Duff McKagan Delivers Three-Chord Truths of Hope with ‘Lighthouse’

“I’m a punk rock songwriter,” says Duff McKagan, while on a brief break in between touring with Guns N’ Roses. “I’ve always written the same. Inside my body and soul, I’m just trying to get three chords together, a melody and then a lyric. I’m just trying to tell a little bit of truth.”

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Living by the adage of three chords and the truth—also the title of his music podcast with his wife Susan—McKagan began working his way through recording 60 songs in 2019 at his new home studio in Seattle, Washington. Working out different instrument parts, McKagan experienced a creative free-for-all. “I just went kind of nuts and there was nobody around,” says McKagan, “so I was like ‘I’m gonna play drums on this. I’ll play guitar.’”

Eventually pulling in local guitarist Tim DiJulio, a favorite within the Seattle circuit, and a McKagan-dubbed “Faces, Mick Ronson-style guitar player,” along with his neighborly collaborator Alice In Chain’s Jerry Cantrell, GN’R bandmate Slash, and drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. (Paul McCartney), among other collaborators, McKagan started stacking his third solo album Lighthouse.

Produced by Martin Feveyear, who worked on earlier albums with McKagan’s band Loaded, Lighthouse follows his Shooter Jennings-helmed Tenderness in 2019 and meets closer to his soul of songs. A love letter to his wife, the title track opens the Lighthouse with positive emissions—Give me sight and lead me on / Oh, shine on me, my lighthouse / And dry my aching bones—while McKagan offers a heavier ode The Vibrators on “Just Another Shakedown.”

Some past scars, dissolutions, and epiphanies surface in between on the acoustical-punk “I Saw God on 10th St.” and the gospel-warm “Fallen.” Something more metaphysical is captured on “Just Don’t Know”: Easy come and not so easy when it goes / How long do we have, I wanna know / Like a stream, you watch it flow / To the river as it grows / To the ocean undertow / To the ethers ever glow / I don’t know.

“That’s kind of a pondering of what’s next,” reveals McKagan of the latter track, featuring Cantrell on guitar. “It was such an honest feeling when I wrote the lyrics, I was walking my dog at night during the pandemic, and there was nobody out. I’m looking at the stars and there’s a lake off to the left side of me, and I had the melody and was just going through words in my head. You can’t force that shit.”

He adds, “There’s songwriters that can do that. I can’t. It’s got to come to me, and I’m looking at the stars and the water and [then came] ‘to the ethers ever glow.’ It’s about finding hope.”

That idea piggybacks on an actual track called “Hope,” featuring Slash, along with “Forgiveness.” He adds, “‘Forgiveness’ is another form of hope. There’s this whole divide that’s been doctored up through cable news, and it’s real and not-so-real.” 

A cultural anthropologist, McKagan shared a recent trip where he spent the day in Owensboro, Kentucky, slept at a Holiday Inn, and rode the free trolley around town. “I like to talk to people, and people don’t know who the fuck I am,” says McKagan. “I met Larry at the antique shop, and he’s wonderfully gay in this little Kentucky town.” He also met Larry the trolley driver.

Continuing on forgiveness, and hope, McKagan says “People don’t want to be fucking dicks. And this divide, whether you’re playing Kuala Lumpur or Little Rock, Arkansas, we have much more in common than what separates us.”

[RELATED: Duff McKagan Envisions the Divine on Solo Single “I Saw God on 10th St.”]

His perceptiveness and humanistic lyrics even affected Bob Dylan, who said McKagan’s Tenderness track “Chip Away” had “profound meaning” for him.

Reborn in a sense, McKagan, now 59, cites his brush with death in 1994, when he suffered acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis, as the impetus for his more sanguine state. “I really have an excitement, a gratefulness of being here every day and having what I have—Susan and my daughters—and I get to be in this great rock band and go out and play,” shares McKagan. “But it’s really more basic than that. I’m here. There was a good chance I wasn’t gonna make it through what happened to me. Then I got a second chance, and how the fuck do you do the second chance?”

He adds, “It’s not luck. I’m fortunate, but you make your own luck, and then the right people come into my life at the right time. I can write about dark shit. I read Cormac McCarthy and I love Mark Lanegan, and I can go there, and those songs will come out. They just didn’t belong on this record.”

Along with Lighthouse, and working on new music with Guns, McKagan hopes to release more from his backlog of songs. In May 2023, he shared the three-song EP, This Is the Song, including the title track, during Mental Health Awareness Month and revealed his own experience with panic attacks.

“I get melodies going through my head all the time,” says McKagan. “And it’s like ‘Okay, what is that? What are the words to that?’ Then, I’ll start to explore by writing what it means. It has to mean something that I’ve experienced or am aware of.” 

By the end of Lighthouse, the title track resurfaces, a reprise featuring Iggy Pop. And it means nearly everything to McKagan.

“At its root, it’s a pure, unadulterated love song to my wife,” says McKagan of the album namesake. “In writing, I also like to have a broader meaning and not use the word love or hate, but I think the beacon of a lighthouse is this idea of hope for all of us, and the struggle to get there.

It’s off there in the distance, shining.”

Photos: Charles Peterson / Courtesy of Big Hassle

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