Women in Music 2016

Duff McKagan on Substance Abuse, Fatherhood and the Possibility of a Guns N' Roses Reunion

Scott Uchida
Duff McKagen

The title of Duff McKagan’s new book, How to Be a Man (and other illusions), playfully spells it out that the tome is not what it seems. “It’s really not a how-to book. The most how-to thing [about it] is probably the title,” says the former Guns N' Roses bassist, 51. Lighthearted yet serious-minded, How to Be a Man recounts the wisdom that McKagan, who has long been a happily married father of two daughters, has gleaned from his sometimes surreal rock star existence. He spoke with Billboard about how, as he tours the world with such bands as Loaded and Walking Papers, he has learned to prioritize what matters most and deal with life’s punches like a seasoned boxer -- such as yet again answering questions about the original lineup of Guns N' Roses ever reuniting.

What would you say are the most important tips in your book?

I think it’s really about embracing the fact that at any point in your life you’re still learning, and the things that are important in your life rise to the top, and you should embrace those things. For me, it’s my wife and kids. That’s top, and the rock show is No. 2. It’s not about how you get there or what the environs are or what hotel you’ve stayed at.      

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When I was 18, what I thought to be “a man” was whose ass I could kick. (Laughs.) How much I could drink. “How many chicks you been with?” Like really stupid stuff, but that’s what you think.      

And then I was 37, and I had two little girls. I was at a grocery store. I was getting diapers and stuff, my wife was calling me on the cellphone, and somebody was [saying] over the PA in the grocery store, “Price check.” It was pretty chaotic, and I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t fighting anybody, you know? (Laughs.) I wasn’t out perusing women, and I was the happiest I’d ever been. I remember that moment like, “Oh, wow. This is what it is. This is what it’s about. Being happy.”

What is the “illusion” of being a man?

I think the “illusion” with How to Be a Man, I don’t know. That’s what the other illusion is. (Laughs.) Here’s what I’ve got so far. I could be wrong on 99 percent of it. But these girls of mine have turned everything upside down what I thought when I was in my 20s. All of the best ways they turned it upside down, I’ve got to say … I’m fortunate to have come out OK and be able to go play gigs and be present in my kids’ lives, still have a kind of nuclear family. It’s hard work, you know? (Laughs.) A marriage with kids and all this stuff, and it’s not the It’s a Wonderful Life thing I thought it was going to be. But it’s better, actually, in a lot of ways.

What are some of the biggest mistakes in your life that you turned into lessons for this book?

The mistakes -- I guess you call them mistakes -- were assumptions I made up till this point. Going too hard. I learned [that] when I got pneumonia [while on tour]. Going really hard and sacrificing my body for rock, and my wife was telling me, “Babe, you’re going to get sick.” Because of past drug use I have a lower tolerance for germs that are on planes and that kind of stuff. And I’ll just keep going, and I got pneumonia. I got back home, and I let my 14-year-old daughter sort of take care of me for the first time in my life … if I do it again, I think if I see two tours back to back I might go, “Mmm, maybe let’s revise that. Can we put like a week in between so I can recuperate from the first one?”

It’s not like I have to slow down because I’m getting older. I refuse to go to that level, but I have to be smarter. Maybe like an older boxer. Doesn’t take the punches as much. And I think I have to kind of learn more from that.

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If you handed yourself this book at the height of Guns ’N Roses’ fame, do you think you would have taken any of its advice?

Yes, I do. You’re always the same you. I just was in a wet cardboard box for a few years where I couldn’t quite punch myself out of it, being addicted to things. I was really hoping I would come through and I really always wanted to go to school. I really always wanted to be more educated and calm. Hopefully there’s that big, fluffy chair in my living room I’m going to be able to sit in. It’s red and velvet, and I’m going to have some fancy hat on, and my daughters will be attending [to] me and asking me for my wisdom. (Mimics a high-class accent.) “Father? Please tell me what to do here.” (Laughs.) I really have this illusion that that’s going to happen. I don’t know if it will, but it’s a cool thing to aspire to.

You did an interview for a mini-documentary by Guns ’N Roses biographer Marc Canter, who wants to reunite the band…

I didn’t, that’s the [thing]. I saw it. My manager sent it to me. That interview, I’m like, “What the hell’s that from?” It’s from a while ago, and I don’t know what the interview’s from. And Marc’s a dear friend, but he didn’t ask me if he could use that piece. (Laughs.) So there’s a little like, “Dude, I don’t know where that…I’m wearing a Von Dutch hat, so that’s gotta be like 2007” … So I don’t know. I don’t know what he’s doing, to be honest.

People picked up on Canter making the point of being the man who can make it happen, and that all it would take to reunite Axl Rose and Slash is getting them back in the dinky rehearsal space where they started.

Yeah. (Laughs.)  I have no comment on that. That came out of left field for me. My manager sent me the link and I looked at it like, “What the hell?” Little weird. But Marc is a good guy. He’s been around forever, and if that’s what he thinks, it’s his thing.