Guns N' Roses' Duff McKagan Reveals the Key to His Nearly 25-Year Marriage (Exclusive)

In an interview with PEOPLE, the musician opens up about his love story with wife Susan Holmes and how she inspired his new solo album, 'Lighthouse'

<p>Duff McKagan/instagram</p> Duff McKagan and Susan Holmes McKagan instagram with daughters Grace and Mae in June

Duff McKagan/instagram

Duff McKagan and Susan Holmes McKagan instagram with daughters Grace and Mae in June

In 1996, Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan was set up on a blind date with model Susan Holmes through a mutual friend.

"We talked on the phone a few times, and she was a mixture between one of my sisters that made me feel comfortable, but she was also super sexy," McKagan, 59, recalls to PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. “It was so genuinely nice the things we talked about. Then she offered to pick me up at Burbank Airport. She met me at the gate, and I was like, 'Holy f---.' She was breathtakingly stunning.”

A sushi dinner followed.

"The place was packed, but there was nobody there, as far as I was concerned," says McKagan, who was two years sober at that point. "Because she was nervous, she goes, 'Do you mind if I have a sake?' I'm like, 'I don't care. Not at all.' She had one little sake, and she was buzzed. I'm like, 'Well, I guess she's not a drinker. That's kind of cool.'"

Twenty-seven years after that first date, McKagan and Holmes, 51 — who got married in 1999 and share two daughters: Grace, 26, and Mae, 23 — are as solid as ever.

"We figured it out pretty early on: no longer than 12 days apart ever," McKagan says. "Not even just her and I, but with me and the kids, too. I'd fly home for 10 hours, just to try to keep things normal and our family together. Susan did a great job at keeping our family together. They would also come out a lot."

Related: Guns N' Roses' Duff McKagan Was 'So F---ed Up' on His First Solo Record You Can Hear the Cocaine in His Sinuses

From the day he and Holmes welcomed Grace in 1997, McKagan says he fully embraced his new role as a girl dad.

"That moment when she came out, we didn't know whether it was going to be a boy or girl," he says. "When that girl came out, I got this superpower. This light came around me that I'm going to be a girl dad, and that's the biggest responsibility a male has on this planet. It all hit at once."

When Mae came three years later, McKagan felt reaffirmed: "I'm the girl dad. Let's do this!"

<p>Cindy Ord/Getty</p> Duff McKagan

Cindy Ord/Getty

Duff McKagan

Growing up, Grace, a musician whom McKagan describes as a mix between "Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry," and Mae, a designer who graduated from Parsons School of Design, had fun getting to join their dad on the road.

"The catering was fun because there's dessert there," McKagan says. "When you're doing a big gig, they have catering there for the crew and everybody. Sneaking ice cream was their big thing. They'd be all f---ing buzzed! We'd be like, 'You weren't supposed to have dessert.'"

When he wasn't touring, McKagan says he and Holmes lived a "normal" life at home with the girls.

"Their school was walking distance, so we'd walk together to school, hand in hand and stuff like that," he says. "Then it became, 'No, you can't hold my hand. Dad, why do you wear a sleeveless shirt if you're walking me to school? Why don't you wear khaki pants?' You always turn into embarrassing parents. Then they come back to you and realize, 'That's cool.'"

"But we were the normal parents, that's what all the kids said," he continues. "To this day, we get, 'You guys were the most solid.' And we've remained married and in love."

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McKagan's love for Holmes served as a big inspiration for his new solo album Lighthouse, which was released on Oct. 20. She even was his muse for the title track.

"'Lighthouse' at its core, is a love song to my wife," McKagan says. "She's been a beacon of hope. Through COVID we started hearing about 20-year marriages, 25-year marriages ending. We were like, 'What is that even about?' But I guess we hang out together more than maybe the average married couple. During COVID it was like, 'Wow, we're going through another historical moment together.' We've been together 27 years, and we've seen a lot, we've raised kids. She is my lighthouse."

In McKagan's sobriety journey, Holmes continues to be a guiding force. After years of struggling with addiction, McKagan — who has suffered from panic attacks since the age of 16 — decided to get sober following a hospital stay for acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis.

"With a guy like me, you've got to go, 'Sobriety first,'" he says. "Without that, I would f--- up everything. Meeting my wife was a miracle to me. I'm so glad I experienced the things I experienced in life because it made me who I was when I met Susan. After I got sober, those first two years, I was in martial arts twice a day. I was reading books, I was riding my mountain bike. I was looking in the mirror and trying to figure out who the f--- I was. Being sober after being f---ed up for so long is like you're on acid for the first six months. Everything's so real."

<p>Ross Marino/Getty</p> Steven Adler, Duff McKagan, Axl Rose, Slash and Izzy Stradlin in 1988

Ross Marino/Getty

Steven Adler, Duff McKagan, Axl Rose, Slash and Izzy Stradlin in 1988

From the moment he met Holmes, McKagan knew he would never go back to his hard-partying lifestyle pre-sobriety.

"I ain't going back ever because I don't want to let this woman down, who I cherish," he says. "I ain't going to let her down. I'm not going to let [my kids] down. [The alcohol] sitting there on the shelf over across the room right across from me is going, 'Come on, come on.' Every day: 'Come on.' And I look at it and I go, 'Not today.' I have too much goodness in my life, man. At 15, I had this romantic, Norman Rockwell vision of s---, and I didn't think I was going to get there at 27, 28, 29, 30. But some things happened to me that switched my direction in life, and here I am."

And, just as he expresses on his Lighthouse song "Fallen," he hasn't stopped falling for Holmes.

"I smell her perfume before she she walks in the room, I go, 'Oh, s---,'" he says. "I talk to her on the phone or something, and I get excited, like, 'Man.'"

Related: Chrissie Hynde Joined Guns N' Roses Onstage for a Killer Performance of 'Bad Obsession' — Watch!

Describing Holmes' walk in a recent runway show, McKagan likens her to "Michael Jordan."

"If you ever get a chance to see Susan walk, it's epic," he says. "I got to go to New York to watch her walk in two shows, Kim Shui and Sergio Hudson, and Mae was there. I got to sit in that front row thing. I was in this green room before the show, and there were influencers, and Saweetie. Everybody was taking pictures. Then we take our seats, and I just can't help myself. You're supposed to be, I guess, a little reserved there. I'm yelling, 'Yes!'"

It's unsurprising then when McKagan's 60th birthday in February is brought up, and he swiftly turns his attention to another big milestone: his 25th wedding anniversary with Holmes in August.

"60 is great. I made it, and I really do feel like I'm 20," he says. "When you live in a state of gratefulness, age doesn't f---ing matter. But I'm so stoked about 25 years. That's epic. I'm going to get the XXV on my hand tattooed."

But first, a smiling McKagan — who spoke with PEOPLE shortly before Guns N' Roses' Hollywood Bowl shows on Nov. 1 and 2 — says he and his wife have a fun full-circle moment to complete: "I'm going to pick her up at Burbank Airport."

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