Duff McKagan: Faith in Rock


Duff McKagan, formerly of Guns N' Roses, plays bass in Velvet Revolver. His column appears every Thursday on Reverb.

A few months back, Velvet Revolver had an opportunity to play a rock show in Dubai as a predecessor to a European tour. Before the gig was booked, I heard all the usual warning hoo-hah that we in the U.S. hear about an “Arab” or “Muslim” country—most notably that Americans are reviled and I should “watch my ass and say that I am Swedish, if asked.” Well, this was my first foray into an Arab or Muslim country post-9/11. Maybe things had changed since I’d toured there in the early ’90’s.

The thing that really got my attention first, however, was an e-mail I received from our tour manager before we left: NO MARIJUANA, NO COCAINE, NO PRESCRIPTION CODEINE, NO PRESCRIPTION VALIUM OR XANAX: ONE YEAR IN JAIL THEN DEPORTATION. Wow, OK. I’ve been clean and sober for a long time but my mind still thinks of an out, like “How ‘bout deporting me first?!” Of course, the next line in the e-mail reminded me of a much larger problem: NO ISRAELI PASSPORTS OR ISRAELI STAMPS IN YOUR PASSPORT: INSTANT DEPORTATION. Really? Is that shit for real?? C’mon people now, smile on your brother—oh yeah, fuck that, it’s a new millennium (read Thomas Friedman’s Longitudes and Attitudes to really bum yourself out on this particular subject).

I have always tried to let my faith in humankind guide me when it comes time for decisions and options in life. Sure, I’ve been screwed a few times because of it, but more often than not this guidance system has strengthened my belief that mostly everyone is born with a ton of good in them, and that it’s not until much later that things like greed and power dilute members of our species into an almost unrecognizable mask of darkness and rage. I am not going to say “no” to playing Dubai or anywhere else because of political or religious beliefs, etc. I believe I can actually do more good by seeing what’s indeed happening than by just sitting back here in the good old U.S.A., safe, protected, and spoon-fed hogwash on the nightly news. Fuck that! I’m going…

The first leg of the flight was from L.A. to Frankfurt, Germany. The second leg, however, really started to pique my interest: Just what is the route from central Europe to northwest Africa? Well, thanks to the massive GPS screen at the front end of our Lufthansa plane, a map was right in front of me at all times. This portion of the flight was mostly at night, so I had to trust the GPS screen that I was indeed over Iran (the desert part) for a few hours. Then, to my surprise, the arrow on the screen had us headed straight to Baghdad! “We must surely be taking a left or right at some point soon…” I asked the next available flight attendant. “Uh, no sir, our flight path is right over downtown Baghdad.” Shit! We’re gonna get Scud-ed, or something! But downtown Baghdad came and went with no incident (by the way, it looked just like that shit on CNN!). Next stop: United Arab Emirates.

I must say, there was quite a bit of bluster at customs when we did finally land in Dubai…the agents were almost embarrassingly polite, but still kept us there for nearly three hours. Before leaving the U.S., I feared they could have found some 15-year-old bundle of drugs lost in a dark recess of a coat pocket of mine (truth be told, because of this type of paranoia, I discarded all my old luggage and most of my old [but killer] rock clothing). I could see it now: calling my wife from some prison holding cell, telling her I’d “be going away for awhile.” Nope, they stamped our passports and wished us a great stay. Onward.

We arrived at the hotel around 2 a.m., but were still met by a small throng of eager fans. “Hey Duff, thank you so much for coming all of this way,” said a teenaged young man to me in broken English. “We feel that we are, like, on Mars over here, but we just want to rock!” I assured him I would indeed do my best to, well, “rock” him. I took note that he didn’t say anything about me being a puppet of Bush, or even a heathen infidel (which I kinda am!). Come to think of it, he didn’t seem to care about that shit at all!

The next day was gig day, and I rode to the outdoor festival sound check with a couple of “rock” writers I knew from the U.K. The scenery was straight out of a 60 Minutes piece; huge paintings of the two ruling sheikhs (pronounced “shakes”) were everywhere. These dudes looked like they must rule with an iron fist…I’m in for some serious shit now; here simply to entertain sons and daughters of the oil-rich elite. We arrived at sound check to see the usual thing—kids, just plain ordinary kids, milling around. (They were all wearing brand-spanking-new black rock shirts they’d bought that day, since there haven’t been that many rock concerts in Dubai. There are no real record stores either. And no Urban Outfitters!) As I got out of the van, a bunch of these kids came running over to see if I had a tail or horns (I think), but as we all started to converse (I had a translator at this point), I realized these fans represented a huge cross-section of that part of the planet: Pakistani migrant workers, Iraqis, Iranians, Indians, and Arabs. Not once did our long conversations veer to the political. No emotion but joy ever entered our little arena, and there was a curiousness not unlike what you see in Dubuque, Iowa or Inverness, Scotland. These people were just like me, they just wanted to rock. The gig that night was full and the weather was beautiful. Just as in any other show, the fans sang along and jumped up and down when prompted by the general mood. The crowd looked like any other crowd from my vantage point, and my vantage point is that of a world citizen…now more than ever.

The next day we flew to Dublin, Ireland. The hotel we stayed in happened to be right next door to a life-size bronze statue of Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott. I am sure some of my Arab brethren would have been just as stoked as I was to see it.

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