“I couldn’t breathe!”: Duff McKagan’s new song was written in the middle of a panic attack – and got him through it

Duff McKagan looking sad
(Image credit: Charles Peterson)

Duff McKagan releases his first new solo music in almost four years with This Is The Song, a new three-track EP released today for Mental Health Awareness Month

The track was the direct product of the Guns N' Roses bassist's own mental health struggles. “This Is The Song was written in the middle of a panic attack,” he says. “I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t see straight, and lately, I have thankfully found my acoustic guitar as a refuge. If I just hold on to that guitar, play chords, and hum melodies, I can start to climb my way out of that hole. 

"For those of you who have never experienced something like this, count yourselves blessed. To those of you who recognize what I am talking about: You are not alone!

McKagan opened up about his mental health struggles in August 2020, on Mind Wide Open, an interview series hosted by Chris Cornell’s eldest daughter, Lily Cornell Silver. There he recounted his first panic attack aged 16 and how it led to his later problems with alcohol and drugs.

“I went to take a shower before going to school, just like any other day,” he said, “but suddenly the floor dropped three feet, and I thought something happened to the house, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe and I was sweating in the shower, and I remember just pushing the shower door open, crawling out on the floor and yelling for my mom.”

His mum took him to hospital where they did some tests and told him that he’d had a panic attack. Later, when he was 18, he discovered how common it was:  “That gave me a bit of hope. I didn’t feel alone. I discovered what happens with all of us as human beings. You discover ways to cope, and I found that alcohol was a great coping mechanism for me, so I spent the next 12, 13 years with my coping mechanism of a lot of alcohol and drugs.”

Aged 50, drug and alcohol-free, he later found himself struggling from depression. “Instead of a panic attack it was this extremely morose downward spiral,” he said. “Panic attacks are a symptom of depression.”

Meditation and martial arts have been of some help along the way and, decades after their first tours, he can now enjoy touring with Guns N’ Roses again. 

“Guns N’ Roses get back together and the relationships are wonderful. We’re communicating as grown men, and it’s like ‘This is perfect. I’m sober. I get to experience this thing again as a grown man and really appreciate what’s going on, appreciate how good Axl is, appreciate how good Slash is…’”

Bandmate Slash has helped from the beginning. “Slash has kind of been a safe person for me throughout this,” he said. “I met him when I first moved to LA. I told him I have these panic attacks. He listened. He’s like, ‘Okay, well, if it happens, we’ll deal with it.’ I had plenty around him, and he knows just to talk to me about something – anything but the panic attack. He’ll start talking about, ‘Hey, that first Led Zeppelin record, did you notice they went into a-’ whatever.”

The EP includes two other songs: It Can’t Come Too Soon, inspired by his experience playing Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come with soul singer Shaina Shepherd (Shepherd guests on the track) and Pass Me By, inspired by a threatening encounter in the mountains near Seattle.

On a motorcycle ride, Duff and his friend pulled over to the side of the road when a woman on horseback approached. “We smile and wave, and the look on her face gets more and more stern as she rides a tight circle around us in some sort of crowd control-looking move. 

“She has a gun in her hand. We are wearing black – my preferred color of clothing, by the way – she thinks we are ANTIFA or some such thing and is trying to wave down her friends in a pickup truck – for backup? She asks us, 'What are you doing here?' Uh, we are riding our Harleys. Anyhow, it was really just kind of embarrassing, and in the end, I could totally sense her fear of the 'other', which I guess we were to her at that moment. 

“It was just a sad indication of where things have gotten to.  Man, just be cool... We are all on this lovely planet together. No need to freak the fuck out.” 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US (and 15-21st May is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK), a time when advocates and activists draw attention to the mental health issues that affect as many as one in four Americans. 

More people die from suicide in the United States than from traffic accidents or homicides, partly because the stigma associated with mental illness means that people are too ashamed or embarrassed to seek the help they need for themselves or their loved ones. 

For more information, visit Mental Health America, the Mental Health Foundation or click here for resources near you. 

For more on Duff McKagan, visit his site.

Scott Rowley
Content Director, Music

Scott is the Content Director of Music at Future plc, responsible for the editorial strategy of online and print brands like Louder, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, Guitarist, Guitar World, Guitar Player, Total Guitar etc. He was Editor in Chief of Classic Rock magazine for 10 years and Editor of Total Guitar for 4 years and has contributed to The Big Issue, Esquire and more. Scott wrote chapters for two of legendary sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson's books (For The Love Of Vinyl, 2009, and Gathering Storm, 2015). He regularly appears on Classic Rock’s podcast, The 20 Million Club, and was the writer/researcher on 2017’s Mick Ronson documentary Beside Bowie