Q+A: Duff McKagan

In 1984, Duff McKagan, just a punk kid from Seattle, drove his old Ford to L.A. to try to escape the drug-infested Northwest scene where he had been playing drums, guitar, and a little bass in bands like the Fastbacks and Ten Minute Warning. A week later, still living in his car, he answered an ad for a bass player placed by a guy called Slash. The rest is history—Guns N’ Roses went on to create one of the best-selling debut albums ever. McKagan, who ended up in the hospital in 1994 thanks to acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis and a decade of extreme booze and drug use, sobered up and went on to college before later forming Velvet Revolver, also with Slash, and becoming a columnist for Seattle Weekly and ESPN. McKagan’s amazing story is chronicled in his best-selling autobiography, It’s So Easy (and Other Lies), now out in paperback.

INKED: How did you find out you’d made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Duff McKagan: It wasn’t like a velvet-covered envelope was delivered to the house by a guy in white gloves and a tuxedo. None of that. I found out about the Hall of Fame from someone who called me after he saw it on the internet. I don’t even know what the selection process is based on. It’s not a competitive sport. It’s not like you are a baseball player with a lifetime batting average over .300. It’s about tiny moments of artistic elation, and people slowly coming to see your band more and more, that shared experience. But I did know that I would go to the ceremony, because I was there when the Van Halen thing happened—only two guys showed up and the fans were bummed out. I appreciate how long and how hard-core the fans have backed us, so the least I could do is go to the induction.

How did hearing about the Hall of Fame compare with learning you’d hit number one with Appetite for Destruction?

That wasn’t a grand moment either. We were out on tour, working. We were living on a bus with our crew, making a hundred bucks a week, and couldn’t have been happier. There was no internet or cell phones—at least nobody we knew had one, not even our tour manager. We found out because the record label sent one of their local reps to come to our bus with a sheet cake. And it said, “You’re Number One.” And we were like, Uh, wow, okay, we got a sheet cake, that’s cool. But we didn’t know what it really meant. It’s the same with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—I don’t really know what it means.

You’re a self-proclaimed book nerd, so how did those moments compare to finding out your book was a New York Times best seller?

Now that’s because I am better than most people out there as a writer, and my stats were indeed better—only 16 other books that particular week were better. And I didn’t even get a fucking sheet cake.

In your book you talk about getting your first tattoo after Guns N’ Roses got signed to a record deal. What made you want to mark the occasion that way?

Nowadays everybody’s got tattoos and everybody’s got sleeves, but in 1986, when we were signed, I only knew a couple of people who had tattoos—and they had, like, one each. Axl had one. Izzy had one. And it was like, “Fuck, those are great!” But a tattoo cost something like 300 bucks—way too expensive for me. Back then it was either I paid rent or I got a tattoo. I couldn’t do both. So when I got that money from the record deal, I just knew I was going to get a tattoo.

Your first ink was—naturally—two guns and a rose. How soon did you get your next tattoo?

A week later—but I don’t remember getting it. The thing is, we felt flush after signing that deal. I suddenly had 7,500 bucks in my boot. I paid three months rent in advance and bought some new cowboy boots and a pair of pants, and with the rest I was able to buy drinks for all my friends. One morning I ended up waking up on someone’s apartment floor with a pain in my right arm. And I had my second tattoo—a dagger. Once I had two I was kind of balanced. When you have one on one side you are kind of imbalanced. So you gotta have two. But then I felt as if the one on the left side wasn’t quite big enough. So I got a third tattoo. That was my “Carpe Diem” tattoo that kind of went underneath my first tattoo. And that kind of unbalanced me again, so then I got a dragon on my right arm that went around the dagger and down. And once I got that dragon tattoo, I needed something on my back. So I got a Japanese flower by this guy who was famous for his chrysanthemums and lotuses. Then I stopped for a while.

When did you get back into it?

After I got sober and I’d taken up a martial arts discipline called Ukidokan, I got the Ukidokan symbol on my back. I was going to get it on my lower back, but I thought it might look too much like a tramp stamp, so I got it in the middle of my back. That hurt like a fucking bitch. That was by Mark Malone. It was a single-needle tattoo, and they just hurt like a bitch. They’re great because the detail stays in, but man, on your back, across your ribs, it hurts. It was a long sitting, too—six hours.

One of the things you discuss in your book is the difference between good pain and bad pain. How do you distinguish?

When I was a kid, 9, 10, 11, I went through some stuff at home that was confusing. And during that time I was playing peewee football. When somebody on our team would fuck up, there was a steep hill next to our practice field, and we’d have to do wind sprints up the hill. I became enamored of that pain. It took me out of my situation. Even at that young age I could see the value of the pain of physical conditioning. Ten years later I couldn’t have been farther from that sort of condition, and I started to run into other sorts of pain. But I found I wasn’t so uncomfortable with it. I went through panic disorder—another form of pain, fear—and medicated that. My addictions took over. I drank a lot and did a lot of drugs and I started to get a lot of physical pain in my kidneys, my skin falling off my hands, my feet cracking, my nose bleeding, and my septum burning through, all of these things. Then it finally came crashing down when my pancreas burst. That pain was brutal—more than I could ever explain. When I got out of the hospital, I think I tried to go back to that physical conditioning pain. I knew that was a good pain.

Is tattoo pain good or bad?

Tattoo pain is good pain. For a lot of people that’s kind of their thrill. Going in for a long sitting, coming in to get a gnarly back piece that no one will ever see. People get addicted to that pain. I never got addicted to the pain, but I appreciate it, because every piece—especially since I got sober—is something I’ve thought about. Especially in martial arts, which for me has run parallel to my sobriety, I respect the pain. It’s not something that will overcome me, and I kind of just ride it. When I got the Ukidokan mark it was perfect that I went to Mark Mahoney and he used a single needle—it was almost as if he knew.

You have your solo band, Loaded, and there’s Velvet Revolver; you’ve played stints in Alice in Chains and Jane’s Addiction; you always have side projects. When you write, how do you know what songs are for which project?

When VR is active, I seem to write more riffs for that. I can’t articulate why riffs are different for different things, but for VR I don’t have to worry about singing to the riff. There’s a big difference between writing with a melody in your head versus writing with actual lyrics and articulating those lyrics as you’re playing the riff. For Loaded, I sometimes have to simplify what I play on guitar if I can’t play the riff and sing at the same time. And that’s why I don’t play bass in Loaded. There are a couple guys who can do it great, like Sting and Geddy Lee—they can sing and play all those bass parts—but it’s not natural for me. I end up thinking too much and I don’t like to do that at all. I like to just play and be part of that live experience, and not think about what I’m doing.

You had to spend a lot of time thinking about your life for the book. Did you learn anything about yourself?

Well, with the highs in your life, you want to remember that you had a lot to do with those. And with the lows, you want to remember you had very little to do with the lows. And the truth is—
and this came out through the writing—maybe it’s a bit more evened out. Maybe you had something to do with the bad shit. In hindsight, I see things I could have done differently. And the good shit? Hey, maybe I didn’t write every fucking note, and maybe I wasn’t the leader I thought I was, but that is still okay. It shouldn’t be a bummer. It strengthens you. You feel a bit more at ease because you got it out. I felt about 300 pounds lighter after all those thoughts were out of me. In my case, just standing up and saying, “This is the truth” strengthened me and made me a bit more confident.

Did the soul-searching of It’s So Easy help smooth over the messy breakups of your past?

For some guys who went through so much shit publicly and happen to live under the weight of that, you just have to be cool with yourself to be cool with the situation. At the end of the day, I’m cool with myself. I wrote about my part in Guns and VR, of course, and talk about circumstances involving the bands—because those are the circumstances that formed me. But nobody has had a reason to bring up the book. With Axl, the first time we ran into each other again, in 2010, while I was still writing, it was such a surprise that nobody had a chance to think about it. The truth of the matter is that I’m glad we’ve seen each other a few times over the last few years—it’s about time. That original band has in a lot of ways retarded the five original guys so much—we are retarded in our ability to communicate. Sometimes I have to laugh, “Come on!” But it’s also sad some guys can’t kind of have a victory dinner. We never had that victory dinner to say, Look at the shit we did. We never did it back then, and not since.

Any plans for more tattoos?

My daughters want me to get our dogs eating Chinese food with chopsticks. “Come on, Dad, do it!” So that may be next. Though I’ve kind of gotten away from the silly tattoos. For a while in Seattle, it seemed like everyone was getting things like a monkey riding a dog with a saddle. Mike Squires, the lead guitarist in Loaded, has a bull as a matador. You know, through all my drinking I managed to avoid getting a Mickey Mouse, a Tweety Bird, or the Superman emblem—or any of that Dungeons and Dragons fantasy-type stuff. So I’m not sure I want to go there now. Though getting a Viking holding a growling wolf on a chain … that would be pretty good.

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