THE GROHL STORY
WITH FOO FIGHTERS, ‘NICEST MAN IN ROCKí DAVE GROHL SHOWS THERE WAS MORE THAN ONE GENIUS IN NIRVANA
February 17, 2008 — The other day on a MySpace group dedicated to the Foo Fighters, a fan posted a complaint about the band’s Grammy defeat to Amy Winehouse for Album of the Year. Several other fans quickly replied that yes, they would have preferred that their beloved band took the prize, but that Amy is a deserving talent and, anyway, the fact that the Foo Fighters won a couple of other awards indicated that good music was not yet dead.
The original poster then apologized for using vulgar language.
This is the Internet? That contentious realm of partisan ranting, misspelled testimonials to the perfection of one’s favorite and F-bomb-laden declarations of the utter rankness of all others? Such unusual amiability says something about the good-guy vibe conveyed by Foo frontman Dave Grohl, often described by writers as “chirpy” and “the nicest man in rock.”
A 39-year-old Ohio native, Grohl indeed comes off like a regular guy who enjoys a Parliament and a sip of Crown Royal whiskey as he marvels over his grand success. It’s unlikely that he resents Winehouse’s Grammy win, as the Foo Fighters have nabbed six of them by now (including last week’s yield of Best Hard Rock Performance for the chart-topping song “The Pretender” and Best Rock Album, for the recent “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”).
In fact, as he told MTV’s Kurt Loder, “My bedroom door won’t stay open for some reason, so I keep it open with my Grammy. I think it’s kind of kick-ass that I have a Grammy holding up my bedroom door.”
With a baffled record industry sputtering toward the junkyard, Grammy awards seem about as relevant as “Best Soviet Blacksmith” honors. But if Grohl’s irreverent household use of the coveted Victrola statuette indicates his own modest perspective on the achievement, it also reveals a cockiness earned by remaining one of music’s most consistent and impressive success stories since the Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album hit big right out of the box.
Grohl can afford to flip a bird to an industry grateful for the kind of unit-shifting band it seldom encounters anymore. All six Foo Fighters albums have been massive sellers, propelled by often goofball videos like a 1996 promo clip for the single “Big Me,” which brilliantly parodied the Euro-kitsch ad campaign for Mentos candies.
This clip was so popular it inspired Foo fans to pelt the band with Mentos, forcing them to drop the song from their set. “We did stop playing that song for a while because, honestly, it’s like being stoned,” Grohl says. “Those little things are like pebbles – they hurt.”
Familiar as the public may be with Grohl and company clowning in stewardess drag on MTV, besotted as it’s been with their brand of powerful, punk-based pop, it’s still a fair amazement that the Foo Fighters have sold out tomorrow night’s Madison Square Garden performance. It was a feat common in the days of Grohl’s beloved Led Zeppelin but lately rare for rockers outside of the Springsteen/ U2/ “interviewed-by-60-Minutes” league of icons.
This would have been hard to predict back in ’94, when Grohl and Krist Novoselic found themselves odd men out upon the suicide of their Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain. Cobain’s songwriting and dark charisma so dominated the public perception of Nirvana that his death seemed to leave the other two in a position like that of the surviving Doors after the death of Jim Morrison: up the proverbial career creek without the p.r. paddle.
But Grohl had other plans, and in his short – less than four years – stint as Nirvana’s drummer, he’d already begun recording his own very different work.
As he later recalled in a Rolling Stone interview, his feelings at the time were mixed. “The band had a life of its own before I joined them. When I think of Nirvana, I think of ‘Bleach.’ I think of how much I listened to the record before I was asked to join the band. I thought they were great before I joined them. Being in the band ruined it.”
Grohl’s first tentative sortie out of the Nirvana fold was issued as a low-profile cassette titled “Pocketwatch,” and as Cobain’s personal problems left Krist and Dave more and more idle, they began recording some of the tunes that eventually wound up as Foo fodder. After Cobain’s death, Grohl took up this path in earnest.
Certainly, it was post-Nirvana curiosity that perked up people’s ears to Grohl’s largely one-man debut as Foo Fighters, but it was the music that kept them listening. For all the incessant attention and questions he still receives regarding his “42 months or so” stint in the legendary band that finally dragged punk into the mainstream, it’s his 13-years-and-counting with Foo Fighters that constitute his real career as a rock star.
Understandably, he remains wary of any inquiries dwelling on Cobain, whether his interrogators aim to nose around into the intimacies of their friendship or try to interpret his own music through a silly Nirvana-centric point of view.
“That’s what I don’t like,” he told Q magazine, “I write a song and it’s ‘Is this about Courtney or Kurt?’ You know, there have been a few other people in my life. They’re not all about Kurt and Courtney.”
Grohl has referred to his late bandmate in song and indulged the occasional journalist who wants further chapter and verse on the Nirvana mythos, but he has long moved on, to the chagrin of those who still search Foo Fighters songs for hints, clues and deep dish. It’s unfortunate; if Grohl’s works with the Foos inevitably lacks the almost mystic aura of Nirvana’s music, it retains its force and accessibility and adds a far broader emotional purview, with a seriousness of intent slightly at odds with Grohl’s happy-go-lucky image.
For “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace,” Grohl drew inspiration from the birth of his daughter, Violet Maye. “I can’t be scared of writing things that I really feel -there are a lot of things that I kept myself from saying over the years,” he says. Violet Maye’s arrival prompted him to brave a more introspective lyrical take and, even in utero, influenced the music itself, somehow responding pro and con to music Dave played her.
“She likes The Beatles!” he insists.
Sure enough, Grohl introduced a few Beatle touches on the album, right off the bat on the lyrical intro to the instant hit “The Pretender,” an otherwise typically aggressive tune, and particularly on the piano ballad “Statues,” a lovely dose of rueful wisdom. “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” reveals another side of Grohl’s maturity, a finger-picked acoustic instrumental in tribute to several Tasmanian gold mine workers who requested that Foo Fighters songs be played for them during their two-week ordeal, trapped after a cave-in.
These and other mellow touches on the album recall Grohl’s unexpected acoustic tour of 2006, which had a deep impact on future Foo Fighters music. “There is something so powerful about the quiet dynamic” Grohl told London’s New Music Express. “To me, it is much more powerful than a f – – – ing wall of amplifiers sometimes. It’s funny how much that has changed our band.”
The acoustic Foo foray also saw him reunited with Pat Smear, the former Germs guitarist who added sorely needed fun to Nirvana’s later period, and who also appears on the latest Foo Fighters album. Recalling Smear’s Nirvana stint, Grohl told Rolling Stone, “When Pat Smear joined the band, it changed everything. We went from being sulking dirtbags to kids again. He’s the sweetest person in the world.”
And right there is a hint to the secret of nice-guy Grohl’s longevity. Motivated and self-sufficient as he has proven to be, he thrives on the mojo of collaboration. His brief turn as drummer in Queens of the Stone Age immeasurably boosted that band’s profile, just as his sting as replacement drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers provided the veteran act with a welcome shot of musical Geritol.
Grohl’s unaccountable devotion to assisting Jack Black’s Tenacious D drumming on their debut album and appearing as the devil in the 2006 film “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny” surely hasn’t done that tedious comedy duo any harm.
More interestingly, Grohl has worked with hard-rock icons ranging from Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Motorhead’s Lemmy to weirdo hellion King Diamond. He’s also played with punk stalwarts like Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, contemporary geniuses like Cat Power and onetime geniuses like Nine Inch Nails. It all confirms his status as a kind of rock-‘n’-roll Zelig – constantly turning up in all the right places with all the right people, regardless of how unlikely the partnership might appear.
“A lot of musicians do want to work with Dave because they all know that he gives his best,” Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel told NY Rock. “There must be a reason why people like Tom Petty, Mike Watt, David Bowie and Tony Iommi wanted to record with him. I think what he does is great. It inspires him, and in turn he inspires us. So it is quite fruitful for everybody.”
Apart from musical considerations, Grohl’s popularity with other artists may also owe something to the same upbeat appeal that makes his fans behave so politely on their online discussion boards.
Grohl spells it out like this: “It’s a lot more fun to look at the bright side of things and to laugh about yourself and the s – – t that happens. Honestly, do you really believe anybody would believe it if we tried to pose as the bad guys of rock now? Looking miserable and dangerous and holding some ridiculous poses? That’s not our thing.”
And if Grohl has any ax to grind with Amy Winehouse, it probably has less to do with her Grammy win and more to do with little Violet Maye Grohl’s affection for her music. As Dave told the BBC: “It’s a little unnerving when your 2-year-old sings ‘Rehab’ all day long. ”
THE GROHL STORY