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6 September 2019

From vodka to accountancy and theology classes – the strange tale of Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses

By Kate Mossman

Duff, the bass player from Guns N’ Roses, was a pastry chef once. He made blueberry muffins, then he progressed to “a kind of raspberry torte” – his ringed fingers recreate a delicate lattice top in mid-air. Before long, he got into filo and could make a baklava. “I am a good worker,” he says. For someone who drank half a gallon of vodka per day in his twenties and then switched to ten bottles of red wine, before his pancreas swelled to the size of a football and he was told to give it all up or die, Duff’s attention to detail is startling. Aged four in 1968, he wondered why his brothers were going to Vietnam. His mother, who had eight children of which Duff – known even then as Duff – was the youngest, told him: “Two men from different countries don’t get along. So they send all their young men to fight for them.” I’ve never heard a better description of war, he says.

His hair is waxy blond and his skin is like a fine, barbecued meat. All politics is circular, Duff thinks. Trump finds his parallel in the Andrew Jackson administration of the 1830s. And there’s no such thing as a red or blue state – not when you get up close. When we’ve learned to use Twitter, we’ll understand that, he adds. He longs for the days of the first American newspapers like he’s seen at the National Archives in Seattle: you wrote your views on the blank page at the back, before passing the paper on – but you had to sign your name.

Duff, who was once in a band called the Fartz, came off the sauce with the help of martial arts: the mantra of his sensei (or teacher) was, “today is a good day to die”. It’s about tying up loose ends, making amends, so you’re ready to go, he says – not that he plans to go. Guns N’ Roses, which he quit in 1997, remained his one stray thread. “Axl was the smartest about it in his twenties,” he says of the drugs and drink. “He would go in hard and then he would take some time off. Slash was a heroin addict when we started: I thought I was fine, there is always one worse off.”

Lying in hospital in 1994, his football pancreas shrinking back to size, Duff got to work on the band’s tax returns, and decided to become an accountant. “I didn’t know how much we had made or lost,” he said. “As a 30-year-old millionaire, how do I admit to somebody that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing?”

He later enrolled at the Albers Jesuit business school at Seattle University, attending compulsory theology modules alongside 18-year-olds, one of whom brought him an Appetite for Destruction CD to sign. He started the wealth management firm Meridian Rock, and now has two daughters in young adulthood. He is “caught up in their lives”.

Duff’s girls think Axl Rose is woke. “It’s a lack of federal funding that’s at the root of the purported forest mismanagement,” tweeted Axl, when wild fires ripped through California last year and Trump blamed forest staff. But Duff is woke too. He favours the gay Democrat candidate Pete Buttigieg, for 2020. And his new album, Tenderness, has a #MeToo-ish song about, as he puts it, “those boys at school who you knew were a bit rapey” – though his method of dealing with them would be traditional: “My left fist is six months in hospital; my right fist is sudden death.”

In 2015, he wrote a book called How to Be a Man. His new album started as another book, inspired by Sarah Kendzior’s political essays in The View from Flyover Country. But Duff made a record in the end – partly because he found he was writing his book in rhyme.

“I had an extraordinary thing happen to me in the middle of my life”, is how he sums up Guns N’ Roses, whom he rejoined in 2016. Axl texts Duff every couple of days, with jokes. Now, when he goes on tour, Duff takes lots of books. The Civil War is one of his great subjects. “There might be a primary source for the story, but read the stories around it,” he says. The same could be said for rock bands: always talk to the drummers, and the bass players. The ones at the centre, so rarely asked to speak.

“I see my wife reflected in the mirror,” Duff says wistfully – and there she is, an ex-model and swimsuit designer, floating in the yard in Piccadilly, ready for their next engagement. It is time for Duff to go. 

“Tenderness” is released on 31 May on UMC records

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This article appears in the 02 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal