The Passion of Dave Grohl

How a Foo Fighter learned to stop worrying and love the land of opportunity

How Dave Grohl learned to stop worrying and love the land of opportunity. Credit: Jesse Dittmar/Redux

Dave Grohl is about to sing the last song of the night in a room where he saw his first rock show, in 1982: a Chicago bar, the Cubby Bear, across the street from Wrigley Field. The group was local punks Naked Raygun. Grohl was 13, a Virginia kid visiting family in town, and taken to the gig by a cousin. He was transformed. Everything wild and good in his life – dropping out of high school to tour with a hardcore band; playing drums in Nirvana; writing hits and selling out stadiums with the Foo Fighters; making rock films – started here.

"Just remember, all it fucking takes is for you to turn someone else on to something that'll change their fucking life," Grohl tells the crowd, referring to his cousin Tracey Bradford, as the Foo Fighters wind up a two-and-a-half-hour performance celebrating the premiere of Grohl's HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways. "Imagine all the shit that you can fucking turn your friends on to and change their fucking..."

Grohl turns to someone making a gesture near the stage. His grin turns to a glare. "I'm serious, asshole!" he snaps, in a rare flash of anger. Later, Grohl will recall that moment, still pissed: "This smartass chick in the front row goes like this" – he points a finger at his head, like a gun, and fires – "like, 'Wow, mind blown.'" (It was the wrong show of irony. Twenty years ago, Grohl's bandmate in Nirvana, singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, took his life that way.)

At the Cubby Bear, Grohl quickly recovers his good humor. "I might be an earnest, nerdy guy," he says, "but it's worked for the past 20 fucking years." Then Grohl, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins bolt into the Foos' howling 1997 song "Everlong": "And I wonder/When I sing along with you/If everything could ever feel this real forever/If anything could ever be this good again," Grohl sings in hopeful unison with his fans.

"People can't imagine being that real and simple and honest," Grohl, 45, says a few days after that show, at the house in the hills overlooking Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley where he lives with his second wife, Jordyn, and their three young daughters. He shakes his head in amazement, brushing back the long, black hair that constantly falls across his face. "It's important to me – that the stories that inspired me can inspire other people. I don't feel like I'm on a mission. But I have the opportunity and the resources."

He has invested two years and his own money – including the Foos' take from two stadium shows in Mexico last year – in Sonic Highways, also the title of the band's companion album. The follow-up to Sound City, Grohl's 2013 film about a fabled L.A. studio, the HBO show is an eight-part tour of great American rock and roots-music cities such as Chicago, Austin, New Orleans and Seattle. Grohl conceived Highways, directed it and conducted interviews with a catholic spectrum of peers and elders, including bluesman Buddy Guy, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, country singer Carrie Underwood and President Obama.

Grohl himself is "pretty fucking presidential," claims Hawkins, 42, a lanky live wire who is practically Grohl's double in enthusiasm and profanity. "Dave's always been like, 'I've got some great fucking songs. I know what I want them to be. Let's do this.' He's never just sat there and gone, 'Fuck, what should we do?' – never."

"Dave has a vision," confirms Smear, 55, who was in the seminal L.A. punk band the Germs and first played with Grohl in Nirvana, in the year before Cobain's death. "Our job is to meet that vision or do something that exceeds it."

Grohl, who grew up in Springfield, Virginia, has threaded his own stories – like the Naked Raygun epiphany and his lessons in self-reliance as a teenager in Washington, D.C.'s punk scene – into Highways. "Check yourself/Wreck your brains/Where is that P.M.A.?" Grohl demands in "The Feast and the Famine," citing the acronym "Positive Mental Attitude," coined by D.C. punks Bad Brains.

"He's an appreciator," says Virginia Grohl, Dave's mother. "He has a respect for history and roots." She raised Dave and his older sister, Lisa, after divorcing their father, James, a journalist and occasional poet, when Dave was six. A high school teacher of English and public speaking, Virginia had no qualms about letting Dave quit his education at 17 to tour Europe with his first serious band, Scream.

"We used to talk about music and the future," she says. "Money was never part of the conversation. It was always about being with a band and getting to see other bands. He was determined then." Virginia pauses. "He is driven now. I don't know what gear he's in at this point. It's beyond anything I can describe."

"Dave doesn't want to go into a studio and make a record the usual way," says producer Butch Vig, who worked on Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough, Nevermind, and co-produced the Sonic Highways LP. "He wants a story behind it that gives some relevance." And, Vig notes, "people follow him, because they believe Dave is sincere. That comes across in the music. It's like the guy down the street made it."

In his home studio, in an upstairs corner of his house, Grohl is carrying on like a guy who can't believe his luck, blasting some of the raging-guitar demos that he made here for Highways. It is a modest setup, with just enough room for a desk, a sofa and a small soundproofed booth with a drum kit. You need to bend your neck all the way back to notice Grohl's 15 Grammys lined up at the top of a bookshelf.

"You have to imagine me up here after a day of daddy duty," Grohl shouts with delight over a torrent of fuzz guitar. "I've done three-quarters of a bottle of wine, and I'm in my underwear, totally rockin' these riffs all night." It's a little after 10 a.m., but Grohl has been up since 5:45 – making breakfast and snack packs for his daughters Violet, 8, and Harper, 5, then driving them to school. He just got back after stopping at a garage to fix a flat tire. Grohl will soon jump back into his car for the 15-minute drive to Studio 606, the band's recording facility, where he is editing the New York episode of Highways.

In between, Grohl whips up his own late breakfast, wolfs it down, cleans up and gives a tour of the house, stopping at a swinging cradle to pick up his youngest daughter, Ophelia, born in August, for cuddles and smiles. Along the way, he maintains a buoyant, running commentary lined with f-bombs and tour-van slang ("dude," "rad," "badass") about his life, work and many rock & roll friends. There are tales of a funny e-mail exchange with David Bowie, jamming with Prince and having Paul McCartney to the house for a glass of wine. "You don't know how much Beatles stuff you have until he comes over for a visit," Grohl says with an embarrassed laugh, passing a Yellow Submarine poster on one wall.

"Fuck no! Not at all," Grohl exclaims when asked if he feels like their equal. "When you jam with Paul McCartney you don't feel like an equal." But up in his studio, Grohl tells a story about attending an Elton John Oscar-night party and sitting at a table next to actress Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2's Bono. "I said, 'Can I ask you some questions about growing up with a rock-star father? Because I have three daughters.' And the Bono she described is my favorite Bono: packing lunches, driving the kids, reading them stories. Clearly, most musicians are the same way.

"I have to sacrifice sleep to do the things I want to do," Grohl continues. "This last year has been filled with more responsibility than at any other time in my life – the TV show, the album, the family, maintaining a band for 20 fucking years. It's nuts. But they're four things I love."

Asked about superstar indulgences, Grohl replies by pointing out a window to a 1965 Ford Falcon van in the driveway – which, at the moment, doesn't work. "It's fucking awesome, dude, but it ain't cheap," he says, to keep running. Grohl stopped doing drugs – acid, mushrooms and weed – when he was 20. "To this day, I have never done cocaine. Because I know me," he says, alluding to his already speedy personality. "Never tried heroin. Pills are lame. I like wine. I'm the fun drunk. You know I'm wasted when I shut up.

"I don't freak out on the rock-star excess," Grohl adds. "When Nirvana got popular, I was renting a house with a friend. I had a futon, a lamp and a dresser for my clothes. Ten million records later, I was still in that back room with the futon, lamp and dresser. I didn't know what to get. This" – he gestures at a few guitars hanging on his studio wall – "is a lot of stuff for me. I don't know what else to do. I get lost."

Grohl suddenly jumps out of his chair. "We should head off," he says brightly. "I have to go to my other office."

In September 2013, Grohl stood in a hallway at Studio 606, lined floor to ceiling with concert posters and record-sales plaques, and described to me his idea for Sonic Highways. Two weeks after that, Grohl was in New York interviewing me for the series at the Magic Shop, a legendary Soho studio where Bowie, Lou Reed and Sonic Youth made important records. (I was not paid for my participation.)

"I never considered myself a filmmaker," Grohl said later. "I didn't know what being a director meant outside of manning some silly Foo Fighters videos." But he is a natural storyteller. Vig points out that Grohl typically sets aside an hour or two at band rehearsals for shooting the breeze. "It loosens everybody up," the producer says. "You don't worry about that chord in the bridge. You get caught up in the life and times of Dave Grohl."

Grohl's style as an interviewer for Sonic Highways was just as loose. "I would walk into these interviews," he says, "with real questions I didn't know the answers to. I looked at them as lessons." He opened his chat with Ben Jaffe, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's creative director and tuba player, in New Orleans by telling Jaffe that he knew nothing about the city or jazz. "That became the conversation," Grohl says. "Put two musicians together – at the back of a bus, at the corner of a bar – and the conversation usually delivers."

Grohl's interview with Obama was not the rocker's first trip to the White House. In 2010, when McCartney was given a Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, Grohl – a veteran of Rock Against Reagan punk shows in the Eighties – sang "Band on the Run" in the East Room with Obama in the front row. This time, he met the president for what was to be a 15-minute taping. "It was a heavy day for him," Grohl says. "We were going back into Iraq. This was the last thing of his day." But the 15 minutes became 45. Obama "loosened his tie and got into it."

Grohl has saved that encounter for the last episode of Highways. "I talked to him for a specific reason," Grohl says, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis, "which I might as well fucking tell you: I wanted to talk to Obama about America as a country where the opportunity to follow your dreams is real, from Buddy Guy and his guitar made from his screen porch to a kid from Springfield, Virginia, who winds up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" – Grohl was inducted with Nirvana this year – "to a kid from Hawaii becoming the first African-American president.

"These things can happen in our country," Grohl continues, almost yelling into my recorder. "So why not do it yourself? Why not find the thing you don't know how to do and do it? The opportunity is there."

It's worth noting that the full title of the series is Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, and the album notes say, "All songs written by Foo Fighters." Grohl doesn't like to work alone. "They're Dave's songs," says Shiflett, 43, a Santa Barbara native who joined the Foos in 1999. "If he played them with another band, they'd still be good songs. But they wouldn't be these songs."

"I heard Dave tell someone in another band not long ago, 'You just need to get a band that makes you sound really good,' " says Smear. " 'That's what I did.' "

It was not easy. "I had no plan," Grohl says of his state of mind in 1994, after Cobain's death. He recalls a trip to Ireland, driving around "in the middle of nowhere, so happy to be away from it all," until he passed a hitchhiker wearing a Cobain T-shirt. "In that moment, I thought, 'I have to do something.' "

In July 1995, Grohl released Foo Fighters, an album on which he wrote, sang and played virtually everything. Then he formed a band to perform the songs live, with Smear and Mendel in the first lineup. Grohl learned about leading a band the hard way, firing one early member – Franz Stahl, a close friend from Scream – and losing others. (Smear quit in 1997, returning nine years later.)

Mendel, 45, confesses he was skeptical when Grohl first told the other Foos about his plans for the show and album at a band meeting. But the bassist said nothing at the time. "I've learned to hold back, let an idea develop," he says. "Our role is not to be the downer. Dave doesn't need that. He's got his own sense of editing."

"If Dave's excited about making a record, it's my job to move it along, however he wants to do it," says Hawkins, who was drumming for Alanis Morissette before joining the Foos in 1997. When Grohl gets tired or irritable, he doesn't yell at his band. He "seethes," as Vig puts it. "The tone of his voice changes. He gets quiet, more serious."

The closest Grohl came to breaking up the Foo Fighters was during a 2001 tour when Hawkins suffered a drug overdose in London. For Grohl, who lived through Cobain's heroin addiction, it was history threatening to repeat itself. He sat by Hawkins' hospital bed for 12 days, until the drummer recovered. Later, Grohl received a note from his mother. It said, "Your altruistic nature is something I am most proud of in my child. Look it up." Grohl laughs. "I didn't know there was such a word." Hawkins, now married with two children, does not like going back over what he dubs "my spazfest." But he professes absolute loyalty to Grohl: "He's the greatest leader there is in rock & roll, period."

"Dave could play drums on our records easily," Hawkins says, "because he knows exactly what he wants. But he gives that up to me. He knows I gotta be in there, that Nate's gotta be in there – because that's what makes these things great."

"I know the dynamics of this band," Grohl says. "Pat sounds like a bomb going off in your speaker. Chris is the most steady, perfect guitarist I've ever met. Nate prefers the high notes. Taylor is a fucking wild animal. And I'm the cheerleader.

"The great thing about being surrounded by people you love," he says, "is you can come to them and say, 'I have an idea, trust me.' And they say, 'OK.'"

The childhood photographs of Grohl that pepper the Chicago and D.C. episodes of Highways usually show him preening for the camera or wearing a big, toothy smile. Virginia says Dave was "a happy kid," even after her divorce. "People have always wanted to be around him." She's not crazy about his cursing. "I decided it's just rock talk, part of the language. It's not the way he communicates all the time, like with the children – thank goodness."

"This is my mother's DNA," Grohl says of his daily cheer. "She was a public-school teacher raising two kids on $18,000, working three jobs. She never complained. I never thought we didn't have enough. How much do you need?" He took that attitude on the road. "The first time I crossed the Mississippi River was in a Dodge van with Scream. I was like, 'This is Des Moines? Oh, my God, amazing!' "

Grohl's father died this year. They had limited contact during Grohl's youth but had reconnected, Dave says, "once I grew up." He credits James Grohl – a politically conservative man who became a speechwriter and campaign manager for a Republican senator from Ohio – with giving him "my love of whiskey," "the way I clear my throat" and "the way I write. He would say, 'You write with a lot of punch, and punch is power.' I loved to read the things he wrote. I remember one poem about the smell of ham. He used the word 'redolent.'"

After his parents' split, Grohl would record himself on a cassette player, speaking about his problems and fears that day, and then would fall asleep listening to the tape. "I started to find this kind of safe place," Grohl says now, "where I only had to rely on myself to survive emotionally."

That assurance came in handy when he joined Nirvana in 1990, becoming their sixth drummer after Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic saw him play with Scream in San Francisco. Grohl sums up Nirvana's chemistry this way: "I was celebrating life by beating the shit out of my drums. Kurt was questioning life in his songs." And Novoselic "was the engine. Krist was the one getting him up and out to do shit."

"Dave was an unabashedly silly guy," says Novoselic. "You waste a lot of time in a band, waiting for the gig, sitting in a van." Grohl could be relied upon to "always see or say something funny."

"Dave had great feel," says Vig of the Nevermind sessions. "He would write a fill, then repeat it like a motif." Vig knocks out one of Grohl's licks from "In Bloom" on a restaurant table. "He plays drums much like he writes guitar hooks."

Yet as late as the fall of 1993, in his last Rolling Stone interview, Cobain expressed concern for Grohl, that "he still feels like he can be replaced at any time.... I guess Dave is a person who needs reassurance sometimes." Grohl shrugs when reminded of that quote, pointing out that he quit Nirvana "a few times" in frustration, before Cobain's death, and once caught the guitarist telling someone, "Dave's fucking up," backstage after a show. "It's a tricky thing to dwell on," Grohl says, "because Kurt's not around anymore, and I had my great moments with him, that made me feel totally needed."

In fact, he argues, "the vulnerability of being the sixth drummer in Nirvana is nothing compared to being the lead singer of a new band after Nirvana. I've spent years taking hits, man, fighting my way through it. People resented me. That was years of my life – in every review, every time I sat down with a journalist.

"I don't expect everybody to love the band that we are," Grohl says of the Foo Fighters. "But I still look at it the way I did 20 years ago: I don't give a fuck what anyone says. I have to do this to survive."

Novoselic, who is close to Grohl and still plays with him occasionally, describes a Foos concert he saw three years ago in Buffalo: "The place is packed, and Dave's right out there – it's his show. I looked up, and there was a woman in the grandstand, out of her seat, singing and moving along to the music. I thought, 'She's worked hard all day, all month, and this is her night.' That's what Dave wants to bring to people. I thought, 'Good for her. And good for Dave.'"

One thing Grohl has never done with the Foo Fighters is perform Nirvana songs. "I can't imagine how that would be possible," he says, his voice dropping. "Those songs are like rooms upstairs where you locked the door because that person had disappeared." Nirvana's Hall of Fame induction in April was a dramatic exception, with Grohl, Novoselic and Smear resurrecting four Cobain classics with an inspired series of female vocalists, including St. Vincent and Lorde. Later that night, the rhythm section hosted a party in Brooklyn, busting out more Nirvana songs with friends and fans such as J Mascis.

That, Grohl gushes, "was fucking baptism, dunked-in-the-river shit. The first time we played 'Scentless Apprentice' in the practice room, it was Nirvana, man." Grohl corrects himself. "It wasn't Nirvana, but jaws dropped. I realized, 'Oh, that's why people liked us.' " Of course, he notes, the day after the Hall of Fame set "people were hoping we'd be playing in other places. But the special thing about that night was that it was that night."

Grohl characterizes his day-to-day role in Nirvana business, like the recent reissues of Nevermind and 1993's In Utero, as "not a lot." Novoselic "is the real Nirvana aesthetic. I'm the last call." To Grohl, Nirvana is still "Kurt and Krist's band."

But as he drives from his house to Studio 606, Grohl mentions a personal turning point at the Hall of Fame induction: when Courtney Love, Cobain's widow, turned around during her acceptance speech and hugged Grohl. The two had feuded bitterly since Cobain's death; in 2001, Love exchanged lawsuits with Grohl and Novoselic over control of Nirvana's catalog. (They settled before going to trial.)

Grohl was nervous when he arrived early in the day for the ceremony. "I hadn't seen her in so long, and so much had gone down," he says. Then he saw Love walking through the crowd. "I grabbed her arm and spun her around. I saw the Courtney Love I met in 1990, when I was down in L.A. playing drums with L7. Fuck all the other shit. I've got better things to do than gripe about yesterday.

"I said hi," he continues. "She said hi. We hugged. I said, 'You good?' She said, 'Yeah, I'm good. How are you?' I said, 'I'm fine. Let's do this.'"

Grohl pauses as he pulls into the 606 lot and parks the car. He turns and smiles. "And now I think we might be friends."

At the Cubby Bear, perched on a stool in an upstairs lounge, Grohl shows off one of his many tattoos, this one on the underside of his right arm: the symbol for infinity, set inside lines of script that read, "In the end we all come from what's come before." Grohl had it done a few months ago, in the week that his father died and, six days later, his new daughter was born.

"I try not to hang on too much to the past," Grohl says. "But I wouldn't be here if it weren't for that" – we've just finished one of our discussions about Nirvana – "and I wouldn't have all this to look forward to." He looks around the room, smiling, as the other Foo Fighters get ready for the show. "I can't wait to see what happens next."

Right now, there are club-size gigs every Friday in each Sonic Highways city until the series ends. A world tour next year already includes an August date in Chicago – across from the Cubby Bear at Wrigley Field. One of the opening acts that day will be Naked Raygun.

"He hasn't had a minute to himself in 40 years," Virginia says. "I think about that. Someday it will catch up with him, and he'll go to sleep for 10 years."

"It fucking never ends," Grohl says, acknowledging a sign from a crew member that it's almost time to hit the stage. "I know what we're doing for our next record. I don't think anyone's ever done it. And it's fucking cool. It will blow everybody's mind. Nobody has the balls to do it.

"And that's three years away," Grohl says. Foo Fighters will be into their third decade, and Grohl will be nearing 50 – a long way from his first rock show at the Cubby Bear.

"I know," he says, laughing. "My favorite thing about doing those Bridge School benefits for Neil Young was picking out who worked for Neil. They always had white hair in ponytails down to their asses, wearing overalls, walking real slow.

"That's me in fucking 20 years," Grohl promises. "I'll be walking real slow, with a long, white ponytail down to my butt, happy as a clam."

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