The Incurable Optimism of Dave Grohl

The Incurable Optimism of Dave Grohl

In his new memoir, the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighter front man charts his swift rise in the music industry.


Dave Grohl is the last real rock star. His two bands, Nirvana and Foo Fighters, have each sold millions of records; he’s won Grammys, Emmys, and played the Oscars; he’s twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and he’s beloved by music fans across the genre spectrum—one representative video clip from Desus & Mero is titled “Why Black People Really Love Dave Grohl.” Though Americans don’t agree about much, we agree Dave Grohl is one hell of a guy.

The reasons for this enchantment are obvious. Just watch a few minutes of any interview with Grohl and try not to be charmed by the open, charismatic, and friendly rock and roll dad in front of you. Unlike past male front men—the acerbic John Lennon, the mystifying David Bowie, the slinky Axl Rose, the tormented Kurt Cobain—Grohl is just one of the guys, someone who would be as comfortable at his kid’s soccer match as at an underground punk show.

This affable and cool Grohl is precisely the person who comes through in The Storyteller, the rock star’s new memoir. Anyone looking to read about wild tales from the road will be disappointed in the book; Grohl never discusses groupies or trashing hotel rooms, and he recounts no casually vicious stories akin to Led Zeppelin’s infamous “mud shark incident.” Grohl’s all about the music, man, and he wants you to know that it saved him—and it can save you, too.

The Storyteller’s amiable tone is to be expected: Grohl has never been an especially confessional artist. He’s here to rock out and have a good time, and to make sure you have a good time in the process. Thus, there’s very little here about Grohl’s time in Nirvana or his relationship with Kurt Cobain, one of the most bewildering and compelling figures in rock and roll history. There’s also no discussion of the decline and fall of rock and roll, which Grohl witnessed firsthand. He never once addresses the fact that rock music, the genre that he dominates, has been replaced at the top of the charts by rap and hip-hop—an epochal shift worthy of at least a mention. Nor does he reflect upon the music industry’s total evisceration at the hands of Internet pirates and streaming services. The music business Grohl entered in the 1980s is not the one he finds himself in today, but you wouldn’t know that from the book.

Though he moved from behind Nirvana’s drumkit to become Foo Fighters’ front man, The Storyteller makes clear that Grohl still wants to remain, at some fundamental level, unknown. Given what he witnessed Cobain go through, it’s difficult to begrudge him this desire. But Grohl’s reluctance to be exposed leaves his memoir a bit unsurprising and, ultimately, unessential. This is especially frustrating given that the book offers glimmers of introspection that one wishes Grohl expanded upon. To take one tantalizing example, the rock star refers to his “staunch Republican” father, who “officially disown[ed]” him when he was a rebellious teen, but then tells us little else about the man. One hopes that as Grohl ages—he’s a relatively young 53—he’ll write another memoir revealing what he really thinks about his career, his industry, and his life. That’s a book I’d definitely buy.

David Eric Grohl was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1969 and was raised by a single schoolteacher mother in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. He started playing guitar and drums at a young age, though the most important musical moment of his life came when he was 13 and visiting family friends in Chicago. It was there that his cousin Tracey Bradford introduced the young Grohl to the nascent American punk rock canon: the Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, the Germs, Black Flag, and Minor Threat.

Grohl’s encounter with punk was a genuine road-to-Damascus moment. He rapidly became “a hungry student ravenous for knowledge” about this captivating genre. Crucially, Grohl was attracted not only to punk’s aggressive and emotional music but also to its do-it-yourself approach. He loved punk records’ “xeroxed covers with dark, pixelated photos; handwritten lyrics and credits; [and] silkscreened logos and graphics, all clumsily stuffed into plastic sleeves that sold for a mere three or four dollars.” Moreover, punk’s lo-fi production style and simplistic song structures made it clear to Grohl that one didn’t require “the godlike ability of Jimi Hendrix or Paul McCartney” to be a professional musician: “All you needed was three chords, an open mind, and a microphone.” For a lower-middle-class boy with no connections to the music industry and very little formal training, the punk scene was eye-opening: It showed that a creative life was available to everyone, even someone like himself.

Punk also provided Grohl—a self-described “kid from a broken home, a mama’s boy, [and] a ball of misplaced energy who was looking for his niche”—with a sense of community. At his very first punk show at Chicago’s Cubby Bear, which featured Naked Raygun, Grohl entered the mosh pit “shoulder to shoulder with everyone else, standing only feet from the small stage,” feeling a profound sense of connection with his fellow teens. The Cubby Bear was his temple and the Naked Raygun show his bar mitzvah: At the age of 13, Dave Grohl became a punk rocker.

As he dug deeper into the punk canon, Grohl discovered the band that would change his life: Washington, D.C., hardcore heroes Scream. Scream stood out to Grohl from the rest of the punk scene because the band’s songs had “strong melodies” and were “a bit more crafted” than was typical. (Even at this early stage in his career, Grohl valued songwriting above all else.) Alone in his bedroom, practicing on his pillows, Grohl dedicated himself to emulating the “lightning-speed drumming” of Scream’s Kent Stax.

Then the impossible happened: Grohl saw a flyer at a local music store advertising that Scream was looking for a new drummer. Though he was only 17 and had never played music professionally, Grohl called Scream, lied about his age, and auditioned for the band. Soon thereafter, he accepted the offer to become Scream’s drummer.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on Grohl’s choice of instrument. In The Storyteller, he presents his decision to play the drums as a semi-mystical one: He was drawn to them, and that was that. To some degree, this is an accurate reflection of such choices, given that it’s oftentimes difficult to know for certain why a musician is attracted to one instrument over another.

But in this case, there’s likely more going on. Unique among rock’s subgenres, hardcore punk centered the drummer. As the musicologist Steve Waksman once told me in an interview, hardcore was a “drum-intensive medium because it was such a fast medium; drummers were in many ways the backbone of hardcore.” Put another way, from the earliest moments of his musical life Grohl was attracted to center stage, making his later—and much remarked upon—transition from drummer to front man more natural than it might initially appear.

Once Grohl joined Scream in 1987, he became a member of a growing punk community, traveling around the country in a small van, playing tiny shows, and sleeping on strangers’ floors. It was on these tours that Grohl developed the drumming style for which he became famous: thunderous power combined with precision and a sense for the song. When I asked Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind and is himself a drummer, what made Grohl’s drumming so unique, he answered that it was “two things. He really hits the drums hard and he’s rock steady, but also, he writes drum fills and patterns like parts. He thinks more like they’re melodic parts.… A lot of drummers, every time [a song] comes in…they want to play a different fill or whatever to express themselves.… But every time he played a fill or a pattern, it was perfect for the song.” From the beginning of his career, Grohl was a songwriter first and an instrumentalist second. As he remarks in The Storyteller, “nothing else fascinated and stimulated my mind as much as the composition and arrangement of a song,” which is clearly expressed in his drumming style.

In 1990, Scream was touring the West Coast when the band’s bassist quit. The tour thus came to an abrupt end, and the broke Grohl found himself stuck in Los Angeles, working odd jobs to survive.

One day during this period, Grohl was talking on the phone with Buzz Osborne, the lead singer and guitarist of the punk band the Melvins. Osborne hailed from Montesano, Wash., and had grown up with another native of the Olympic Peninsula, Kurt Cobain, who in 1987 had founded a band that eventually became known as Nirvana. Osborne informed Grohl that Cobain and Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist, had recently fired their drummer and were looking for a new one. In particular, they had seen Scream play and were thinking about auditioning Grohl for the role. Grohl was a fan of Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach, and he especially admired the fact that, unlike “all of the other noisy, heavy punk records in my collection,” Bleach “had SONGS” that “blend[ed] metal, punk, and Beatles-esque melody into an eleven-song masterpiece.” He asked Osborne to put him in touch.

Grohl eventually got on the phone with Cobain. As he recalls, in their first conversation the two “talked music for a while. From NWA to Neil Young, Black Flag to the Beatles, the Cramps to Creedence Clearwater Revival, we found that we had a lot in common musically.” Cobain invited Grohl up to Washington to audition; when he did, the musical connection between Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl was undeniable, and the latter joined Nirvana as its sixth and final drummer.

In fact, Grohl moved in with Cobain, who lived in “the back unit of a dilapidated old house” in Olympia, Washington State’s capital city and the home to a burgeoning music scene. Cobain slept in the bedroom while Grohl slept on the couch, abutting the “putrid terrarium” of his roommate’s pet turtle.

While they may have shared a lot musically, Grohl and Cobain were very different personally. Where the former was all good-hearted cheer, the latter was cynical and prone to depression. Most important, the two musicians hailed from quite dissimilar backgrounds. Though Grohl might have felt alienated from his “suburban Virginia, Wonder Bread existence,” his upbringing did not really compare with Cobain’s brutal childhood on the deindustrializing Olympic Peninsula, which was defined by grueling poverty, perpetual homelessness, and suicidal ideation. At a fundamental level, Grohl was an optimist and Cobain a pessimist. If Grohl doesn’t discuss their relationship much in The Storyteller, it’s likely because there was a strain in it from the beginning.

Ironically, when Grohl first moved to Olympia, he was in a bit of a dark place himself. Living on the West Coast and unsure of his future, he felt depressed and homesick. But the music he was making with Nirvana kept him going. Above all, a profound ambition united the three bandmates. “As dysfunctional as Nirvana could be at times,” Grohl writes, “there was an unspoken focus once we put our instruments on and the amps began to glow. We wanted to be great.” The band practiced five days a week, refining the songs the prolific Cobain was producing at a rapid rate. And the songwriting happened organically, requiring little in the way of verbal communication:

Usually beginning with a riff from Kurt, Krist Novoselic and I would follow his lead with our practiced intuition, serving as the engine room to his screaming vision. Hell, my job was easy! I could always tell when a chorus was coming by watching Kurt’s dirty Converse sneaker as it moved closer and closer to the distortion pedal, and just before he stomped on the button, I would blast into a single-stroke snare roll with all of my might, like a fuse burning fast into the heart of a bomb, signaling the change. The subsequent eruption would often send chills up my neck.

While he may have been homesick, Grohl couldn’t ignore “the undeniable power of our collective sound.”

In April 1991, less than a year after Grohl joined Nirvana, the band signed a deal with the David Geffen Company. A month later, the three musicians began to record Nevermind in a grungy studio in Van Nuys, Calif. Released in September and led by the enigmatically titled single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind would knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard 200 charts in January 1992. For a brief moment, “grunge” reigned and Nirvana—especially the beautiful and charismatic Kurt Cobain—dominated popular culture.

In The Storyteller, Grohl mostly skips over his time in Nirvana; one gets the sense that, even decades later, the wounds caused by his experience in the band have not quite healed. It’s clear that success was initially difficult and confusing for him, as it was for Cobain. “I felt a certain tug-of-war within,” Grohl admits:

All of those years being a “punk rocker,” renouncing mainstream music, crying “sellout” to any band that moved even slightly toward mainstream success, had turned my music-loving heart into a confused and callused lump within my cynical chest. I had become jaded and judgmental, often not knowing what was okay to “like” or “dislike” based on the rules of cool culture in the punk scene.… Yet, I also rejoiced in the fact that more and more people were showing up to share this music I loved and took so much pride in making and playing. It was an ethical dilemma, one that would prove both inspiring and destructive to the band.

For those who grew up in the 1990s, Grohl’s disorientation in the face of mainstream success will sound familiar. But from the perspective of 2022, his remarks appear almost quaint: In our rapidly decaying economy, few people begrudge artists for trying to earn some money for their music. In the underground (and anti-corporate, even vaguely anti-capitalist) music scene of the 1980s and early ’90s, however, “selling out” was anathema and “authenticity” was the coin of the realm. For Grohl, Novoselic, and Cobain, success not only undermined their music—the belief being that if something was popular, it was bad—but also their sense of selves.

No one experienced this loss of identity more than the sensitive Cobain. Nirvana’s success did a number on the young man, who became increasingly angry and depressed. Over the course of Nirvana’s two and a half years of worldwide fame, Cobain started injecting heroin frequently, descending into a pit of despair from which he never emerged. As Cobain used more and more, the gap between him and Grohl expanded, especially because the front man could be mean.

In an article recently published in The New Yorker, for instance, Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad recalled a moment when Cobain was in a hotel room “yelling that he wanted to fire Dave.” Grohl was staying in the room next door and probably heard the whole thing. Another time, Grohl recounted to New York magazine, he overheard Cobain declaring that Nirvana “need[ed] a drummer that’s more rudimental” than Grohl. When he eventually confronted Cobain about his remark, the singer backed down. Nonetheless, throughout The Storyteller, the reader gets the sense that Grohl never felt entirely comfortable in Nirvana, and for good reason.

Nirvana’s end is well-known. On April 5, 1994, Cobain committed suicide in the greenhouse of his Seattle home. By this point, Grohl was numb to Cobain-caused pain (the singer had tried to kill himself a month earlier in Rome), and he felt only hollowness upon learning of the suicide. After Cobain’s death, Grohl recalls, “I would try to wring the tears from my eyes as I cursed those fucking walls I had built so high, because they kept me from the feelings I desperately needed to feel.” He didn’t play, or even listen to, music for months.

But Grohl eventually realized that music was one of the things that gave his life meaning. “Music,” he avows, “had always represented light and life to me,” and he felt compelled to continue to make it. Though Grohl had written songs for years, he’d recorded only one of his own with Nirvana—the lullaby-like “Marigold,” which appeared as a B-side on the “Heart-Shaped Box” single. (He also, famously, came up with the main guitar riff for “Scentless Apprentice.”) After Cobain’s death, however, Grohl devoted himself full-time to songwriting, and in October 1994 booked studio time to record what eventually became Foo Fighters’ first album.

Grohl’s Foo Fighters, for which he serves as the primary songwriter as well as guitarist and lead singer, went on to enormous success, selling millions of records and becoming the “top artist” in the history of Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. Today, Grohl is a happily married man and the father of three girls. He is also a rock staple who regularly rubs elbows with the likes of Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Elton John, and Joan Jett. Indeed, much of The Storyteller is devoted to his tales of being a rock and roll dad.

While these stories are generally entertaining, I kept hoping that a more critical, or at least more analytical, Grohl might emerge in the memoir. He is, after all, in a unique position. He’s not only a member of two of the most successful rock bands of all time; he’s a member of two of the last successful rock bands we’re likely to see. There will never be another Nirvana or Foo Fighters—or another Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, or the Beatles—because rock has declined as a popular form. One wishes Grohl would have reflected at least a little on the state of the genre he’s dominated for three decades.

Grohl also has nothing to say about the general collapse of the music industry due to the rise of Internet piracy and, eventually, streaming platforms. Few people have had a front-row seat to this epochal shift, and I hope one day Grohl offers his thoughts on how this transformation reshaped his business.

But, in a sense, these lacunae underline why Grohl is the perfect rock star for rock and roll’s last hurrah. Unlike in rock’s heyday, popular music is no longer invested with transformative or political power. As Americans have become pessimistic about their institutions, so too have they become pessimistic about art’s ability to change the world. And on some level, one gets the sense that Grohl understands and appreciates this. He has little desire to push boundaries, but instead wants to enjoy himself and bring others joy in the process. Grohl knows that his role is to rock out, and that’s why we love him. If the ship’s going down, he seems to tell us, we may as well be smiling on the way.

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