Dave Grohl explains how music — and a hitchhiker wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt — helped him heal
Dave Grohl only spent three and a half years drumming for Nirvana — but he says it felt like a lifetime.
The band’s iconic album “Nevermind” came out 30 years ago last month. And Grohl started the Foo Fighters after Kurt Cobain’s heartbreaking suicide in 1994. Grohl writes about his life — from being a regular at the White House to Saturday Night Live — in his new memoir, “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music.”
The musician writes that he’s aware people will always know him as the drummer from Nirvana.
“I’ll forever be honored to have been a part,” he says.
Grohl started his career in music as a skinny kid from Virginia, a mama’s boy from a broken home who practiced drums on his pillows holding the sticks backward. His mother was a public school teacher who sang in an acapella group in the ‘50s. And his father, a classically trained flutist, worked on Capitol Hill as a speechwriter.
One day, Grohl picked up an old guitar and started playing. That’s when he realized he could learn songs by ear.
“It wasn’t just a hobby, it was more of an obsession,” he says. “And I still feel that way to this day. I wake up every day feeling just like I did when I was 10 years old.”
Grohl’s mother taught at the high school that he dropped out of. She realized her son, a self-described “terrible student,” was better off learning through experiencing the world, he says, and supported the decision with some trepidation. His father, however, told him he wouldn’t succeed in life.
But Grohl joined the band Scream and went on tour.
Traveling cross country in a van was hard and the band struggled, he says. He held down jobs at furniture warehouses, record stores and pizza shops in those early days of his music career.
When Grohl met Cobain and Krist Novoselic for the first time, Nirvana had already released their debut album, “Bleach,” but needed a drummer.
Grohl recalls eating an apple when Cobain and Novoselic picked him up at the airport for their first meeting.
“I looked at Kurt and I said, ‘Hey, do you want a bite?’ Grohl says. “And he said, ‘No, thanks. Those things make my teeth bleed.’ ”
That was Grohl’s introduction to the band that changed his life.
“When I joined Nirvana, I don’t think anybody knew what was going to happen next,” he says. “And that was what I loved about life.”
After the band recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — as the anthem of a generation — Grohl says they thought it was a “cool song,” but they didn’t know it was “the song.”
When the band rehearsed the hit in a barn outside of Tacoma, Washington, Grohl would keep his eye on Cobain’s Converse sneaker. As Grohl saw the frontman’s Chuck move toward the distortion pedal, the drummer played a massive drum roll before both musicians kicked in for the iconic chorus
Grohl begins the chapter about Cobain’s suicide — the most difficult part of the book to write — with the words, “He’s gone, Dave.”
Cobain’s death turned Grohl’s world upside down. Grohl says he put all his instruments away and couldn’t even listen to music on the radio.
Struggling and unaware of how to feel, Grohl took a trip to the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, one of his favorite places in the world, to drive around and figure things out.
“One day I was driving down this country road and I saw a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere. And as I got closer, I realized that he was wearing a Kurt Cobain T-shirt,” he says. “And it was that moment that I decided, OK, I’m going to start over.”
That’s when Grohl started the Foo Fighters. Until then, Grohl was associated with punk bands, a darker side of music that doesn’t reflect his true self.
As a kid, Grohl recalls driving around, singing along to ‘70s AM radio with his mother. He loved music because it “healed his soul,” sparked joy and helped him escape, he says.
Now, fans can hear his personality and love for life in his music.
“I’m the earnest, sort of eager rock ’n’ roll dude who like is annoyingly happy, and I’ve taken the danger out of rock and roll,” he says. “But there’s a part of me that’s like, do you want me to put it back in? Because I’ve seen what it’ll do.”
Tom Petty asked Grohl to join the Heartbreakers, an offer Grohl declined. After playing in bands since age 12, he says he couldn’t imagine joining another after Nirvana. But Petty and his band helped Grohl move on.
Grohl didn’t want to play drums again straight away because the instrument served as a reminder of the band he’d lost, so he took a shot at guitar, singing and songwriting instead.
The next part of the story looks up: Grohl returned home to Virginia, built a recording studio, got married, had three kids who he takes on the road, won Best Rock Album at the Grammys multiple times and got invited to play at the White House.
Every day, he still wonders how he got where is today.
“Throughout life, I’ve just tried to appreciate the things that maybe others can’t,” he says. “I wake up everyday thinking, OK, I’m happy to be alive. Even if it’s a bad day, I’m going to try to rise above it and make some music.”
As a kid, he remembers seeing the B-52s on SNL and connecting to the band’s weird, eccentric energy. He realized he was different and felt empowered by it.
Still today, Grohl sees reminders of his friend Cobain everywhere he looks.
Some memories make him sad, while others give him no choice but to smile. Grohl used to turn off any Nirvana songs that came on, but now he turns the dial-up and revisits the moment like he’s looking at an old photo album.
And sometimes, Grohl gets a feeling that Cobain approves of the life he’s lived since moving on from Nirvana.
“He’s always smiling in my dreams,” Grohl says. “So I take that as a good sign.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Storyteller’
By Dave Grohl
TURN IT UP
Sometimes I forget that I’ve aged.
My head and my heart seem to play this cruel trick on me, deceiving me with the false illusion of youth by greeting the world every day through the idealistic, mischievous eyes of a rebellious child finding happiness and appreciation in the most basic, simple things.
Though it only takes one quick look in the mirror to remind me that I am no longer that little boy with a cheap guitar and a stack of records, practicing alone for hours on end in hopes of someday breaking out of the confines and expectations of my suburban Virginia, Wonder Bread existence. No. Now my reflection bares the chipped teeth of a weathered smile, cracked and shortened from years of microphones grinding their delicate enamel away. I see the heavy bags beneath my hooded eyes from decades of jet lag, of sacrificing sleep for another precious hour of life. I see the patches of white within my beard. And I am thankful for all of it.
Years ago, I was asked to perform at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy relief concert in New York City. Held at Madison Square Garden, it featured the Mount Rushmore of rock and roll lineups: McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Roger Waters, and countless other household names. At one point, I was approached by a promoter who asked if I would join some of these most iconic artists in the greenroom to take photos with some fans who had donated large sums of money to the cause. Honored to be involved, I happily obliged and made my way through the maze of backstage corridors, imagining a room full of rock and roll history, all standing in an elementary school photo formation, nothing but leather jackets and British accents. As I entered, I was surprised to find only two of the performers, standing at opposite ends of the space. One had the shiny appearance of a brand-new luxury car. Perfectly dyed hair, spray tan, and a recently refurbished smile that had the look of a fresh box of Chiclets (an obvious attempt at fending off the aging process, which ultimately had the adverse effect, giving the appearance of an old wall with too many layers of paint). The other had the appearance of a vintage, burned-out hot rod. Wiry gray hair, deep lines carved into a scowl, teeth that could have belonged to George Washington, and a black T-shirt that hugged a barrel-chested frame so tightly, you immediately knew that this was someone who did not give one flying f***.
Epiphany may seem cliché, but in a flash I saw my future. I decided right then and there that I would become the latter. That I would celebrate the ensuing years by embracing the toll they’d take on me. That I would aspire to become the rusted-out hot rod, no matter how many jump-starts I might require along the way. Not everything needs a shine, after all. If you leave a Pelham Blue Gibson Trini Lopez guitar in the case for fifty years, it will look like it was just delivered from the factory. But if you take it in your hands, show it to the sun, let it breathe, sweat on it, and f****** PLAY it, over time the finish will turn a unique shade. And each instrument ages entirely differently. To me, that is beauty. Not the gleam of prefabricated perfection, but the road-worn beauty of individuality, time, and wisdom.
Miraculously, my memory has remained relatively intact. Since I was a child, I have always measured my life in musical increments rather than months or years. My mind faithfully relies on songs, albums, and bands to remember a particular time and place. From seventies AM radio to every microphone I’ve stood before, I could tell you who, what, where, and when from the first few notes of any song that has crept from a speaker to my soul. Or from my soul to your speakers. Some people’s reminiscence is triggered by taste, some people’s by sight or smell. Mine is triggered by sound, playing like an unfinished mixtape waiting to be sent.
Though I have never been one to collect “stuff,” I do collect moments. So, in that respect, my life flashes before my eyes and through my ears every single day. In this book, I’ve captured some of them, as best I can. These memories, from all over my life, are full of music, of course. And they can be loud at times.
Turn it up. Listen with me.
From THE STORYTELLER by Dave Grohl Copyright © 2021 by David Eric Grohl. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.