Duff McKagan is a true renaissance man, a mountain climbing martial arts champ who was (is?) bass player for the world’s most dangerous band (Guns N’ Roses, in case you’re new to this realm), a New York Times bestselling author, and a journalist for ESPN and Playboy who’s been dubbed “one of America’s finest financial minds.” He’s sixteen years married to supermodel Susan Holmes, dad to two gorgeous teenage daughters, and remains twenty years sober and totally down to Earth.
Monday Rock City sits down with the founding member of Guns N’ Roses and 2012 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to talk Prince + Slash, making peace with Axl, and his brand new book How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions).
Duff! How’s it goin’?
Pretty good! I just got done working out. I’m kicking my own ass.
What kind of work out?
Every day I mix it up. Today I did the elliptical, then the bike and then some weights. I got a little gym in my house so I hit legs and arms. But I think I shoulda just done one or the other.
Therein lies the rub: I can’t figure out how to do that. You can’t just keep growing and beating your personal record. At some point physiologically it’s just not possible. But mentally, I’m trying to find that breaking point.
You get to that point where injuries outweigh gains. Keep pushing and next thing you know, your rotator cuff is screwed.
Oh, it’s gone. I got that. I think it’s repetitive motion from kickboxing so long. Jabs, hooks into a bag and then I hang a bass strap on it. And then rocking. I got all kinds of stuff. But it doesn’t hurt and I sleep all right long as I click it out.
Are you still doing yoga?
I do hot yoga with weights so it’s basically like P-90X in the heat. Lot of push-ups, lunges. But I just snapped the inside of my knee. Boink!
You tore your meniscus?
Yeah, I went and got an MRI. Didn’t even feel it because it was so hot. I gotta learn everything the hard way….
I was way into your table when I was a kid. It’s one of the best.
That was Slash’s brainchild. He did the whole thing. I gotta get mine serviced. It’s just sitting here.
You were a pinball fan too, right?
I grew up back in that original era and I used to take the bus to the cool record store in town. There was an older guy at the counter with a beard that knew all the cool music and they had a back room with pinball machines. Let’s see . . . they had that Rolling Stones machine, Playboy, some Western table. In the late 70s, if you were 12 or 13, there was a total romance to being good at pinball. You could get chicks if you were good at pinball!
So you could listen to great records and play pinball.
Oh yeah, that’s where I discovered the Sex Pistols and The Damned, Elvis Costello. There was a whole new world coming and it was all flavored by pinball.
Man, I was playin’ Dolly Parton pinball down at the laundromat by the liquor store.
(laughs) I can tell by your accent you’re from Canada.
Close, brother. Tennessee.
Just kidding. I had you pegged.
I’m gonna get in trouble if I don’t start this interview….
I think that makes the best interviews. Just hang out and talk.
photo by Mark Weiss
You’ve had quite a career in journalism. What books are you reading?
Holy shit! You want me to read you my Kindle list?
Ishi in Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber, The Heart of Everything that Is, Bob Drury. I tried to get into Infinite Jest but I’m just not ready for it. Nine Years Among the Indians, Herman Lehmann — fuckin’ fascinating! Have you heard of this book?
Yeah, man. Yeah.
All the Light We Cannot See. Tomlinson Hill. Gone Girl, The Orchidist by Amanda Coplin. Manchild in the Promised Land. I just finished No Surrender by Hiroo Onoda. He was a Japanese soldier and he fought on this little island off the Philippines until 1974 because his commander’s last directive was “We’ll come get you.” They never did so he kept fighting.
Dude, you read a lot.
A whole lot. (Sighs) So many books, so little time.
I kept flipping back to the cover of your book to make sure this was the same guy I watched on MTV’s Live at the Ritz. All that time Duff longed to be Jimmy Stewart. You might be the most well-balanced rock star . . . ever?
Well, let’s start with that term “rock star.” I mean to call you a writer – you’re a lot more than just that shit, right?
Hope so, yeah.
We all are. I remember taking my kids to school and people would be like, “Wow, you’re up really early, huh?” Dude, I’m a dad. So “rock star” puts this cloud of expectations put over you. But the guys and girls I started playing music with when I was a teenager all the way up to now are some of the smartest people I’ve met. Take Guns for example — five heathens and sure, we had our Viking period, but everybody read. When it came down to it, we were all pretty intellectual guys.
We all have our indentations we get from early life and I remember seeing “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was nine or so and thinking it was the perfect family. There was divorce and shit going on in my family and you always want what you don’t have. Goofy or not, I wanted to be Jimmy Stewart. Of course it’s unrealistic. I realize that. I get kinda sloppy in weird places. I romanticize things.
Seems you never let the “rock star” label limit you. You resolved to get all you can out of life and make no apologies for who you are. Maybe that’s what brought you out of that hole of addiction.
It really did. In the hospital I was sober for two weeks. Off of booze, off cocaine. I finally saw a window like: fuck, this is a myth. If I live I want to try to attain something. I can go to school. That was the first thing I thought of. I can get my shit together and read all those books I wanted to read and experience life.
In your book — does it say that you were a theology major?
No, Seattle U is a Jesuit school so you have to take two years of theology whether you want to or not. Which is great. I love history. I did a semester on the Gospels. Who wrote them, when they wrote them and the original language they were written in. How language was used back then. Very interesting.
What was your take away? Are you still Catholic?
I went to Seattle U for their business school, which was 14th in the nation at the time. But I was baptized Catholic and I just kind of believe in what I believe in. And most of that is the light and not the dark.
Well, like, “Rocket Queen.” Steven was more into metal stuff so when we started playing together we would listen to R&B. We’d play along over and over to “Word Up.” It’s that drum machine back groove thing that inspired songs like “Rocket Queen” and “Mr. Brownstone.” Those thick pocket songs came directly from the influence of Sly and the Family Stone, Prince and yeah — I’d say first and foremost Cameo.
Did you guys ever consider Prince for Velvet Revolver?
Oh, dude! He’s, like, the last mysterious guy. A couple of weeks ago someone asked me the four people I’d wanna have dinner with dead or alive. First guy I said was Prince but then I rescinded it because I wouldn’t want to get to know him. I’d want that mystique to stay there.
I don’t disagree with you. It would be fuckin’ throwing down right there. Amazing.
A key moment in rock history was when Steven Adler went to the bathroom and you and Izzy threw out his massive drum set, forcing him to play on a smaller kit. Was that a back to punk rock thing – or was he just playing too much?
It was just too many drums! It was kind of a joke but breaking down that huge kit to something smaller for him – Steven’s probably the best small kit drummer that ever was. Just snare, floor tom, kick drum, two crash cymbals and a ride. That was it. It was like a Ramones kit. At that point, you gotta just find the groove.
In a perfect world where everyone gets along, what do you think the record after Spaghetti Incident would have sounded like?
Oh, geez! I’ve never been asked that question before. We were searching for it, just never got there. The band was in such disarray, no music ideas were even brought in. We were more involved with other bullshit. We fell into every sort of typical dysfunction. In the 80’s we were like, “We’re never gonna fall into the bullshit!” And we fell into all of it. There was no direction. None. We look back now like, ah, dammit….
For me, it was important. I did a column about resentment for Seattle Weekly and it not only felt good, it felt true. When I started writing my first book, It’s So Easy, I was lying to myself. I’d write two or three thousand words and realize that here I am, alone in a room and I’m lying. So I’d have to start over and realize, C’mon dude. You had a part in this too. You had a part in your own story. Sometimes we don’t like to look at our own parts. It’s easier to think that all the bad shit that happened was that other motherfucker’s fault and the good stuff was all me. But that’s not true. We all know people who live with huge resentments and it’s so damaging to moving on.
Most people never move on. How did you do it?
I was really fortunate to get into Ukidokan martial arts after I got sober. Part of that is being fervently honest with yourself. My sensei would say, “Wake up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror and know that you did everything the day before that you were supposed to do.” I was like, do what? But it means you followed through. You made your bed, you washed your dishes after you used them. Everything. After about a year and a half, I woke up and looked at myself and was able to say I was honest the day before. I called my own bullshit. But it’s a daily thing. Because you can go back to old habits real quick. Every day I gotta work.