The urge came out of nowhere. Somehow, last year, I had the overwhelming desire to buy the new Foo Fighters album, Medicine at Midnight. That was odd considering I’d never purchased any of their albums up to that time. Heck, I knew only a handful of their songs and one main video, but buy the record I did and it became my favorite album of the year.
So when Dave Grohl, the founder and front man of the band, published his memoirs, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, in the fall of 2021, I was primed and ready for it.
But I wasn’t ready for what it did to me.
A Parallel Life
With my newfound interest in all things Foo and Grohl, I learned Dave was only five weeks younger than I was. Back in 1991, when Nirvana released their seminal album “Nevermind” and set a dividing line in the history of rock music—there was a Before Nevermind and an After Nevermind—I probably knew that the trio were my age, but it didn’t register. Bands who made records I could buy were always older than me, right? Turns out, Dave was the youngest. He was like the younger brother of one of the two other guys in the band, brought along on account of his ferocious drumming style. I think we all know that Dave was at the right place at the right time, just before Nirvana blew away the general public with their sound.
But Dave was already a veteran of that scene. He had been intoxicated with the punk rock sound of Washington DC even though he was a suburban kid from Virginia. Even without a proper drum kit (he used pillows), the music flowed through him and he practiced and practiced the drums and well as strumming and picking out songs on his guitar.
Good fortune, luck, whatever you want to call it arrived one day when Dave, the seventeen-year-old struggling high school student, was given the chance to audition for the punk rock band Scream. He nailed the audition and, when invited to join the band, lead singer Peter Stahl finally thought to ask the young man his age. Naturally, Dave lied. “Twenty-one.” Peter and the other members of Virginia-based Scream accepted Dave’s word and Scream had a new drummer.
But Dave had one crucial thing to do, and even as I listened to Dave recount the story via the audiobook, fully knowing how it would turn out, it was a tense moment. Dave had to talk with his mother, a public school teacher, and convince her to let him drop out of school and tour with the band. Her words were surprising: “You’d better be good.”
As a listener to Dave’s journey, I found myself joining in his long days of traveling the country in a van, stretching out pennies per day on food, sleeping like sardines in said van, only to explode for an hour a day on stage. As a parent myself, however, I found Virginia Grohl’s faith in her son heart-warming yet also inspirational. The main job of a parent is to raise our children to be good, functioning, adults capable of holding down a job and making it on their own. She must have recognized that Dave was not going to be a typical nine-to-five kind of person and let him go. Even though my son is now twenty, I think back to when he was seventeen and ask myself if I could have let him go.
Turning it back on myself, however, I thought back to when I was seventeen. I was a junior in high school, just like Dave was. Could I have left the comfort of my suburban Houston home to tour with a rock band? Would my parents have let me? The answer to both is no.
That Guy From Nirvana
The four-year stretch when Dave toured America and Europe with Scream on less than a shoe-string budget helped forge his character into what he would become. His frugality he learned from his single mother, who raised Dave and his sister via her public school job and other jobs she took to make ends meet. He learned to make do with less and be happy about it. I found it telling that when he received his first check after joining Nirvana—an astounding-for-him $400—he blew it on a Nintendo and other assorted things he didn’t really need. Soon, he was back to scraping by, barely choking down the three-for-a-dollar corn dogs from a gas station. Still, he learned his lesson.
It’s common knowledge that Dave auditioned for Nirvana at a time when Scream was a slowly sinking ship. He joined the band with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic and set to work on Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind. It was great to hear Dave’s thoughts and memories about Kurt, especially how unprepared the trio was for the instant international fame they garnered with that fall 1991 album and, most importantly, the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video. Soon, the very people who poked fun of Dave in high school were now attending Nirvana shows. The alternative, punk rock mentality in which Dave and Kurt and Krist thrived was being co-opted by the mainstream. Dave struggled with it, but he managed to get through the deluge while Kurt did not.
I made the choice to listen to this book because Dave narrates his own story, and it is exactly the way to consume this book. You get Dave’s snide tonal shifts depending on if he’s talking about a funny memory, but you can also hear his somber voice as he talks about how Kurt’s death affected him. In interviews about this book, Dave mentioned he wrote the passages about Kurt last. I wonder if he recorded them last as well.
The Indie Spirit of Foo Fighters
In the immediate aftermath of Kurt’s death, Dave left music. He didn’t even listen to the radio. The very thing that pumped in his veins, that compelled him to become a high-school dropout was now the same thing he couldn’t endure. He wanted to distance himself from Nirvana, from Kurt, and, as he came to realize, from himself. After nearly picking up a hitchhiker in Ireland—the young man was wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, the sight of which caused Dave to duck his head and pass by—Dave knew he must return to music.
As an indie author, I enjoy performing all aspects of writing and publishing myself. True, some tasks are more mundane than others, but that is the price I’m willing to pay. I knew about Foo Fighters back in 1995 but never bought the debut record. What I truly never understood, however, was that, save for a single guitar part in one song, Dave wrote and performed every bit of that twelve-song debut. And he did it all in six days in the studio. That astounded me, but what I really latched onto was how that creativity in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide was Dave’s road out of his depression.
You see, I’ve been struggling with my own career as a writer, wondering if it is all worth it or if I should just hang it up. Why bother, I’d tell myself. No one cares if I write or don’t. In fact, those thoughts have so permeated my thinking that I actually have stopped. It’s been a month since I last wrote new words on anything other than blog posts.
But I have spent countless words on examining myself, and in this time of re-examining what kind of fiction writing career I want, I listened to Dave’s book. I hear him talk about his own struggles, his own doubts and fears, how he, even to this day, still struggles and wonders if he’s good enough.
Dave is a wonderful storyteller, weaving in and out of various tales from the road. All are remarkable and all had me questioning myself and my creative life choices. Late in the book, he described the feeling of being invited to perform—solo—at the Oscars. And it was the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” So, no pressure, right? He was scared, so scared that he nearly declined. But he and his daughter, Violet, had recently performed the song at her school talent show and she encouraged him to do the song. You see, she was scared to perform but she overcame her fears and knocked it out of the park. The child served as inspiration for the father.
In concluding this story, Dave wrote the following:
"Courage is the defining factor in the life of any artist. The courage to bare your innermost feelings, to reveal your true voice, or to stand in front of an audience and lay it all out there for the world to see. The emotional vulnerability that is often necessary to summon a great song can also work against you when you’re sharing your song for the world to hear. This is the paralyzing conflict of any sensitive artist, a feeling I’ve experienced with every lyric I’ve sung to someone other than myself. Will they like it? Am I good enough? It is the courage to be yourself that bridges those opposing emotions, and when it does, magic can happen."
Dave’s book arrived at the perfect time in my life and the inspirational journey he went on and continues to undertake hit me in the exact place I needed it: my creative spirit. It needed a jolt to get me out of the doldrums. My spirit needed to come around and be reminded that every single creative person—whether an indie writer, a rock star, or anyone in between—has moments of doubt. But if we just keep going and keep making our art, magic can happen.
It is remarkable to get an inside look at an established and famous rock star who is my age. The bass player, Nate Mendel, is four days older than me so I should have been a Foo Fighters fans from the jump. But I wasn’t. Instead, it took me twenty-seven years to come around.
Now, I’m there and not only am I on YouTube watching tons of videos but I’m rummaging through my wife’s CD collection and pulling every Foo Fighters album she has. The music is fantastic, but Dave Grohl’s message is even better.