Why Former Guns N' Roses Bassist Duff McKagan Is Such A Likeable Dude

Duff McKagan was 15 when he met Kim Warnick of Seattle punk band the Fastbacks. While giving him a ride home from school, she mentioned that her band might need a drummer. “Guitar, drums, bass, whatever, I’ll join!” writes McKagan with the kind of tractable enthusiasm that makes his new memoir, It’s So Easy (And Other Lies) (out today), a fun and heartening read. After dropping out of the local alternative high school (where to show up for half an hour every two weeks “proved too great an obligation”) and drifting in and out of trouble with drugs and the police, Duff moved to Los Angeles in 1983 with little in the way of a plan but the vaguest outline of a life in music — but not a career, as he points out, saying it was never his intention to make a living. Yet that’s what he did, somewhat miraculously becoming one of the founding members of Guns N’ Roses (he played bass).

The book describes the transformation of five penniless drug addict/musicians scraping by in L.A. into a World Brand of bad-boy drug addict/musicians within just a few years. While all of the rock clichés are there — serious partying, sex, dissension, power struggles, addiction, recovery, relapse, sleazy record-label executives and so on — McKagan’s sense of humor and unpretentious punk-rock ethos make him seem like the opposite of a rock star (itself an expression he explicitly disavows), and I never stopped rooting for him. Herewith, some of my favorite quotes from the book.

On GN’R’s first show in Seattle, after their car breaks down: “‘Let me get this straight’,” he said. “‘You guys are fucking hitchhiking to a gig — a thousand miles away?’”

On Sly Stone: “Was the great Sly Stone living the good life, jamming in a home studio tucked away somewhere in his sprawling mansion? Nope, he was sneaking past my girlfriend to smoke crack in my bathroom.”

On early marketing: “Other bands had mailing lists, but one of the secrets to GN’R’s success was how much time and effort we spent building and maintaining ours.”

On GN’R’s influences: “Axl was into Nazareth, Queen, and the Ramones. Slash was the Aerosmith guy. Izzy brought a no-pretense rock vibe — Stones, Faces, New York Dolls, Hanoi Rocks. Steven was a San Fernando Valley metal guy with a soft spot for the soaring harmonies of 1960s vocal music. I brought in more of the funkier, groove stuff and the punk-rock ferocity.”

On things taking off on the L.A. club circuit: “When things are working and you’re seeing progress, it kicks major fucking ass.”

On playing a frat party: “Axl’s assless chaps may have had something to do with our tepid reception. Still, free beer.”

On their first meeting with David Geffen: “As we were hanging out in the lobby, employees coming and going didn’t realize we were a band — they thought we were street people.”

On GN’R’s first song-writing split: “Since it was so difficult to say who had done what with our songs, we finally agreed to split everything equally across the board. Our lawyer enshrined it in writing — and thank God for that.”

On Triumph: “I hated Triumph.”

On attending a funeral for a friend who overdosed on heroin: “As he eulogized yet another overdose victim, Joe himself was clearly nodding out.”

On their first real tour: “We had a tour bus! We had a couple of real hotel rooms! And catering! Fuck, yes!”

On why GN’R wasn’t a metal band: “Oh, and also we didn’t write songs about elves and demons and shit.”

On his time in Chicago: “I did, however, have one epiphany in Chicago: cocaine was a nice supplement to my drinking. On cocaine, I could now drink twice as much as I had before. Fucking brilliant.”

On Mick Jagger: “Mick was cool, but his spare sneakers, I’m afraid, were not.”

On starting shows late, which led to riots during the Use Your Illusion tours: “As the fans became more and more upset about the late starts, it dawned on me that they were upset because they had to go to work or school the next day or had a babysitter at home watching their kids.”

On playing the Freddie Mercury memorial show drunk: “That’s right: Duff McKagan, king of beers, viscount of vodka, count of coke. Champion of the world. Asshole.”

On discovering books (and Hemingway) post-drugs: “In my new and lonely world of desert-island sobriety, I was at last connecting with something. If I was not yet finding my place in the world, I was at least finding places and ideas and people I could relate to, despise, or aspire to in these great books.”

On going back to college: “From my experience, once you were pegged as a rock guy, people just assumed that you were either brain-dead or off high-flying on a private jet with hookers and cocaine. (Or both.) While I had definitely been guilty of the aforementioned clichés, in that classroom I found — don’t laugh — a love of academia.”

On meeting with Clive Davis, who signed Velvet Revolver, the post-GN’R band McKagan started with Slash: “Another interesting aspect of these meetings was that I found I did in fact understand the lion’s share of what was going on financially with the band… People took me more seriously in business meetings. Cool shit. Sometimes I looked into the eyes of industry types and saw a flash of panic. Shit, I wonder if Duff knows more than I do.”

On Scott Weiland, lead singer of Velvet Revolver: “Then Scott decided he wanted a bigger share of the publishing rights — because he’d written all the lyrics. Oh boy. This was typical stuff where I’d come from: success bred greed and megalomania.”

On writing on the Internet: “It may sound like a bit of a stretch, but it struck me as very punk rock — breaking down the barrier between artist and audience; bringing me and the readers face-to-face, if only virtually; turning readers into writers by allowing comments. I even made sure to invite my harshest critics (at least those brave enough to post their whereabouts) to come shake hands whenever I passed through their towns with Loaded.”

For those in New York City: McKagan will be appearing tonight at the Strand in conversation with David Fricke of Rolling Stone.

Matthew Gallaway lives in Washington Heights and is the author of The Metropolis Case.