The following is an excerpt from Duff McKagan's memoir, It's So Easy: And Other Lies, out now via Simon & Schuster. McKagan is a weekly columnist at seattleweekly.com/reverb. He reads at the University Bookstore at 7 p.m. Wed., Oct. 19; Lake Forest Park's Third Place Books at 7 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 20; and at Seattle University at 7:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 21. He performs at the Neptune at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 20.
On Thursday, June 6, 1985, we played our first live show with the Appetite for Destruction lineup. The bill at the Troubadour in West Hollywood included Fineline, Mistreater, and, at the very bottom, Guns N' Roses. Slash's high school friend Marc Canter—he turned out to be part of the family that ran Canter's Deli—came and shot pictures. He made prints of each of us the next day so we'd have head shots to put up in the places we played on our tour. That was Friday.
On Saturday, June 8, Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose, Slash, Steven Adler, and I got together to set out for Seattle, a happy bunch of malcontents about to hit the road in search of rock-and-roll glory, ready to live by our wits in order to prove ourselves and our musical vision—or not. At the very least we thought we had real musical chemistry. That much was obvious even before the tour started.
A friend of ours named Danny had a huge Buick LeSabre with a powerful 455 big-block V-8 engine and a trailer hitch. Seven of us crammed into the car that Saturday afternoon: the five of us in the band, plus Danny and another friend, Joe-Joe, who had signed up to serve as roadies. These guys would go to the mat for us, really solid friends, and we were glad they, too, had not blinked an eye in the face of the uncertainties of a no-budget road trip. We rented a U-Haul trailer to carry our gear behind the LeSabre. Our plan was to drive straight through to Seattle—it would take something like twenty-one hours—and arrive there at some point on Sunday. My buddy Donner was going to let us crash at his house the first few nights before our show that Wednesday.
As we rose up out of the "Grapevine," a writhing section of Interstate 5 just south of Bakersfield, California, the car started to hiccup and cough and rebel against the weight it had to shoulder in the blazing late-afternoon heat of the San Joaquin Valley. By the time we passed Bakersfield, a mere 105 miles out of L.A., Danny's car up and died. A passing motorist stopped and tried to help, but the best he could do for us was to go to the next gas station and call AAA. The hope of grilling burgers the next evening in Donner's backyard quickly faded with the realization that Danny's car was going nowhere at all until it had some major work.
We were broke, hungry, and sweltering, hunkered down on the side of the highway. Dusk slowly descended but the heat didn't break. When the tow truck showed up, the mechanic was a bit put off to find a whole gang of sweaty, skinny rock guys who wanted to ride in his truck. We ended up walking to the next off-ramp, where there was a truck stop and gas station.
At that point, removed from the whizzing cars, we took stock of the situation. It was the middle of the night. We had thirty-seven dollars between us. If we went back to L.A., we would obviously not be doing this tour. That was not an option, regardless of our current dilemma. We decided that the five of us—along with three guitars—should hitchhike, continuing north while Danny and Joe tried to get the car fixed. They could then catch up, uniting us with our gear either along the way or in Seattle.
I called Kim Warnick of the Fastbacks from the gas station. Our first gig in Seattle was opening for them. I began to explain the situation. Actually I had to go back further and fill her in on the lineup change that had taken place since I set up the show.
"So Izzy, Axl, and I convinced Slash—"
"Izzy, Axl, Slash—and Duff," she said. "What kind of names are those?"
"Well, there is a guy named Steven."
She said it would be no problem for us to use the Fastbacks' gear if Danny wasn't able to get up there in time. Okay, that part was taken care of and now it was time to find a ride, someone willing to transport five guys and their guitars—a tall order for sure.
We knew it was going to be tough to hitchhike in such a big group. To make clear the magnitude of the task at hand, I should add that even though I was in my full-length leather pimp coat, I was not the most menacing- looking among us. Even someone who'd be willing to stop for one bedraggled rocker would never take us all. So we decided to try to catch a ride with a northbound trucker. Truckers had those big empty sleeper cabs and would surely love to have some company, right? Someone to talk to on that long and lonely stretch of I-5 that runs up through California's agricultural outback.
We approached several truck drivers and finally found one willing to give us a lift as far as Medford, Oregon, in exchange for our pooled cash. That was his end destination, and for us it was six hundred miles closer to our first out-of-town gig. It was a win for both parties: he would get thirty-seven bucks and we would be heading north at highway speeds.
It was obvious right from the start that this particular trucker was a speed-freak, and that our thirty-seven dollars would be used to supplement his habit. He had probably already been up for a few days, and riding with him in that state in a huge semi truck was a risky endeavor. Fuck it. We were on a mission. Do or die, we were going to make it to Seattle.
I was hoping Kim would spread the word in Seattle that we had broken down and were on the road without a car. Maybe someone would be willing to come down to Portland to pick us up if we made it that far on our own. For now, we piled into the eighteen-wheeler, guitars and all. The other four guys climbed into the sleeper cab. It was tight. I rode shotgun in the passenger seat up front.
The guy couldn't believe our story.
"Let me get this straight," he said. "You guys are fucking hitchhiking to a gig—a thousand miles away?"
"Yep," I said.
"And you don't have any equipment—or even any food?"
"Well, yeah, but our equipment . . . "
"I don't mean to sound like a prick, but, I mean, can't you play anywhere in Los Angeles?"
I tried to explain the swashbuckling magic of playing to strangers, in strange places, us-against-them, us-against-the-world . . . winning over listeners a few at a time.
The drug-induced sleep deprivation started to take its toll on our driver about two hundred miles into the drive. By the time we hit Sacramento in the morning, he said he needed to rest his eyes and clear his head of the speed demons. It was okay with me. I had been talking with the dude for this first part of the ride and noticed that he kept looking into his sideview mirrors and sort of jumping around in his seat. This kind of stuff happens when you don't sleep for several days. I had a little bit of experience with speed from my teenage years, enough to know what was happening to the driver.
Sacramento sits at the top of the arid central California valley—the area became a center of agriculture only with the aid of intense irrigation. When it's hot in the valley, Sacramento always has the highest temperatures. Our venture into the valley coincided with an absolutely scorching heat wave. Now, for some reason, the driver stopped in front of the state capitol building.
"All right, boys, I'm going to need you to hop out here." We didn't know what to say, and were in no position to argue anyway. "I've got to take care of something," said the driver. "But I'll be back for you, don't worry." Yeah, right. I was convinced our driver had just tricked us and left us behind. I'm sure the rest of the guys shared the same suspicion. We were left sitting on the curb.
No one said a word. No one even made a face, sighed, or raised an eyebrow.
As we sat there in front of the capitol, wilting in the heat, exposed to the intense sun, it became clear: as of this moment, Guns N' Roses was no longer a band, but the band—our band. These are my fucking boys— they're willing to fight through anything. I already knew this trip had set a new benchmark for what we were capable of, what we could and would put ourselves through to achieve our goals as a band. This band became a brotherhood under that oppressive Sacramento sun. Fuck yeah!
Then, as I sat there silently rhapsodizing about my friends and our collective determination, the eighteen-wheeler suddenly pulled up and the driver nodded.
"Let's roll, boys," he said. He had actually come back to pick us up. Unbelievable. "You have a fucking show to get to!" he said. I hopped back in the passenger seat. He was cranked out of his mind.
He must have dropped us off to go score some more speed, and to this day I have no idea how, in that state, he remembered to come back for us. That afternoon, just after Redding, I cautiously suggested we pull over at the next rest stop and take a break. I could see it was getting even more dangerous being in a huge moving vehicle with him. He had huge black circles under his eyes and he was sweating profusely. By some miracle, he agreed—and he actually slept there for a few hours while we just hung out nearby, trying to be as quiet as possible. We had no money for booze or food. I'm not sure what Izzy had with him, but he wasn't showing any signs of withdrawal yet. After the driver came to, he took us the final hundred and fifty miles up to Medford. "I'm actually sorry I can't take you any farther," he said. "Shit, I might even try to make it up there myself on Wednesday for your show."
It was now Sunday evening. We found a pay phone to check in with our contact person in L.A., who Danny was supposed to call with an update on the broken-down car. Danny hadn't been able to get the car fixed yet. The replacement part would have to be shipped down to Bakersfield from San Francisco on a business day.
With no money left, our only hope now was to straight-up hitchhike on the side of the freeway. From a less determined perspective, it would have seemed a hopeless long shot that anyone would pick up five fucked-up-looking guys with their guitars—if anyone even had enough space. But we didn't see it that way at all then. We just had no alternative.
After only about forty-five minutes, a Mexican farmworker in a Datsun compact pickup pulled over to give us a ride. In broken English, he made us understand that he was going only as far as Eugene, Oregon, but that we were welcome to pile into the back. After only a few miles, it became painfully obvious to us that this ride would not last. The little pickup couldn't bear the weight; the wheel wells kept pressing down on the back tires and began to take rubber right off of them. Our victorious feeling from just moments earlier sank as the man pulled over to drop us off. I will never forget how apologetic he was. I hope to this day he realized how grateful we were to him for at least trying to help us.
Back on the side of the road, we started to walk while we thumbed. I knew how far it was to the next town because I had driven back and forth from Seattle to San Francisco more than a few times on tours; it was too far to walk, that's for sure. But as driven as we were at that point, we thought at least we would be making headway. So we walked.
Eventually we found ourselves in the middle of an onion field. When you're hungry and don't know where and when your next meal is coming, you can eat almost anything. Those were the best damn onions I've ever eaten. At that moment they tasted as sweet as apples.
After a few more hours of walking, I was only slightly aware of the passing cars. No one was going to pick us up, I thought to myself. My hope was that maybe we would come to a farmhouse with a phone and I could call Donner or Kim up in Seattle. Maybe someone would be able to come get us.
By morning, I was so fucking hungry and thirsty. We all were. Just then, a full-size pickup swerved to the side of the road and stopped in front of us. Two women in their mid-thirties told us to get in the back. They were sorry, they said, and explained they had passed us without picking us up when they first saw us. They were scared. But then they had talked about the way they, too, had been passed so many times on the roadside as hippies back in the early 1970s; they scolded each other, turned around at the next exit, and came back for us.
They asked us if we were hungry. We were. They asked us if we were thirsty. We were. They asked us if we were broke. We were. They pulled over at the next gas station, bought us sandwiches and beer, and told us they could take us all the way up to Portland. Almost three hundred miles! These women were like angels sent from heaven. Food and drink never tasted so fucking good. Friendship from strangers couldn't have come at a better time.
I tried Donner's number from a pay phone at the gas station and he actually answered.
"Dude, here's the deal. We broke down in Bakersfield and we've been hitchhiking for a day and a half. We're in Medford now and some girls are going to drive us as far as Portland. We'll be there early this afternoon."
Donner grew pot. He had grow operations going in a couple of unused buildings. He always had dough. And he had already met some of the other members of the band—Donner had visited me in L.A.
I asked him, "Can you help us out somehow?"
So we started talking: could he arrange bus tickets maybe? Then he blurted out, "Fuck that, I'll pick you up. We're going to have a party at my house tonight, we'll have a feast, there'll be girls, it's going to be a Seattle welcome."
We made it to Portland on Monday afternoon, and Donner was there. By the time we arrived in Seattle, it seemed everyone I knew had apparently heard of our trials. They welcomed us with open arms, open liquor bottles, and open drug stashes. People in Seattle knew me as a drinker—they knew that as a result of my panic attacks I was not into drugs back then. For this reason, I guess, nobody offered anything hard. I think Izzy was a bit disappointed by this, and by then perhaps a tad sick from withdrawal.
Donner had, however, baked a batch of pot brownies. I think they were intended for people who would be coming over to the party later that night—people familiar with the potency of local weed.
Izzy just needed to catch a buzz off something, and I guess he thought pot brownies would be a lightweight short-term fix. Axl followed suit so Izzy wouldn't be alone.
"This shit is strong," Donner warned them. They ignored him.
In the 1980s, Seattle led the nation in the fine art of hydroponic pot growing. I'm not sure why the city excelled at it so, but the weed up there was getting potent. Really potent. Around 1982, a new strain of weed was developed for the basement water growers—the luckiest and most deep-pocketed started to cultivate what would be known as "a-strain" and later as "chronic." Up in the Northwest, we knew the strength of this shit, and also knew it was nothing to trifle with. It was like a mix between a strong muscle relaxer and LSD. Until you knew what was right for you, the best thing to do was to take just the tiniest puff and see where that got you; you had to build up a sort of tolerance.
Next thing I knew, Axl and Izzy went and curled up on Donner's couch with wide, scared eyes. I went over to make sure they were all right.
"What the fuck did they put in these brownies?" Izzy asked me. Nothing, I assured them, it was just very strong weed. "No way, man," he said. "I think there's acid in here." They were completely paranoid. I told them not to worry. I felt horrible. I was hyper- sensitive to what my new bandmates were experiencing that first day in Seattle. They were a curiosity to my friends, that's for sure. But we were all dead tired and hungry, and I wanted to make sure that Axl, Izzy, Slash, and Steven were well taken care of. I was proud of my city and my friends and wanted to cast them in the best light. It took Izzy and Axl hours and hours and a lot of beers to come down off of their first a-strain high. Fortunately, by the time the party started to get into full swing, they were returning to earth. But to this day, I am sure, they still think they were dosed with something.
Donner threw a barn-burner that night: barbecue, beer, girls. Life was suddenly really, really good.
Danny, Joe-Joe, and our gear still hadn't arrived when we played the show on Wednesday night at Gorilla Gardens. We were sloppy on borrowed gear, though on the plus side only about a dozen people were subjected to our set. Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks is always nice, and made a point of telling all the guys we had played great. We knew we were better than the actual gig—or at least we now knew we would be. The important thing for us was that we had made it there at all. Together.
After the Fastbacks set, we helped pack up their gear then hung out for a while with the crowd at the club—which was pretty much just old friends of mine at that point. Hanging out, of course, meant drinking, and drinking heavily.
One of the people I was most glad to see was Big Jim Norris. He was a tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks who had finally found a comfort zone in our little Seattle punk-rock scene. Jim had always had his struggles with drugs and drink, but he was one of those guys who had the spirit of life in his eyes. Jim was a leader. And when I left for Los Angeles, he made it a point to keep in touch. Once I got my apartment, he sent me letters, and we talked on the phone when we could afford to. Our friendship had actually deepened since I left.
Finally, as the place cleared out, the members of Guns went back to the club owner's office to pick up our gig money, no doubt looking like a pack of hungry wolves. When I had booked the show, I somehow managed to finagle a $200 guarantee out of the venue. Of course, I hadn't gotten a contract—not for this show or for any of the others. But then again, I'd never gotten a contract. Back in the day, punk shows were always handshake deals—and often the handshake part was just implicit because you had to come to terms over the phone. Our plan now was to wire this first $200 to Danny and Joe-Joe the next day and continue the tour.
English was not the owner's first language, but he quickly made it clear that he wasn't going to pay us.
We were stunned. I tried to reason with the guy. Then I played the sympathy card, telling him of our plight and our long journey, of the sunburn and hunger, of onion fields and tweaking truckers. But the club owner didn't give a shit.
"You not bring any people to show," he said. "How I pay when I no have money from ticket?"
We made vague—and then probably more explicit—threats of violence. He held the office phone in his hand ready to speed-dial the police, and made sure we understood this.
Eventually we left his office and went back into what was now a deserted club.
"Fuck that asshole," said Axl. "We went through HELL to get here and play this show. And he treats us like scum?"
Suddenly there was just one thought in my head. It was the only solution I could see. The only way to get justice.
"Let's burn this fucking place down!"
The members of the band looked around the empty club and at one another. There were no objections.
"Let's burn it the fuck down," I said again.
Axl and I threw matches into a garbage can full of paper toweling, and we all hauled ass outside.
We had failed as arsonists, but the mere attempt was enough to exorcise our ill will for the night. And it may have saved us a stint in the slammer.
After running out of Gorilla Gardens, we went out to see a local band called Soundgarden. The initial rumblings of what would become the Seattle sound were just starting to happen then. Buzzing on our newly solidified camaraderie—and plenty of booze—we stormed the stage when they were done and asked to play a few songs on their gear. They looked at us blankly and explained in the nerdy kind of way a kid on a playground might respond to a request to share his toys, "Um, no, that's our gear."
It didn't matter. Nothing could bring us down that night: we had played an out-of-town show.
The next day we found out we had also played our last out-of-town show for a while. Danny and Joe-Joe weren't going to make it. That didn't matter either. The shake-out tour had already accomplished everything I had hoped and more.
One of Donner's friends drove us all the way back to L.A. a few days later, and we arrived home a genuine band—a gang with the shared experience of a road trip gone wrong, an out-of-town gig, and the knowledge that we were all fully committed to Guns N' Roses.