Use Your Voice: Duff McKagan

Use Your Voice: Duff McKagan

by James Rickman / Photography by Albert Sanchez
(Jacket and tank by Chrome Hearts)

Nine living legends of music, the causes they believe in and the worlds they envision. Welcome to PAPER's Use Your Voice portfolio. Get ready to get inspired.

Founding Guns n' Roses bassist Duff McKagan wasn't content to reinvent himself as a advisor to artists struggling to manage their finances; he went on champion The Heroes Project, which has taken injured veterans up the world's seven highest summits. When we spoke with Duff, his new book, How to Be a Man (and Other Illusions) was about to hit the shelves and, halfway around the world, Heroes Project founder Tim Medvetz and a veteran were cresting Mount Everest despite the very recent earthquake in Nepal.

What drew you to the Heroes Project and working with veterans?

Growing up in the Northwest, there's always Mount Rainier in the background. All the world's best mountaineers are around you, and I always wanted to climb it. You know, punk rock and rock 'n' roll happened. I'd gotten sober; I started reading a lot of books. I read Into Thin Air and then I just got into all of these mountaineering books, really great adventure stories, and I thought, "OK, when my kids get grown up a little bit, I want to start mountaineering." And I met Tim Medvetz, who had just come back from Everest. Tim and I became good buddies right when he was starting the foundation. Prior to Everest, he'd been in a bad motorcycle accident, got really fucked up, got a cage around his spine and they fused his left ankle, and the doctors basically said, "You're not going to be able to do much physical activity." And he had read Into Thin Air in the hospital and he'd thought he'd prove all the doctors wrong and climb Mount Everest. Fuck these guys. And he did it! And he was coming back from one of the Himalaya trips and came back through Germany, and Germany is where the Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] is, and that's where you go first if you've been in Afghanistan and perhaps lost a limb or two. So Tim was flying back and flew through Germany and there was a kid -- he'd lost a leg and got the treatment at Walter Reed, maybe a prosthetic. And he's coming back to the States, and Tim sat next to him on the plane and Tim's like, "So what are you going to do, man?" And they guy's like, "I don't know. I guess I'll go back to my mom's in Minnesota." It hit Tim, and he just invited the guy -- "Why don't you come climbing with me? I got a fused ankle and a cage around my spine. I did this thing. You could do it if you want." And the kid assented. And it started this thing. 


And I was starting to climb with Tim at that point. So we started climbing with these guys who'd, like, just lost a leg months prior. Really pretty awesome young dudes, and being out in the mountains with these guys and talking to them and going through shit. These guys just went through it and some of them hadn't dealt with it yet because they're tough Marines, you know? So I just really got into it with these good guys and gals Tim found. His plan was to do the seven highest summits in the world with a different one of these people who had lost a limb or two in Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever. And so they did Denali, which is brutal. I didn't do it with them. It's 21,000 feet, the highest in North America. They've done Vinson, which is the highest in Antarctica. The Erebus, which is the highest in Europe, he did it with another guy. He did Kilimanjaro with a double leg amputee -- this guy had little climbing prosthetics for his legs, and then basically did all upper body strength. Incredible. And these guys train for 10 months with Tim and a bunch of us. We do what we can, but really Tim does it all. It's so selfless of Tim, and I think it's really great for these veteran kids -- they're kids, man, 22 or 23. 

Has your work with the Heroes Project affected your views? I know you wrote that open letter to the President about Afghanistan. 

I'm just a citizen, like you. I'm not in the service. I'm not a politician, but I am well read. I read Thomas Friedman's Longitudes and Attitudes before, like in 2000. And that book was available for the Bush people to read. Dexter Filkin's The Forever War. These books are available, you know? So when you see the carnage of these young people... and I've been to a few of the rehabs at VA hospitals where they stick them on drugs, and the reportage of suicide is just not there. You talk to any of these veteran guys, these guys who are climbing, and they're pissed. They're like, "You don't see it in the news, the amount of suicides of people coming back."

Yeah, the statistics are unbelievable on that. It's more than combat at this point.

Yeah, crazy right? So these guys have gotten me involved. I've gone to the Walter Reed in DC. To say that's eye opening is a huge understatement. But we're Americans, and we've got to take care of our own people. Stop fucking around outside of this country. With the amount of hunger in this country, the militarization of our police, no jobs in our cities, it's like, "OK. We've got stuff to do here." 

Are there particular challenges or frustrations that come with the celebrity part of activism? 

Complications, sure. Life is complicated. No, it's a great opportunity. It's not like I'm some super celebrity. For me, it has to be somebody I know so I know exactly what it does and where the money goes and all that. I don't think I'm making that big of a difference at all, but sometimes if I can tweet or write in the Seattle Weekly and I know that column is going to go out on the Internet and hit a lot of people, I'll do it for sure. 

If you could get your fans and readers behind one idea or to do one thing in their lives, do you know what that would be?

Just don't be a dick, you know?

Don't be a dick. [laughs]

Yeah, don't be a dick. Think for a second before you act. I think that's a common theme. And I've learned it because I've made all the mistakes. I learn as I go. My latest book isn't about liberal answers in there; it's about, here's another mistake I made, and here's what I've learned. It's not like I'm not a dick. "Dick" isn't the right word. But that is the theme: try to think before you act, and think of the overall reach of what you're doing. 

For more Q&As from our 'Use Your Voice' portfolio, go HERE.

Learn more about the Heroes Project here.

Styling by Jessie Cohan // Grooming by Traci Barrett for the Rex Agency using Oribe
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