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Duff McKagan Remembers Guns N' Roses' First Tour

Former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan is now, among other things, a columnist for Rocks Off's sister music blog in Seattle, Reverb. This month Touchstone Books will publish Duff's memoir, It's So Easy: And Other Lies, and he agreed to publish an excerpt on Reverb. In turn, Reverb agreed to share Duff's wisdom with Rocks Off and our readers. This is Part 1.

Guns N' Roses in 1987
Guns N' Roses in 1987
Photo by Greg Freeman

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 21 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 $37 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 600 miles closer to our first out-of-town gig. It was a win for both parties: he would get $37 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 $37 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 18-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.

He shrugged.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of G N' R's speed-addled maiden voyage.


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