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For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Duff McKagan was the bassist for Guns N' Roses, one of the most successful and notorious hard rock bands in music history. A veteran of the Seattle punk scene since his teenaged years, McKagan joined the group in 1985 just before they rose from virtual unknowns to chart-topping superstars with the release of the debut album, Appetite for Destruction, in 1987. The band's reputation for hard living nearly killed McKagan in 1994, but it took singer Axl Rose's increasingly untenable behavior to extricate him from their lineup three years later. McKagan formed several groups of his own before he reunited with G N' R guitarist Slash to form Velvet Revolver in 2004. However, it too imploded under the strain of personality clashes with its singer, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland. Ever resilient, McKagan continued to front his own group while earning a reputation as a skilled financial writer and advisor. In 2011, Guns N' Roses' original lineup was selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, immortalizing his time with one of rock and roll's most ferocious and self-destructive bands.Born Michael Andrew McKagan in Seattle, WA on Feb. 5, 1964, he...
For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Duff McKagan was the bassist for Guns N' Roses, one of the most successful and notorious hard rock bands in music history. A veteran of the Seattle punk scene since his teenaged years, McKagan joined the group in 1985 just before they rose from virtual unknowns to chart-topping superstars with the release of the debut album, Appetite for Destruction, in 1987. The band's reputation for hard living nearly killed McKagan in 1994, but it took singer Axl Rose's increasingly untenable behavior to extricate him from their lineup three years later. McKagan formed several groups of his own before he reunited with G N' R guitarist Slash to form Velvet Revolver in 2004. However, it too imploded under the strain of personality clashes with its singer, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland. Ever resilient, McKagan continued to front his own group while earning a reputation as a skilled financial writer and advisor. In 2011, Guns N' Roses' original lineup was selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, immortalizing his time with one of rock and roll's most ferocious and self-destructive bands.
Born Michael Andrew McKagan in Seattle, WA on Feb. 5, 1964, he was the youngest of eight children by Elmer and Alice Marie McKagan. The tumult of a large household was further complicated by his parents' divorce, and McKagan, who answered to the childhood nickname "Duff," found comfort in music. His brother Bruce taught him to play bass, and he honed his skills playing along with records by Prince and punk pioneers Black Flag. Though an honors student, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade after earning a GED and began playing with a vast number of bands on the Seattle music scene, including the pop-punk Fastbacks in 1981 and The Fartz, one of Seattle's first hardcore groups, which after transforming into the sludgy, quasi-metallic 10 Minute Warning, had a strong influence on Seattle bands during the grunge heyday of the early '90s.
McKagan headed south to Los Angeles in 1983, where he answered an ad for a bass player that brought him into contact with guitarist Saul "Slash" Hudson and drummer Steven Adler. The trio formed the backbone of Road Crew, a hard rock outfit with a short lifespan due in part to Adler's prodigious appetite for drugs and alcohol. But McKagan soon fell in with a pair of Midwest transplants: guitarist Jeffrey Dean Isbell, also known as Izzy Stradlin, and hotwired singer William Bailey, a.k.a. Axl Rose. Their outfit, Hollywood Rose, had also gone through growing pains since its inception in 1983, and Stradlin and Rose were seeking new players to fill out their ranks. McKagan was tapped to handle bass for the group, and soon added his ex-Road Crew partners Slash and Adler to the lineup. The new quintet billed themselves as Guns N' Roses, and within two years of their 1985 live debut, they were among the most popular rock bands on the planet thanks to their top-selling debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987).
But as Guns N' Roses rocketed to the top of the charts, tensions within the band had already begun to foment the demise of their original lineup. While a formidable singer, Axl Rose was also a temperamental figure, given to caustic, headline-grabbing statements and behavior, like his racially charged rant on the song "One in a Million" from the band's 1988 EP G N' R Lies. McKagan and Slash were forced to speak out against the song and their bandmate in order to head off the firestorm of negative publicity that it generated. By 1990, the band itself had begun to fracture: Adler was let go for his rampant drug use, which was followed by Stradlin's departure shortly after the release of their chart-topping Use Your Illusion I and II (1991). McKagan provided lead vocals for several tracks on the band's cover album The Spaghetti Incident? (1993), but it failed to measure up to the astronomical sales of its predecessors. Disillusioned by the direction of Guns N' Roses and the rancor between band members, he began to branch out, penning songs with Slash for Iggy Pop's Brick By Brick (1990) and eventually releasing a solo album, Believe in Me (1993), which was met with a tepid response.
Had the album been a success, McKagan would have been in no shape to celebrate it. The relentless Use Your Illusion tour had dragged on for two and a half years, during which time the band indulged nightly in all manner of vices. By 1993, McKagan's own drug and alcohol abuse resulted in pancreatitis, which caused his pancreas to swell and leak digestive enzymes into his system, resulting in caustic third-degree internal burns. Informed by doctors that he would die within a month if he continued drinking, he got sober in 1994. While recovering, he enrolled in a basic finance course at Santa Monica Community College, prompted in part by his confusion over the state of Guns N' Roses' complicated financial records.
Following the conclusion of the tour, Guns N' Roses attempted and failed to launch recording sessions for a new album. McKagan bided his time by collaborating with Slash and the rest of the band, save Rose, on the guitarist's side project, Slash's Snakepit. McKagan then formed his own supergroup, the Neurotic Outsiders, which counted the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones and John Taylor of Duran Duran among its members. After completing a short tour of the U.S. and Europe, McKagan returned to the G N' R fold, only to receive word from Rose that he and the other members were to cease work on their own projects or face dismissal. Disgusted, he left the band in 1997 and went back to Seattle, where he reformed 10 Minute Warning. He also dabbled briefly in acting with a turn as a vampire on the sci-fi series "Sliders" (Fox/Sci-Fi, 1995-2000).
In 1998, McKagan's second solo album was lost in the legal morass that was the merger between Geffen and Interscope. Geffen dropped him from the label and prevented him from reclaiming the album. Faced with a tour but no album to support, he pulled together a new group, Loaded, and recorded a live album, Episode 1999: Live and a studio release, Dark Days (2001) before calling it quits in 2002. That same year, McKagan and Loaded guitarist Dave Kushner reunited with Slash and Matt Sorum to form the supergroup Velvet Revolver. The group recruited Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland as its singer, and seemed destined to challenge G N'R's legacy after their debut album, Contraband (2004) shot to No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. But tensions between Weiland, who was more than Rose's match as a volatile presence given to incendiary statements, and the rest of the band delayed the release of their second album, Libertad (2007); by the following year, Weiland had departed to reunite with his former group. During this period, McKagan continued to study finance, first at Seattle Central Community College and later at Seattle University's Albers School of Business, where he developed a keen business sense that would aid him in later years.
McKagan was soon back with another version of Loaded, which recorded its second album, Sick, in 2009. The following year, he departed to join the reformed Jane's Addiction, with whom he played a quartet of shows and collaborated on a handful of songs. But within six months, the combative original members of Jane's Addiction announced that the band was once again calling it quits. He soon found a second career as a writer, penning an opinion column for the Seattle Weekly and a financial column for Playboy.com, as well as a sports beat for ESPN.com. In 2010, McKagan appeared onstage with Rose's ever-changing lineup for Guns N' Roses, which marked the first time the two men had performed together since 1993. He soon reformed Loaded, which enjoyed an opening slot on G N'R's lengthy Chinese Democracy tour that year. In 2011, McKagan formed Meridian Rock, a wealth management firm that aimed to provide financial education to those in the music business. That same year, he released his autobiography, It's So Easy (And Other Lies), and learned that he, along with the rest of the original Guns N' Roses lineup, would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
By Paul Gaita
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