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Dave Grohl's SXSW Keynote Speech: The Complete Text

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When the sun had gone down and the legendary Dead Kennedys finally came onstage, lead singer Jello Biafra pointed and screamed at the Washington Monument, calling it "The great Klansman in the sky, with it's two blinking red eyes . . . " Well . . . that was it . . . the powder keg finally blew. Helicopters buzzed overhead, shining spotlights into the crowd as policeman on horses beat their way through the punks with their billy clubs. It was right out of Apocalypse Now. This was my Woodstock. This was my Altamont. This was rock & roll, no matter what T-shirt you wore or what haircut you had. This was fucking REAL. I burned inside. I was possessed and empowered and inspired and enraged and so in love with life and so in love with music that it had the power to incite a fucking riot, or an emotion, or to start a revolution, or just to save a young boy's life.

So I joined a band, dropped out of high school, and hit the road. I starved. My hands bled. If I slept, I slept on floors. I slept on stages. I slept on the fucking floors under the fucking stages. And I loved every minute of it. Because I was free. And I wanted to incite a riot, or an emotion, or a revolution, or to save someone's life by inspiring them to pick up an instrument just like I did as a kid. I wanted to be someone's Edgar Winter. I wanted to be someone's Naked Raygun. I wanted to be somene's Bad Brains or Beatles. Because THAT was the reward. THAT was the intention.  We played THAT type of music, so we were left alone. There was no career opportunity. There was no hall of fame. There were no trophies. There was no A&R credit card buying Benihana dinners.  Our reward was knowing that we had done all of this all on our own, and that it was real.

But . . . inevitably it wasn't long before I found myself stranded in Hollywood without a cent to my name and no way home, crashed out in a Laurel Canyon bungalow with a bunch of female mud wrestlers. Don't ask. That's a whole other fucking keynote address . . .

And, that's when I heard the 5 words that changed my life forever:

"Have you heard of Nirvana?"

Nirvana were one of "us." Raised on Creedence, and Flipper, and Beatles, and Black Flag, they seemed to share the same ideals, the same intentions. But they had something more. They had songs. They had . . . Kurt. What they didn't have . . . was a drummer.

Kurt Cobain: The Rolling Stone Interview (1994)

So, without hesitation, I packed all of my drums into one big, U-Haul cardboard box, grabbed my old army duffle bag, and flew up to Seattle.

We practiced in a barn. Every day. It was all that we had. There was no sun. There was no moon. There was just . . . the barn. And those songs. Kurt had, without a doubt, found HIS voice. Every practice would begin with an improvisational, free-form jam, which kind of served as an exercise in dynamic and musical collaboration/communication. We were speaking to each other without words. Verbal communication was never really Nirvana's forte, so we spoke to each other with our instruments. And the combination of our three "voices" resulted in a sound that eventually caught the ear of a major label record company. Or 10 major label record companies . . .

Suddenly, we were thrown into a bidding war of A&R guys with fancy shoes from Fred Segal, and radio promo dudes with little one-hitters in their glove compartments, and closets full of complimentary box sets, and fucking BENIHANA EVERY FUCKING NIGHT. At one meeting, after playing a demo of our song "In Bloom" for Donny Eiener in his high rise office in NYC, Donny turned to Kurt and asked, "So . . . what do you guys want?" Kurt, slouched over in his chair, looked up to Donny sitting behind his massive oak desk and said, "We want to be the biggest band in the world."

I laughed. I thought he was fucking kidding. He wasn't.

Now, you have to remember where music WAS at the time. Here are the Billboard year-end Top 10 songs of 1990:

10. Jon Bon Jovi, "Blaze of Glory"
9. Billy Idol, "Cradle of Love"
8. En Vogue, "Hold On"
7. Phil Collins, "Another Day in Paradise"
6. Mariah Carey, "Vision of Love"
5. Madonna, "Vogue"
4. Bel Biv Devoe, "Poison"
3. Sinead O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2 U"
2. Roxette, "It Must Have Been Love"

And the Number One song of 1990 . . . Wilson fucking Phillips, "Hold On"

How Kurt could even THINK we'd make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me. It was beyond everyone. It made absolutely no sense. It was simply unimaginable. It was the type of hopeless, shallow aspiration that we had been conditioned to reject, ultimately relieving us of any intention other than to just be ourselves. I mean, the very definition of the word "Nirvana" in the dictionary is "A PLACE OR STATE CHARACTERIZED BY FREEDOM FROM OR OBLIVION TO PAIN, WORRY, AND THE EXTERNAL WORLD." We had ALWAYS been left to our own devices as musicians, day after day in our bedrooms as children, day after day in that old barn. What did WE need with THAT world?

A few more A&R guys with fancy shoes, a few more box sets, a few more dinners at Benihana, and we signed a deal. Following in the footsteps of our great heroes Sonic Youth, we signed to the David Geffen Company, threw everything in the back of our old Chevy van and headed down . . . to SOUND CITY.

Sixteen days. Thirteen songs. We were used to recording 16 songs in ONE DAY. This was the big time. All of those cold, rainy days spent in that barn, chopping away at those songs, speaking to each other without words, finding our "voice," it was all . . . for this.

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