Duff McKagan on Playing His First Sober Show: Exclusive ‘How to Be a Man’ Excerpt
Duff McKagan remembers the life-changing moment when he took the stage for the first time sober in this exclusive excerpt from How To Be a Man (and Other Illusions).
Even though he was still with Guns N' Roses, McKagan was appearing at West Hollywood's Viper Room in 1995 with the side project Neurotic Outsider, which also featured Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, John Taylor of Duran Duran and GNR drummer Matt Sorum. They'd eventually release a self-titled album the following year before mounting North American and European tours and disbanding in 1997.
Jones, who had overcome his own struggles with substance abuse, played a key role in smoothing the way for McKagan, whose new book is due May 12 via Da Capo Press. It's the follow-up to his 2012 bestseller It’s So Easy (And Other Lies).
When I got sober and completely flip-flopped my life, I thought my music career was over. I was still technically a member of Guns N’ Roses, but I had somehow assumed with a dumb-ass certainty that one had to be inebriated to write songs and play onstage. I mean, really, who the hell does this rock thing without a little juice, a bump of coke, a glass of vodka, Valium, more cocaine, some needless boy/girl drama, whiskey, beer, opiates, Quaaludes, more vodka, and another snort of cocaine?
All of us reach tipping points in our lives when we cross over into a new chapter. It is what we do at these moments that dictates the “part deux” of our lives. For this there is no handbook. We can only hope that putting our heads down and forging ahead will get us through. Guys like me are too dull to do it any other way.
At the time, I didn’t have the capacity to comprehend a future as a musician.
My mind was elsewhere.
"Just focus on trying to not use for one more day. I’ll think about all of this other stuff later. Get on the mountain bike and ride until you can’t. Go to the dojo, and punch, kick, learn everything possible from Sensei Benny. Punch and kick and stretch until you can’t anymore. Sweat this sh– out. Learn. Try. Try f–ing harder. Yes, Sensei. Yes, Sensei! Bow out, and go home and eat something good. Drink lots of water (water? this is a novel idea). Try to look at yourself in the mirror at home before bed. Did I do everything to the best of my ability today? Was I honest about every action and word spoken today? Really? Who you lyin’ to? Yourself? That’s pretty lame. I’ll try harder tomorrow. Just don’t use! Just. Don’t. Use."
Music was put on the back burner. I couldn’t surmise how I’d ever play live without my shield of inebriation. Little did I know at my crossroads then that I was so insanely dead wrong.
With ten months of sobriety under my belt, I was approached by one of my all-time heroes, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, to start a band with him, Matt Sorum, and Duran Duran’s John Taylor. I hadn’t played a live gig sober yet, and I wasn’t sure how that was going to go.
My first gig with this new band, called Neurotic Outsiders, would be at the Viper Room in West Hollywood. I’d never played there before, and, to be honest, I was more nervous than ever. Would I have a panic attack onstage? Would I tense up and not be able to play? Would people stare at me and judge me? Would we be any good? But the thought of playing a small room after all of those massive GN’R shows was refreshing. As a musician, performing in small rooms really improves your playing. The sound systems are smaller and less forgiving than huge PAs. The audience is right there in your face and can watch your playing almost as if through a microscope. You have to be good.
Starting a new band this time was a bit easier. Sh–, I was playing with Steve Jones, and he had a massive hand in the sound and songwriting of the Pistols. The songs he brought to the band from the get-go were stellar. I was also sort of living out a teenage punk-rock dream. I knew it was gonna be cool, no matter the size of rooms we played. Believing in something for the pureness of that something carries a lot of weight with a guy like me.
We rehearsed for two weeks leading up to the Viper Room gig, and driving down there from my house in Hollywood (that used to serve as my drug headquarters), I really felt that I was starting a new chapter in my life.
I wasn’t sure how to get into the club. There was a line around the corner. Do I walk through the people in line? I hadn’t been around this many folks since I’d been sober, and it felt as if everyone were staring at me. I felt a bit too aware, a bit too sober. It felt like four hundred sets of eyes were burrowing into the back of my head. I started to sweat. My breathing became shallow and fast. If I can’t handle maneuvering through these people, how would I be able to play in front of them in a couple of hours?
Just then, Matt showed up and nonchalantly mingled with folks in line. I remember watching in awe as he made the whole thing look easy. “C’mon Duff! Follow me!” Matt said, sensing my unease. And that was it. I was in.
We walked down the small, dimly lit hallway that led to the stairs up to the main room. Once I saw our gear sitting there on the stage and our crew guys waiting for us to sound check, things became a bit more familiar.
"I know how to do music. This is where I am supposed to be. Those people are here in anticipation of seeing this new band. They aren’t staring at me in judgment. They are being polite and probably a bit shy. Right. Don’t freak out, Duff."
This incident sticks in my mind as one of the illuminating moments in my life. Everyone who has lived and breathed on this planet has experienced a time of great change. That evening I realized that my brain was sending me all kinds of signals I wasn’t used to receiving. My breathing quickened, and my thought processes went a bit awry as I wasn’t used to any of this sober, social gig stuff.
The gear sitting on the stage snapped me out of it. The gear was a source of strength, proof that I was in a safe place, a situation I knew how to navigate. I learned from then on to envision a homing point (my gear on the stage, if you will) before I get into situations that might make me uncomfortable or ill at ease.
As I got adjusted to the dim light in the club, Sal, the club manager at the time, came up and told me that a rumor was going around outside in line, a rumor that I had gotten a facelift. A facelift?! Right. In the preceding year, I had lived a sober life and had sort of clung to the confines of my martial arts dojo and rode my mountain bike, and I’d dropped fifty pounds of booze and drug weight. More like a life-lift. There had been no pictures of me taken during my gradual recovery, so it must have seemed like an instant change to some of the people standing outside. If I wasn’t sure how to deal with social situations yet, it was apparent that some people weren’t quite sure what to make of me either.
Steve and John Taylor were sitting backstage, and we all kind of hung out there as the doors opened. As I was warming up on my guitar, Jonesy asked how I was doing. “I’m good, Steve.” He told me that he remembered his first sober gig and that this would probably be my clearest musical moment in years. “You are gonna play better than you have in a long time, mate.” That was all I needed to hear.
The new band was really good, and it was a total blast, with a lot of humor among the four of us. Humor was something that had been missing in my life for some time, and I had forgotten how much I missed levity and bad jokes.
When we hit the stage, the place erupted and we laid into a perfectly kick-ass set of OG punk rock. Steve was anchored to my left, looking my way every now and then, checking and nodding his approval. John Taylor is a bad man on the bass, and it suddenly hit me that, right, Mr. Taylor and Duran Duran were a full-on movement in modern music. John is so mellow and low key that I guess he sort of disarms you to the fact that he is John F–ING Taylor!
Matt was on the drums, and he too slowed my roll. I settled in with a group of guys who had my back. If this is what playing sober was gonna be like, I wanted a whole lot more of it.
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