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Duff McKagan is a man who has always confounded expectations. He’s an ‘80s Sunset Strip rocker with roots in the scrappy Seattle punk scene and a solo discography — including his latest album, Lighthouse — filled with tender acoustic balladry. He’s a high school dropout who later studied at the Albers School of Business and Economics and founded the wealth management firm Meridian Rock. And he’s best known for playing bass with Hollywood bad boys Guns N’ Roses, but he’s a devoted husband and father who’s been with his wife, model Susan Holmes McKagan, for 27 years, and has been sober for nearly three decades.
“We're super-cool to each other. We give each other room. We really dig each other in every specific way you could imagine,” Duff tells Yahoo Entertainment, lighting up as he discusses how he and Susan, who will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary next year, have made their marriage last. “And she takes my breath away, still. When she walks in the room, her perfume, that smell, I'm like, Ohhhhh. So, I'm fortunate; I know that.
“And I guess we're just together a lot. I tour a lot, and absence definitely makes her heart grow fonder, but we can be together as much time as we're apart and we f***ing cherish the time together,” says McKagan, adding with a chuckle: “Well, I do. I'll speak for myself. She might just be faking it, I dunno!”
It’s safe to say that the McKagans’ love is very real. Susan inspired the title track of Duff’s third solo LP, Lighthouse. “It's just a straight-up love song to my wife,” he beams. “The song was this simple little three-chord thing. I came up with these melodies and these words, ‘Won't you be my lighthouse?’— and I knew immediately that'd be about Susan giving me light and bringing me home.”
Duff and Susan met when they were set up by their mutual friend, Thrasher magazine journalist and punk-rock politician Jon “Stain” Stainbrook, formerly of ‘80s Toledo band the Stain. On the surface, the pairing of a rock star with a supermodel could not have been more of a cliché. “He's like, ‘I know you haven't dated for a couple of years, but she's great. She's amazing. She's a model — but don't let that scare you away!’ I don't know if that scared me away or nothin’,” Duff laughs. Duff was actually more trepidatious about the fact that he’d recently gotten clean, and sober dating was entirely new territory for him.
“Susan and I meeting was this period where I'd taken two years to just being sober. I didn't know if I could date a woman again. I don't know how to… I’ve got no game or whatever the f*** you have to have at 32 years old,” Duff confesses. “I'm sober and reading books — what woman's going to like some book nerd? But I met her through a blind date and I could tell. We talked on the phone first and it was like this, ‘F***!’ I mean, her voice makes me feel amazing and reminded me of one of my sisters, maybe — but not in a weird way, just like the comfort of home.
“And then she picked me up at the airport and we went to dinner and it was on. I mean, it was just on. So, that happened. And that's fate. … She had put herself in a position to be open to a relationship like ours, and I was open to it. I'd done the work. I got myself sober. I didn't try to get a girlfriend or something right after I got sober. I didn't know who I was. I had to do some finding out who the f*** I was and how I treat others. And I didn't want to bring somebody else into that until I figured it out. So, there you go. That's fate — with some work behind it.”
Understandably, given GNR’s reputation, Susan had her own trepidation when she and Duff first started dating. But that didn’t last for long. “She had some friends who [warned her about me], but… I think she was kind of like, ‘Oh no, he's not that guy.’ And I don't know what ‘that guy’ is, what you see in the videos of Guns N ‘Roses,” says Duff. “Sure, there was some pretty vagabond, reckless times, but I wasn't like a dirtbag to women, ever. I have three sisters and a mom. That's not part of my deal. And I wouldn't hang around with those people. When the #MeToo stuff started, you know, those people who did that [predatory] stuff — who hangs out with them? Even when I was a kid in elementary school, there was that one guy who took it one too far and it's like, ‘You're out.’”
McKagan’s Lighthouse album was preceded by a companion EP, This Is the Song (“I love that little EP,” he grins), the title track of which was released in May 2023 for Mental Health Awareness Month. That song was “literally written during a panic attack,” McKagan reveals.
“An active panic attack was happening, and I discovered something in writing that song I was writing myself. I was playing my guitar, just holding onto it to get me through this panic attack,” Duff recalls. “I've had them since I was 16. I don't get them a ton anymore; I've sought and received help. I got that pinging of a panic attack, and I was up in bed with my wife. I don't like to tell her all the time when I'm having panic attacks, because she gets worried. So, I will often just get up and go down and get some water. I'll go and deal and tear off my clothes and pour water on myself, whatever I gotta do. But this time, I went and got on my acoustic guitar, and it was during the COVID time. I grabbed onto the guitar and I wrote this chord. … I started strumming chords and [sang], ‘This song is going to save my life.’”
Duff adds, “I have other things that come as a super-killer side thing of panic attacks, like, there’s depression. Like, what the f***, where'd this come from? I found out depression has nothing to do with what's going on in your life. It's not a choice. It's definitely a malaise that you just comes on. Mine is chemical imbalance crap. It's just what it is, it's my thing.” McKagan, who got sober at age 30 after a nearly fatal case of acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis served as his wakeup call, realizes now that his mental health issues were “so tied in” with his history of addiction. “Well, I think — I know — that I self-medicated myself. I got my first panic attack at 16. And hey, when did I start drinking? Hey, when did I start doing drugs? I self-medicated myself into a pretty dark place.”
This Is the Song and Lighthouse were both made during the COVID-19 pandemic — in Duff’s Seattle home studio, which he’d conveniently and coincidentally finished building only two months before the lockdown of 2020. And while many marriages crumbled and people’s mental health worsened during that time, Duff happily “dove into songwriting” after Guns N’ Roses’ 2020 world tour was canceled and recorded nearly 60 songs with longtime producer/collaborator Martin Feveyear. The resulting Lighthouse also features contributions from Iggy Pop, Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, Paul McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., and GNR guitarist Slash, but McKagan hopes that the some of the other songs from this unprecedentedly prolific period will eventually be released. Unsurprisingly, many of the tunes are about the love of his life, whom he describes as “physically,” “mentally,” and “spiritually gorgeous.”
“The [pandemic] timing was amazing. My wife was safe. My [two daughters] were safe, and they were with us. … These songs are about [Susan] from this set of 60 because during COVID, I just fell in love with her. Not to sound corny or whatever, but we would hear about other 20-year marriages going out the door. And we're like, ‘What the f*** is that about? We're good.’”
Watch Duff McKagan’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which he discusses several other autobiographical Lighthouse tracks and how fate also played a part in him meeting his Guns N’ Roses bandmates:
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