From The Archives: Duff McKagan Dissects ‘How to Be a Man’: Inside the Gritty New Ballad and Book
Bassist teams with ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin, Alice in Chains frontman Jerry Cantrell for book theme song
Now that former Guns N’ Roses bassistÂ Duff McKagan has put out his memoir, 2011’s It’s So Easy (And Other Lies), he’s ready to parse life’s bigger questions. His next endeavors are an upcoming book, titled How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions), and a three-song EP also titledHow to Be a Man. He also wrote a gritty, acoustic-driven title track for the EP, which features his old GN’R pal Izzy Stradlin on guitar, Alice in Chains frontman Jerry Cantrell and Stone Sour drummer Roy Mayorga.
The song, which is premiering below, finds Stradlin strumming a brooding acoustic riff while Cantrell plays bluesy mournful slide guitar and McKagan sings of a youth misspent. “Cheap thrills, pharmaceuticals ”“ just going with the flow,” he snarls. “What it takes to be a man/Oh, I wish I knew back then.”
The themes in the song mirror a lot of the topicsÂ McKagan wrote about in the book, which loosely covers the time period between the bassist’s tour with cover group Kings of Chaos ”“ a group which, among others, featured “The Spaghetti Incident?””“era GN’R members, including Slash, rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum ”“ through hisÂ temporary reunion with Guns N’ Roses, filling in for bassist Tommy Stinson last year. He’s interspersed the book with tales of how to survive on the road, lists of his favorite albums and books and general, and often-hilarious travel tips, as he attempts to make sense of his life in rock so far.
“It’s certainly not an instructional, how-to book,” McKagan, 51, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s an observational study and hopefully some humor in there. The ‘Other Illusions’ [subtitle] should be the headline.”
He adds that writing the tune helped him figure out what the book meant to him. McKagan pennedÂ the track as a sort of “theme song” for the book. But it really took shapeÂ after he sent the main riff and vocal line to Stradlin, with whom he has recorded fairly consistently since the guitarist’s departure from GN’R in 1991 to lead a more private life. “His guitar playing is so fucking good,” the bassist says. “Not that it surprises me, but it’s like, ‘Oh dude, you’ve been playing a lot of fucking guitar. What are you doing out there?’ He’s got a little creative zone out where he lives, and I think he probably sinks himself into that. It’s cooler than cool.”
McKagan says he’s also jealous sometimes of Stradlin’s independent lifestyle. “I write books, I write columns, I’m pretty public, and, of course you can write and still remain private, but he is really just off the grid,” the bassist says. “His comfort zone is off the grid. He doesn’t do any press, he doesn’t have a publicist, and he just puts out a record every couple of years on iTunes. He’s pretty pure.”
Stradlin’s electric-guitar playing was instrumental in making the EP track “Kill the Internet” “like O.G. Orange County punk rock,” according to McKagan, and its other song, “Punker,” sound spontaneous. The musicians recorded the EP in Queens of the Stone Age’s studio, a process the bassist called “mellow.”
In fact, the whole recording was rather loose. McKagan spotted Mayorga playing a spot-on tribute to the Dead Boys at a party a month and a half ago and, after speaking to him was pleased to learn he lived near the studio, so he asked him to join in on the sessions. Cantrell happens to be McKagan’s neighbor and fellow Seahawks fan in Seattle. “It was all very natural,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was grabbing Jerry because I need a guy from Alice in Chains or I need the story of Izzy. It’s coming out that way a little bit now. . .and we’re really not about that.”
As the book How to Be a Man proves, McKagan has enough stories of his own. One of the most interesting is how he prepped for his mini-reunion with Guns N’ Roses last year: He made a GN’R playlist to refresh himself. “I realized there in my basement room, going through these songs again, just how fucking good we were,” he writes in the book.
“Ever since that original thing ended, I just kept going forward and didn’t ever go back and listen,” McKagan explains to Rolling Stone. “Things were going too fast: I went to school, we were having kids, I got sober, then Velvet Revolver started, and my kids were growing. I never sat in a room somewhere and listened to bodies of work I’ve done in the past.”
Once he began listening to the music he recorded on Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusions, the quality of the music hit him in a rush. “‘My Michelle’ plays through my speakers, and I’m hearing every little part ”“ the last time I played it was 20 years ago ”“ but all the little pieces of that song, I was like, ‘Holy fuck! What a good band!'” he says. “I think my playlist went from ‘My Michelle’ to ‘Estranged,’ and I thought, ‘What a fucking huge piece of work that was.’ ‘Estranged,’ my God. My muscle memory and everything came right back, like my left hand was playing the songs and my brain wasn’t thinking. It was really a strange fucking thing.
“It was remarkable,” he continues. “I hadn’t forgotten, I just hadn’t revisited, and I had a lot of appreciation for that band. It was a cool, remarkable day.”
Looking back on the tour, McKagan says he’s really glad he did it. “It really was one of those nice little turning points in your life.”
The bassist says that once he took the time to process everything he wrote about in How to Be a Man, he realized that he’s still learning about life. “I thought when I was 47, I would be like ‘full knowledge,’ sitting in some big, fluffy chair, and my kids would be attending to me like, ‘Father, you’re so smart,'” McKagan says with a laugh. “But it’s still all a learning process. I’ve learned I just gotta let go sometimes and go forward and let things fall where they may.”
The How to Be a ManÂ EP is due out on May 12th and available for preorderÂ now. The bookÂ is due out May 12th.