The Making of a Rhythm Section

Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday (unless it's Thanksgiving) on Reverb. Check back on Monday when he writes about what's playing on his iPod.
Last weekend, I played a benefit show in L.A. to raise money for teenage runaways in Hollywood. LAYN (Los Angeles Youth Network) is a nonprofit that provides housing and vocational training, along with emotional support, for some of our young who have perhaps slipped through the cracks and ended up on these hardened streets.

The thing that was exceptionally different at this show, for me at least, was that Slash and I would be playing with original Guns N' Roses drummer Steven Adler for the first time since our Appetite for Destruction days . . . a long fucking time ago indeed! This whole mini-reunion got me thinking back to a time when life just seemed a bit simpler, and my goals, while grandiose, all seemed in some way to be a destiny of sorts.

After first moving to Hollywood in the fall of 1984, I was pretty much left to my own devices to find other musicians to play with, not to mention just simply to make a friend or two in this new and strange place. The luster of that year's Summer Olympics had worn off, and the police presence had virtually vacated Hollywood proper. The floodgates were wide open for criminals and thugs and general unwatched anarchy. This was my new world . . . alone.

For this story's sake, I will skip through the first job I landed down there, working for "the Hungarians," a tight-knit Mafioso group that somehow sensed that I would hustle around town for them and keep all my errands a secret. To this day, I have told not a soul what I did for them. I like to breathe. No, this story should begin after I first met Steven and Slash through a newspaper ad just a few weeks after I arrived there.

It should be known that the bands I'd played in to this point were bands like the Fastbacks, the Fartz, and Ten Minute Warning--alternative music, I suppose, but years before the term "alternative" was actually used, and subsequently OVERused!

Meeting two long-hair rockers from Hollywood was culture shock for me, as I am quite sure that my short blue hair and long pimp coat was a shock for them. But an almost instant alliance was made. I think that we were SO different from each other that our minds were open enough to actually get turned on to to each others' trains of musical thought. One thing DID have to change for me, however, and that was Steven's double-kick drum kit with WAY too many rack-toms and cymbals. Lucky for me, when we formed GN'R a few months later, Izzy Stradlin shared my horror of this "hesher" drum kit. We started our plot to hide parts of his drum kit. Every time poor Steven would show up to band practice, his kit was progressively smaller, until he was left with only the bare essentials--what would become his signature "thing" and influence modern rock drummers a few short years later . . . a GROOVE!

But I hadn't really found my "thing" on bass yet either. It seemed that the timing for Steven and I to sort of meld as an actual rhythm section was perfect. Listening and playing along with things like Cameo, Prince, and Sly and the Family Stone became our gauge and music school. Hours before the rest of the band would come for rehearsal, Steven and I would be there, mesmerized by what seemed to us at the time a visionary and funky quest. We became close as brothers in that first year of writing and rehearsing and playing shitty little dive-clubs.

That mini-era in L.A. music spawned another really interesting rhythm duo in Jane's Addiction's Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins. I suppose competition makes for a better "product," and Adler and I would go watch them play whenever possible. It made us better. I think we made them better, too. Neither band was too far removed from the influence of Led Zeppelin, and when you are looking at John Paul Jones and John Bonham as a benchmark (no mater how unattainable), you will push yourself as hard and far as you possibly can.

When Steven came to rehearsal last Friday for that benefit show, the scars of his hard-lived life faded instantly, replaced by his kid-like grin. The drugs over the years had done every diabolical trick they could, but they did not steal his talent and backbeat. It was a pleasure and an honor to play with my brother again after a 20-year absence. He absolutely killed it last Sunday night at the Avalon Theater in Hollywood. I pulled for him. Slash pulled for him. The whole audience pulled for him. In that short instant, three teenage runaways from the past paid it forward to a wide-eyed audience of kids who could see what can be achieved when the strains of life are eased and replaced by dreams and hope.

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