IT'S BRIGHT AND SWELTERING OUTSIDE, but you wouldn't know it nestled in one of the comfy red booths at the Rainbow. The sun has yet to set, and the cavelike rock den hasn't quite ignited into the loud and lascivious scene it will become later in the night. No scantily clad hotties. No Lemmy. Just tourists, families, and a few part-time rock chicks sipping beers after work, checking out the famed Sunset Strip restaurant while an atmospheric if highly unnecessary fire blazes and the Black Crowes bluesily play in the background. And on this uneventful Wednesday evening, amid the signed posters and rock & roll artifacts looming down from the dark eatery's walls, the lookie-loos get to ogle a real, live rock star. One who, a decade ago, formed their image of what this place was really like.

You all remember the Guns N' Roses video “November Rain,” with its epic depictions of love and loss. Arguably, the most interesting part of that clip was the Rainbow scene, where the guys are seen canoodling with supermodel babes and getting drunk off their asses. If blond bassist Duff McKagan looked especially inebriated in that video, that's because he always was back then. But today, as he ambles into his old haunt, it's clear that things are different.

“I haven't been here since I got sober,” says the now bright-eyed and short-haired McKagan. “I could tell you some stories about this place.” He reminisces about his frequent visits to the DJ booth, where, back in the day, Eric Clapton's “Cocaine” could have been a theme song, then orders a nonalcoholic beer from the waitress.

McKagan has been clean for seven years — about the same amount of time he's been out of GN'R — so his latest band Loaded has a rather ironic moniker. But get an earful of the melodically aggressive tunes off the upcoming Dark Days (through Artists Direct's label), and it's clear that the former rock party boy has made the drunken demons of his past a revealing source of reflection: “It didn't take me long to learn to play the game/A kick in the head always feels the same/Los Angeles, you're a fucking whore/Hollywood, you're an open sore” (“Seattlehead”).

L.A. kicked more than McKagan's head. He hadn't planned it that way. After moderate success with punk outfits such as 10 Minute Warning and the Fastbacks in his hometown of Seattle as a teen in the early '80s, he decided to try his luck here, swiftly hooking up with GN'R members Slash and Izzy Stradlin via the Recycler, and soon Axl Rose and Steven Adler. They self-released an EP in '85 called Live Like a Suicide, which, along with consistently packed Sunset Strip shows, attracted the powers at Geffen Records. The band's breakthrough Appetite for Destruction was released in July '87, and anointed them not only kings of the jungle but — temporarily at least — the planet.

“It was amazing,” says McKagan. “We were just some guys who came from humble backgrounds, and, shit, at one time we were the biggest band in the world. And despite everything, we never compromised. We never had the label come into the studio while we were recording and tell us what to do.”

But while GN'R were hardass badfellas not easily swayed by industry B.S., it was that same tenacity that ultimately tore them apart; no, the drinking and drug use didn't help much, either. While a rift in the ranks had developed early on, McKagan stuck out the animosities, then officially left the band in 1997 (shortly after achieving sobriety); he was the last founding member to do so. Although most reports blame Rose's batty behavior for each departure, McKagan refuses to say anything too harsh about his former bandmate.

“The thing ran its course,” he says. When pressed about Rose and his well-publicized antics, which include taking the Guns N' Roses name for his new project (which has yet to be released) and banning Slash from his recent Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas gig, McKagan, who says he keeps in touch with all the Guns guys except Axl, simply muses, “Poor guy, he's on his own. He shut himself off, but that's cool. I guess he's gotta do what he's gotta do.”

THE SAME COULD BE SAID FOR McKagan. After leaving Guns, the newly clean bassist got married, became a father and even went back to school. Currently a finance major at Seattle University, he'll be getting his degree soon. But he never settled down musically. Back when his future in GN'R seemed dubious, he joined the band's drummer Matt Sorum, Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Duran Duran bassist John Taylor for a high-profile side project called the Neurotic Outsiders. The all-star group had a popular Sunday-night residency at the Viper Room and released a record on Maverick, but when Jones left for the Pistols reunion tour, McKagan sought new collaborations.

Trekking back and forth from Seattle to L.A. (he lives there but has an apartment here), McKagan produced Betty Blowtorch's '99 EP Get Off and jammed with members of Screaming Trees, The President of the United States of America and Queens of the Stone Age. But it was with drummer Geoff Reading (of Seattle faves New American Shame and Green Apple Quickstep) that he found the desire to go further and form a real band. They added Jeff Rouse and Mike Squires from Seattle's Alien Crime Syndicate, and Loaded was born.

“It just started off as a project,” says Reading. “I was looking for singer-songwriters to work with, and the guy I found just happened to be in this other band you might have heard of before.”

Loaded made a record that was licensed to EMI for release in Japan, followed by a tour there. They played well-received shows at rock spots like the Pretty Ugly Club and the Viper Room, and recently returned to the Viper to reveal two new band members, Stuart Dahlquist and Dave Kushner (Squires and Rouse left when Alien Crime Syndicate got signed). Though Loaded have been known to pull out the odd Guns gem or two, it's their new material that explodes onstage. Furious beats and dissonant chords collide with punk rock attitude and moody rumination on some tunes, while others roam languidly from gloomy to groovy. McKagan is the focal point, of course, playing lead guitar and singing with the urgent sex appeal that made him the object of groupie lust back in the '80s. Inevitably, as more people hear his new stuff, the Guns comparisons will abound.

“I think people would be hard-pressed to link the two,” says McKagan. “I learned stuff from those guys, and I'm sure they learned from me. It's kind of like, you are what you eat. Your songs are what you are.”

Loaded's lyrics provide an eye-opening glimpse into McKagan's roller-coaster past, from “Seattlehead,” which recounts his depraved L.A. exploits, to “Then and Now,” which metaphorically looks at drugs like coke and heroin. Sonically, the band meshes McKagan's hardcore roots with a twangy touch that on a few tracks bears a distinctly GN'R-ish stamp.

DARK DAYS IS A STRONG OFFERING from a former rock god, and one that GN'R fans should check out while they wait for Sir Axl to lay his egg. But then, if Axl weren't so eccentric, would anyone even care about what he's up to? Slash's band Snakepit hasn't done all that well, and who even knows what's become of Izzy Stradlin? In today's musical climate, where spiffy punk pop and swanky hip-hop dominate, it remains to be seen if gutterball rock & roll has any comeback potential whatsoever.

And laid-back Duff McKagan couldn't care less. He's done the fame-and-fortune thing, and now he's enjoying the music. “I may have been a bass player in a big band, but that was some time ago,” he says. The two gals in the booth behind him come over and shyly ask for his autograph on their Rainbow pizza boxes. He happily obliges. “We're a new band just like anybody else, but one thing we've got going for us is, we're real. We're not writing a single to get signed or any of that crap. And that holds enough weight for me, you know?”

LA Weekly