Duff McKagan: Hot-Wire Act

LSD, my first bands, and real grand theft auto.

In an attempt to flesh out some stories that may one day be a gateway to a larger literary body of work, I'm going to write some short pieces. That said, I am a little scared to share some of these stories, in that they are not meant to influence youth in any way, shape, or form. Hey, maybe they can be construed as cautionary tales?I may be charged with trying to glorify and glamorize certain things that I went through. I am not. As an aside: I don't believe our parents were to blame for any of our miscreant behaviors. In my case, I was the last of eight kids, and by the time I was 9, my parents had divorced and my mom was pretty much left to provide for our household on her own. This meant she had no other choice but to leave me with a lot of responsibility, and I just didn't rise to the occasion right away.I wish I could've been a better son in those difficult transition years for my mother. I still kick myself for some of the hell that I surely put her through. I look back now, and it's obvious I was trying to figure out where my place was in this world without a father figure at home to rely on as a role model.My father, conversely, was trying to figure out what life was about, period. I do not blame him for anything (although I certainly did back then). He was a WWII vet who started having children with my mother when he was 18 and didn't stop until he was 38. He went straight from the war to working for the Seattle Fire Department, desperately trying to provide for what would become eight children. By the time I was in elementary school, I believe that he was simply feeling trapped and wanted to see what else life had in store for him. He never had a chance to be a kid, and in my opinion he wanted to try to get some of his youth back. But he should have gone about his whole scheme another way. My saintly mom was left "holding the bag," and we eight brothers and sisters cherish the memory of this amazing and strong woman. Marie Alice McKagan endured this all with a lion's heart, a scholar's intellect, and lots of patience.I started smoking pot at a really young age: 4th grade, to be exact. I took my first drink at 10 and tried LSD for the first time at 11. In the '70s, there just wasn't the huge stigma and general warnings about child drug use. We were just experimenting, that's all. But this piece isn't going to be about drugs; I'm just trying to highlight the fact that we seemed to grow up a bit faster back then. No, this story is really about crime—car theft, to be exact.The best friends I established by 6th grade are my best friends to this day—Abe, Edgar, and Bob (I've changed their names here). The four of us were pretty much inseparable. They are good and solid men, but back in middle school we tested our boundaries against grown-ups and authority. We were harmless troublemakers, really, but soon found ourselves in the line of fire of an asshole counselor at Eckstein Middle School. In my case, I was suspended twice and finally expelled. "Yeah, good riddance," I remember thinking. Besides, I was already crafting a new career for myself.Abe and I started to separate ourselves from the pack at this point. We both embraced the new and exciting punk-rock scene that had recently hit Seattle. Abe and I formed the Vains with Chris Utting in 1979, three years before we were of legal driving age. In the daylight hours, I would take the bus anywhere and everywhere that I had to be for band practice or my new job as a dishwasher, etc. When it got dark, though, Abe and I began to hone our craft as burgeoning car thieves.I remember clearly the first car we, um, borrowed. It was a 1963 VW Bug. It all seemed innocent enough at first. It was 2 a.m., and we were stuck without a ride home at some punk-rock party in deep Ballard. It being Seattle and all, of course it was raining and cold. Abe and I only got about 10 blocks into our seven-mile walk when it dawned on us to try to steal a car and drive the rest of the way home.We had heard of a simple way to trip an ignition on any and all pre-'64 Bugs, but had never put our knowledge to the test. We soon found our car, and clumsily broke in a wing window with a jackboot. Once we got the car started, we both realized that neither of us knew how to drive a car, let alone one with a clutch. We found out the hard way that first gear can indeed get you from point A to point B, seven miles away, albeit slowly.When you are a kid, the lust for being of driving age is nothing short of intoxicating. Abe and I discovered after our first night in the stolen VW that we no longer had to wait until we were 16 to have access to a car. We began to sharpen our tactics and skill as car thieves—even studying new ways to hot-wire Peugeots and Audis. Sometimes we even held onto certain cars for a week or more, parking them in rich neighborhoods where the police would be less likely to look for a stolen vehicle.On top of this, it was at times the things we found inside these cars that would lead us to criminal activities outside the car-stealing racket. Once we found a large set of keys that had only an address attached. This address was a large laundromat, and the keys were to the lock-boxes that held all of that particular day's change intake (hundreds of dollars a day, which to us was a fortune).Our exploits began to garner attention from older, savvier criminals. The newspaper began to run stories of things we were involved in, and this is when I began to see only a dire ending for myself—jail or worse. It was time to get out. Besides, at this point my music career began to get more serious, and I met a girl. I was done.Abe, however, continued to widen his circle of criminal activities a while longer. He started to hang with a crowd that, while exotic, also seemed a bit dark and dangerous. Abe started to specialize in particular foreign makes, stolen for particular clients who were willing to pay. Edgar, Bob, and I became concerned. Abe was arrested one night after a high-speed chase with Seattle police. The crimes? Grand Theft Auto and Reckless Evading. Shit.Having kids of my own now makes me realize just how very young I was when I did some of these things. I cringe looking at my daughters sometimes. They know of some of my childhood antics; the more serious stories can wait. The weight I have to carry is one day having to share it with them. The McKagans do honesty these days, and I probably learned that from my own father not doing it.This is the first in a three-part series. Duff McKagan splits his time between Seattle and Los Angeles. His column runs every Monday and Thursday on our music blog at seattleweekly.com/reverb.

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