When the house lights go down and the crowd jumps to its feet and the spotlight operators squint through the dry ice, seeking musicians on the stage, the bass player is often the last rocker they highlight. Singers and guitarists generally get most of the attention. So perhaps it’s fitting that Duff McKagan released It’s So Easy (and Other Lies) after a veritable library had been published about his bands. In doing so, he allowed other people to cover the gossip, conflict, and controversy, turning It’s So Easy into a surprisingly sincere and heartfelt memoir.
McKagan is, of course, most well-known for being the bassist for Guns N’ Roses during their reign of the rock world in the eighties and early nineties. More recently, he has manned the bottom end for Velvet Revolver and even did a fill-in stint in Jane’s Addiction while also fronting his own band Loaded. He has also developed an impressive writing resume, penning articles for Playboy, ESPN.com, SeattleWeekly.com, and others.
The first indicator that It’s So Easy is different than so many by-the-numbers hard rock memoirs is the prologue. The default in situations like this is to begin on a grimy bathroom floor with a bloody needle dangling from a skinny forearm and a .12 gauge propped nearby. The narrator usually croacks, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But after achieving my dreams, there wasn’t anything left to do. I had everything in the world, but no reason to live.” With that dramatic scene set, the book cuts away, and goes back to the beginning with a bushy haired child strumming a tennis racket in a seventies suburban ranch home to the chronological start of the story.
In contrast, McKagan begins his tale with worries about teenage shenanigans at his daughter’s party. The birthday girl is thirteen and she, like most kids, is embarrassed of her parents, in spite of their rockstar and fashion model backgrounds. The girl begs the old folks to get in the house before her friends arrive. It’s a touching scene of domesticity. Scattered throughout the parental reflections, McKagan manages to weave in enough references to his own edgy past of drugs and larceny to indicate that his is not a “normal” life. But after many decades of addiction, wealth, and wealth lost, It’s So Easy illustrates that McKagan has achieved as close to a normal life as possible for someone in his situation.
Another unique aspect of the book is how McKagan simply avoids huge chunks of Guns N’ Roses history. Generally, a celebrity would be criticized for omitting certain time periods. But in this instance, it’s a blessing to the most hardcore GN’R fans. Sitting on my shelf right now are seven books about the Sunset Strip rockers and we still have the on-again, off-again book from a GN’R mother to look forward to. This band has been exhaustively researched and written about so when McKagan devotes slightly more than a single page to the recording of the seminal Appetite for Destruction record, I for one, cheered. By leaving well-worn topics to the other books, McKagan can focus on more personal recollections and experiences, such as documenting his brother Bruce’s excitement as the record climbed the Billboard charts.
To be sure, It’s So Easy is not the tale of a choir boy. There are plenty of narcotics and liquor scattered throughout these pages. Those vices just aren’t the focus of the book. They’re a bit of spice, not the main dish. And when the musician does turn to those foggy, staggering times, he does so in a poignant manner, as opposed to a chest-pounding, “Look at me! I did sooo many drugs” manner. For example, during a new, shaky attempt at sobriety, McKagan struggles to complete a simple everyday transaction.
One of the first things I did was go to the grocery store to buy food. It was a novel idea at the time — it had been years since I really shopped for food. Now here I was, thirty years old, an adult with a credit card, a checkbook, and an ATM card. I could buy whatever I wanted in the store, but I had no idea where to start. I thought everyone was staring at me — I was sure my shaking was freakishly visible…
I looked at the girl at the cash register.
“I give you this money, right”
My shirt was drenched in sweat and I was having a full-blown panic attack.
She nodded nervously, barely able to disguise her disgust. She gingerly took the money from my hand, trying to avoid actually touching me.
While examining the influence of drugs and decadence, McKagan makes a statement about some fellow Los Angeles rockers that can be equally applied to the hard rock memoir genre as a whole.
Back in the halcyon days of GN’R, when everyone in L.A. thought we were the most badass hard-drinking and hard-drugging motherfuckers around (and maybe we thought so, too), we quickly found out we were in the minor league compared to Motley Crue. After their shows, we often ended up partying together, learning their code names for different drugs, even flying on their private jet a few times. Our peek into their world was a look into an abyss. They’d found a way of skating around the edge of that abyss while perfecting the dark art of drinking and drugging for a while back there in the 1980s.
Later, McKagan reiterates, “But for the second time in my life I realized that nobody — not even me at the time — could hang with the dudes in Motley Crue: within two months of buying the house at Lake Arrowhead, I was throwing up blood at Tommy Lee’s cabin.”
The point here is that the amplifier hum of the Crue’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band looms so large over the hard rock memoir genre that most musicians feel they have to live up to those almost unimaginably sleaze-dripped pages. Other rockers strive to surpass the decadence. Ratt vocalist Stephen Pearcy said in a recent television interview that his book-in-progress will make “The Dirt look like a sandbox.” This attitude towards the Motley text is one of the main reasons why so many hard rock memoirs have been so similar and so disappointing. None of these guys would say, “My goal is to ‘out Zeppelin’ Led Zeppelin” in reference to their music. They would discuss creating their own sound, doing something different, something unique. But when it comes to books, they all seem incapable of escaping that singularly Dirt-y influence.
McKagan goes the opposite route, telling the story he wants to tell as opposed to setting his sights on a previously published book. He also doesn’t go out of his way to “set the record straight” by pointing out errors in other GN’R books, a common trend amongst bands with several literary efforts. This attitude allows him to explore his attempts at sobriety, the shakes, the shady drug dealers, and all that. But it also allows him to discuss investing in Starbucks and Microsoft. It allows him to write emotionally about his beloved pets. It makes it possible to devote as much passion and determination to his attempts at higher education as his attempts to master music. It enables him to begin — and finish — It’s So Easy with scenes of domestic bliss.
Early in the book, Duff McKagan explains how he was an outsider to the Los Angeles glam metal scene. He came from a punk background and rocked short spiky hair and a Sid Vicious-wannabe padlock necklace while most people were teasing their hair and wearing spandex.* All these decades later, McKagan is still taking a slightly different tact. It’s So Easy belongs on any hard rock fan’s bookshelf, amongst all the other required books. But it also stands apart in many very positive ways.
[*Not to perpetuate the flawed concept that punk was somehow more organic, more real, more honest than hard rock and glam metal. Here, I’m simply making the point that McKagan had a different — not necessarily better — perspective at that point in his life.]