An Essay On Tenderness

22 May 2024

Inspired by his experiences on the Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime…” tour, McKagan explores themes of division, fear, and the need for unity. He draws from his own struggles with addiction, his upbringing in a diverse Seattle, and his observations of social and political issues, weaving them into songs that are both introspective and socially conscious.

The album is a call for empathy and understanding, urging listeners to see beyond differences and recognize the shared humanity that binds us. It’s a plea for action, urging us to address issues like homelessness, addiction, and mental illness with compassion and a focus on solutions. McKagan acknowledges the mistakes of the past and warns against repeating them, emphasizing the importance of learning from history and choosing unity over division. Ultimately, “Tenderness” is a testament to McKagan’s evolution as an artist and a human being, reflecting his desire to use his platform to inspire positive change in the world.

Read Duff’s words on Tenderness below:

 

Before beginning this project, I was asked more than a few times if I was going to write a book on my
experience of the two-and-a-half-year GN’R Not In This Lifetime … tour. While, of course, it had been an
amazing experience, in the end, I decided the ideas swirling around in my head were better suited for a
record.

 

The comfort of getting back and playing GN’R songs and traveling the world with my brothers that I
“came up” with, musically, allowed me the perspective and sobriety to observe what was going on in
America and the rest of this planet during our time on the road. My soul and spirit were at ease.
It also felt like the right time to try something, musically, that I’ve been meaning to do for years. I’ve
made little stabs here and there over the last 20 years, but this is the first time I’ve attempted a
complete work in this mellower mode. I’ve always wanted to write a song as deep as Mark Lanegan’s
The River Rise or Greg Dulli’s Deepest Shade or No. 9. Both of these great artists have had a positive
impact on me musically and personally over the years. If there seems to be a nod to them anywhere in
the songs you are about to hear, it is on purpose.

 

When I started this project, fortune shone my way when Shooter Jennings and I began to work on the
structures of the songs. Shooter has a brilliant mind, and a seemingly endless musical catalogue
bouncing around in his head that he’s ready to tap into at any moment. He believed in this thing from
day one, and that gave me the confidence and energy to forge on. Shooter, seemingly, can play any
musical instrument, but instead of that being sort of daunting to me, he works in such an honest way
that I never once felt like I was in the company of a guy trying to show me up. The contrary was in fact
true. He made me a better acoustic guitar player, and more at ease as a singer. His ability to get real and
authentic sounds in the studio are second to none, and making this record was one of the most inspiring
musical experiences of my career.

 

I was fortunate to grow up in a household that taught inclusiveness with all races and creeds, where
talking politics, religion, and money was thought of as rude and somewhat base. My public-school
experience started the same year busing and racial integration were put into play in Seattle. Two of my
brothers were in Vietnam at the time, and my first memories are questioning why they were gone. If I
was an adult then, I would have recognized that America was both in a social experiment (busing and
integration) and a bogged-down conflict that, by that time, the heads of state knew would not end with
a clear-cut winner. My mother picked me up from kindergarten to go march with the Catholic ladies
when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. I wore a black arm band and was terrified of the fact that
someone could kill someone else, just because.

 

My oldest sister, Carol, married a black man (my brother-in-law Dexter) in the early ’60s. Hence my
oldest nephews and niece are of mixed race. There was a Caucasian kid on our block with almost albino
pigment blotches all over his body. I grew up thinking that some kids were brown, others white, others
lighter brown, and still others were just polka-dot! None of these differences, of course, stop little kids
from playing with each other. And again, we were all fortunate to have families that didn’t make a stink
out of what color someone else’s skin was. I have learned since that this isn’t true for all of us.
I have a wife and daughters of my own now. I have so many cool and different friends, and have
broadened my knowledge of other cultures and people from having the wonderful opportunity to travel
this country and world over for more than 30 years. My wife, Susan, and I do our best to bring our girlsup as “world citizens” – that is what we all are at the end of the day. We try to advise and guide our kids
in a safe and worldly way, with open minds and open hearts … and tenderness.

 

I am a true book nerd, leaning heavily toward world and American history. I can travel in a much more
informed way as a result and get to talk to people in different regions about what I’ve learned. From
Monticello to Normandy. The Batu Caves to the World War I Museum and Little Big Horn, Auschwitz to
the Anne Frank House, post-apartheid Cape Town to the Troubles and post-Troubles Belfast. From
Jackson, Mississippi and Montgomery, Alabama to Washington, D.C., and New York City, Toledo, Ohio,
Moscow, Russia, and on and on. Everywhere I ask questions (probably to the annoyance of many). But I
love to learn, and to see the mistakes of our history, and the lessons that should be learned.
I often bang my head against the wall when I don’t see those lessons being applied to current situations.
It baffles me. I mean, all of the information on recent past mistakes – of sorry outcomes and broken
systems – is readily available.

 

During the Not In This Lifetime … tour, it was plainly apparent to me that divisions of race, politics, and
creed worldwide were starting to rear its ugly head again. This stuff has happened many times in our
long history, but why now? How? Is it purely fear of others and greed gone awry? Are we trying to keep
people as uninformed as possible so that we can take advantage with baseless fear? It’s scary and awful.
We are becoming divided just at a time when we need each other most. When huge industries get
replaced because of modernization, it is time to retrain and bolster up those who get swept aside.
Homelessness and drug addiction are avoidable in this country if we come together and get private and
public cogs turning together in a positive direction. We can at least try and tackle mental illness while
we are at it. But, alas … we stump and lie, point fingers and divide. We are way better than this. We all
just want to work, provide, and not worry all of the time if we can or can’t make our rent or mortgage
and put food on the table.

 

At this point, it seems relevant to point to some books that I read during the course of writing this group
of songs. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and The View from Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior brought forth
keen insight into struggle, heartbreak, and the way it simply is for some of us in America. Breathtaking
insights. Grant by Ron Chernow and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer are both
books that one can pick up to look at large swaths of history and the mistakes and terrors that resulted,
and to marvel at some current machinations that look all too familiar. Scary as hell, to be truthful. All of
this divisiveness has been tried before. The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks is a brutally honest look
inside one woman’s struggle with schizophrenia, but in reading this book one cannot help but have
empathy and gain knowledge of the mentally ill – many of whom we see homeless. And “they” scare us.
This book sort of turned that all around for me.

 

The songs I wrote for this record began as little word vignettes. Cold Outside is an everyday experience
for me watching the homeless camps grow and grow as a Seattleite. Homelessness around the country
seems to be as bad as it’s ever been. And I cannot shake the feeling of only being one bad move away
from living on the street – if not through a loss of all my money, then perhaps a loss of something more
existential. Maybe that feeling is what has pushed me so hard in my career. But I do realize every day
that I have been most fortunate in that my pieces have fit together so far. In this same vein, Breaking
Rocks is the story of the “everyman or woman,” working their ass off, making mistakes (as we all fucking
do), and getting back on the horse, with the nose to the grindstone.

 

I heard and read some awful stories that arose as a result of the #MeToo movement. As the father of
two girls, I felt the need to write It Happened Last September. A sort of follow-up to Loaded’s Follow Me
To Hell. If I have any job in the world, it is to protect the women in my life. Period.
Falling Down and Wasted Heart are sort of the bookends of the result of the dastardly prescription-drug
policy in America. One is current (Falling Down), and in places like rural West Virginia, the Oxy epidemic
outlines the lack of jobs and the narcotic fallback for people who’ve lost hope. The later song (Wasted
Heart) is a personal story of the wreckage of my own addiction, and a strong woman (my wife Susan, of
course) being there to pick up the pieces and give me hope.

Shooter and I were honored to have the famous Waters singing group accept our invitation to come in
and sing background vocals on three of the songs for this record. I hadn’t seen them since they sang
those epic lines on Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door back when GN’R did the Illusions recordings. For Falling
Down, Shooter and I had a melody idea for them to sing (2 male, 2 female singers). We hummed the line
to them, and they said “OK…let us get our harmonies together here, and rehearse it here in the control
room a couple times.” I was just sitting there with Shooter and engineer Mark Rains, and suddenly this
beautiful and majestic a cappella four-part harmony enveloped the whole room. Them singing, I realized
right then and there, is what God’s voice must sound like.

 

In most of these vignettes and lyrics, the pronoun “we” is used. The simple truth is that we are all in this
whole thing together. Our way to a better “us” will be a united one. We’ve seen this after 9/11 and
during WWII. We see this in food banks and homeless shelters, and after hurricanes and other natural
disasters. We forget what’s kept us apart and come together for a greater cause. That is the America
that I know, anyway.
As an American, I feel all of these topics are in my field, right? I cringe when some supposed expert yells
“Stay in your lane!” to someone who has a large public platform and has something to say. Isn’t this our
duty as Americans? Is it not “We the People” who are supposed to lead the direction of where we are to
go?

 

Feel was written after the death of Chris Cornell. We had lost Scott Weiland just a short time before,
followed by the agonizing loss of Prince, and then Chester Bennington just after Chris. It’s a story of
heartbreak, of course, and hopefully a reminder to the rest of us to hold close what is dear. We only
have now.

 

The dark chords and sparse and metallic drum sounds on Parkland informed the lyrics, but it was the
awful day of the Parkland school shootings that inspired the original idea. Sitting in my basement room
where I like to work on music, my engineer friend came over that day, and said to me “Oh shit! Have you
heard about Parkland? Yeah, it happened once again.” The chords came from the sudden heartbreak of
the moments on those evolving scenes we all saw on television. Guitar in hand, the dirge presented
itself. I looked into school and church shootings in America, and while I name five different incidents in
Parkland, the list is so long that it really drops one’s jaw. I mean, we have all witnessed a bunch of these
in recent history, but the mind boggles when you look at a list just since, say, the year 2000 or so. Again,
as a father and an American, I feel it is way past time for me to highlight these fucking awful stories…at
the very least.

 

We all learn those hard-fought lessons in life on how to react to situations the right way after initially
reacting to these same situations the wrong way a few times. Yeah, as long as we finally walk around that brick wall after walking straight into it face-first so many times, we finally learn. Man, I’ve seen
solution-based problem-solving work so well with others that I admire that I finally adopted the adage of
“What is the solution here?” when faced with everything: child-rearing, marriage, friendships, and work
life.

 

It’s Not Too Late stemmed from this adage. This country and the rest of the world benefit so much more
when we simply turn off the TV, take a little walk, reach out a hand, and, yeah, greet our fellow man. We
all have so much more in common with each other, way more in common than the triflin’ crap that
talking heads on the screen try to ram into our ears and minds during their daily barrage. I don’t think
this idea is idealistic or unattainable…man, it’s just the damn truth.
I must take a moment here to thank Aubrey, Jamie, and John, from Shooter’s band. Hands-down, they
are some of the best players I’ve ever been in a room with. But it is the emotion and care for each of
these songs that really set them apart for me. They are wonderful individual players for sure, but as a
group, there are few better doing the thing that they do at this point in time. They have become family,
and I really think they totally love all of my brilliant jokes. I mean, they haven’t called me since the
session, but I believe for sure that it’s just because they are so blown away by my top-shelf humor that
they cannot find the words to respond.

 

We had the pleasure of having additional master guitar work by Jesse Dayton and Dave Elliott. I’ve
known of Jesse for years and was super-pleased that he was into throwing down some of his handicraft
on Breaking Rocks. Dave came down to play during one of our last sessions at Station House. The stuff
he put down on Don’t Look Behind You was just so effortless and timeless. Jon Graboff lent his
masterwork on the pedal steel, and the sound of his playing really put a certain flavor to the whole
record, Thank you, Jesse, Jon and Dave. It was an honor to share in this creativity with you three.
I was listening to “Jonesy’s Jukebox” one day in L.A. during the time that Shooter and I were arranging
the songs that would become this record. It was raining and grey outside as I was driving, and an
amazing song came on during the show that I instantly fell in love with. I found out the song was called
49 Hairflips by an artist named Jonathan Wilson. I called Shooter as soon as it was over and asked if he
knew of the song. Of course he did. And of course Jonathon Wilson is a friend of his. “Hey, man. I’ll see if
he wants to play on the record.” Just like that. Jonathan was off with Roger Waters somewhere in Africa,
but we sent him a few tracks and he had a little portable recording rig with him on the road. The
magnificent and brilliantly sparse guitar work on Falling Down, Tenderness, and Feel was the result.
Thank you, Jonathan!

 

Shooter had the idea for the sax in our re-recording of Loaded’s Wasted Heart. At the time of this
session, I believe I was off on a leg of the GN’R tour, and my manager, Brian Klein, knew James King
through his work with Fitz and the Tantrums. James hooked up with Shooter, and the ensuing sax lines
that he put on the song just really couldn’t have been more cool and soulful. Shooter sent me a rough
mix that night, and I was totally blown away. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. King.
We were also able to re-assemble, for the first time since the Use Your Illusion recordings, The Suicide
Horn Section, featuring my brother Matt McKagan on trombone, the great Chuck Findlay on trumpet,
and the impossible Brian Scanlon on sax. On the very last day of recording, they came down to the
studio in Echo Park and laid down the amazing horn lines for Don’t Look Behind You. Shooter and I were
so very excited to have them. It was so badass, you guys.

 

Chip Away came about as a result of reading Ron Chernow’s epic Grant biography while on the road.
History, as I said before, just seems to repeat itself again and again. I read so damn much of it. At times I
think perhaps I read too much of it. Look, I am a regular guy who at some point, soon after I stopped the
drinking and drugging, got fascinated with gaining knowledge through reading. I’ll read sometimes three
completely different views of the same subject, where the truth lies somewhere in the middle, eh? Man,
if we fall for the old cut-the-tax-on-the-rich and the-money-will-trickle-down gag again, we are the fools.
We fall for the Red vs. Blue shit, we pick our “team,” and this division gives the real power-brokers the
diversion they need to ram down some three-word talking points that we fall for…or accept, maybe…or
maybe we just close our ears to stop the noise.

 

The real point of this record, and the lyrics for Tenderness and Don’t Look Behind You, is not for me to be
some damn politician or some other voice to add to what is already way too much noise. I hope this
record can be a meditation and perhaps even bring some healing, if that is not too high-handed or lofty
a goal (and if it is, fuck it). I can use what marginal voice I have as an artist to hopefully help arrest what
seems like a fall.

 

As a father, I must say and do something now, because I love my girls and my wife, and I love my
country, and I feel I must be strong and use my voice now, do it while I am able, or perhaps never get a
chance ever again.

 

What am I saying? Of course I’ll do it again.

 

Until next time.

 

Duff McKagan, February, 2019