Sometime around 1988, I bought a copy of Appetite for Destruction, to the derision of my then-girlfriend and her ultra-hip little brother. I was an unrepentent metalhead in my mid-20s, and the band photo on the back said everything you needed to know about the prevailing vibe: Slash’s cascading curls hiding his pout, a half-visible bottle between his legs; Izzy’s heroin-nod as he clutched a guitar; Axl’s cooler-than-thou open legs pose, beer bottle in his hand. They looked like badass dudes who could rawk. “Welcome to the Jungle”, which I’d heard a few times on the radio, supported this notion.
But my then-girlfriend wasn’t buying any of it. “Look at this guy!” she exclaimed, pointing to drummer Steven Adler. “He’s a surfer dude, he belongs on a beach somewhere.” It was true: Adler’s face possessed a healthy, good-natured openness, and besides, he was breaking the cardinal rule of heavy-metal band photography (never smile, Steven!). My girlfriend went on, “And this one—he’s no tough guy, he’s just a boy!”
The “boy” in question was bass player Duff McKagan, who hunkered toward the back of the group and whose careful lack of expression suggested the kind of awkward attempts at manliness often observed in adolescent males—the kind of expressionless veneer that masks genuine but “uncool” excitement, in this case the excitement of playing on a real record album that people might actually buy and listen to. As it turned out, lots of people bought and listened to Appetite for Destruction—it became the best-selling debut record of all time, powered by the raspy classic “Welcome to the Jungle” and the treacly but still competent “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
Who knew that, 20-odd years later, having survived a degree of drug and alcohol abuse that should have killed him (his pancreas exploded at one point, I’m not kidding), the Seattle-born McKagan would have straightened up and gotten sober by embarking on a punishing regimen of mountain biking and martial arts? With that under his belt, he would go on to get married and become a dad, invest in a mess of local stocks (Microsoft, Amazon), go back to college and pursue a degree in business. Through it all he still found time to play in bands like Velvet Revolver and Loaded.
Certainly, McKagan himself didn’t know it. Reading his autobiography, one gets the impression that for the all-too-few years of Guns N’ Roses’ ascendancy into rock legend, McKagan didn’t know much of anything. Staggering around in a bleary-eyed alcoholic semi-coma will do that to a guy. My girlfriend was right: McKagan and the others were just kids, and they were being fed to the rock ‘n’ roll machine. It very nearly killed them.
It’s So Easy (and Other Lies) is a harrowing account of living inside that machine, tracing McKagan’s early years playing in various Seattle punk bands before moving to L.A. at the age of 20 and meeting up with the talented but volatile crew that would eventually form Guns N’ Roses. Over everything hangs the spectre of drugs; among McKagan’s many reasons for fleeing Seattle were the deaths of several friends due to heroin overdose. The scene in L.A .was little better, with Izzy and Slash both shooting up, and everybody ingesting over-the-top amounts of pills, cocaine and booze.
It seems miraculous that anyone was in a state to write a song or rehearse, much less perform onstage, but somehow they managed. As the band struggled through early gigs and road trips, they grew more focused. A pivotal, early trip to Seattle, with its train wreck of Spinal Tap-esque disasters, is among the liveliest and most enjoyable chapters here.
Little time is spent dissecting the writing and recording process of Appetite for Destruction; almost before you know it, the album is out, the band is touring, and things are going wrong. McKagan sleepwalks through his days in an alcoholic stupor; drummer Steven Adler gets so wasted he’s eventually dropped from the band; and Axl Rose’s increasingly late concert arrivals begin to undermine band unity (and audience loyalty).
It all comes to a head during the three-year, worldwide tour for Use Your Illusion, the double-album follow-up to Appetite that was wildly successful even as it signaled the band’s loss of focus. Grunge had hit by then, and hair metal was dead or dying. Guns N’ Roses’ response: keep touring and take more drugs. (For the record, it wasn’t Nirvana et al that killed pop metal; it was the absurdly bloated, overwrought music video for “November Rain” that did the trick.)
Everything implodes roughly halfway through the book, so the second half is McKagan’s narrative of salvation. He avoids making himself into a victim—he’s plenty critical of his own bad choices and stupid behavior. He’s particularly critical of his unwillingness to call Axl out for lateness on gig nights, which often meant the band wouldn’t get on stage ‘til three hours later than scheduled, and in some cases resulted in audience riots.
Despite that, Axl is not the villain here. McKagan is interested in telling his own survival story, not in pointing fingers. He does so very well, with crisp, intelligent writing that never dumbs anything down and cleverly intertwines chapters about his early life with those detailing the ascent of Guns N’ Roses. McKagan writes regularly for Seattle Weekly and ESPN, so this is no ghostwritten vanity project. It’s one of the best rock ‘n’ roll biographies I’ve come across.
Of course, Axl hasn’t finished writing his yet. I’m still waiting for it, though it might be a little late in coming… Chinese Autobiography, anyone?