Veteran journalist Ed Quillen once pointed out that “Ray Charles did his most brilliant work during the year he was addicted to heroin” and that the magnificent Stone’s LP Exile on Main Street “has more great loud and dirty rock and roll on it than any dozen recordings by people who could pass blood tests.”
Quillen was judging the so-called “Purity League,” a socio-political outfit in the late 80s that strove for some vague strain of “acceptable” conduct that included a lifestyle bereft of drugs.
Which makes It’s So Easy, the memoir of Guns ’N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, a case study; the band was a pharmacy like so many others and would never have touched greatness without the reckless abuse of substance. Yet he never became a full human being until he managed to kick the very vices that led to that greatness.
While the individual members of Guns had no apparent skills, Easy first portrays the band as a mall-friendly musical unit that made its mark via great songs and wild-ass and unpredictable conduct. Real average guys make good. Deflate myth of the superiority of rock stars. Excellent.
The second element of the book—and the band—is what we already know: Like so many others, it was composed of some folks who loved drugs, hookers/strippers, and the street. Easy makes that plain with some hazy accounts.
Then there’s the third element, a de facto disclaimer—McKagan admits about mid-point that he yearned for a “mishmash of unattainable images from Frank Capra movies.” While somewhat laudable, it dilutes the message.
McKagan is a regular guy, like the dude at the Home Depot looking at kitchen fixtures?
The final part of story is getting straight, and sobriety takes the book away from the fun and into the me-ness of beating drugs. It’s cool to read about how he cleaned up and took on martial arts, mountain biking and running—when I read Slash, McKagan’s bandmate’s autobio, I was flipping pages from one sordid mess to the next, transfixed.
With McKagan’s book, I’m actually digging the specifics of the regimen, like I’m paging through an issue of Fitness Magazine.
It’s easy to see why McKagan has always been regarded as a kind and decent guy; his self-effacing demeanor is gracious and stripped of ego. As a result, the book sometimes bogs down with his honesty. He is the real deal and that is a little dull at times. Kids, wife, limos and college don’t make for a compelling read.
I finished Easy with a feeling that nice guys do finish first, as it seems McKagan did. What could be a tale of debauchery and sin is more the story of a guy with neurosis (panic attacks) and addiction issues (coke, alcohol) who managed to escape.
Incidentally, McKagan claims to have a good relationship with Axl, perhaps the only human being on the planet to do so, so the whitewash cry has to be heard.
Still, the book strikes me as much for its message as for the well-told story. It never gets preachy, but it does detail the perils of becoming hooked on name-that-poison.
But reading between the lines, and then taking also into account other memoirs of ‘cleaning up’—see Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue et. al.—I fear the drug-free exhortations in music and of society at large.
Again, the wisdom of Quillen:
Our society now judges people, not by what they do, but by what they don't do. Thus any mediocrity who can pass a urine test somehow becomes superior to a talent who can't, and any man ever known to wink at a waitress is exiled from public life. We'll lose the contributions of a lot of bright people.
Yea, the creative world is on a redemption kick. Not sure that’s the best way to go.
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