[Editors Note: This is one of the Village Voice’s top 10 most-read longform stories of 2015. Don’t forget to check out the rest of 2015’s popular posts.]
The following is an adapted excerpt from Duff McKagan’s new memoir, How to Be a Man.
I didn’t dare bring up the words “SUPER” or “BOWL” during the season, but the moment the clock ticked to 00:00 during the 2014 NFC championship game in Seattle, I knew I was headed to New York, and that I was going to be at the game in New Jersey with my beloved Seahawks. As an added bonus, I was going to be turning 50 that week, and would have a chance to celebrate my first half-century with my team and Jerry Cantrell, my good friend and Seahawks buddy — you know him as the guitarist in Alice in Chains.
At the time, an old friend of mine in New York City was just about to move into a new place in the West Village and he offered it up to me and Jerry and my buddy Ed to crash during the Super Bowl. Thankfully, we wouldn’t have to compete with the other tourists in town for the big game. We were all set.
New York has always been an important place for me, somewhere I’ve passed some of life’s milestones and made memories that I’ll never forget.
My first visit was in early 1987 when Guns N’ Roses were mixing Appetite for Destruction. I had toured some of the U.S. and Canada with my earlier Seattle punk rock bands, but never made it all the way to New York. For a guy who grew up on bands like the Ramones, Dead Boys, the Dolls, and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, just landing at JFK was enough to get my heart pounding.
My first cab ride into the city was nothing short of astounding. Izzy Stradlin and I checked into the Gramercy Park Hotel, which was pretty much a shit hole at the time, and went for a walk around the East Village. The further down into the alphabetized streets we got, the more familiar the populace got to us (read: users and pushers). It’s a good thing that I really didn’t have the money yet to support a habit.
One of my more surreal New York moments happened when Guns played a run of shows at the Garden in 1991. Donald Trump sauntered backstage one night, made himself at home, and regaled me with his Donald-ness. Next, Billy Joel came looking for some Jack Daniel’s that he must have smelled all the way from uptown. A few minutes later, the parents of the recently passed Johnny Thunders came backstage with their grandson — a carbon copy of his dad. It was a sobering, perspective-sharpening moment that I will always remember.
The shows were famous for not starting until 1 a.m. or so. I remember people telling me that they would watch the opening band, leave, go to some bar in the Village, get hammered, come back to the Garden, and we still would not be onstage. We paid an untold amount in quadruple overtime to the police officers those nights. That is most likely the reason that to this day, NYPD cops stop me in the street, vigorously shake my hand, and ask me how I’m doing.
In those days the Scrap Bar was my home away from home when I was in the city — a safely tucked-away hole in the wall for all things debaucherous. I’m pretty sure I lost my in-public virginity there. Anything went at the Scrap Bar and cops just seemed to stay away. I don’t blame them, as they would’ve probably had to take away the whole lot of us, not to mention the staff. I miss places like that.
And I miss CBGB.
CBGB was a safe haven for new ideas to live. Not all of the ideas took root, but a lot of them did, and many of the bands that were given an early chance at the club went on to absolutely revolutionize rock and roll in the late Seventies — a time when change really did need to happen — when rock and roll was at risk of becoming Spinal Tap–ish. It was getting vanilla and somewhat ridiculous. It wasn’t speaking to a large swath of kids, people my age, who felt left out. So we started punk rock bands.
Punk rock was all about being an individual. There was no dress code. You didn’t have to wear the coolest clothes, own the best record collection, or play some name-brand guitar. As long as you were doing something that you believed in and were honest about, other bands and audiences would back you. We shared riffs and clothes and records, and we protected each other from the jocks and bigger kids who wanted to beat you up simply because you were different.
In GN’R, we carried forth the tenets set by our punk rock forefathers in our music. It was music for the people, by the people. We returned to New York later in 1987 to play CBGB. My knees sort of buckled as we rounded the corner in the then-still-seedy Lower East Side street that the infamous CBGB sat. I wasn’t scared because of the shady environs of that street. I felt that I had somehow finally made it to my Mecca. The proving ground. The church and school and protectorate for all of the things in rock and roll that I believed in.
When people talk about Guns N’ Roses these days, punk rock is a term that’s rarely used. But in truth, we were those kids who benefited directly from early groundbreaking bands who played CBGB in the mid-to-late Seventies — those bands, and that club, tore down walls, both musically and socially. Without the Ramones and Johnny Thunders and CBGB, I would have not had the career that I have.
I got a CBGB shirt on that first visit and I wore that thing every day as our band started to break. There’s an entire GN’R era, captured in photos, in which I’m rarely seen without my trusty CBGB shirt. I even wore it when we shot the video for “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” It wasn’t like I chose some costume for the video, it was just the shirt that I was wearing every day.
Because that song and video sort of catapulted our band, I’ve been forever attached to CB’s. In truth, that shirt was a security blanket for me in those early, chaotic days. It was my daily reminder of what rock and roll was all about. The punk spirit that CBGB to me had inspired would live on through me, if I could help it.
I met Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome sometime around that first CBGB gig. That Dead Boys live recording of “Hey Little Girl” at CBGB has always been one of my favorite live recordings. To me, playing CBGB and befriending Mr. Chrome was as big as anything that would follow in our rising career. I’d compare that moment with selling out the Garden or signing any record deal. I was only a few years removed from my teenage self, and suddenly felt accepted into an inner circle that made the soundtrack of my life.
A few months before the Super Bowl, I was scheduled to give the keynote address at the CBGB Music and Film Festival. I got a call from the festival booker, who had recently learned that my oldest daughter, Grace, was in a rock band of her own called the Pink Slips. Would they, perhaps, be interested in playing the festival? I told him I’d ask her. The conversation with Grace went something like this:
Me: “Hey, Grace! You want to play your first gig in New York for the CBGB Festival? You know, CBGB, where Blondie and Iggy and the Ramones played?”
Grace: “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!!!! OHHHHH MMMMMMYYYYYYY GAAAAAAAAWD!”
That was a yes.
Watching my daughter play at the CBGB Festival is another New York memory that I will cherish the rest of my life.
Meeting a very famous actor.
After Jerry and I landed at JFK, we headed into the city. The NFL Network had set us up to go to some party thing that we were only half interested in. Since the event was only four blocks from the place we were staying, we decided to wander up there after dropping our bags off at my buddy’s pad.
There was a long line outside the party, and, after waiting in it for fifteen minutes or so (and the line not moving at all), we went around to the side VIP entrance to see if our names were there. “Yeah, you are on the list, guys, but we are just letting girls in now. No dudes. Just chicks.”
Oh. We really didn’t care. After all, we were in town for the game, not some dumb party. But for the rest of the weekend, “no dudes, just chicks” became our mantra every time we got frustrated for dinner reservations or were faced with long lines at the myriad Super Bowl events we went to over the next 48 hours. Just when you think that maybe the “Duff from Guns N’ Roses” tag or the “Jerry from Alice in Chains” handle can open doors, reality has a way of keeping one humble. I mean, seriously, my life at home with a wife and two daughters is a constant NO DUDES, JUST CHICKS affair. I don’t need some beefy doorman to tell me that!
It was supposed to be really cold in the Northeast that weekend, and every face on television was trumpeting how the championship game would be affected by single-digit temperatures and the expected snowstorm. I was worried about my health in those temperatures and brought just about every layer of mountain gear I had. Mountain gear is really not meant for a fashionable place such as Manhattan. As a result, I was the only one in the fashionable West Village dressed ready to summit a 14,000-foot mountain. Fuck it. I wasn’t about to get sick. The week was about football, not haute couture.
There is an important feature that binds Ed, me, and Jerry together besides our love of the Seahawks: All three of us are clean. Finally. The three of us all came very close to the edge with our consumption of alcohol and drugs, and we’ve survived a bunch of our fallen comrades. This point wasn’t lost on us, and the simple fact that we have each lived long enough to finally be at the 2014 championship game, following the team through a bunch of our personally dark years, was not taken lightly. We’ve each had each other’s backs through this fight and have been there to help others, as others have helped each one of us in the past. It’s a cyclical and ongoing thing, being clean.
The place we were staying at in the West Village was on a tiny street with very little car traffic. The din of the big city seemed miles away. On Saturday, we had plans to go to Times Square to see Super Bowl Lane. We were going to go see the Foo Fighters later that night and maybe get some Super Bowl T-shirts for friends and family back home. Exiting the apartment, we ran smack-dab into a very famous actor. Being as this was an almost private street, we simply nodded to him and kept on our way, not wanting to intrude on his private life. Ed commented that the actor had been clean for something like 23 years, but he’d heard that he’d recently started using again. Should we turn around and offer to take the guy for a coffee? As I said, keeping sober is a group effort. We trudged on through the cold, discussing the matter.
Later that afternoon when we came back, we saw the actor in the street again and could tell that he was waiting to score. Should we offer our friendship and a safe place? This is sometimes the dilemma for sober guys — as we all know, you can’t force a guy to get sober. He has to come around to it himself. We went back into the apartment.
Later that night, before the Foo Fighters show, the three of us were hanging out in a backstage green room with a bunch of music industry folks and whatnot when a couple of security guys came in and cleared the room. But they told the three of us we could stay. We assumed that because we are actual friends with the guys in the Foos, they were just clearing out everyone else so that the band could pass through the room, hassle-free, on the way to the stage. Suddenly, two bigger security guys came through with none other than Sir Paul McCartney. We “no dudes, just chicks” guys were good enough, apparently, to be trusted in such small confines with a fucking Beatle!
“Hi, Duff! Hi, Jerry! How’s it going, guys?” Pretty good, Paul…pretty good. And yeah, screw those dudes over at that other VIP line from the night before! All was suddenly right in the world. Our Seahawks would be on the world’s biggest football stage the next day, and Paul goddamned McCartney knew me and Jerry by name! No dudes! Just chicks!
After the show, we were visibly giddy about the game, which was only a few hours away. We took a cab back down to the apartment and got dropped off in front of the place at about 1:30 a.m. We ran smack-dab into the actor again. On the street. Waiting. Again. Shit, man. We thought that maybe he was on a last run before getting clean. Surely if we saw him again in the morning, we’d have to say something.
Bro, c’mon. We’ve been there. Come on out of the cold. We understand. We’ve been there. Really. We’ve been there.
The next morning — Sunday, February 2, 2014, the morning of the Super Bowl — I heard a ruckus outside our front door. I went out to take a look. There was an ambulance and police, and a whole crowd of press people and fans. The actor had OD’d and died sometime after we saw him at 1:30 a.m. the night before. (Out of respect for his children and our joint association with a “fraternity,” I don’t feel comfortable calling him out by name.)
The three of us gathered in the kitchen of the apartment. We were stunned. I’ve been through this before with friends, and friends of friends, but I’ll never get used to it. Sure, none of us knew the actor personally, but he was one of us. The three of us understood that we could, at any time, be just one small and easy step from being the guy out there on the street waiting for the dealer to show. When guys like us witness something like this go down, it makes you take stock of where you are at in your sobriety.
We’d been following this Seattle team since we were 12 years old. Ed has OD’d countless times and shouldn’t be here. Jerry abused himself so badly that there was a point in his life when he didn’t care if he lived or died. My pancreas burst at 30, and here I was three days away from turning 50. We’d all lost close friends to this thing, but we’d survived. It may seem trite, but it was so heavy to us that we were going to be able to celebrate our team at the Super Bowl later that day. The actuality of the three of us still drawing breath, living long enough to witness this day, was profound at that moment. A great actor’s sudden death drove the point home.
There was nothing left for us to do. We shook hands and looked toward the stadium. The game became even more of a thing for me. In my private thoughts, I was proud of Jerry and Ed, and grateful that I made it, too. I was grateful to have a family of girls who look to me at times for guidance and security and comfort. As our car eased into the parking lot of Giants Stadium, my stomach churned with so many emotions.
— Duff McKagan (@DuffMcKagan) February 3, 2014
Our team came to New York so ready to play and tore the unsuspecting Denver Broncos to shreds. We stood in the stands and didn’t let our guard down — or even breathe — until that game was over and we were Super Bowl champions at long last. It was really quite unbelievable for us Seattle fans. The underdog city, the underdog team, and I think we three dudes felt like the underdogs who had survived when many betted against us in the past.
It was a victory, to be sure. But there was something bittersweet about it. Thinking about the great actor, his final day, and being among the last people to see him alive reminded me that I’d been here before.
I was on an LA-SEA flight with Kurt Cobain in 1994. We were both fucked up. We talked, but not in-depth. I was in my hell, and he in his. This, we both seemed to understand.
When we arrived in Seattle and went to baggage claim, the thought crossed my mind to invite him over to my house. I had a real sense that he was lonely and alone that night. I felt the same way. There was a mad rush of people there in public. I was in a big rock band. He was in a big rock band. We were standing next to each other. Lots of people stopped to gawk. I lost my train of thought for a minute, and Kurt said goodbye and left to his waiting town car. His new house was right down the street from my new house. A few days later, I received a call from my manager, who told me that Kurt had committed suicide.
I love being 50. It’s a wonderful gift.
My pancreas exploded when I was 30 and my doctors didn’t think I’d make it to 31. I wasn’t supposed to live long enough to have a family of my own, to see my first-born get interested in the Ramones and play the CBGB Festival.
On my birthday, I thought about my daughters, my wife, and the friends who have walked me through the hard times and been with me during the good times when we could act like kids and cry for our Seahawks.
I thought about Kurt, I thought about the actor in the West Village. I was so sad that they weren’t going to know what it felt like to be 50, to see their team win and their daughters grown, and to become the men that they were capable of becoming.
There’s nothing elegant about being wasted. There isn’t nobility in dying before you get old.
How to Be a Man (and other illusions) is out May 12 from Da Capo Press. McKagan will speak and sign books on May 12 at Strand Books.