Learn To Fly: The Greatness of Dave Grohl

If you are any type of music fan, read or watch the news, or don’t live under a rock, you may have heard of Dave Grohl, possibly for one of his many press-worthy quotes, accomplishments or downright genuinely good or cool things he has done from drumming in Nirvana to his recent headlines after completing a concert in Sweden or resuming his tour with the Foo Fighters after sustaining a broken leg during a performance. While a household name amongst fans of rock and roll and folks all around the music industry for his positive reputation as well as for his openness and transparency, Dave’s legend has only continued to reach new heights. Here in Philadelphia and the North East region of the U.S., there is a certain buzz and energy as Grohl and Company have triumphantly kicked off their return to the stage on the fourth of July in his old Washington D.C. stomping grounds (atop a custom rock and roll throne, no less) to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary with an all-star lineup of supporting acts at RFK Stadium and have paid what will be the first of two visits here to Philly where Grohl is revered for reportedly dropping two $1,000 tips at local Smith and Wollensky’s bar in 2012. While the band needed to cancel some shows on their current tour while Grohl recovered from injury, the Foo Fighters were honored by fellow artists Florence And The Machine as well as Faith No More in their performance of Foo Fighters songs in tribute as they filled in for the band as festival headliners at Glastonbury and Belgium’s Rock Werchter, respectively.

For many fans and patrons of music, epic stories about Dave Grohl carry with them a folk-hero quality that is rare nowadays in modern culture. These tales only seem to reach the ears of a broader audience to extend to and expand in reach to larger and more cultural levels as time goes on. For many people who are curious, learning about Grohl for the first time, for fans of Dave, Nirvana or the Foo Fighters or music in general, and even for those who simply and clearly just don’t get it, on behalf of Rock On Philly I am pleased to share some of the back story of Dave Grohl’s ascending to the legendary ranks of music history.

I have interesting recollections at the age of twelve years old of learning about the band Nirvana in the year 1994. I remember occasionally hearing clips of songs such as “Heart Shaped Box” or “All Apologies” in MTV or VH1 coverage of the band in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. It was four or five years later that something special would happen that would change my musical life forever. After a handful of years of catching glimpses and clips of Nirvana’s music videos on television specials on these music channels that referenced them, I happen to be flipping through a friend’s CD booklet in the locker room before a wrestling meet in high school and came across a copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind and popped it into my Sony Discman. I was hooked for life. I listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” over, and over, and over again. And that was just in the time before we had to prepare for the match. I immediately bought a copy and began listening to it constantly, quickly buying the rest of their releases solely on the merit of that single album. Nevermind became such a central fixture of my musical life that my best friend and I began to make up a whole sequence of sing and dance-along gestures to every song on the album that we could rock out to while we jumped, head-banged and danced around. I would go on to read several books about Kurt Cobain’s life and untimely death, and I would purchase their live albums, t shirts and (eventual) box set, With The Lights Out. But there was something else that would continue to take me on a musical journey in the post-Nirvana era, and that was the music of the band’s drummer, Dave Grohl. In a fit of irony, even with all of Nirvana’s legacy and influence on my own music and with my fandom for one of my all-time favorite bands, it ended up being that band’s drummer that would go on to be the most influential in my life as a songwriter. After Nirvana’s end, Dave stepped out from behind the kit and into the role of a front man, becoming the voice of a common man amidst a mass audience of fans while beginning to make his own way in music. Even with his transparency, there is more to him than what meets the eye, something special that allows him to truly connect with music fans. It is worthwhile, to that end, to learn about some of the journey and story behind how Dave Grohl became who he is today.


Photo by Elisa Moro via Flickr

David Eric Grohl was born on January 14, 1969 in Warren, Ohio. The son of a teacher named Virginia Jean and a former news journalist for the Scripps Howard news agency named James Harper Grohl, in 1972 Dave moved at age three with his family to Springfield, Virginia on account of his Father’s job relocation. Only a few years later, Grohl’s parents divorced, resulting in Grohl growing up living with his mother- A bond that remained strong over the years, with Dave even having the entire crowd of around 35,000 people in attendance at the Reading Festival in England sing “Happy Birthday” to her while in attendance in 2012.

Grohl’s interest in music blossomed and emerged early on in his life. His Father James was a classically trained flutist with an affinity for jazz music and his Mother Virginia had sang in an acapella vocal group in high school called the Three Belles. After discovering the music of KISS, Dave’s exposure to music only broadened when his Mother’s new boyfriend when Chip Donaldson, moved in to their house , bringing with him an expansive record collection and offering Dave his first experiences with bands like Jethro Tull, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. At age 9, Dave began learning to play guitar very early, practicing on a nylon-string flamenco-type guitar originally given as a gift to his Father by his Mother and left behind when he had moved out. By the age of ten, Grohl formed a duo group called the “H. G. Hancock Band” with a neighbor and North Springfield Elementary School class mate. It wasn’t long before Dave also taught himself how to play drums, beginning by using furniture around his bedroom to form a drum set.  Said Grohl, “I had a chair that was next to my bed, and I would kneel down on the floor and put the pillow between my legs to use as my snare. I would use the chair to my left as the hi-hat and use the bed as toms and cymbals. And I would play to these records until there was condensation dripping from the windows.“ Dave also tells an amazing story about his drive to learn instruments, which included playing guitar along to Beatles albums and drums along to Rush, motivated purely by his own initiative: “I never took drum lessons. I learned how to do it on my bed by listening to Rush records and punk rock. Actually, I took one drum lesson, and the teacher was like, “How do you hold your sticks? Yeah, you know that’s not how you’re supposed to hold them.” I’m like, “Okay, I don’t have $30 an hour to sit there and re-learn everything that I’ve learned…” And it was the same with guitar. I took a couple of guitar lessons, and then I wound up just figuring it out on my own. And I play guitar my way– I don’t really know what any of the chords are, but the way I look at a guitar is like a drum set. I look at the lower strings like they’re kicks and snares, and I look at the higher strings like they’re cymbals, so when I play, it’s almost like a kick-snare pattern. I accentuate a riff like it’s a kick or snare pattern.

A major musical moment in Grohl’s life came a year later when he and his sister spent a summer in Illinois at the home of their Cousin’s house, where they were exposed to punk rock and shows by a variety of punk bands- Dave’s first one coming in the year I was born, 1982, when he saw Naked Raygun at The Cubby Bear venue in the City of Chicago at the age of 13. Grohl said “From then on we were totally punk… We went home and bought Maximumrocknroll and tried to figure it all out.” As the vice president of his class as a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School in Virgina, he played bits of songs by punk bands like the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains over the school PA system prior before making announcements. And in his experiences in the live punk scene of Washington D.C. Grohl has said “I went to the 9:30 club hundreds of times. I was always so excited to get there, and I was always bummed when it closed. I spent my teenage years at the club and saw some shows that changed my life.” Recently, Grohl’s name made headlines when punk and hardcore music legend Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi found and posted a fan letter from a then fourteen-year old Dave which clearly exhibited Grohl’s ambition and life’s calling.

While he was in high school, Grohl played in a number  of punk bands including a brief stint on guitar in a band called “Freak Baby.” Dave had been teaching himself to play drums at the time and he cites  John Bonham as his greatest influence in the early years of his development as he had decided to switch instruments permanently after one of the band’s rehearsals during which the opportunity presented itself to do so, with the band going on to then call themselves “Mission Impossible”. The shuffled line up performed together until they eventually disbanded and in December of 1985,  a jam session in Grohl’s living room in Springfield led to the formation of his band “Dain Bramage”. Bootlegs of which can still be dug up by music treasure-hunters. I heard a couple recordings of their songs a few years ago that had a “Foo Fighters” type quality to it. After dropping out of his junior year of high school, Grohl said, “I was seventeen and extremely anxious to see the world, so I did it.” Dave joined the Washington, D.C.-based hardcore band Scream when their drummer departed. Because Grohl was 17 years old, to get the audition he told them he was 20. This is the band (out of his prior projects) that he would be known for as it was the pre-cursor to his biggest success.

Over the course of playing on three of the Scream’s albums and touring with them a few times, Dave became a friend of the band The Melvins and their drummer, Dave Crover. While the Melvins were on tour in 1990 on the West coast, The Melvins Roger “Buzz” Osborne (whom I recently interviewed during his first solo tour) invited Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to see Scream play. It wasn’t long after that Scream suddenly disbanded and Grohl travelled to Seattle to try out for Nirvana, landing the gig as their drummer. Nirvana had already been working on some songs for this follow-up to the album Bleach with producer Butch Vig, resulting in a lot of major label interest based on these demos. Grohl spent his first months with Nirvana meeting with interested major labels, finally signing with DGC’s Geffen Record, entering Sound City studios in the spring of 1991 to record the album that would become named and known for generations to come as Nevermind. Grohl famously has revisited Sound City in recent years and made a successful documentary film on the studio.

During the recording and creative process for Nevermind, Grohl lived with Cobain for about 9 months in which they lived off corn dogs that were 3-for-$0.99 bought across the street from Kurt’s apartment. While the band recorded songs Cobain wrote subtly about his break up with then-girlfriend Tobi Vail they worked with Butch Vig, who even had Grohl play his Yamaha snare on a few songs,  the very same drum used in the Smashing Pumpkin’s album Gish. While Nevermind would sell over 30,000 copies worldwide, it was during the making of the album that Grohl compiled songs he had written and recorded himself, quietly releasing them on a cassette called “Pocketwatch” in 1992 on an indie label called Simple Machines under the name “Late!”.

Grohl’s song “Marigiold” was a B-side on the single for Nirvanas’ “Heart Shaped Box” and he also contributed the primary guitar riff for “Scentless Apprentice” as well. In 1994 during several days that the band had booked at Robert Lang Studios, Novoselic and Grohl worked on several songs, which included future Foo Fighters tracks such as “Exhausted”, “Big Me”, “February Stars”, and “Butterflies”. When Cobain finally arrived on the third day, the band recorded what would prove to be their final studio recording, “You Know You’re Right”.

After Cobain’s death in April of 1994, Grohl retreated from the public eye until October of 1994 when he again scheduled studio time at Robert Lang’s Studio, producing a fifteen-track demo of songs on which Grohl performed all of the instruments himself with the exception of a single guitar part on “X-Static”. His demo was passed around he received a great deal of major label interest including that of former Geffen A&R guru Gary Gersh who had taken over as president of Capital Records. Having licensed the album to Capitol under his newly minted Roswell Records imprint, Grohl did not want to trek out on a solo career, saying later that “The first album was a fluke, it wasn’t meant to be a career.. It wasn’t meant to be band… I called it “Foo Fighters” because I didn’t want them to know it was me if they heard it, I wanted them to think it was a band..“ Dave recruited band members including former Germs  and Nirvana touring/rhythm guitarist Pat Smear and two former members of the recently dissolved indie band Sunny Day Real Estate, including bass player Nate Mendel who recently performed here in Philly at Johnny Brenda’s debuting a tour of his solo project, Lieutenant. Grohl’s demos were so efficient that they simply had them professionally mixed and released as the Foo Fighters debut album in July of 1995. The name “Foo Fighters” was chosen by Grohl in reference to the World War II term pilots would use to describe various UFO’s, also a theme carried in Grohl’s naming of his Capitol Records imprint, “Roswell Records.” With several hit singles, the most successful proved to be “Big Me” which I recalled the success of the music video for the song on MTV as well. Foo Fighters music videos began to take a special course following the fun lead of the “Big Me” video, often with Grohl directing.

During the sessions for the Foo Fighter’s second album The Colour And The Shape, Grohl re-recorded all the tracks in Los Angeles drumming himself after things didn’t work out with William Goldsmith. Released in May 1997 the album eventually cemented Foo Fighters as a staple of rock radio with former Alanis Morrisette drummer Taylor Hawkins joining the band on drums and, eventually, Chris Shiflett on guitar.  Shiflett and Grohl shared many commonalities in their musical backgrounds as highlighted in the Foo Fighters documentary Back And Forth. During that era, I had been drawn in strongly by the music video for “My Hero”, having seen it on MTV.  And that was when I discovered “Everlong.” When you love music, it is very special to discover a song that captivates you because of its ability to articulate something you feel or think in a context so powerfully clear, that you can’t help but identify with it. For me, that song is “Everlong.” I think anyone who has ever loved music and another person can identify with the lyrics and music on a personal level. It became my favorite song of all time. Only the Beatles “Hey Jude” challenges that #1 spot. It may be a tie. The album and its singles did well, earning the band a Grammy nomination in 1998 for Best Rock Album. The songs are a mix of fast and slow tempos, inspired by Grohl’s divorce from photographer Jennifer Youngblood whom he’d married in 1994, providing more developed music with more of Grohl’s trademark, introspective and personal lyrics.

Eventually all the touring combined with the the hectic lifestyle of L.A. caught up to Dave. In 2006, he claimed he had: “… been living in Los Angeles for about a year and a half, just being a drunk, getting f****d up every night and doing horrible s**t, and I’d finally gotten sick of that new car smell. So, I bought this great house in Virginia and told everyone I was building a studio in the basement. It was literally a basement with sleeping bags on the walls!… It was all about just settling into the next phase of your life, that place where you can sit back and relax because there had been so much crazy s**t in the past three years. At that point it was me, Taylor and Nate and we were best friends. It was one of the most relaxing times of my whole life. All we did was eat chilli, drink beer and whiskey and record whenever we felt like it. When I listen to that record it totally brings me back to that basement. I remember how it smelled and how it was in the Spring so the windows were open and we’d do vocals until you could hear the birds through the microphone. And more than any other record I’ve ever done, that album does that to me.“ Grohl has stated before that the band would have “a barbecue every day after recording.”

The name of the album came from a conversation Grohl had with a friend “about when you experience these emotions after you’ve been through a long, difficult period and you finally give into this feeling that, quite simply, there is nothing left to lose. It can seem… positive, desperate and reckless.” The frontman also said that it represented the band’s mood during production: “we just wrote off and played like all bets were off. No one was forcing us to be there, so it had to be fun—and the songs had to be the best we could possibly come up with at the time.

And that is exactly what it was and exactly what they did. Dave Grohl turned his basement into the home recording studio where the 1999 album that changed my music-life and songwriting forever, There Is Nothing Left To Lose, was recorded.

For myself, personally, the timing in which I really fell in love with the music of the Foo Fighters couldn’t have been better, as they had just released There Is Nothing Left To Lose right after I had really got into The Colour And The Shape.  The quality of the songwriting shined through, it radiated on this album. All the songs sounded good my best friend and I drove about 40 minutes from where we lived to the time to see Dave and the band at Newbury Comics music store in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. While we were waiting in line out front for the meet and great Dave Grohl took out his acoustic guitar in the back parking lot and played several songs for the guys that ran around back. We went in and got our copies of the new album signed, I also had Dave sign my copy of In Utero which I would later get signed by Krist Novoselic while hanging out with him behind the Middle East Club in Cambridge Massachusetts near Boston. I would again see Dave play with the Foo Fighters, opening for The Red Hot Chili Peppers on their Californication tour stop at the Tweeter Center Amphitheater in Mansfield, MA as well as once more on that tour, performing at The Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was one of the best shows of my life.

After Dave filled in on drums for the recording of the Queens Of The Stone Age album Songs For The Deaf (which is amazing, by the way)…

The band hurried to catch up on re-recording their fourth album, “One By One”. At first the band felt good about the album, it’s hit single “All My Life” is an amazing track and quickly contended amongst fans as their favorite Foo Fighters song. It is an awesome, hard rock up-tempo song with a killer music video.

The rest of the album came up short, however, with Grohl even saying in a 2005 Rolling Stone interview that “Four of the songs were good, and the other seven I never played again in my life. We rushed into it, and we rushed out of it.” In June of 2005, Grohl and Foo Fighters released their fifth album In Your Honor which was made by relocating Grohl’s home-based Virginia studio to a new warehouse facility near Los Angeles called Studio 606. Then in September of 2007, came the Foo Fighters sixth studio album Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace. Yet again producing the bands hardest rocking chops to date featured in the blistering and powerful single “The Pretender”.

This album was followed by a 16 track Foo Fighters Greatest Hits in 2009, and then the Foo Fighters’ seventh and what would again prove to be a Grammy award winning studio album, the Butch Vig produced Wasting Light in 2011, becoming the first Foo Fighters album to reach No. 1 in the United States. It was a homecoming of many sorts, both for Nevermind producer Butch Vig and for Foo Fighters albums in general.

One of the most relevant things that  offers an insight into Dave’s creative capabilities is the high level of diversity in talent(s) he possesses. Dave recorded a metal project in the early 2000’s called “Probot” featuring an all-star cast of metal vocalists. He has filled in as a talk show host, has made cameo appearances in TV and film, doing instruments and vocals for the soundtrack to the 1997 movie “Touch”, performing at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He also has made very memorable appearances in other artists music videos such as Tenacious D and Queens of the Stone Age.

Recently Grohl directed the aformentioned Sound City documentary about the Van Nuys studio of the same name where Nevermind was recorded that recently shut down in 2011 and is presently touring in support of the bands new Sonic Highways album. Dave is a true music fan whom I feel captures the heart of a fan of music seeking to make music. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he captures and articulates my shared feeling on current advances in recording music: “.. you have technology, and it’s availability to everyone. It’s inspiring that any person, any kid, any musician, can now make an album in their living room and distribute it around the world with the click of a button. That’s.. amazing; can you imagine?

On November 23, 2002, Dave Grohl made history by replacing himself at the top of the Billboard Modern Rock chart, when Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” was replaced by the Foo Fighters “All My Life” which, after a week at the end of its number one run, the spot was then occupied by the Queens of the Stone Age. So, between October 26, 2002 and March 1, 2003 Dave Grohl held the number one spot on the Modern Rock charts for 17 out of 18 successive weeks, and as a member of three different rock groups. Grohl has been outspoken regarding any type of drug misuse, contributing to a 2009 BBC anti-drug campaign in which he said “I have never done cocaine, ever in my life. I have never done heroin, I have never done speed,” he said in a 2008 interview, adding that he had stopped smoking marijuana and taking acid at the age of 20. In the BBC video he said, “I’ve seen people die. It ain’t easy being young, but that stuff doesn’t make it any easier” On August 2, 2003, Grohl married Jordyn Blum and they have since had two daughters together: Violet Maye (born 2006) and Harper Willow (born 2009).

I saw Dave again for the first time in years recently, at Soundgarden’s reunion show in July of 2011 at the Forum in L.A. Before he passed away in a car accident, my best friend I had pledged that we would make sure that we would see either of two bands should they get back together. One was Led Zeppelin, the other was Soundgarden. Unfortunately, the news of Soundgarden’s reunion came a few months too late. I purchased General Admission floor tickets for the show and the environment was amazing. I heard Jerry Cantrell was hanging out near the back of the floor crowd watching the concert, Mike McCready from Pearl Jam hopped on stage to play “Superunknown”, former Major League Baseball pitcher Randy Johnson could be seen behind and around the stage snapping pictures, as he has taken up photography in his retirement. But then came the best part. I’m right up near the stage in a gigantic squished crowd of rowdy people, I look to my right and standing next to me and rocking out is Dave Grohl. He could’ve hung out back, but he understood what was going on at that moment as a pure music fan. There I stood, shoulder to shoulder at a Soundgarden show, their first show in L.A. since 1996, rocking out with one of my heroes. If that wasn’t enough, we were singing and shouting along to the songs, so I got to hear what it would sound like if the Foo Fighters covered some Soundgarden songs. Dave kept diverting people’s attention to the stage and telling them not to pay attention to him. because SOUNDGARDEN was playing!! He politely but firmly kept directing their attentions and cameras towards the band and the stage and just enjoyed the show, rocking out from the pit. We shared some good laughs and joked around.  It was the greatest concert of my life.

Dave gave the keynote speech at the SXSW festival and changed my musical life yet again. It is way too much good stuff that I wish I could transcribe into this post. But it is truly inspiring and life-changing and is something that every music fan or person who desires to make music in their life should hear. The speech lasted just under an hour and covered his musical life from his youth through to his life and experiences in the band with the Foo Fighters, but also he took great measure to emphasize the importance of each individual’s voice, regardless of who the individual is: “There is no right or wrong—there is only your voice … What matters most is that it’s your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Respect it.”

Dave also performed on stage with Paul McCartney at the 51st Grammy Awards after winning 5 Grammy awards for the Foo Fighters album “Wasting Light.” Shortly after, Dave reunited all surviving members of Nirvana to play behind McCartney’s lead on a song they improvised called “Cut Me Some Slack”.  At the 12-12-12-Sandy Benefit Concert, Paul McCartney joined Dave Grohl and the other surviving members of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, to perform the song- also later recording it for the Sound City soundtrack. For the members of Nirvana, this was the first time in eighteen years that they had played together.

Dave Grohl, like any of us, is by no measure perfect nor a perfect standard, and he would likely be the first one to tell you so. But what he is a breath of fresh air when it comes to being a down-to-Earth real person, but also in overcoming a personal life has been marked with so many ups and downs… His parents’ divorce.. The loss of his friend Kurt Cobain… The end of a short-lived first marriage… Yet his resiliency has served as an inspiration for millions. In the end, what makes Dave a hero of rock and roll isn’t merely his track record, it is more in that he is a real person who is real with his fans. He is a music fan who loves music first and foremost. In May 2006, Dave sent a personal note to the two trapped miners in the Beaconsfield Mine Collapse in Tasmania, Australia. In the first couple days following the collapse, one of the miners requested an iPod with the Foo Fighters album In Your Honor to be lowered down to them through a small hole. Some of Grohl’s note read: “Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?”

And in October 2006, one of the miners joined Grohl for a drink after a Foo Fighters acoustic concert at the Sydney Opera House. Grohl even went out of his way to write an instrumental piece for the meeting, which he said would be included on the band’s next album. And so, the song “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners,” can be found on the Foo Fighters’ 2007 release Echos, Silence And Grace. Dave Grohl isn’t some inaccessible rock god that sits high above and apart from the fans of music, from the real people. Dave is just Dave. He is a music fan that loves music. He is one of us, a real person who is real with people, and that is why he is beloved by fan and music critic alike.

Featured Image by Elisa Moro via Flickr

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