Storytime: Grand Theft Auto and LSD

Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb.
In an attempt to flesh out some stories that may one day become a gateway to a larger literary body of work, I'm going to write some short pieces of my own. That being said, I am a little scared to share some of these stories in that they are not meant to influence youth in any way, shape, or form. Hey, maybe they can be construed as cautionary tales?

These stories will be instantly visible to the world via the Web, and backlash may be swift. I may be charged with trying to glorify and glamorize certain things that I went through. I am not. I'm only using this place as a testing ground, and I feel secure enough to take whatever criticism may come my way as a result of a some of my more "colorful" times. Oh well, at least the statute of limitations has run out on most of the crimes I will be writing about. And in the legal arena at least, I am seemingly safe (I hope that Seattle Weekly has a good legal department).

As an aside: I don't believe our parents were to blame for any or all of our miscreant behaviors. In my case, I was the last of eight kids, and by the time I was 9, my parents had divorced and my mom was pretty much left to fend and provide for our household on her own. This meant that she had no other choice but to leave me with a lot of responsibility, and I just didn't rise to the occasion right away. I wish I could've been a better son in those difficult transition years for my mother. I still kick myself for some of the hell that I surely put her through. I look back now and it is obvious that I was trying to figure out where my place was in this world without a father figure to rely on as a role model at home.

My father, conversely, was trying to figure out what life was about, period. I do not blame him for anything (although I certainly did back then). He was a WWII vet who started having children with my mother when he was 18 and didn't stop until he was 38. He went straight from the war to working for the Seattle Fire Department, desperately trying to provide for what would become eight children. By the time I was in elementary school, I believe that he was simply feeling trapped and wanted to see what else life had in store for him. He never had a chance to be a kid, and in my opinion he wanted to try to get some of his youth back. He should have gone about his whole scheme in another way. My saintly mom was left "holding the bag," and we eight brothers and sisters cherish the memory of this amazing and strong woman. Marie Alice McKagan endured this all with a lion's heart, a scholar's intellect, and lots of patience, of that I am sure.

I started smoking pot at a REALLY young age: 4th grade, to be exact. I took my first drink at 10 and tasted LSD for the first time at 11. These things were so new in the '70s, and there just wasn't the huge stigma and general warnings about child drug use. We were just experimenting, that's all. But this piece isn't going to be about drugs; it's just that I am trying to highlight the fact that we just seemed to grow up a bit faster back then. No, this story is really about crime... car theft, to be exact.

The best friends I established by 6th grade are still my best friends to this day--Abe, Edgar, and Bob--the 4 of us were pretty much inseparable (I've changed their names here). They are good and solid men, but back in middle school we tested our boundaries against grown-ups and authority. We were harmless troublemakers, really, but soon found ourselves in the line of fire against an asshole counselor at Eckstein. In my case, I was suspended twice and finally expelled. "Yeah, good riddance," I remember thinking to myself. Besides, I was already crafting a new career for myself.

Abe and I started to separate ourselves from the pack at this point. We both embraced the new and exciting punk-rock scene that had recently hit Seattle. Abe and I formed the Vains with Chris Utting in 1979, three years before we were of legal driving age. In the daylight hours, I would take the bus anywhere and everywhere that I had to be for band practice or my new job as a dishwasher, etc. When it got dark, though, Abe and I began to hone our craft as burgeoning car thieves.

I remember clearly the first car we, um, borrowed. It was a 1963 VW Bug. It all seemed innocent enough at first. It was 2 a.m., and we were stuck without a ride home at some punk-rock party in deep Ballard. It being Seattle and all, of course it was raining and cold. Abe and I only got about 10 blocks into our seven-mile walk when it dawned on us to try stealing a car and driving ourselves the rest of the way home. We had heard of a simple and easy way to trip an ignition on any and all pre-'64 Bugs, but had never put our knowledge to the test. We soon found our car, and clumsily broke in a wing window with a jackboot. Once we got the car started, we both realized that neither one of us knew how to drive a car, let alone one with a clutch. We found out the hard way that first gear can indeed get you from point A to point B, seven miles away, albeit slowly!

When you are a kid, the lust for being of driving age is nothing short of intoxicating. Abe and I discovered after our first night in the stolen VW that we no longer had to wait until we were 16 years old to have access to a car. We began to sharpen our tactics and skill as car thieves--even studying new ways to hot-wire Peugeots and Audis. Sometimes we even held onto certain cars for a week or more, parking them in rich neighborhoods where the police would be less likely to look for a stolen vehicle.

On top of this, it was at times the things we found INSIDE these cars that would lead us to further criminal activities outside the car-stealing racket. Once we found a large set of keys that had only an address attached to them. This address was a large laundromat, and the keys were to the lock-boxes that held all of that particular day's change intake (hundreds of dollars a day, which to us was a fortune).

Our exploits began to garner attention from older, savvier criminals. The newspaper began to run stories of things we were involved in, and this is when I began to see only a dire ending for myself--jail or worse. It was time to get out. Besides, at this point my music career began to get more serious, and I met a girl. I was done.

Abe, however, continued to widen his circle of criminal activities for a while longer. He started to hang with a crowd that, while exotic, seemed also a bit dark and dangerous. Abe started to specialize in particular foreign makes, stolen for particular clients who were willing to pay. Edgar, Bob, and I started to become concerned. Abe was arrested one night after a high-speed chase with the Seattle Police. The crimes? Grand Theft Auto and Reckless Evading. Shit.

I have only been able to touch on a minuscule part of this period of my life in this short column. Rest assured, it could have had a LOT worse outcome for me and my friends as far as criminal records, jail time, or worse. Having kids of my own now makes me realize just how very young I was when I did some of the things I did. I cringe looking at my daughters sometimes. They know of some of my childhood antics; the more serious stories can wait. The weight I have to carry is one day having to share it with them. The McKagans do honesty these days, and that I probably learned from my own father not doing it.

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