As the featured speaker of this year's music festival, the Nirvana drummer, Foo Fighters lead singer reflects on what it took to get where he is today.
Who could have ever imagined that an innocent family trip to the suburbs of Chicago could change the course of popular music? But that’s exactly what happened to a young Dave Grohl when he encountered his older cousin Tracy after she discovered punk rock in 1982. He was taken with her abrasive appearance, loud choice of clothing and brand new rock and roll attitude so much that her new-found passion eventually led him to seek out his first concert (a band called Naked Raygun) at a bar called the Cubby Bear (across the street from Wrigley Field) to get his first up close and personal look at how the entire operation of a live concert took shape. A word like inspirational wasn’t even the half of it.
“Tracy was my first hero,” Grohl recalled Thursday morning during his keynote address at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, as part of the week’s South By Southwest music conference. “And,” he said before pausing for a quick second, “this was the first day of the rest of my life.”
None of this was particularly newsworthy, of course. Most fans of Nirvana, Foo Fighters or any of Grohl’s other pet projects have probably already heard the tale of how the singer/drummer/font man/all around cool guy initially stumbled across his first love. Even so, there was something inexplicably touching and poetic about the way he relayed the experience this time around. Donning a red-plaid button-up shirt, dark blue jeans and oversized glasses he said he bought at the drug store, Grohl was either feeling a bit more nostalgic than he would have preferred, or he was doing a really good job at faking it. Whichever it was didn’t really matter, though. Because if there was one underlying conclusion to take from his 56-minute speech, it was this: Dave Grohl might just be the single most inspiring musical figure this generation has, and how it got that way is as much a mystery to him as it is to any fan of his work.
He was touching and assured as he navigated a room on a journey through his life, both musically and personally. There were tender moments. There were funny moments. There were revelatory moments. There were informative moments. There were honest moments. There were kind moments. There were angry moments. And most importantly, there were explorative moments, the kind of instances during which you could tell that even he was a little surprised at himself for exposing the intricacies of how his mind has evolved over the last 40-plus years. Even if you had never heard of the guy or his music, you couldn’t help but feel connected to him in a very humane and very fundamental way after listening to him explain how Dave Grohl became Dave Grohl.
The most introspective moments of the address came when he reflected on the rise of his world-changing band Nirvana and the unexpected demise of it that culminated in April 1994 when the band’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, took his own life.
“At one meeting, we were playing the demo of ‘In Bloom,’” Grohl explained. “And (the record executive) looked at us and said, ‘So, what do you guys want?’ Kurt looked at him and said, ‘We want to be the biggest band in the world.’ “I laughed,” he continued as the crowd erupted. “I thought he was kidding – he wasn’t.”
And with good reason. Despite the record label pressing a measly 35,000 copies of Nevermind to last a few months, the album went ahead and changed the music industry’s landscape forever, reaching Gold status at the end of its first month on shelves and selling a staggering 300,000 copies a week by the end of the year. Nirvana was officially a force to be reckoned with and the era of hair metal and cheesy pop became more and more like a distant memory with each wrecked drum kit.
This album wasn’t a hit. This album was transcendent.
“I never really figured out why that happened,” Grohl said with more humility than a man like him should probably ever have. “I thought we were Lord of the Flies with fucking distorted guitars.”
The drummer found himself at a crossroads, however, when the entire thing came to a screechingly sad halt after Cobain committed suicide. Having stressed the importance of singular voices – both metaphorically and literally -- multiple times throughout his speech, Grohl admitted he lost his before finally picking himself up to revisit the first time he fell in love with music via Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”. All it took was five days of recording 14 songs completely by himself (and one extra day of mixing) to get the wheels rolling again on his own personal musical vehicle. What began as “an experiment, demo or therapy” turned into the beginning days of Foo Fighters, the singer’s power rock outfit that one could say has done pretty well for itself so far.
What made Grohl’s address so fitting was the serendipity that can be found in how his latest band came as a result of rediscovering a kind of nostalgia that is essential to remaining honest when being musically creative. Finding passion for your passion can often be the hardest thing when adversity rears its cruel and unfair head, yet the one constant in all of the songwriter’s words Thursday was the palpable enthusiasm he exuded as a consequence of nature, not necessity. And during a festival that this year has seemingly given new life to some artists who may have seen some of their more successful days come and go, the entire practice of optimism wasn’t just encouraged – it was embraced.
Then again, that’s what makes Dave Grohl so fucking cool in the first place. He’s been there for history as it was being made, yet his passion for the very medium he has somewhat conquered remains as much intact today as it did a little less than 35 years ago when he visited his cousin Tracy. There is not a single thing within him that either appears or feels dishonest or insincere. Even after considering his enormity in impact on dollars and cents within the music industry, it’s impossible to believe that he’s nothing more than a sweet-toothed kid wandering a candy store while holding a limitless credit card. Through the punk rock of the 1980s, to the grunge movement in the 1990s and all the way up to the power rock surge in the 2000s, this is a dude who has never not mattered.
As for those who think he feels as though he might be above anything?
“Fuck guilty pleasure,” he said to applause. “How about just pleasure? I can say honestly that ‘Gangam Style’ is one of my favorite songs of the last decade. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s just pleasure.”
Then, after vamping on the value of celebrity-judged reality shows that populate our television screens (in his view, there should be none), he continued in what could be summed up quite simply as the single greatest thing a South By Southwest speaker has said in the history of South By Southwest.
“Paging Pitchfork. Paging Pitchfork,” he exclaimed in a mock radio tone. “We need you to help us determine the value of a song.” Beat.
“Who the fuck cares?” he asked to a deafening cheer.
It was a moment as biting as it was refreshing – so much so, that you almost had to think that even the editors of Pitchfork were standing and applauding with everyone else. And it would have been the single most Dave Grohl thing Dave Grohl could have possibly said here in Austin … if he didn’t have to bid adieu for the afternoon. Inciting a ruckus ovation as the crowd could tell he was winding down, he picked up his paper, removed those widened lenses from the frame of his face, politely waved to the filled house and turned back toward the mic in front of him one last time.
“But then again,” he noted with that charming, bearded smile. “What do I know?”