Dave Grohl delivered his keynote speech on Thursday at SXSW, urging musicians to find "your voice" and recounting how he made his own rock dreams a reality, practicing in his room "until there was literally sweat dripping down the Rush posters on my wall." Below is the full text of his speech, which was livestreamed on NPR.
Thank you SXSW very much for allowing me the incredible opportunity of being this year's keynote speaker. Having been raised by a former DC political speechwriter and a former public speaking teacher, it is practically written in my DNA zipper that I should feel the insatiable need to stand in front of a room of total strangers and BULLSHIT them. As a child, MY father's lectures were legendary. And Frequent. Great works of literature, that stay with me to this day and, if anything . . . taught me how to give loooong lectures myself. Not long ago I was lucky enough to sit down at dinner with another one of my favorite public speakers . . . the one, the only Mr. Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, as you would imagine, is a warm, funny, brilliant man, and a wonderful dinner guest! I congratulated him on last year's amazing keynote, quoting his insight and humor. And then I told him that this year's keynote speaker was . . . me. He stared at me for a moment, slowly cracked that famous smile that we all know and love, that smile that could light up an entire stadium, and then . . . he started laughing. AT ME. As if to say "GOOD FUCKING LUCK, BUDDY . . . " But . . . truth be told . . . that's not the first time anyone's ever said that to me, so it is without a doubt my musical life's greatest honor to be asked to share with you what I know about music.
So. What do I know . . .
The Musician comes first.
My mother tells me that I was born to applause. The morning of January 14th, 1969, there was a class of young doctors in a small delivery room in Warren, Ohio, there to witness their first live birth. As I was born, the room burst into applause. My first moments in this world . . . hanging upside down, covered in blood, screaming as I'm being spanked by a complete stranger. Perhaps the most appropriate preparation for becoming a working musician.
Now . . . before we go any further, I have to thank someone. I have to thank Edgar Winter. For allowing K-Tel records to include his legendary instrumental "Frankenstein" on their 1975 Blockbuster compilation. It was this record that my sister and I bought at the drugstore down the street and brought home to play on the public-school turntable my mother would borrow from school on the weekends. It was this record that changed my life. A veritable "who's who" of 1975 radio hits. But, it wasn't KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the way, uh huh uh huh I like it" song that made me want to pick up the dusty old guitar in the corner. Nope . . . and it wasn't Dave Loggins' "Please Come to Boston" or Silver Convention's "Fly Robin Fly" that made me want to jump in a van with my friends and leave the world behind for music. No. It was (sings "Frankenstein"). A riff. I gave it all up for a riff.
Interestingly enough, though, that song is completely instrumental. There's no vocal. It's drums, guitars, keyboards, percussion, each getting a solo in the song . . . no vocals. But what I heard in all of those solos . . . were voices. The voices of each musician. Their personalities. Their technique. Their feel. The sound of people playing music with other people. It made me want to play music with other people, too.
So, it wasn't long until I had my first guitar, an old Sears Silvertone with the amp built into the case. It smelled like an old attic full of mothballs and burning wire, and sounded like that "goats yelling like humans" YouTube clip that's going around right now (look it up, it's fucking hilarious), but it instantly became my obsession. It was this guitar, and a Beatles songbook that ultimately set my life in . . . ahem . . one direction. Never one for taking lessons or direction, I was left to my own devices and devoted every waking hour to playing music. It became my religion. The record store my church. The rock stars my saints, and their songs my hymns.
Springfield, Virginia, wasn't necessarily known for breeding rock stars. A "career" in music never seemed possible to me. It just seemed too good to be true. Surely the faces on my Kiss posters weren't getting PAID to do this! Gene Simmons? Imagine! But that never mattered to me. Because I had finally found MY VOICE. And that was all I needed to survive from now on. The reward of playing a song from beginning to end without making a mistake . . . well, that could feed me for weeks. The discovery of a new chord, or a new scale could make me forget about that kid at school who wanted to kick my fuckin' ass, or that cute chick with the lip gloss and soft sweater I had a crush on who wouldn't give me the time of day. I liked my new voice. Because, no matter how bad it sounded . . . it was mine. There was nobody there to tell me what was right or what was wrong, so . . . there was no right or wrong.
As much as I wanted to be in a band, I was there, alone in my bedroom, day in day out with my records and my guitar, playing with myself for hours. I would set up pillows in the formation of a drumset on my bed and play along to records until there was literally sweat dripping down the Rush posters on my walls. Eventually I figured out how to be a one-man band. I took my crappy old handheld tape recorder, hit record and laid down a guitar track. I would then take that cassette, place it in the home stereo, take another cassette, place THAT into the handheld recorder, hit play on the stereo, record on the handheld, and play drums along to the sound of my guitar. Voila! Multi-tracking! At 12 years old! To my chagrin, though, what I got was not "Sgt. Peppers" . . . rather a collection of songs about my dog, my bike, and my dad. Nevertheless, I had done this all myself. Therefore making the reward even sweeter.
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