Dave Grohl wants you to know that all of his dreams have come true.
Sandi, the woman whom he loved yet broke up with him in 1982? He dreamed that one day she would see him on stage in front of “thousands of screaming fans”. And in 2011, she did! “I looked down and saw Sandi standing there … [author’s ellipses] in the exact same spot where she had been standing in the dream I had the night she broke my heart. I stopped and realized that I had vividly imagined this exact moment thirty years before as a 13-year-old boy, like a premonition, and now I was actually fucking living it! Crazy as it may seem, my teenage rock and roll dream had come true.”
His father’s prediction that “this will never last” and disowning him after Grohl dropped out of high school to pursue music? By the end, “We had struggled our entire lives to connect, but even in his absence I was shaped by his presence, for better or worse. I had let go of any resentment toward him long ago and forgiven him his shortcomings as a parent, ultimately lightening the burden of our relationship, leaving us to become good friends.” Not to mention that his success has, certainly, lasted.
When touring with his first major band, Scream, already a dream come true, Grohl discovered that Iggy Pop was holding a record release party in the very club they were playing, but he wasn’t allowed to attend. Well, at least he got to watch “Iggy walk the short distance from his car into the same dark door I had exited. My world was now a little bit brighter. And that was that.”
Just kidding. Young Dave is asked, “Wanna play drums with Iggy Pop?” He does!
Jamming with Tom Petty? With Paul McCartney? Meeting President George W. Bush? President Barack Obama? Performing on Saturday Night Live (his favorite show!), at Wembley Stadium, at the White House, for the Academy Awards, and even onstage with his own daughter, Violet? Check, check, and more checks.
None of those dreams, of course, even count the realized dreams we already knew about. Grohl was a member of what might be the two most important American rock bands of the past 30 years. The first, Nirvana, became famous for knocking the establishment, young punks breaking alternative into the mainstream. The second, Foo Fighters, formed and led by Grohl after the shock of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, is revered for the exact opposite reason: Grohl quickly became the standard-bearer for keeping rock ‘n’ roll alive, and he was anointed America’s Cool Dad.
The tension between his two groups—ironic vs. sincere, outsider vs. insider, rebellious vs. wholesome—is the precise yet unacknowledged tension of Grohl’s The Storyteller. On the one hand is Dave Grohl, Punk. Punk Dave repeats, again and again, the mantra, “You fake it till [sic] you make it.” He says, again and again, “How on earth did I get here?” He repeats, “Life was picking up speed” eight times in about as many pages, even though by this point, his life has been moving very quickly for decades. These lines, like other standout sentences every few pages, are printed in an all-caps font approximating Grohl’s own handwriting featured on the inside cover, for authenticity and emphasis. Handwriting Dave is as surprised as anyone that all his dreams have come true. Handwriting Dave is just like you.
This Everyman Dave favors superfluous adjectives (on the first page alone: “cruel trick”, “false illusion”, “quick look in the mirror”) and defaults to cliché. Every page is peppered with a fateful afternoon”; the room for a punk show is “like a bomb ready to detonate”; in Amsterdam, “there was adventure around every corner”. Remember Sandi, Grohl’s Intermediate School love? She “was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen… Farrah Fawcett had nothing on her. Cheryl Tiegs, eat your heart out. Bo Derek? Christie Brinkley? Not even close. My knees went weak the moment our eyes met from across the crowded hallway, and I felt what could only be described as love at first sight. Like I’d had the wind knocked out of me with a sledgehammer, I was crippled by her beauty. Like a deer in the headlights, I was paralyzed by her stare.” The clear effect of this hyperbole is one of loving, not mocking, clichés.
But perhaps the clichés are the point. Everyman Dave doesn’t put artifice—or labor—into his prose. It’s easier for him to think of himself as rock’s Forrest Gump, haplessly in the right place at the right time (another cliché repeated throughout the book) than an agent of his own triumphs. Everyman Dave is always the fan meeting his idols, never the idol himself. Or, as he sang, “There goes my hero/He’s ordinary.” Yes, he has gotten everything and much more than he could have ever wanted. But he’s ordinary!
Opposite from Everyman Dave is Destiny Dave, who, as he concludes the book, believes “that anything is possible if you devote yourself to it entirely.” From a young age, “I connected to something and knew that I would never live a life of conventionality. I was not destined to fade into the sleepy suburban streets of Springfield, Virginia … I had to break away from the norm.” It’s hard not to hear echoes of Destiny Dave in his first famous post-Nirvana song, “This Is a Call”.
Still, it is as difficult to reconcile Everyman Dave with Destiny Dave as it is to reconcile The Storyteller’s prose with the lyrics that Grohl has composed over the past three decades. Surprisingly, he does not analyze or even mention his lyrics. Contrast the typical overstatement of “I had met my match, and I could not rest until I made Sandi mine” with the unfussy yet far more evocative opening from “Everlong”: “Hello/I’ve waited here for you/ Everlong/ Tonight, I throw myself into/ And out of the red/ Out of her head, she sang”. The book’s prose is banal, buffoonish; the song’s lyrics are personal, empathic.
Grohl is not concerned, however, with exploring these or any other tensions. He may have sung the lines The truth is so unkind/ What do you know/ How low the sky?/ You might think you know me /I know damn well you don’t” in his ode to Seattle, “Subterranean”, but in The Storyteller, Grohl is an open book, as it were. The tone and topics are, unlike his lyrics but like his drumming, relentlessly upbeat. Grohl wants you to know that he is happy, satisfied, positive, and exuberant. He spends a whole chapter gushing over meeting Little Richard, another over Joan Jett. No doubt those were awesome experiences. These are the qualities of a rich and enviable life, to be sure, but they don’t necessarily make a compelling read.
Instead, Grohl will allude to, then elide, what could have been the substance of a very different book, one in keeping with the depths indicated by his lyrics. That book would have explored Grohl’s struggle with school before dropping out – something, as the child of a teacher, about which he expresses ambivalence. Or that his teacher-mother raised him and his sister alone. Grohl spends more time on an anecdote of his lost, then recovered, wallet than on how he felt about growing up without money, more time on the Law of Attraction and a séance than on his first, failed marriage, of which we only learn in brief passing.
Grohl seems to refer to everyone—his childhood friends, his bandmates, members of other bands, his mother—as his best friends. But the Foo Fighters’ unstable and revolving lineup suggests more friction than he will acknowledge. He certainly does not go into the shameful 2000 episode when the Foo Fighters supported the dangerous falsehood that HIV does not cause AIDS.
When Kurt Cobain checks into rehab, Grohl says only that “Outside of my father’s struggles with alcohol, I didn’t understand the true nature of addiction.” But wait—what was that about his father’s alcoholism? And don’t his father’s struggles suggest the exact opposite: Grohl’s unacknowledged closeness, even attraction, to addicts? Peripherally mentioned but not analyzed, what about Grohl’s own predispositions to addiction? Those are not the stories Grohl wants to tell. They are not as much fun as the dream about Sandi.
Grohl spends page after page on the possibility that his first house is haunted, but only cursory remarks on the ways in which he is continuously haunted by Cobain’s death. Nirvana and then Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear, not Grohl, gets attribution for the line, “Too many ghosts,” about their decision to leave Seattle.
Despite the clichés, the down-to-earth protestations, and the gee-whiz tenor, titling the book The Storyteller took some chutzpah, coming from the man famous for his music, not stories. Songs and stories are not necessarily alike, and they work very differently. But the title, like the clichés, seems apt, for the image Grohl wants to proffer. Although Grohl tells us “miraculously, my memory has remained relatively intact,” The Storyteller is not a memoir. Episodic, nonlinear, and discursive, the book is more indebted to the oral than written tradition. Based on the snippet I listened to, the audiobook, narrated by Grohl himself, captures its spirit better than the text alone.
In his own essay called “The Storyteller”, a melancholy mediation on mortality from 1936 very much at odds with Grohl’s same-titled book, philosopher Walter Benjamin warned that “today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death.” “Death,” Benjamin tells us, “is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell.” What is more, Benjamin feared what he saw as “the decline of storytelling.”
In November 2021, just as Grohl’s book came out, New York Times Magazine interviewer David Marchese told actor Matthew McConaughey that the word “storyteller” has become “commonplace… It’s unfortunately popular.” “What,” Marchese asks, “distinguishes a storyteller from someone who’s using the word because it sounds better than ‘salesperson’?” McConaughey counters that perhaps “selling something can fall under the umbrella of telling a story.”
Aside from his book, Grohl is selling something: the contradictions and the mythology of himself. That he is like everyone else, yet destined for individuality, for greatness. That he is not the same as the many, many rock stars, politicians, and icons he spends chapter after chapter collaborating and, wow, hanging out with. That his young punk’s heart still beats beneath the chest of the middle-aged man who had to rush to the doctor over frightening, painful palpitations. Like everything else, this worked out fine: it wasn’t a heart attack, just too much coffee.
The thing is, despite my reservations, I buy it. The skeptical Grohl who wrote “Learn to Fly” was “lookin’ for a complication/Lookin’ cause I’m tired of lyin'”. The sincere Grohl who wrote The Storyteller—in some contexts, a word synonymous with liar—is simply grateful. Grateful to live his dreams, sure. But also, and mainly, grateful to live. Grohl survived when Cobain, and – having written the book during the year of Covid concert cancelations, as he tells us in the epilogue – so many others did not.
Maybe, in the end, Grohl’s and Walter Benjamin’s discourse about death and the true nature of the storyteller is not so far apart after all. But don’t tell Dave. Crazy as it may seem, he just wants to tell stories about his teenage rock ‘n’ roll dreams.