October 29, 2011
When Michael “Duff” McKagan sat down to pen his feverishly-anticipated autobiography, he stared into the face of a stunning problem: where to start? With so much ground to cover, Duff’s story bears no shortage of logical starting points.
He could, of course, have taken the conventional route and simply started with his boyhood in Seattle, born into a large Irish-Catholic family, eventually finding his way into the city’s expansive punk rock scene in the 80s.
Then again, Duff might have understandably kicked his story off with his move to Los Angeles in the early-80s, when Fate blew him into a collision course with four other musicians, forming a band called Guns N’ Roses. Ignited by their album Appetite for Destruction, which went on to sell upwards of a brain-slapping thirty million copies, GNR took off on a rock and roll odyssey that injected steroids into the cliche, “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
The present day offereded another appropriate beginning, with Duff enjoying a life resplendent in music and family, looking back at the extraordinary parade of events that led him there.
Instead, It’s So Easy (and other lies), McKagan’s now best-selling autobiography, begins with Duff lying helplessly in a hospital bed as his pancreas explodes, splashing his internal organs with enzymes so corrosive that they sear his insides with third-degree burns, as he whispers to his attending doctor to please kill him. Duff’s starting point is not a beginning so much as a bottom.
For those who have already digested GNR biographies by Stephen Davis or Mick Wall, you will not find an appreciable amount of new stories about McKagan’s old band. In fact, while ample attention is paid to McKagan’s crippling years as a barely-functional alcoholic and drug addict, It’s So Easy is no lurid expose of the depraved exploits of Guns N’ Roses. If you’re looking for the Guns N’ Roses version of Motley Crue’s primer on bad behavior, The Dirt, look elsewhere. But if it’s a truly amazing journey with a thoroughly likable protagonist, life-and-death stakes and an unexpected, deeply-satisfying ending, look no further.
After shocking the reader with his near-fatal pancreatic explosion, McKagan recounts a generally unremarkable childhood before migrating into the punk rock tribes of 80s Seattle. Problem was, just as Duff was getting into the punk rock scene, so was heroin. Spurred on by his friends, McKagan escaped Seattle before the drug claimed him and he headed for Los Angeles where outrageous fortune awaited.
Chapters about Guns N’ Roses confront the band’s takeoff and implosion, dodging much of the business dealings and legal minutia that feature prominently in other accounts of that band. There is an implicit assumption that the reader has some working familiarity with the milestones of GNR and McKagan moves quickly through the high and low points. Unsurprisingly, few truly new stories are offered (by now, they’ve all been told), but that’s not the point of this book- one more rehash of the same old stories would be borderline offensive. Instead, the stories are re-told with an incisive new perspective. The compelling story lies in Duff ‘s journey of self-discovery- he confines his account to his own feelings and experiences, which move the story forward far more cohesively than a spotty collection of dirty deeds that have long grown stale from over-telling.
Critically, and what distinguishes It’s So Easy from all other books about GNR, the reader can actually relate to what’s happening. McKagan candidly shares his fears and anxieties- emotions well-known to everyone regardless of their station in life. In these confessions, he forges an authentic bond with readers. While few can relate to snorting cocaine in a private jet or playing in front of eighty thousand screaming fans, everybody can relate to the profound regret of knowing they could have handled a situation better. And that is the essence of this book- an ordinary guy is thrown into an unlikely chain of events and his survival hinges on discarding everything he believed about himself and starting from scratch. Except in this case, the starting point of “scratch” is drug addiction, superstardom and a near-death experience.
Throughout popular culture, much attention has been heaped upon the behavior of Axl Rose. It is well-known that he perennially showed up hours late for shows and that he often stormed off-stage in the middle of sets if displeased by fans or security personnel. Rather than amplify these popular views, McKagan uses the pages to consider his own role in these events, offering insights that have never before been considered. Specifically, rather than blame Rose for riots that erupted during GNR shows, McKagan offers a stunning admission- neither he nor any of his band mates ever confronted Rose on this behavior or demanded that he fall in line with the rest of the band.
McKagan’s chapter about his chance meeting with Axl in 2010 is a head-shaking paragon of serendipity, recounted in far richer detail than anything that has been offered to date. While McKagan avoids speculating on the future of GNR, he is forthcoming about his part in its history and his take is worthy of the time of any fan- especially those who have read other accounts and feel that they understand the story.
McKagan’s last ten years provides ample fodder for a separate book. Here’s a guy who was a drug addict and high school dropout, bloated from booze, mentally incapacitated by drugs and emotionally wasted from decades of self abuse. That this man physically recovered is literally amazing, given the abysmal recovery rate of addicts and alcoholics. That he continued playing music, started another platinum-selling band, scored a college degree and founded a wealth management company strains the definition of credibility. Such profound, far-flung redemption is normally the purview of movies, yet here in these pages, this true story is richly told in humble, often humorous terms. Duff is not talking at you- he’s sitting with you as he recounts his unbelievable tale.
It’s So Easy is a shining example of an autobiography that meets the reader on a basic human level. The success of this book is that when the final page has been read, you don’t just know the stories- you know the man.
TNB Music Editor