Written along with Tim Mohr, this book chronicles the rise of one of the greatest bands of late 20th century rock music. Told through the story of its bass guitar player, Micheal “Duff” McKagan, It’s So Easy charts how a young bunch of boozing, stealing, misfit bunch of malcontents worked their way steadily up the musical ladder, eventually reaching the levels of success and fame of true rock Gods, earning their place in history alongside Queen and U2. From Seattle originally, Duff left his home in the North-Western valley for L.A in and around 1984. From their humble beginnings in the effluvium of L.A’s post-punk pre-grunge eighties era, where glam was the thing and Van Halen the benchmark for guitar-playing, Guns and Roses became one of the biggest out-and-out rock acts the world has ever seen.
The book is a fascinating read, for a number of reasons. It’s a gripping, often sordid story, entertaining and engaging, much like the music of GnR and its trademark, punchy big-fill bass riffs. It’s pretty incredible in its credibility, is the best way I can describe it. Everything you’d expect to be there is: sex and drugs and rock and roll, and in spades, but it’s punctuated with serious periods of reality. How and what it took for GnR to get off its feet; for instance, the ‘dues-paying’ years when they played to audiences of twelve people in derelict, often illegal clubs and little punk basements; having no place to sleep or enough money to eat while on tour (this is perhaps slightly exaggerated in the book for dramatic effect, both Izzy and Axl had other sources of income and most had families willing to support them), and the addiction problems that they all faced. While the book skirts around the substance and ego abuse the other band members indulged in, Duff is pretty explicit in describing his own experiences, which is exactly as it should be, and follows perfectly what the soul of a real bass-player would do. His serendipitous meeting with Kurt Cobain, days before the latter allegedly committed suicide, puts that very clearly into perspective. They were both hard-core addicts, yet found it easy enough to talk around the darkness..
It’s So Easy is much like that. There isn’t much detailing of the actual process of musical creation, which is, according to other reviews I’ve read (and my own opinion), the only shortcoming of this book. If you want to know where the inspiration for Paradise City, or November Rain and Sweet Child o’Mine came from, or the thought process followed to write songs like Welcome to the Jungle, The Garden and Estranged, this isn’t really the book for you. Read it for the story of the band it tells from the perspective of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down, like most musical autobiographies. Click on read more if you’d like to know more about the role of bass guitar players in rock bands and more specifically the journey to and from alcoholism, cocaine addiction, and rehabilitation this particular bass player went through while performing in one of the biggest rock acts of the 20th century. And then some.
Welcome. To continue then; the groove, the beat, the tightness of sound that’s brought to a band by its bass-drum combo makes it the platform for the unique personality of the front-man to come to the fore and shine brighter than stars. Without his Duff, though, the Axl might very well have come unstuck due to lack of lubrication. Yes, the name of the beer in The Simpsons was taken from Duff McKagan. He tells the story in his book: about how a little production company making cartoons for adults called and asked for permission, and he laughed and said yes, little knowing that one day Duff mugs and other gear would be staring him in the face everywhere he went in the world. It’s a fitting touch of irony, since Duff was a real full-blown alcoholic not that Slash wasn’t far behind, but it wasn’t Saul Hudson’s whose pancreas exploded in 1994 and, as he lay on a emergency room hospital bed, was pleading with the doctor on duty “Please kill me, just kill me, please kill me…” over and over again, So read the book for its contrasts and tales, its punkish, dirty detailing of the emergent music scene in North and West America and all its unique codas. Like Duff says, “the codas for songs like Paradise City, Patience, and Sweet Child o’Mine were written not as add-ons but pieces of music we were all so enthusiastic about we’d work for hours to get straight and connected.”
The simple truth is, nobody ever knows the bass player in rock bands. It’s a standard joke in the music world that the easiest way to shut down a loud-mouthed anal cravity going on about the state of rock music these days and busy explaining his or her solutions to said state is to hit them over the head with a half-stack, but challenging them to name bass players of really big bands usually works too. Even you, dear reader, while I would hesitate to cast aspersions upon your musical knowledge, might be hard pressed to name the bassists of bands like Dire Straits, Bon Jovi, Ac-Dc, Van Halen, or Aerosmith without resorting to the services of Google. These are bands you’ve listened to repeatedly, and the names of their singers and lead guitarists will come to you easily. But bass and drum players are often invisible. Which is how it’s supposed to be; in a good rock band, the better the bass/drum/rhythm combo, the less you notice them. This is a musical truth incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t played in a rock band, as the natural assumption is everyone wants to be the front-man, the Axl Rose, with the huge entourage, the super-model girlfriends, and a bank account balance the size of some small country’s GDP.
What I’ve got to say here, I love(d) Guns and Roses. Hearing November Rain for the first time and watching its crazy video on TV is something I remember well, it was the first great rock anthem I ever heard and saw simultaneously. It was visceral, and looking back, I realize it precipitated a major change in my attitude to music, It instilled the ‘wannabe cool’ impulse in us all, how you personally expressed that is something else altogether. Rock music, in the late 1990′s was dominated by that sort of thing the really big commercial stuff especially, in India that would essentially mean Guns and Roses, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and U2 and perhaps Def Lepard, and a few others. Anyone between the age of 25 and 35 will remember the great videos of the time, before the internet and YouTube,changed it forever.Videos of songs like November Rain and Estranged,(GnR), Cryin’ and Crazy (Aerosmith) – videos that introduced Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler to the rest of the world -, and Always and Keep the Faith (Bon Jovi). They were played incessantly on TV, this was the era of international cable television being introduced into every middle-class urban household in the country. This was before the native cable TV scene had taken-off, before the internet and Apple changed forever how people would approach recorded and developed media. It really was a different era, and looking back now, to how things changed at the end of the millennium really makes you believe in the power and validity of what seem to be arbitrary designations of and on space and time. Whether or not you believe in the existence of the past and present is up-to you, really.
Esotericism aside, reading this story was sort pf personal, in a way. I connected with the music of GnR (and Aerosmith as well, I guess) more than I ever did with say Van Halen, or even Bon Jovi, and even more strongly with the grunge music scene that was to follow. The first few chapters are down-and-out on the streets, having to hitchhike their way upto Seattle for their first tour, sleeping and rehearsing in dingy alleyways, playing to audiences of ten people or less, and, in Duff’s case, becoming a not unskilled pastry cook. It gets more interesting as he moves through the hey-day period of GnR, when they were selling out stadiums all across the world. This is where the ego clashes start coming to the fore. He’s never actually critical of Axl, he just points out the he would invariably show up late for their gigs, leading to the now familiar chanting of “bullshit, bullshit” from the crowd. There’s the occasional riot as well, and the ever-present gallon of vodka and cocaine. Duff claims that his cocaine use was utilitarian as opposed to psychotropic, the whole point of taking coke was that it sobered him enough to indulge even more in his actual favorite mind-altering substance – vodka.
Eventually the dam, or in this case the pancreas, burst wide open, and this experience was finally enough to get him started on the road towards relative sobriety. He talks a lot about the crutches he uses for that – going to business school, taking up mixed martial arts and mountain biking very seriously, but most importantly, marrying, settling down and starting a family. If you look at the before and after pictures in the book, they tell quite a story. His journey to physical redemption is underscored by his appearance, quite vividly.
So to conclude then, if you’re a fan of Guns and Roses, don’t hesitate to pick this book up, you’ll find it extremely engaging. Even if you’re not, its still worth reading because it demystifies the whole arena-rock stage extravanagza, by giving us a very grungy, Seattle-ish view of the post-punk evolution of Guns and Roses into a world dominating rock band, and what it took to get there.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org