The first time I saw Duff McKagan he was a wedding guest in the Guns N’ Roses video for “November Rain.” And not just any wedding guest, mind you. Duff saves the day by presenting the couple’s wedding rings on the pinky finger of his leather glove when Slash, as best man, comes up empty.
The video’s narrative is intercut with a live performance of the band, which also gave me my first glimpse of Duff in action on the stage of the Orpheum Theater. I was ready to pack my bags and skip town with the GN’R circus right then and there.
It was 1992. MTV ran a Top 20 Countdown in those days that culminated at midnight with the #1 video of that day. “November Rain” came out on top so many times it had to be retired from the show in order to give other songs a shot at the brass ring. I watched that countdown every night, for the duration of the video’s reign, mesmerized by every nuance of its sexy badass-ness.
I was, of course, a fan of Guns N’ Roses long before “November Rain” became a staple of MTVs programming. ‘Appetite for Destruction’ is one of the greatest debut albums of all time. GN’R blew the socks off glam metal when they turned up on the scene with their grit and a delicious sense of danger that rock music had been devoid of for most of the Eighties. Unlike the pretty boys of the hair bands, GN’R looked like they had come out of the gutter, debauched, with mayhem on their minds. And they had the chops to pull it off. With songs like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and “Paradise City,” music was suddenly exciting again. It had balls again.
One of my biggest regrets is that I never got the chance to see Guns N’ Roses live in their heyday. I was busy raising a family back then. Eyeballs-deep in Pampers and a talking purple dinosaur. But I’m an optimist. For the past 23 years, I’ve waited for GN’R to reunite the same way I’ve patiently waited for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to give it one last go round. Hey, miracles happen all the time, right? In the case of Guns N’ Roses, damn right.
Unless you’ve been living on Mars the past few months, you know that GN’R are set to play a series of shows that kick off with a couple warm-up gigs in Las Vegas and a recently announced date in Mexico City, set between their two headlining performances at the Coachella festival in Indio, California, this April. There’s also talk of a possible North American stadium tour this summer with as many as 25 dates. Fans are holding our collective breath.
The newly reunited Guns N’ Roses features the classic lineup of Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan, who’s kept plenty busy in the decades since the demise of GN’R. Over the years, Duff has played in numerous bands, including Loaded, Velvet Revolver, Neurotic Outsiders, Kings of Chaos, just to name a few. He also joined his former bandmate in Axl’s new incarnation of GN’R.
Music is Duff’s lifeblood. He’s one of those charmed people who pop out of the womb with their purpose already encoded in their DNA. As a kid, Duff taught himself to play bass. He also tried his hand at singing and songwriting and learned to play drums and guitar too so that he could fill any spot that opened in any band at any time. He kept himself in many bands simultaneously so he was never without someone to play with. He lived below poverty level when necessary. Went without food and slept in his car. Thumbed his way some 1,000 miles up the West Coast to make a gig in Seattle.
But music wasn’t his only passion. Under that swagger, the lion’s mane and leather pants, the shades and the cigarette dangling from his lips, there was a man with the vision, the ability and self-discipline to manifest his every desire. All it took was a little pain to tap into the secret.
Today Duff is a cyclist who has participated in a long-distance cross-country mountain-bike race in Big Bear. He is a kickboxer who has been in the ring with Petey “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, world middleweight champion. Duff is a runner who competed in his first marathon within a year of taking up the discipline. He is an avid mountain climber, a business and economics major at Seattle University with a perfect GPA, this some fifteen years after dropping out of high school in the tenth grade. Duff coupled his education in finance with his experience in the music world and parlayed that into a wealth management firm called Meridian Rock, which educates musicians on how to manage their money. He’s a columnist and a best-selling author. A husband and a father to two daughters, one of whom has assumed her father’s mantle and is fronting her own band at age seventeen.
Duff McKagan is clear on what matters most in this life. He walks the talk and inspires others to live up to their potential—and then reach miles beyond it, even if that means dislocating a shoulder to do so. He embodies the words of his beloved late Uncle John:
Life is not a journey to the grave
With the intention of arriving safely in a well-preserved body,
But rather to skid in sideways
Thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming:
“Wow, what a ride!”
Ride on, Mr. McKagan, and Happy Birthday to you! Looking forward to catching you out on the road this summer. It’s been a long time coming.