Being in a rock & roll band doesn't teach one how to be man. In fact, the inherent hedonism of the rock lifestyle promotes the idea that boisterous boyishness is best.
But that gets old eventually, just as our rock idols do. The ones who stay in the game clean up their act, learn from their mistakes, and embrace life with a sense of purpose, even while they work to maintain their badass chops on stage.
Nobody embodies this kind of manly evolution better than Duff McKagan. The bassist has parlayed his time in Guns N' Roses into a myriad of ventures and projects over the years, not all of them musical. His career as a writer has clearly been one of his most cathartic undertakings. His first book, It's So Easy: and other lies, provided some insightful glimpses into his iconic band, his addiction and recovery, his family life and more. His latest, How to Be a Man (and other illusions), encapsulates his life and what he's learned in a highly readable way that everyone — man or woman — can relate to. (Read an excerpt here.) We spoke with him about all of it.
How did this book, How to Be a Man, come to be?
It came from my Seattle Weekly column, which was titled the same. I did observational pieces about my experiences and the things I’ve learned over the years. I’ve been raising two girls and I’ve observed how women grow, all the way from one-day-old 'til now, with a daughter almost 18. And then I have my wife. I can only write from a man’s viewpoint. I really know that now, but I empathize and understand women a lot more.
So is it literally about what being a man — a real man or a good man — is all about for you?
To sum it up, what the original column was, is what a guy thinks when he’s 18 versus when he grows up. It’s totally different once you have a couple kids, but you don’t realize it as it’s happening. It hits you all at once.
I was 37. I wasn’t getting in fist fights… which I thought was manly when I was 18. And I wasn’t drinking two cases of beer… which I thought was manly when I was 18. And I wasn’t carousing with a bunch of strangers. I was with one woman and I had a baby girl and a toddler girl, and I was at the grocery store getting diapers, and my wife was calling me on the phone and I just realized, ya know, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I wasn’t fighting, I wasn’t drinking, and I wasn’t carousing. It just happened.
The book is sort of an assortment of all this kind of stuff from the column. I put it all into a six-month period of my life. There’s a story line. And I also put in all the things that I had jotted down or maybe had for column ideas.
The book has a lot of good advice. But your column was more about personal experiences than advice, right?
It was everything. Rock music, politics, depression. Anything and everything. My first book was about my descent into addiction and finding my way out while surrounded by things that were happening in my life, such as Guns and punk rock before that. But if you were looking for that book to be a tell-all Guns N' Roses book, you were disappointed.
I’m sure many were.
There’s a code. When you’re in a band, it’s a close-knit thing. There’s a lot of emotional stuff. Friendships… it’s like a friend you have, for example. You’re not going to go and write a story about her… So there are a lot of things about others I decided not to write, because it's not their story, and I didn’t ask them.
You do provide some revealing perspectives in it though. Like the parts about letting go of resentments and how you rejoined Axl to play with his new Guns N' Roses line-up.
I think you can tell stories and give perspectives and yet still keep stuff for yourself, too. I keep a lot of my life private even in a public forum like writing.
Did you feel a responsibility to GNR fans to share like, the stuff about reuniting with Axl on stage in South America (and later in L.A. at the Golden Gods Awards) and how you felt during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?
That was the first time I shared what that was like. A couple people wanted me to write about the touring, like Classic Rock magazine got ahold of me when I was down there, to write a piece about it. But I was in the middle of it and enjoying it, so I said I can't do that right now. I just shared it in the book because I thought it was a good episode in my life and it highlights some of the other things I talk about in the book, such as resentment and dealing with that. Ya know, the book is about, basically, being 50.
I appreciated the perspective in those chapters. It’s easy to just blame others (like you could have done with Axl) for everything, but we have to take responsibility for our role in situations. You seemed to do that.
I’d done a lot of work for the previous 20 years, and just dealing with, who the fuck am I and looking at those parts of your life that we don’t always examine. We have something to do with the good in our lives, but there’s some of us in the bad, too. Whether we didn’t act properly or ignored stuff while it was happening or whatever. I realize I could have made some different decisions.
If your former GNR bandmates had the same attitude you’ve come to have, maybe the reunion that people just won't let go of, could possibly happen?
Maybe. I don’t go that far because I guess I just don’t have time to think about that. I have a 17- and 14-year-old. Life is busy. And I work. And I have my wife and keeping a marriage healthy. It’s work. I write and that’s my work too now. It’d be a little conceited to say if everybody thought like me…
You have seem to have a good relationship with everyone from your previous bands at this point. You’ve even made a new EP, and Izzy Stradlin, who’s famously low-profile the past several years, plays on it, right?
We’ve continued to do music together over the years. He himself puts out records on iTunes, no publicity, he just puts them out. He’s so cool. He’s just the best. The songs on the EP all happened really quick, as rock & roll should. I had these songs. I had the bones and Izzy had the parts to complete the songs… So we recorded them. Then Jerry [Cantrell] came and played lead on them…
You know, they are just friends of mine. I hate it when it comes out like on social media, “featuring Alice in Chains' Jerry!“… I hate all that. They’re just my pals. I didn’t record this stuff to try to use them or their names to pimp my thing.
In the book, you said you don’t like the term “super group” and you think it’s “lazy journalism.” But you’ve played with such huge talents, it’s kind of inevitable: GNR, Velvet Revolver, Kings of Chaos, even Jane's Addiction.
I think it is [lazy]. I wouldn’t do it. Like with Velvet Revolver. We were a band. Our thing got abbreviated. Then we didn’t play with each other because there was all this weird shit. If we played together people would expect Guns. Ya know, it was just a lot of pressure. Scott [Weiland] was a friend. And you know we had families. And trying to get sober… there was so much more behind it than, “Oh, we came together for a cash grab.”
Maybe most writers mean it as a compliment to you and the others’ talents and stature.
Yeah I’ll get over it. You know I have my little Loaded band. And it’s not a “super group,” but I think it’s super group, 'cause they’re super fucking guys.
I know. I wrote about Loaded when you first put the group together.
Yes you did!
How does your sobriety fit into the wisdom you share in the book?
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my sobriety. I’ve learned how to take a breath before reacting. My brain’s not tainted by other inputs. That helps. I’m able to be a good dad. I wouldn’t be present if I was still drinking and doing drugs… I wouldn’t be alive. So every day is a poignant day for me. I don't dwell on it but I do wake up and say it's good to be alive, man. That’s a really good way to start a day.
You’re known for your business acumen as well as your rock & roll life. Are still doing stocks and investing these days?
I went to business school in my thirties. In '93, '94, Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft were new companies. I was learning about companies and paying attention. I travel and see in San Francisco, the Starbucks had a long line. Then L.A. and the one in Studio City [has] a line. And I go, OK, they’re expanding, it’s obvious people want this product. I was just at the right place at the right time.
Do you still do that?
I don’t go a lot for single stocks. There’s a couple I’ve got a little piece of. But I’ll do index buys and balance it with equities. I get bonds from around the world, and real estate… So yeah I spread it out, and don’t let one piece of pie get bigger than the others, adjusting for a good portfolio.
Still do the column for Seattle Weekly?
Well, I’d been writing for them for five years and I got a call. I thought they’d be saying you’re doing a great job, we’re gonna up your worth, but instead they said can you write for free now? Then I said, “Think [my] time's up here.”
What are your plans moving forward? Might you be playing any of the stuff you did with Izzy live? With your other bands?
Izzy’s a private guy, and he hasn’t played a live show in a long time. I’d love to but eh, I don’t know. With Loaded I’m planning on recording some stuff with Steve Jones. A fun EP like the old-school days. I’m focusing on this book thing right now. I’ll do some Kings of Chaos gigs. My daughter is graduating from high school. We just had senior prom. I’m trying to be around right now for all of it.