Rough life makes for a great read

I’m not always keen on rock biographies. Some, like The Dirt, which tells the sordid story of Mötley Crüe, is a great if at times unbelievable read. Others, like Two Sides to Every Glory, which chronicles AC/DC’s rise and then ignores most what happened after 1990, leave something to be desired.  And I’ll always have a soft spot for Hammer of the Gods, even though I think all the surviving members of Led Zeppelin have disavowed it.

As a sometime book reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press, I occasionally get to write about a book like this — the autobiography of Guns ‘N’ Roses founding member Duff McKagan.

The following is republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2011 J7

Guns N’ Roses bassist rocks autobiography

Even a rock star can feel like a dork.

Guns N’ Roses co-founder and bassist Duff McKagan opens his self-deprecating memoir with his daughter’s 13th birthday party. While trying to stay out of sight so as not to embarrass her by his mere presence, he surprises two partygoers sneaking a kiss.

“My mind rushes through a checklist… of things I was doing at this same age,” he writes: boozing, smoking pot, dropping acid, snorting cocaine, stealing cars, having sex. These kids are just kissing.

Embarrassed, he mutters a quick, “Sorry,” and ducks back into the house.

It’s a deft introduction to a refreshingly focused rock memoir, even compared to other GNR books alone. Aside from Mick Wall’s controversial W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose, and Stephen Davis’s typically breathlessWatch You Bleed, McKagan’s former bandmates Slash and Steven Adler have beaten him to the punch with Slash (2007) and My Appetite For Destruction (2010), respectively.

But whereas Slash’s bloated account meanders, and Adler’s is boastful and defensive, McKagan shows he can actually write.

The book’s novel-like structure moves back and forth between key points in McKagan’s troubled youth in Seattle, his time in Guns N’ Roses and his later career.

He’s got his war stories. Guns N’ Roses toured as nobodies (they were too “punk” for the Iron Maiden audiences they opened for). They burned up the L.A. club scene (and abused record executives’ expense accounts on liquid lunches). And when they finally achieved multi-platinum success with Appetite For Destruction and GNR Lies, they went straight to the top and stayed there.

It has a heavy price. McKagan switches from vodka to 10 bottles of wine a day, and starts doing cocaine to sober up enough to keep drinking. His coke abuse damages his septum, leaving him with a constantly runny nose.

“My L.A. house was awash in the effluvia of my derelict body,” he writes, still breathing at age 47.

One brief chapter, in which he resolves to quell GNR’s intraband feuding but instead drinks himself into a stupor, is poetic and chilling.

His periodic use of internal monologue brings vignettes to life. His pancreas burst from years of alcohol abuse. While in the hospital recovering, his wheelchair-bound mother, suffering from Parkinson’s, takes care of him.

This is not how it should be, he thinks. I am such a f–kup.

Surprisingly, he manages to clean himself up, through mountain biking and then martial arts.

Later, his inability to understand his royalty statements prompts him to enrol in business courses at college and university. Discovering an aptitude for finance, he becomes an early investor in Amazon, Starbucks, and later Microsoft. While never duplicating GNR’s success with his later bands Loaded or Velvet Revolver, he stays sober, settles down with his (third) wife and starts a family. He also works on his writing, becoming a columnist for Playboy, ESPN.com and Seattle Weekly.

Unlike other rock memoirs, such as Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries or, particularly Adler’s Appetite, McKagan doesn’t use his past debauchery to boast that he survived. “I didn’t have this sh-t figured out — and still don’t — but for me, especially after my relapse offered another glimpse of failure, the true essence of manhood was now clear: being a caring husband and father.”

Sobering stuff — and it makes for a compelling read.

It’s So Easy (and Other Lies)

  • By Duff McKagan
  • Touchstone/S&S, 366 pages, $30

David Jón Fuller will always regret not seeing Guns N’ Roses when they played Winnipeg with the Cult in 1987, and missing them again with Maiden in 1988.

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4 thoughts on “Rough life makes for a great read

  1. What a great book review! I honestly hadn’t heard this was out. It sounds like a fresh insight into what fame can do to a body (and soul). I’ll definitely have to check this out!

  2. Pingback: Rough life makes for a great read « As You Were

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