No one better epitomizes the coming-of-age decade that was the 1990s in America music than Dave Grohl.
With his long black hair, innocent expression and his flailing arms, Grohl came to be known by the MTV generation as the reserved but hyper-talented drummer of the now legendary grunge band Nirvana, introduced to the mainstream in earnest by way of the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in September of 1992.
He’s now 52 years old, with a well-earned tinge of grey, and has achieved more in his career and lifetime than 100 musicians might in aggregate. Dave, who grew up in and around Alexandria, recently embarked on a mission to share his life in a way perhaps unaccustomed to most of his fans.
Grohl announced back in April he’d be releasing his memoir, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, and just last month he created buzz with the news of a four-city, five-night tour to support that book with rare solo appearances.
And while this might look to some like an attempt by a celebrity to commercialize and further capitalize on their own success, the offering should be appreciated for the human achievement Dave truly represents, which is far more than just being a rock star—he is a bastion of resilience, fortitude and, whether he realizes it or not, hope.
On Oct. 7, seated on a stool on the Lincoln Theater stage, with a projection screen behind him, Grohl was positioned between a 1980s bedroom scene to his right, with a turntable and pile of pillows representing his make-believe drums, and his actual drum kit to his left.
Watch the official video promoting Dave Grohl’s memoir, “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music,” via the Foo Fighters YouTube channel:
Pulling out and lighting an occasional cigarette, Grohl told his unbelievable journey from the son of divorced parents to driving one of the most popular rock bands of all time—not once, but twice, with Nirvana, then, almost by happenstance, Foo Fighters.
Dave was expressive, animated, and, while perhaps a tad nervous to start, he settled in and provided incredible details about his relationship with music, his family and the many bandmates he’s had along the way, including the late Kurt Cobain.
Proud of his relationship with his mother, Virginia, Dave could feel her pain when he stood by her as a young boy through a separation that he said confirmed his parents to be the “greatest mismatch … the odd couple.”
His mother, “a liberal public-school teacher,” sang in an a capella group. Meanwhile, his father, James, a conservative Republican speech writer, was the “least rock-and-roll mother fucker I’ve met in my life—Jethro Tull, he was not.”
But crediting them both with being brilliant writers, and, after asking the crowd to applaud his mother and the rest of the world’s public-school teachers, he pointed to this time in his life as crucial to discovering the joys that music can bring.
While his mother struggled at times to raise two children on a public-school salary, Dave appreciated it all, considering this the time of life when a young person contemplates “the type of person you want to become.”
A wonderful time for radio music, he credited artists like Carly Simon and Gerry Rafferty for helping him appreciate a wide range of sounds. One day riding in the car with his mom, he recalled, he experienced a profound connection with her by way of a song simply playing on the radio: she carried a separate part of the harmony, he another.
“In that moment, I realized that two different notes sung together form a chord,” and he began to consume music, in his words, differently than those around him. When other kids might have been just “hearing, I was really listening,” to bands like The Beatles, KISS and others that influenced his ears early on.
“Anything I listened to, I wanted to decide, ‘could I do it too?’” He taught himself to play the guitar at about 12 years old, an acoustic his father once played but set in the corner to collect dust. And then Dave began to develop percussion habits that foreshadowed his days ahead.
“I was keen to play (percussion) with my teeth, on my bedroom floor.” He pointed to the pillows gathered near him, where he would sit and, for the night’s first “song,” he strummed along to “Eight Days A Week,” his hair flicking back and forth as The Beatles classic played through the Lincoln Theater sound system.
Finally, he realized, “I need to find other people to do this with.”
He would eventually find the right folks, but not before a regular trip to Chicago to see family during his early teen years turned out to be life changing.
Up to that point, he’d really only seen punk rockers as depicted only on TV shows. But when he got to the fancy house located on Lake Michigan, down the stairs came his cousin, Tracy, who had matured into a genuine punk rocker, and she was fronting a band called Verboten—there’s since been a play made celebrating this band’s story and influence.
“She was my first superhero,” Dave reminisced. “She had this incredible record collection, and we sat down on the floor and went through every fucking one of those records. Bands like The Misfits, The Germs, Minor Threat, Dominion …The thing that blew my mind—I’d never heard of any of these bands. These people were doing it themselves, blissfully removed from any corporate structure. They existed in the shadows.”
On that same trip, Dave’s cousin took him to a Chicago establishment near Wrigley Field still in operation today, The Cubby Bear, and it was here that his eyes were opened even wider. Up to that point, his vision of a concert was what was illustrated by posters on his wall, the large-scale glitz of groups like Led Zeppelin. He described the energy of a small club show, people screaming, right on top of one another, and he said it felt like “heaven.”
There, at The Cubby Bear, Dave saw young musicians for a band called Naked Raygun using instruments he could play, hitting chords he knew, and he learned that bands like this one and his cousins band were recording their own music—as teenagers.
“I realized this was accessible to me,” he told the Lincoln Theater crowd, and that important theme was an emphasis of Dave’s throughout the night.
“That to me was inspiring. This was the beginning of the rest of my life,” he said.
If any attention was paid to the particular details about his worth ethic, and his quizzical approach to dissecting and constructing songs, it was clear that so much of Dave’s accomplishments was guided by those do-it-yourself artists he discovered in the early and mid-80s, a teenage kid about 15 miles away from the venue where he presented last Thursday.
He dug in, starting his own band, Mission Impossible—the crowd roared with laughter.
“You laugh, but finding a band name is hard,” he smiled. “Foo Fighters is the stupidest fucking band name.”
While he was at war with his father about his poor performance in high school, he was simultaneously renting out the Bethesda Community Center as a performance space for his band.
His love for punk music manifested into an obsession with tracks being put to vinyl by the now famous and highly-influential Dischord Records in Falls Church—“eeeewwww,” a young Grohl shrieked when he discovered albums like these were being pumped out in such a high-brow community.
But nevertheless, he immersed himself in the music, specifically gravitating to the band Scream, which happened to be local as well, having formed in Bailey’s Crossroads. Dave memorized every single drum beat in the band’s recorded catalogue, and in a wild demonstration, he played the first track from Scream’s premiere album, Still Screaming, while pounding what looked like the precise drum patterns—but on the floor amid the arrangement of throw pillows.
Grohl had what he called “that burning desire to unravel the mystery of every song you ever hear.” And he was able to do it precisely with incredibly volatile, loud, abrasive hardcore punk.
Scrawny and with a squeaky voice, he eventually got the unthinkable chance of a lifetime when he was in a nearby record shop and laid eyes on a flyer spreading word that a band in the area was in need of a drummer—it was Scream.
He reached out, and eventually found himself seated at a drum kit in front of Franz Stahl, Scream’s guitarist—and years later, a member of Foo Fighters. When Franz asked Dave if he wanted to play classic rock tunes, he said he wanted to play Scream songs.
When Stahl asked him which songs he knew, his responded: “I know them all.”
They proceeded to play every song Scream had recorded.
It was a marvelous feat, and that meeting that would ultimately put Dave in the cockpit of Scream, but only after refusing the band’s first invitation to join and receiving a second chance when they reached back out after they again found themselves needing his services a short time later. Touring with the band around the country, the crew would eventually settle in Los Angeles, living right down the street from a mud/oil-wrestling joint.
Incredible history like this gloriously highlighted the night and shined promise for even more within Dave’s 384-page book, and they helped piece together the fascinating timeline of events that led him to join the band Nirvana, which happened in 1991 after Scream’s progress stalled and members went in different directions.
After learning they were in need of a drummer, and after speaking at length with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, he flew to Seattle to meet him and Cobain.
“When I first flew there to meet those guys, that was some Children of the Corn Shit,” he shared. An apple in hand, he offered it to Kurt.
“’I never eat those things, they make my teeth bleed’,” was Kurt’s response and Grohl said he had to admit that was a hilariously dark introduction to this talented guitarist and songwriter that he called “prolific,” and even compared to “Lennon and McCarthy” for his work on Bleach.
Dave took the audience through the rapid rise to glory he experienced with Nirvana—struggling to sleep at Kurt’s house each night, listening to a turtle in a tank at the foot of his bed, and during the day being dined by record executives who were throwing around “million dollar” offers.
He shared an image of his drum set he took at Sound City recording studio in Los Angeles when the band arrived to record the Nevermind album, a photo he took because he’d recognized all he had to do in order to get there.
Giving everyone in the room something they might not have been ready for, Dave took a seat at the drum kit and, while a modified version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played through the speakers, he pounded his part with what sounded and looked like perfect timing and, within the noise, sentimentality.
As musicians and friends, Nirvana was discovering a dynamic—Dave viewed Kurt’s Converse sneaker as a conductor for the band, a group that he said practiced “hard, five nights a week … because we wanted to be a really good band.”
And they were a really good band, one that had achieved international acclaim and so much success in the United States—culminating with their studio album In Utero and their unforgettable appearance on MTV Unplugged, which aired in December of 1993.
But, as everyone knows, all that success came with a price. And Grohl lit up a couple of smokes in sharing this chapter, the darkest in his life. Dave didn’t need to say what most everyone already knew—Cobain, addicted to heroin and struggling with the fame, committed suicide in April of 1994.
“I didn’t have to carry the weight of the band,” Grohl said, adding that he always had a place in NoVa where he could retreat, and he did so throughout his career.
“What do you do when your band becomes the biggest band in the world?”
He called punk rock suffocating in the way he’d felt groomed or groomed himself to reject commercial conformity, and so what would they do when the world began singing their songs along with them?
“What do you do when you become one of them?” Dave asked rhetorically, the voice of the young man who joined Nirvana with no idea of what would happen.
An enduring black-and-white photo of Cobain in his later years, looking over his shoulder, displayed on the white screen as the lights were turned off and the room was silent. Trying to hold it in but unable to, a few people could be heard beginning to cry. The ember of Dave’s Parliament moved in darkness as he took drags in between words that sounded painful to share.
“There’s certain people in life that you prepare yourself to lose,” he said, the lights still off. “Like some sort of self-defense mechanism. You foolishly build these walls around your heart and think it will protect you from the pain when they’re gone, like being emotionally vaccinated, like you’ll be immune to the pain. But it never works.”
After Cobain’s death, Grohl said, he was “lost … numb,” unable to even listen to music as he couldn’t hear someone else sing about their own heartbreak or even their own joy.
“The music I had dedicated my life to had betrayed me,” he said. “I had turned off the radio.”
Luckily for fans of what would become one of today’s most successful rock bands, he turned on his simple recording setup. And much like he had as a teenager emulating punk and hardcore acts, he recorded a batch of homemade songs, handling the instrumentation for almost 100 percent for a tape he called “Foo Fighters. A war term used by pilots back in the day, he settled on this because he thought listeners would assume it was not just him but rather a full band.
“This was not a career decision I expected to last 26 years, and besides (the name) was plural,” he said. “I made 100 of these tapes and I was like passing them out at gas stations. I felt like I did when I was a kid.”
In what was a revealing and engrossing night of storytelling from one of the world’s most respected musicians, Dave went on to shed light on how Foo Fighters evolved from his solo endeavor into so much more, including the addition of drummer Taylor Hawkins—his “sister from another mister”—how some of their most successful albums came to be, and how he himself grew not just into a more complete musician, but a more fulfilled human being.
When Foo Fighters were first asked to play a large festival alongside heavy metal mainstays, Dave admitted he didn’t think the gentler, pop-friendly songs in the band’s repertoire suited it to play a bill next to names like Pantera and Anthrax.
But, he joked, when they told him how much his band would be paid, he couldn’t say no. And more importantly, it turned out to be a revealing night. When the Foo Fighters took the stage, apprehensive, Dave looked to his left and saw members of Pantera and Anthrax, not just watching but singing along to his songs. It was a remarkable moment that justified his efforts to create music that can be accessible and approachable even if not entirely fitting a particular genre.
Detailing a visit to Neil Young’s home in California he made as Foo Fighters continued to climb, he realized he was looking at a life he wanted to experience.
“It was half Harry Potter, half Swiss Family Robinson, and I said, ‘I want that.’ I want a home. A family. And bam. I got one.”
Showing photos of his three children, Violet, Harper and Ophelia, he shifted into unexpected, fatherly topics, like his battle with coffee addiction that sent him to the doctor’s office looking for answers that weren’t there.
Delivering these stories in segmented fashion over the course of three hours—“you didn’t know this was going to be this long of a show” he cracked—he rewarded ticketholders as he went, pulling up his acoustic guitar and performing stark, impassioned versions of songs like “My Hero from “1997’s The Colour and the Shape and “Times Like These” from 2002’s One By One.
One of the best stories of the night, he told of his infamous fall from the stage during the first song at a show in Sweden in 2019, resulting in a broken leg. Impressively, that show went on—in fact, the entire 60-some-show tour went on, with Dave performing on a constructed throne of guitars—“eat your heart out, Meatloaf,” he snickered when he showed a photo of the magnificent stage prop to the crowd.
Making it ring more inspirational than it maybe ever has, Dave played “Best of You” from 2005’s In Your Honor, pointing out that he’d performed this song as the closer the night of his leg injury, which left him with medical “jewelry” he wears proud and showed off via X-ray.
“My favorite Foo Fighters show is that one. To get to that point, a broken leg was a blip on the radar.”
Even though he clearly didn’t want to, he eventually tapered off what felt like a hometown show, with numerous family members and friends in the room, an atmosphere he couldn’t replicate in London, New York or LA, the other stops on this minitour. In striving to wrap it up, Dave shared that the COVID pandemic reminded him just how much he’d appreciated and benefitted from the experience of entertaining a live audience through his own music.
“The lifeblood of this is you,” he said, showing a photo of Foo Fighters playing to a massive, packed stadium Rio De Janeiro in a pouring rainstorm, lightning cracking the sky.
“You is what (musicians) need to survive. That communal human element, when we all get together and sing a song. … This is what reminds us we’re not alone, in a theater or a stadium, singing along and sharing a common energy. It makes you feel alive. It’s what we need as human beings.”
Making eye contact with fans in the front few rows, he grinned wide and lowered his head to them: “And I don’t know if you know this, but I can fucking SEE YOU. Do you know that?”
Dave might be known to drag on the night, but that’s for his own good reason. Just before an extraordinary take on “Everlong” and walking off the stage, he admitted: “I don’t like saying goodbye, because I always imagine that I will see you again.”
Dave’s book is now available for purchase at davegrohlstoryteller.com.
Eight Days a Week (The Beatles song, played while Dave played drums on pillows)
Came Without Warning (Scream song, played while Dave played drums on pillows)
Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana song, modified track played while Dave played drum section)
This is a Call (Foo Fighters, acoustic)
My Hero (Foo Fighters, acoustic)
Times Like These (Foo Fighters, acoustic)
Best of You (Foo Fighters, acoustic)
Everlong (Foo Fighters, acoustic)
Here are the official photos of Dave Grohl presenting The Storyteller – Live on Lincoln Theatre on Oct. 7, 2021. All photos by Deanna Esobar of Sugar Short Media.