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2004.12.03 - Times Dispatch - The Velvet Touch (Duff)

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Post by Blackstar on Mon Aug 24, 2020 5:03 am

The Velvet Touch

By Melissa Ruggieri

Now here's an unlikely rock star scenario: Duff McKagan, former bassist for Guns N' Roses, bent over a calculus book, studying for a test.

The same McKagan whose toe-curling partying with his bandmates wasn't only legend, but true to the point that the guy's pancreas nearly exploded in 1994.

The same McKagan whose fat-bottomed bass anchored many a locomotive rocker from GnR, but who'd stumble through live shows in a red-eyed haze.

Yep, that's the guy. The one who is now sober as a monk, a husband and father, and two semesters shy of a bachelor's degree in finance.

He's also a key aspect of Velvet Revolver, the "supergroup" comprised of other former Gunners Matt Sorum on drums and the inimitable Slash on guitar, plus Dave Kushner as a second guitarist and flamboyant ex-Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland behind the microphone. The summer debut of the band's "Contraband" album was greeted with the type of heightened expectation reserved for, well, these days, no one. But it immediately filled a void on rock radio with its brawny rock lightly dusted with glitter. One listen to the rumbling "Slither" or Weiland's frantic spitting on "Do It for the Kids" and the magic among these men is evident.

McKagan knows how lucky they are to be embraced so heartily by a notoriously fickle industry. That gratefulness is in his voice, which breaks up every now and then on the cell phone he's calling from, en route to Detroit last week on the band's tour bus. He also is proud of himself for conquering the types of demons that still plagued Weiland, who spent the early part of 2004 in various stages of court and rehab. But for McKagan, the outlet that called to him most was, believe it or not, college.

"After I got sober, I had to find a lot of things to keep me busy," he says in a gentle voice tinged with a surfer-dude drawl. "One of the things I did was find financial statements from Guns N' Roses from the past 10 years, and I couldn't understand them."

That frustration led McKagan to Santa Monica Community College, where he enrolled in a business class to learn how to read financial statements. After that came a class in stocks and bonds, and a professor who encouraged McKagan to invest in his education.

"So I jumped through a bunch of hoops, got into a school in Seattle and took finance. It was cool because it was a smaller school. I chopped all my hair off and the kids knew who I was, but it was a really hard school, so in classes, people didn't bother me. People got used to seeing me, but the kids were really cool."

After three and a half years at Seattle University, the genesis of Velvet Revolver formed in 2002 when Slash, McKagan and Sorum got together to rehearse for a benefit. Despite his new interest in learning, McKagan never allowed music out of his life. While in Seattle, he played in Loaded, which often toured the West Coast, and also hooked up with other musicians looking to jam. But after spending time with his GnR mates, McKagan pulls out the cliche of "stepping into an old pair of shoes."

But this time, the shoes were new, laced and shined.

"The whole being a rock star thing? All that kind of cosmetic side of it, that really had nothing to do with my decision to [create Velvet Revolver]," McKagan says. As for any concerns about relapsing into old habits, he is even more adamant.

"I'm really secure. I don't think there is a move that I could make that would make me go back there [to drugs and alcohol]. I've been through hell. I'll never, ever go back there."

McKagan, who turns 40 in February, works out every day - preferably kickboxing when he can locate a gym on the road - and is primed for the coming months for the band. Its current run, which includes some holiday radio shows such as tomorrow's "HFSMas Nutcracker 2004," ends Dec. 14, and a New Year's Eve gig in Las Vegas will close out a triumphant inaugural year for the band.

Velvet Revolver's power ballad, "Fall to Pieces," a nod to Weiland's struggles, is No. 1 on Billboard's rock singles chart, but the band will leave its home success behind in January for a tour of Japan and Australia and return for U.S. arena dates in March. McKagan says all of the members are prolific writers, and with a multi-album deal in its pocket, the band already is working on another release. "It's totally, always a band effort," he says of Velvet Revolver's democracy. "The songwriting process was a band thing with Guns, too, but Scott is around more than our previous lead singer."

There is no bitterness in McKagan's voice as he dispenses with the name of Axl Rose. It's just a simple indication that he's moved on.
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