Duff McKagan shared a sleazy Hollywood apartment with his girlfriend years before Guns N’ Roses became the world’s biggest rock band. Pimps, prostitutes, and junkies surrounded. Upstairs lived a cautionary tale. A once-famous neighbor befriended the soon-to-be-famous bass player. He shared demo tapes with the younger musician and then without invitation started sharing his bathroom. “I watched the illusions I had about one of my idols evaporate before my eyes,” Duff McKagan writes in It’s So Easy (and Other Lies). “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.”
It’s hard not to see the strung-out Sly Stone as an unlikely angel sent from God: warning, iceberg ahead! But McKagan, like Stone and the Titanic, imagined himself too big to fail. The biggest stars, as McKagan’s new autobiography demonstrates, turn out to be just everyday people.
It’s So Easy (and Other Lies) is less a band history than a drug memoir. Given that one of Duff’s most enduring pop-culture legacies involves alcohol rather than music — Simpsons‘ creators appropriately appropriated his nickname for their cartoon beer — McKagan’s book focuses on what was once his focus. His story would be a rock ‘n’ roll cliché if not for it ending in redemption rather than death.
Ironically emerging from the same Seattle music scene that supplanted Guns N’ Roses, McKagan details a Pacific Northwest childhood of dropping acid in sixth grade, getting the clap in ninth grade, habitually stealing automobiles before getting his license, and dropping out of a high school that that required but fortnightly attendance.
Like magnets, the druggies and dropouts that would comprise Guns N’ Roses came together in mid-’80s Los Angeles. Duff quotes pre-fame band-mate Steven Adler: “You know, all I want in life is to make enough money one day so I can have a bag of good weed and a big ball of crack around — all the time.” Anyone who has stumbled across Adler on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab knows that the drummer wasn’t kidding. Drummer Adler becomes the first fired gun, and then, one by one, the gunners fired themselves — unable to stomach Axl Rose’s chronic concert tardiness, temper tantrums, and megalomania. Surrounding oneself with junkies will have that effect on a man. With the singer’s seemingly psychotic outbursts, and the band’s constant drug stupor, one can’t help but think that if Duff, Slash, Steven, and Izzy had shared their pharmaceuticals with Axl everybody would have been better off.
The climax of McKagan’s book is the low point of his life. Coming off the two-year-plus Use Your Illusions tour that witnessed the performance degenerate as the degenerate performers’ chemical intake increased, the bloated bassist’s pancreas exploded. Vodka’s a helluva drug. The medical emergency resulted in third-degree internal burns and a close-encounter with death. The event proved a sobering experience.
McKagan replaces his band by becoming a third-time’s-a-charm husband with two beautiful daughters. He leaves Hollywood for home. The high-school dropout enrolls in college, reads great books, pens columns for ESPN.com and Seattle Weekly, and launches a financial consulting firm for the rich and stupid. Whereas he once put his body through hell via drugs and alcohol, he now does so through karate, mountain biking, and climbing. At the point Duff’s life gets better Duff’s book gets worse. It’s not just that intermittent lines of cocaine to prolong a four-day vodka binge is more interesting than running a marathon in three hours and forty-five minutes, it a more remarkable feat of human endurance.
A good life makes a bad story. Spectators sadly want the spectacle.
Prior to reading the autobiography, GNR fans may ask: “Why did they ever break up?” Concluding it, they wonder: “How did they ever stick together?”
Two decades after their commercial peak, and six months before their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Guns N’ Roses reunion is in demand now more than ever. But the mythical band may be better than a reunited version. The group’s appeal in the late 1980s revolved around danger, energy, and authenticity. Seeing the detoxed, fortysomething millionaires today in hopes of recapturing that street-urchin edginess would be like going to a Bill Haley and the Comets show in the 1980s and expecting a Blackboard Jungle-riot to break out.
The times have changed. As It’s So Easy (and Other Lies) explains, so have the people.