Duff McKagan is explaining how to have a good time backstage. McKagan, formerly the bassist for Guns N’ Roses, is something of an expert on this topic: he’s consumed drugs and drink in such vast quantities, his pancreas exploded. “You get third-degree burns on the inside of your intestine and your stomach,” McKagan says. “For a lot of people, they split their skin open to get the steam out. I had morphine in this arm for the pain and then I had lithium in this arm for the DTs.”
So a little weather-beaten at age 40, but improbably still alive, McKagan demonstrates his latest concoction: “You take the Total cereal and you mix it with the granola, and then you add the rice milk and you’ve really got something.”
All of McKagan’s bandmates in Velvet Revolver has similar tales of excess from before they got straight. Guitarist Slash, also of Guns N’ Roses: “We took the days of the charter 727 to a whole new level of debauchery. I’d be aisle-surfing with a cigarette in my mouth when the plane took off–we obeyed no aviation rules whatsoever.” Guitarist Dave Kushner, formerly of Dave Navarro’s band: “I knocked out all my teeth when I was drunk and running across Sunset Boulevard.” Lead singer Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots: “I had a fucking horrendous heroin habit.” Drummer Matt Sorum, also formerly of Guns N’ Roses: “I’ve never been arrested like Scott, but I guarantee I did more drugs. I’ve been to Colombia, I bought the shit for three dollars a gram.”
Backstage at Detroit’s State Theater, the band wanders in and out of their dressing room, where five wardrobe cases are shoved close together. On top of Slash’s case is his trademark top hat. McKagan’s case is decorated with a picture of a princess, colored by one of his two young daughters. Weiland and Slash also have young children; the Velvet Revolver tour will take a break for a month this summer when Slash’s son is born. Robert Evans came up with the baby’s name: Cash.
In a corner of the room, Slash quietly noodles on his guitar, playing the lick to David Bowie’s “China Girl.” He talks about how Bowie dated his mom after his parents split up, why he thinks John Fogerty is a prick, and the wisdom gleaned from a life spent on the road: “There’s nothing worse than a bunch of guys on a bus watching porno movies. It triggers a chain reaction of debauchery and hospital visits.”
Sorum struts into the room, cheerful and loud. “This is the part of the night where I take my pants off and get my cock out,” he announces, and proceeds to do just that. He looks much leaner than he did during his Guns years; he says he lost 35 pounds after he stopped drinking. “A good cigar is better than crack,” he says jovially. Weiland applies his eyeliner quietly, hunched over his mirror, enjoying the camaraderie in the room but remaining a little apart.
Nobody would have guessed the five members of Velvet Revolver would all be alive in 2004, much less making music together as good as their powerhouse new album, Contraband. But they all seem genuinely pleased to be part of a band, sober and well-behaved. They’re all mature enough now to know that being a rock star is fundamentally a ludicrous occupation, but immature enough to want to do it anyway.
“This can’t be a supergroup,” says Kushner. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be in it.” The former members of Guns N’ Roses emphasize that they didn’t form this group to thumb their collective nose at Axl Rose–although, as Sorum puts it, “Axl Rose was a training ground for everything that you could possibly ever imagine to test your patience.” Guns N’ Roses last real album was 1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident?” “We got off the road and we spent, like, three years fucking around,” Sorum says. “I think Axl just got afraid.” Rose got ownership of the band’s name, and in 1996, he fired Slash, announcing the move with a bizarre fax to MTV (it began “Due to overwhelming enthusiasm and that ‘DIVE IN AND FIND THE MONKEY’ attitude…”). The same fax promised the imminent release of “a new Guns N’ Roses 12 song minimum recording with three original ‘B’ sides”; eight years later, little more than the title Chinese Democracy has emerged.
Sorum says Rose fired him the following year for sticking up for Slash. “I said, ‘We need Slash.’ He said, ‘Fuck that, I’m Guns N’ Roses, I don’t need Slash.’ I said, ‘I think you’re mistaken.'” Sorum shakes his head sadly. McKagan quit soon after, leaving Rose with a posse of hired Guns. Work on Chinese Democracy continues to this day.
“I don’t know any more than you do,” Slash says of Chinese Democracy. “There’s only a couple of songs with vocals on it–I know that for a fact. But it will come out one of these days.” Since then, Slash has played with his Snakepit band and lent guitar parts to everyone from Rod Stewart to Ray Charles. Sorum was doing production and soundtracks, and McKagan was working diligently on an undergraduate finance degree at Seattle University, pulling down a 4.0 GPA his freshman year. (He’s still a semester shy of graduating.)
In April 2002, the former Gunners reunited for a benefit concert, with Buck Cherry frontman Josh Todd on vocals. Discovering how much they enjoyed playing together, they recruited Kushner, fired Todd, and started looking for a lead singer… and then they kept looking, and looked some more. They placed ads reading “Unnamed artist looking for singer-songwriter somewhere in the realm of early Alice Cooper/Steve Tyler, the harder-edged side of McCartney and Lennon.” McKagan says they listened to every tape and CD they were sent, well over a thousand, ranging from Axl soundalikes to William Hung soundalikes.
“We’d start optimistic, and after six hours we all just wanted to slit our throats,” Slash says.
Sorum says,”I was the most frustrated. I didn’t make the money Slash and Duff made with Guns–Axl’s done everything in his power to fuck me out of royalties.” So they practiced and auditioned singers such as Travis Meeks (Days of the New)–they knew they could mount a one-shot tour with just about anybody on vocals, but wanted something more potent. And then Scott Weiland became available.
“Stone Temple Pilots never had an official breakup,” Weiland says, “but the split was horrible.” As Weiland tells the story, he and guitarist Dean DeLeo almost got into a fistfight in the dressing room at their last gig; on the previous tour, they had gotten high together, so when DeLeo cleaned up and accused Weiland of still using heroin, Weiland found it hypocritical.
Weiland’s addiction was messy, public, and, with some frequency, resulted in his being arrested. In 2000, he finished nearly a year in prison after violating his probation for prior drug charges. Perhaps even more problematical, he had come to hate rock. “But I can’t dance without a loud live band with that kinetic energy,” he says. “I need the air moving.” Weiland’s wife and McKagan’s wife, both former models, are friends–they colluded to have Weiland join the band. In May 2003, three days after Weiland announced the contracts had been signed, he was arrested for narcotics possession.
The band publicly reaffirmed their support for Weiland, but Sorum admits, “It was emotionally hard. I had to let myself not get my hopes up, and having been there, you know that nothing you say will do any good. That person has to get honest with himself about what’s going on in his life.” Weiland was sentenced to three years’ probation, and then last October, he was arrested on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs after a traffic accident in Hollywood–charges he still disputes. That time, the court ordered him to a detox program and six months in a group-living center.
“Duff was a huge inspiration to me,” Weiland says. “A lot of people who don’t know him, they just think he’s an alcohol- and drug-addled rock star married to a hot chick. In actuality, he means what he says, he says what he means. He’s a great father, a loving husband, I like the way he handles his finances.” McKagan introduced Weiland to the program that has gotten him clean: an intense martial-arts retreat in the mountains outside Seattle.
McKagan’s own analysis of his relationship with Weiland is more concise: “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” he says with a smile.
“I’m sick of talking about heroin and cocaine,” Weiland says. “I’m sick of talking about what it’s like to be in the back of a cop car.” He’s sufficiently tired of being the punchline for addiction jokes that he recently posted an open letter on Velvet Revolver’s website, saying that after this Rolling Stone article, he plans to take a long hiatus from doing interviews. So I ask him what he wants to make clear.
“I kicked my heroin habit a year ago, in May,” he says. “I only used three or four times in the last year, and I’ve been completely abstinent for over six months. It’s been printed that I was arrested for drunk driving. The alleged DUI that I got, I passed that field sobriety test, but I told them I was on my prescription medicines for bipolar disorder, so they had to give me a urinanalysis. And I am not on fucking work furlough.” This last misconception particularly rankles Weiland: he wants it understood that he’s not serving time, he’s in court-ordered rehab. There’s an 11:30 curfew; two nights a week, he can stay with his wife and two children. He has permission to tour, although he has to fly back to California about once a week to stay in the group home. “I’m being a good boy,” he says, “but I’m tired of group living. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be living in a sober fraternity house.”
It’s after midnight. The inky hills of the Midwest roll by us as the tour bus speeds down the interstate. Weiland talks about other things, like growing up in suburban Ohio, when a snow day meant an all-day session of Dungeons and Dragons. He slowly relaxes, and even laughs. No matter what we talk about, though, he keeps bringing the conversation back to addiction and its consequences, and his shoulders keep hunching up with tension.
Weiland’s wife, Mary, kicked him out and filed for divorce, telling him that if he got clean, maybe she’d take him back. (They reconciled before the divorce was finalized.) “She sat on my chest and said, ‘I don’t need a fucking kid, I need a fucking man.’ To get her back, I had to figure out how selfish I was. I’m not an asshole–I’m a good guy most of the time–but I was this completely selfish person.” Weiland’s brand of selfishness was the sort where he seriously considered suicide.
The Velvet song “Slither” describes those self-destructive urges; Weiland was caught in a tape loop of addiction, and suicide felt like the only way he’d be able to stop. Then he realized he couldn’t kill himself because of how it would affect his children, which made him even more miserable; he didn’t seem to have any options at all. “Eventually God intervened,” he says. “In the shape of a black-and-white car.”
Against their better judgment, Velvet Revolver are doing a “meet and greet” in Chicago. This means they sit behind a table in the Riviera Theater’s basement, signing autographs for radio-station employees, record-company reps, and three Chicago Bears. Sorum, as usual, is the most jovial. Slash, sweet but shy, clearly would rather be playing guitar–he always worries before a show that he’ll forget how.
Handed a Velvet Revolver photo to sign, Weiland starts doodling on his own face, using a Sharpie to give himself a big mop of black curly hair. He shows off his handiwork, saying, “It’s kind of weird, Slash, how you and I have the same hair.”
Contraband has some excellent songs, especially the confessional power ballads “Fall to Pieces” and “Loving the Alien,” but too many fast-and-sludgy songs that blur together. But onstage the music has an extra sheen of sweat. The group play most of Contraband, plus two STP songs and three GN’R songs, including “Mr. Brownstone” and “It’s So Easy” (selected not because of their druggy lyrics, but because Weiland could handle those parts of Rose’s vocal range). They even cover Nirvana’s “Negative Creep”–although Kurt Cobain couldn’t stand GN’R, and the very notion might have given him a stomachache.
After the show, Sorum, Kushner, and McKagan go out to the empty theater to meet some fans who have lingered. One of them knew McKagan years ago, and she tells him a story about hanging out a decade earlier, when he was dating her friend Bobbi, who’s currently dating Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott. McKagan had fallen and fractured his ankle. As he was being wheeled into the hospital, McKagan threw money at the group, shouting, “Go buy a twelve-pack!”
McKagan listens in blank amazement; he doesn’t remember it at all. So much of his life then was spent in an alcoholic blackout, he doesn’t even remember marrying his first wife. “I was dating Bobbi?” he says finally. For the members of Velvet Revolver, life as sober adults has many surprises, not least how their drunken reputations have lasted longer than their hangovers.
Sorum, as usual, doesn’t worry about it. “If people have a problem with us not snorting coke and drinking Jack Daniel’s? Fuck ’em. They ain’t snorted half of Colombia like I have.”
By Gavin Edwards. Originally published in Rolling Stone 952/953 (July 8, 2004).