Guns N’ Roses Nearly Killed Duff McKagan
Former bassist Duff McKagan on the drugs, the booze, the chicks and the lifestyle that nearly finished him off.
Private planes, oceans of booze, mountains of drugs, and wall-to-wall women–for the 12 years Duff McKagan played bass in Guns N’Roses, life was a rock’n’roll dream. Until his hair began to fall out, his fingers started to bleed, and everything tunred into a nightmare. He almost didn’t survive. In an excerpt from his autobiography, the original Duffman tells about how a life lived too close to the edge nearly left him dead.
Axl Rose (left) and Duff (right) in 1986
I’ve known a lot of junkies. Many of these addicts have either died or continue to live a pitiful existence to this day. With many of them, I personally witnessed a wonderful lust for life in them as we played music together as kids and looked toward the future. Of course, no one sets out to be a junkie or an alcoholic.
Some people can experiment in their youth and move on. Others cannot.
When Guns n’ Roses began to break into the public consciousness, I was known as a big drinker. In 1988 MTV aired a concert in which Axl introduced me—as usual—as Duff “the King of Beers” McKagan. Soon after, a production company working on a new animated series called me to ask if they could use the name “Duff” for a brand of beer in the show. I laughed and said of course, no problem. The whole thing sounded like a low-rent art project or something—I mean, who made cartoons for adults? Little did I know that the show would become The Simpsons and that within a few years I would start to see Duff beer glasses and gear everywhere we toured.
These days tours are run with an iron fist. The smallest possible crew, no private plane. The idea is to come out with as much profit as possible. It was completely different back then. By the time Guns n’ Roses spent 28 months from 1991 to 1993 touring the Use Your Illusion albums, the tour staff sometimes approached 100 people. We were carrying not only backup girl singers, a horn section, and an extra keyboard player, but also chiropractors, masseuses, a singing coach, and a tattoo artist. Each of us had bodyguards and drivers. Money poured into nightly after-show theme parties. There were gambling nights and toga parties; in Indianapolis the theme was car racing. The party staff was part of the paid entourage, too. The parties would go into the early morning hours.
Given what I’d seen, a reputation for drinking didn’t seem like a big deal. But by the Use Your Illusion tour, my intake had reached epic proportions. For the tour, Guns leased a private plane. It wasn’t an executive jet; it was a full-on 727, with lounges and individual bedroom suites for the band members. Slash and I christened the plane on our maiden journey by smoking crack together. Before the wheels had left the ground. (Not something I recommend, incidentally—the smell gets into everything.) I don’t even remember playing Czechoslovakia. We played a stadium show in one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the only way I knew it was because of the stamp I found in my passport.
It wasn’t clear anymore whether or not I would be one of those who could experiment in his youth and move on.
(From left to right): Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin, Slash, Steven Adler, and Duff McKagan
Every day I made sure I had a vodka bottle next to my bed when I woke up. I tried to quit drinking in 1992, but started again with a vengeance after only a few weeks. I just could not stop. I was too far gone. My hair began falling out in clumps, and my kidneys ached when I pissed. The skin on my hands and feet cracked, and I had boils on my face and neck. I had to wear bandages under my gloves to be able to play my bass.
There are many different ways to come out of a funk like that. Some people go straight to rehab, some go to church. Others go to AA, and many more end up in a pine box, which is where I felt headed.
Throughout the Use Your Illusion tour, I had recorded songs on my own, ducking into studios here and there. The project had served largely as a way to kill time I would otherwise have spent drinking, and I didn’t know what the demos were for, really.
I played a bit of everything over the course of the sessions—drums, guitar, bass. I sang, too, and it’s clear I wasn’t able to breathe through my nose on some songs; years of cocaine use had taken their toll. Then, at some point during the tour, a record label employee who was out on the road with us asked where I kept disappearing to on off days. I told him. When Tom Zutaut, who had signed Guns to Geffen records, caught wind of the demos, he asked me if I would like a solo deal. Geffen, he said, could release the tracks as an album. I knew he was probably being mercenary about it—by this time Nirvana and Pearl Jam had broken, and Zutaut probably figured leveraging my Seattle roots and punk connections could help the label reposition Gn’R.
But I didn’t care. To me it was a chance to realize a dream. Geffen rushed it out as Believe in Me in the summer of 1993, just as the Illusion tour was wrapping. Axl talked it up onstage during the last few gigs.
I had scheduled a solo tour that would start immediately after Gn’R’s last shows—two final gigs in Buenos Aires, Argentina in July 1993. My solo tour would send me first to play showcases in San Francisco, L.A., and New York and then to open the Scorpions’ arena tour around Europe and the U.K. Returning to L.A. from Argentina, I joined the group of friends and acquaintances I’d arranged to back me on the road. They had already started rehearsing
before I got home. Together we did whirlwind preparations for the tour.
Axl heard I was planning to go back out on tour. He called me.
“Are you fucking crazy? You should not go back out on the road right now. You are insane even to think about it.”
“It’s what I do,” I told him. “I play music.”
I also knew that if I stayed at home it would probably devolve into more drug insanity. I didn’t have any illusions
about getting sober, but at least out on the road—with a band made up of old Seattle punk-rock friends—I figured I had some chance of toning things down. And of staying off coke.
Duff with his early Seattle punk band, 10 Minute Warning
But Axl was right. Before the first gig in San Francisco, my then-wife Linda got into a fistfight backstage with another girl and lost a tooth. Blood spattered everywhere. Hells Angels packed the show at Webster Hall in New York, and brawls broke out. I shouted at the crowd to settle down, thinking I could somehow make a difference. After the show people tried to come backstage, but I wanted to be alone.
I toured the record as planned until December 1993. There was still a fervor for all things Guns, especially in Europe. Audiences knew my songs and sang along. And for the most part I did stay off the coke, though it was by no means a clean break. There were slipups. I also switched from vodka to wine.
Downshifting to wine was all well and good, but the volume of wine quickly sky-rocketed till I was drinking 10 bottles a day. I was getting bad heartburn from the wine, taking Tums all the time. I wasn’t eating, but I was badly bloated; my body felt awful.
Duff, Izzy Stradlin, Axl, Steven Adler, Axl, Steven Adler, and Slash in Gn’R’s glory days
At the end of the European leg, our lead guitar player pulled a knife on our bus driver in England. I had to fire him—luckily the tour was finished. Back in Los Angeles, I called Paul Solger, an old friend I had played together with as a teenager in Seattle, and asked him to fill in for the next part of the tour. Solger had gotten sober in the 10 years since I’d last played with him. Needless to say, I had not. Still, he agreed.
I returned to my house in L.A. before the next leg of the tour in Australia. I’d bought the place in 1990. It was in Laurel Canyon, right at the top, perched on a cliff overlooking Dead Man’s Curve on Mulholland Drive. The place was up the hill from the old mansion built by Houdini. Here on the Hollywood side of the hills, Laurel Canyon was still quite countercultural. It was certainly no Beverly Hills. By the 1980s the Houdini mansion had been split up, and a bunch of unreformed hippies lived there in a sort of wizened dorm party milieu.
The pool behind the house offered a spectacular view out over the valley side of the Hollywood hills. At the time, I was partying for nights on end at various L.A. clubs, and that basin of blue water often ended up a naked free-for-all. One of the girls I started to hang out with was a newscaster. She had pictures in her office of herself with Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson. She repeated a catchphrase to close all her on-air reports. Years later she landed a job at a national news network, and every time I heard her finish up with that catchphrase, the image on TV would fade and I would see her paddling around nude in my pool.
Axl, Izzy, and Duff onstage at Giants Stadium in New Jersey
A circuit of clubs dominated Hollywood—Bordello, Scream, Cathouse, Vodka, Lingerie, Spice. There was a club to go to each night of the week except Wednesday. I have no idea why Wednesday was an off night. I didn’t care. Wednesdays—and after hours the rest of the week—the party came to my place. I plucked the stand-up bass to accompany Tony Bennett onstage one night in the VIP section of Spice. I got up and played drums with Pearl Jam the first time they came to L.A. for a show at the Cathouse. There was a lot of alcohol consumed that night, but I think we played a song by the Dead Boys together.
When Alice in Chains came to L.A. for their first gig—at the Palladium right as “Man in a Box” was blowing up as a single—they asked me to come down to the show and play that song with them. Awesome. After their gig that night, I invited the whole band and various hangers-on back up to my house for an after-show party. The party went on for three days straight.
But now, back home after the tour several years later, I felt as sick as I ever had. My hands and feet were bleeding. I had constant nosebleeds. I was shitting blood. Sores on my skin oozed. The house was awash in the fetid effluvia of my derelict body. I found myself picking up the phone to tell my managers and band that we weren’t going to Australia.
I’d bought a house in Seattle at that point—a dream house, right on Lake Washington—and I could feel its pull. I had bought it a few years before, sight unseen, in a neighborhood where I used to go to steal cars and boats when I was a kid. In the interim I had barely had a chance to spend any time there because of the endless Use Your Illusion tour. I thought it might be the right place to try to recover, relax, recharge.
Slash and Duff in 1990
On March 31, 1994, I went to LAX to catch a flight from L.A. to Seattle. Kurt Cobain was waiting to take the same flight. We started talking. He had just skipped out of a rehab facility. We were both fucked up. We ended up getting seats next to each other and talking the whole way, but we didn’t delve into certain things. I was in my hell, he was in his, and we both seemed to understand.
When we arrived and went toward the baggage claim, the thought crossed my mind to invite him over to my place. I had a sense he was lonely and alone that night.
So was I. But there was a mad rush of people in the terminal. I was in a big rock band; he was in a big rock band. We cowered next to each other as people gawked. I lost my train of thought for a minute, and Kurt slipped out to a waiting limo.
Arriving in front of my house in Seattle, I stopped and looked up at the roof. When I’d bought the place, it had been old and leaky, and I had paid to have the cedar shakes replaced. The new roof was rated to last 25 years, and looking up at it now I thought it was funny: That roof would surely outlast me. Still, staying in the house gave me the feeling that I had finally made it.
A few days later my manager called to tell me Kurt Cobain had been found dead at his Seattle house after putting a gun to his head. I’m embarrassed to say that upon hearing the news I just felt numb. I didn’t pick up the phone and call Kurt’s bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. I figured my condolences would be meaningless anyway—a few years prior I’d gotten into a scrap with Krist backstage at the MTV awards, where Guns and Nirvana both performed. I lost my shit when I thought I heard a slight of my band from the Nirvana camp. In my drunken haze I went after Krist. Kim Warnick from the Fastbacks—the first real band I played with as a kid in Seattle—called me the next day and scolded me. I had felt so low. Now I felt lower still, staring at the phone, incapable of calling to apologize for the earlier incident and to extend my sympathy for his loss and Dave’s.
Not that Kurt’s death made any difference in how I dealt with my own funk. I just didn’t deal at all. Until one month later.
The morning of May 10, I woke up in my new bed with sharp pains in my stomach. Pain was nothing new to me, nor was the sickening feeling of things going wrong with my body. But this was different. This pain was unimaginable, like someone taking a dull knife and twisting it in my guts. The pain was so intense I couldn’t even make it to the edge of the bed to dial 911. I was frozen in pain and fear, whimpering.
There I was, naked on my bed in my dream home, a home I had bought with the hopes of one day having a family to fill it.
I lay there for what felt like an eternity. The silence seemed as loud as my raspy, muffled moans. Never before in my life had I wanted someone to kill me, but I was in such pain I just hoped to be put out of my misery.
Then I heard Andy, my best friend from childhood, come in the back door. He called, “Hey, what’s up,” just as he had ever since we were kids. Andy, I’m upstairs, I wanted to answer. But I wasn’t able to. I heard him start up the stairs—he must have seen my wallet in the kitchen. He made it upstairs and came down the hall.
“Oh, shit, it’s finally happened,” he said when he reached my room.
I was thankful to have my friend there. It was comforting to think I would die in front of Andy. But he had other ideas. He pulled some sweats on me and began to try to move me. He must have felt the jolt of adrenaline—otherwise there is no way Andy could have carried the 200 pounds of dead weight of my bloated body. As he carried me down the stairs and out to his car, the searing, stabbing pain in my intestines spread further down to my quadriceps and around to my lower back. I wanted to die.
An early Gn’R flyer designed by Duff
The doctor I’d had since I was a kid lived just two blocks away, so Andy took me there. Though Dr. Brad Thomas was my longtime physician, I hadn’t let him see me very often once I’d descended into full-blown alcoholism. Together Andy and Dr. Thomas carried me to his first-floor office. I heard my condition being discussed, and
I felt the prick of a needle. Demerol. Nothing. Another shot of Demerol, and again nothing, no relief whatsoever. One more shot. Again nothing. The pain kept on spreading, and I was starting to panic. I groaned as my spirit began to blacken and fade.
They decided to rush me to the ER at Northwest Hospital. Dr. Thomas told Andy to drive me, as it would be faster than waiting for an ambulance. Andy drove as fast as he could without jerking the car too much—every movement made me moan.
As they put an IV drip of morphine into my left arm at the hospital, the staff asked me questions I could not answer.
“Name?” “Address?” Andy answered.
“How much do you drink on a daily basis?”
“Are you on drugs right now?”
I just whimpered.
I was mute from pain. The morphine wasn’t working as I knew it should. I knew a thing or two about opiates by that stage in my life. I knew the warm rush they offered, yet I was getting none of it.
They wheeled me into a room next to another guy on a gurney. The motion made me writhe in agony.
“Dude, I broke my back,” said the guy in the other bed. “And I’m glad I don’t have whatever you have.”
It’s So Easy (And Other Lies)by Duff McKagan
Dr. Thomas and a technician ran a scanner over my organs, and I saw my doctor’s face go white. My pancreas, apparently swollen to the size of a football from all the booze, had burst. I had third-degree burns all over the inside of my body from the digestive enzymes released by the damaged pancreas. Only a few parts of the inside of your digestive tract can handle the enzymes, and the outsides of your organs and your stomach muscles are definitely not among them—it just burns all that tissue.
A surgeon with thick glasses explained the surgery. They had to take out the top part of the pancreas—cut it off. Sew me back up. And then I’d have to be on dialysis for the rest of my life.
Suddenly I understood the pleading mouthed by miserable souls back to antiquity, those left breathing after being run through with a rusty sword or scalded with hot oil. I was there.
I summoned all my power to whisper to the ER doctor.
I begged over and over.
“Please, kill me. Just kill me. Kill me. Please.”