The refrigerator backstage at a Velvet Revolver concert is packed with Vitamin Water, canned shots of Starbucks espresso, and the nonalcoholic beer O'Doul's. But after tonight's show at the U.S. Bank Arena, guitarist Slash, formerly of Guns N' Roses, wants to unwind with a stiffer drink. So he pours himself a plastic cup of red wine and toasts...himself. Slash is a man with every reason to celebrate. Velvet Revolver's debut, Contraband, buoyed by the radio-friendly growler ''Slither'' and the power ballad ''Fall to Pieces,'' is one of the best-selling rock albums of 2004, and the band is halfway through its first tour of American arenas. And yet he is a party of one.
''Well, I hate to play and run...'' announces bassist Duff McKagan, also once of GN'R. Ever since his pancreas, brutalized by daily dumpings of dope and liquor, blew up nine years ago, he's been as clean as a monk. Even when he's on the road, McKagan, 40, likes to be in bed with a book by midnight. Newly sober lead singer Scott Weiland, who's fought a public battle with heroin for years, isn't sticking around either. The band's 37-year-old frontman does some vocal exercises in the venue's shower before leaving in a bathrobe without a word, eye makeup running down his face. Velvet Revolver's other guitarist, Dave Kushner, 38, hasn't touched alcohol in 14 years. And drummer Matt Sorum, 44—another GN'R survivor—is the only guy in the band without a wife back home, so his main interest is the eager-eyed women clustered in the hall outside the band's dressing room.
Drugs and groupies have a dangerous way of drawing a band together, and GN'R, led by mercurial frontman Axl Rose, toured the world as a bleary-eyed pack of wolves. ''We drank together, we played rock & roll together, we traveled together,'' says Sorum. ''It was like a gang.'' Older and wiser, Velvet Revolver must endure the difficult process of redefining what it means to be a touring band.
Left alone, Slash, 39, heads to a sports bar, the kind with friendly bartenders and quarters stacked on the pool table, a block away from the band's hotel. ''You think this is a good idea, man?'' wonders a crew member who's shuttling his charge around in a van. ''I stir up the littlest s -- - on my own,'' Slash promises before entering the bar's genial confines. ''I put my hair in a ponytail, put my sunglasses on, and I just go on in, have a drink, hang out. No big deal.'' But five minutes later, Guns N' Roses' ''Welcome to the Jungle'' comes pounding out of the jukebox. ''Oh, man, this always happens,'' he groans. Fans start sending over shots, but Slash sticks with his pint of Guinness, shy and good-natured with the rowdy well-wishers.
At 2 a.m., the bartender closes up and invites Slash to smoke a joint in the back with the fry cook. Slash happily obliges, then takes his own turn at the jukebox. With U2's ''I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'' filling the room, the conversation ranges from Slash's lifelong romance with the guitar to his flirtations with the afterlife. ''I've died, like, four times and I haven't seen s -- -. Well, I was probably too f -- -ed up,'' he says, laughing. ''But isn't that part of the beauty of living, that we can't imagine what comes next?''