For Duff McKagan, it started again with a single pill. Sober for more than a decade after beating a drugs and vodka habit so monstrous that his pancreas once burst, he was on his first major tour since the original Guns n’ Roses left the road in 1993. Velvet Revolver’s European shows in the summer of 2005 were an endless blur, and the band members were starting to drive one another crazy. Even McKagan and Slash, his friend of twenty years, were barely talking.
“I was so fucking stressed out with all this shit,” says McKagan, 43. “I couldn’t go fucking talk to my guitar player like I used to.” McKagan is sitting in his guesthouse, whichis whimsically decorated with memorabilia from his Guns n’ Roses career (platinum plaques, a G n’ R pinball machine, a vintage Duff portrait painted by a Japanese fan), and pictures of his wife, Susan Holmes, a former swimsuit model. Outside, it’s a sparkling L.A. morning in the up-scale neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, where the couple and their two preteen daughters live on the former estate of Western star Tom Mix.
McKagan had suffered from a panic disorder for years, and he always carried a bottle of Xanax with him on the road, just in case. One day, he opened it. ” ‘I’m going to just take one of these, it’s going to chill me out,’ ” he remembers. “Next day: ‘Oh, one doesn’t feel like it did yesterday, I guess I’ll take two.’ ” Before long, he was taking twenty-two milligrams a day of the sedative —— more than three times the usual dose. He headed to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and then to a rehab facility. Kicking Xanax, it turns out, was harder than heroin. “I think I needed to go through that again,” says McKagan. A martial-arts devotee since getting sober, he is fearsomely fit – still framed by long blond hair, his face looks more like the Duff skull on the cover of Appetite for Destruction than it does the partied’out puffiness of Guns n’ Roses’ heyday. “I’d been sober for twelve and a half years at that point,” he continues. “And I thought, ‘I’m good.’ I’m not good, I’m a fucking junkie, and I’m an alcoholic.”
McKagan’s unexpected return to addiction was just the beginning of the troubles Velvet Revolver faced on the road to their new album, Lihertad — which is far more melodic and upbeat than their grim, unrelenting debut, Contraband. From the outside, Velvet Revolver appeared to be a steady-chugging, middle-aged supergroup — a moneymaking merger of sobered-up Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland with former Gunners McKagan, Matt Sorum and Slash, plus nonfamous extra guitar guy Dave Kushner. But in reality, they were as spectacular a clusterfuck as any young band you could name.
Sorum, the only unmarried member of the band, was partying too hard, and ended up in the same rehab facility as McKagan. Slash was gobbling painkillers to the point where he was nodding off in rehearsals. “There was just a lot of negative shit going on,” Slash says. “Some of it was band stuff, some of it was home stuff, it was a lot of shit, and I went on a little fuckin’ OxyContin binge for, like, two or three months, and I had a set date to go into rehab,” he adds, sipping iced tea in a Burbank Mexican restaurant. He’s left his top hat in a chauffeured SUV waiting outside, but in his leather vest and aviator shades, thick curls hanging to his shoulders, he is still the most recognizable rock guitarist of his generation.
Before rehab, Slash was plagued by a certain rumor that some of his bandmates chose to believe: “They thought I had quit the band and joined Guns n’ Roses,” Slash says, shaking his head. “I would do my best to convince them that I’ve never even entertained that idea, and they’d be looking at me like, ‘Maybe you’re full of shit.'”
Slash acknowledges that he turned up at the gates of Axl Rose’s Malibu house one day in October 2005, but he says it was to try to quash a messy lawsuit over Guns publishing royalties. In a statement Guns n’ Roses’ management released to the press, Rose claimed that during that visit, Slash insulted several members of Velvet Revolver, calling Weiland “a fraud.” Slash denies it all, and Weiland endedup responding on Slash’s behalf, calling Rose a “fat, Botox-faced, wig-wearin’ fuck” in a Website post —— and when Rose ran into Sorum a few months later, he informed him that Weiland had “hurt his feelings.” (“Then I felt really bad,” says Weiland in turn.)
“Axl is so jealous of our band,” says Sorum, adding that his encounter with the singer at a New York party ended up being friendly. “Even though he’s going out with his Guns n’ Roses fucking bullshit, he’s just fucking jealous and he’s trying to tear us down. Fuckin’ Slash is out playing rock n roll and he don’t like it. It’s sad.”
Take time, with a wounded hand, ’cause it likes to heal. . . .” Like a salaryman gone wild at a karaoke bar, Scott Weiland is wearing a tie and a white shirt completely unbuttoned, exposing his tan, yoga-toned torso. We are backstage at The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and Weiland is singing me a twangy version of the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Creep,” demonstrating the country inflections that snuck into his STP work.
“Creep” is from STP’s 199a debut, Core, which Weiland now says is the only album he’s made drug-free — except for Libertad. “It made it a lot easier,” says Weiland, who kicked his cocaine and heroin habit three and a half years ago. “My output level was enormous. I had idea after idea after idea. With heroin, at first there’s a lot of benefits — it allows you a certain amount of objectivity. After a while, you lose the connection to the heart, to the emotion. It’s like you have this narcotic wet blanket wrapped around your soul.” And coke? “It just makes you want more coke. That’s why I always had to do heroin with coke. Do coke for a few hours until you’re going out of your mind, the fucking demons are trying to smash through the mirror. Then you put that needle in your arm to slow the world back down and close that fuckin’ hole to the next dimension. Because once you open it, you don’t know what can come in.”
After an abortive stint with Rick Rubin, Velvet Revolver finally got going with Libertad after hooking up with another heavyweight producer, Brendan O’Brien. But as Weiland was recording vocals, he got word that his brother —— who had struggled with his own heroin problem — had died of an overdose. “It’s the heaviest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Weiland says, his voice quavering. His brother’s passing inspired some of Libertad‘s most impassioned songs, including the ballad “The Last Fight.”
Weiland —— who’s been working on a second solo album and runs an indie label, Softdrive Records — says he still likes the “dysfunctional camaraderie” of being in a rock band. But he seems to keep his distance from his bandmates, staying in a separate dressing room and not indulging in much small talk. He and Sorum seem to have the most strained relationship: The two men happen to wear similar bracelets, and the burly drummer chortles at the idea it might be intentional. “We’re not homosexuals,” Sorum says. “We barely talk, let alone kiss . . . I’ve always been the ‘I’m going to beat the fuck out of the lead singer’ guy.”
So Velvet Revolver remain a fragile construct — and it may not help that Weiland recently reconciled his differences with Robert and Dean DeLeo from STP. “It’s a reality I’ve considered,” says Kushner, who during the band’s earliest days was still working a day job —— as a gear runner for the studio where they rehearsed. “Scott could go join STP tomorrow, and those guys could go back to G n’ R, and I’d have to figure out what to do next.” Though Sorum jokes he might consider a Guns reunion for enough cash, he casts doubt on the STP scenario: “I don’t think the world’s fucking biding their time, waiting for Stone Temple Pilots to reunite,” he says, laughing.
In any case, Weiland promises at least one more Velvet Revolver record — and the band may already have survived its worst times. “It was scary going in to make the record, because we weren’t really getting along,” says Sorum. “There was moments where I didn’t think the band was going to last — which is my greatest fear. I don’t think I have another band in me. But then we looked at each other. And we said,’Let’s not fuck this one up.'”