Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb. He writes about what's circulating through his iPod every Monday.
In 1994, I suddenly felt myself gasping


Army of Prose: How I Kicked My Habit(s), With a Little Help From London, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald

Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb. He writes about what's circulating through his iPod every Monday.
In 1994, I suddenly felt myself gasping for air after what seemed like an eternity dunked underneath a green thick pond of muck. My 10 years of constant skirmish with vice had finally ceased fire with an unsteady truce. I was sober but thirsty. My mind had almost atrophied from the lack of stimulation. I felt that I needed to read.

Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson were indeed great authors, but to me these were crazy stories told by even crazier men. Sure, I DID read some when I was drunk, but only by these authors, as to read anything by anyone else would certainly only make me feel isolated and insane. Thompson and Bukowski made me feel sane compared to them.

Now that my life had taken a turn for the better, I wanted to read what I was missing out on. I started to think of all of the required reading that high schoolers were made to do. I missed high school. No, it's not like I was forlorn for the DAYS of high school; I actually did not attend but five semesters of high school. D.H. Lawrence? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Jack London? Where do I start? Fiction? Nonfiction?

To be honest, when I first got sober, someone gave me the Ken Burns PBS Civil War set on VHS. I was by that time very much alone in Los Angeles, as I felt it prudent to throw out my black address book filled to the brim with the names and phone numbers of people who would probably not want me being sober. No one likes to drink or drug alone. I would go to my bedroom around 10 at night, pop in one of those video tapes, and become enthralled in the quagmire and bloody entrails that was the Civil War. I could not get enough.

I started to read stories of war. Books about prisoners of the Japanese or on the Bataan Death March. I was totally and completely enthralled. I would move from the First World War to the Second, from the Civil War to the slave trade, the Revolution to Vietnam. When I happened upon a book on the Spanish Civil War by Ernest Hemingway, it at once dawned on me that I wasn't reading much that had any real style and subtlety. I was reminded that I had yet to delve into my initial plan: read some of that required reading that I'd heard so much about.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was the book that for me suddenly unlocked the world of literary eloquence and elegance. The beauty that Hemingway described was surely see-able. When he wrote of hunger and pain, I sat with sudden pangs and soreness and dread. The cadence of his writing style awoke me to the rhythm that a well-turned phrase and paragraph could dance and saunter to.

I ravenously consumed The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Green Hills of Africa, and The Old Man and the Sea. I read Hemingway's poems. I read his short stories. I consumed two huge biographies on the man . . . even though one was unreadable.

I read White Fang by Jack London and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I agreed with his take on the American Dream, as my own dreams had nearly and recently almost been shattered--my own dreams that so mirrored in my mind Gatsby's or Fitzgerald's or whomever's.

In my new and often lonely world of desert-island sobriety, I was at last connecting with something. I would feel triumphant as I rode the rollercoaster of these amazing and well-told tales, heartbroken when someone died or fell lovelorn and lost. If I was not yet finding MY place in the world, I was for sure finding places and things and people that I could relate to, despise, or aspire to in these many great books that I read in my first two years of sobriety.

Maybe this was a great way too for me not to have to face some of the things in my business and professional world. Things I had never been trained to face head-on and without help. These great authors gave me a confidence to use my own voice when speaking and to use intelligent words, as opposed to a raised voice that really only masked fear. A fear wrought with ignorance of how to deal with an insane situation.

Reading for me was, and to this day remains, my place of solitude. At the end of every day, whether on tour or at home with my family, I always have that time alone at night when a great author or piece of nonfiction will act as a mediation and a time to arm myself for trials to come.

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