to be. Instead, he decided to be a humble guy who went through many extreme stages of life. He also avoided becoming a rock and roll cliché when, after being hospitalized and near death as a result of his alcohol and drug use, he seriously turned it around. As a result, Duff McKagan has worn and continues to wear many hats: musician, addict, exercise enthusiast, son, brother, husband, student, and father.
We saw Guns in August and the show was amazing. Three hours of incredible rock and roll. We decided that McKagan looked the best out of everyone and sounded great – even when he sang a Misfits song that no one saw coming.