Rockin’ Grohl: I was terrified my friends would see me as a sell-out

By Michael Dwyer

Dave Grohl with his hugely influential mom, Virginia Hanlon Grohl.Credit: Andreas Neumann

Dave Grohl can’t immediately recall which visit to the White House it was. Maybe the time he was invited to say a few words about The Who when George W. Bush gave the former hellraisers a medal. Or it might have been the time Barack Obama’s people asked him to sing at a similar ceremony for Sir Paul McCartney.

This time he was scared, though, because a reckoning loomed. On the same trip to Washington, his multimillion-album-selling rock band Foo Fighters was booked at the 9:30 Club, an underground hangout he’d played with his first teen punk band in the ’80s.

The Foo Fighters, from left, Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear perform at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 12.Credit: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

“I heard that my heroes were all going to be there,” Grohl says, namechecking righteous dudes from Scream, Black Flag, Husker Du, Fugazi and Minor Threat. “I was nervous because I was actually in town to play the f—ing White House. I was so terrified that I wouldn’t be accepted by my old friends; that I’d be seen as some kind of sell-out.”

The weird guilt trip carries sombre echoes. In his darkest hours, Kurt Cobain was consumed by “the ethics of independence” crushed by the phenomenal mainstream success Nirvana had so bitterly reaped. In many ways, that band’s most successful survivor personifies this corporate-cultural fait accompli. Today, lists Dave Grohl as the fourth richest drummer alive. He’s the rock star US presidents ask for by name.

He gets where this is going, but he’s not buying it. Foo Fighters run their own label, own their own studio, answer to nobody, he says. “There’s no boardroom full of people making any of these decisions for us. We always call ourselves the highest-paid garage band in the world … When I think of stardom, I think of other people.”

As it happened, that night at the 9:30 Club showered nothing but love on the homecoming hero who must be thoroughly sick of being called “the nicest man in rock”. Ethical showdown averted. Chalk up another happy ending in the life of astonishing good fortune recounted in his new memoir, The Storyteller.

A life of astonishing good fortune is recounted in Dave Grohl’s memoir.Credit:Magdalena Wosinska

In truth, The Humblebragger might be a more accurate title. But listen, you would be too if you were just lounging in a van one arvo and Iggy Pop banged on the door to see if there was a drummer he could borrow. Grohl was 21 when that outrageous boy’s own dream came true. Nirvana knocked a few months later. Fast-forward a decade or three and it was Tom Petty, McCartney, Mick Jagger …

“I never wander into that rehearsal space or onto that stage feeling like I am of the same calibre or merit as these people,” he says. “The book is meant to be read [as] through the lens of someone who is having an out-of-body experience. When these things happen to me… I feel like they’re happening to someone else.”

A young Dave Grohl barbecuing in Virginia in 1999.Credit:Danny Clinch

Born from a spontaneous series of Instagram lockdown posts, The Storyteller is an episodic montage of these surreal meetings, from Little Richard in an airport limo to dinner with AC/DC to Joan Jett reading the author’s kids a bedtime story. Over nearly 400 pages, Grohl has so many names to drop that there’s no room for that story about jamming on Led Zeppelin with Prince, or the time he played a Neil Young song on a David Bowie album.

Befitting his all-American sweet guy image, it’s the author’s mother who beats all contenders to emerge as the hands-down hero of his life story, rooted in the Happy Days-cum-Brady Bunch suburbia of North Springfield, Virginia.

“Both of my parents were brilliant writers,” Grohl says. “Not only the written word, but the spoken word was taken seriously. I mean, we would have articulation drills at the dinner table, where my mother would give us a subject and we’d have to talk about it for three minutes without breaking speech. I f—ng hated school, but I loved doing that.”

Dave Grohl with his hugely influential mum, Virginia Hanlon Grohl.Credit: Andreas Neumann

Virginia Hanlon Grohl’s heart-warming relationship with her son has been on the record since her 2017 book, From Cradle To Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars (now a Paramount+ TV series). It only makes Dad’s fleeting profile in The Storyteller more conspicuous.

“One of the reasons why he just sort of slips in and out of the book is because he just kind of slipped in and out of my life,” Grohl explains. Two years ago, he wrote an affectionate eulogy in The Atlantic about the late James Harper Grohl, a buttoned-down political reporter/consultant who took a dim view of his son’s middling school reports and punk-rock aspirations.

Dave Grohl was both inspired and intimidated by his father James Harper Grohl

“My father wasn’t the greatest communicator,” he says today. “He could write one hell of a Republican speech but he and I did not have a decent relationship when I was young. Ultimately, I don’t know if he knew how to be a father. He had a very difficult relationship with his own father. And I think it influenced his parenting.

“At the same time, I really looked up to him. There was so much about him that I admired and was inspired by and I was intimidated by. He was an intellectual titan. He was so culturally versed in the arts and literature and he was a classically trained musician with perfect pitch.”

The father-son thaw occurred by email, eventually, as Foo Fighters stormed the world in the late 1990s. “Every time he would send me an email, it was poetry. It was eloquent. It was entertaining. It was emotional. It could be one paragraph about making a pork roast at home and it read like Shakespeare.

“I felt like he was challenging me to write. After a few months he wrote me and said, ‘You’re becoming a great writer, David. Your writing has punch and punch has power’. That may have been my life’s greatest validation… [although] he probably is rolling in his grave that I’d write for The Atlantic.”

Dave Grohl with his wife Jordyn and daughters Violet, Harper and Ophelia.

Grohl Junior’s journalistic tentacles have expanded way beyond the odd left-leaning magazine article these past eight years. His documentary Sound City, his Sonic Highways TV series and the forthcoming What Drives Us are the kind of hands-on American histories that only a journeyman rock star could make: someone with lived experience, learned craft, and a contact book that reaches from Fugazi to McCartney to Obama.

There’s a certain elegiac undertow to the films that Grohl has also been making.Credit:Magdalena Wosinska

Although ostensibly celebrations of music, and contagiously passionate ones at that, there’s a certain elegiac undertow to these films, a documentation of people and places and creative techniques that need preserving, not just in memory but in the bricks and mortar of imperilled live venues and recording studios. But he’s not the kind to say die.

“I’ve had long conversations about rock’n’roll’s death rattle for a decade and a half,” he sighs. “Now, is it at the top of the charts at the moment? No. Will it be again? I don’t know. But the fact that it hasn’t been for so long, and there’s still rock’n’roll bands in the corner bars, and in the theatres, and in the arenas, and some in the stadiums, to me, that means maybe it’s doing OK.

“And that being said … we sold 250,000 tickets in a day a few weeks ago, in England, so I’m not the one to ask. You need to ask my daughter, who’s 15 years old, who listens to Joni Mitchell all day long, and then she listens to the Misfits, and then she listens to the Suburban Lawns, and then she writes songs with her friends who play drums and guitars and love rock’n’roll.”

Nirvana in 1994, from left, David Grohl, Krist Noveselic and Kurt Cobain.Credit:Dave Geffen Company

In a world where crumbling universities compete with cool rock colleges and presidents hand out medals to old counter-culture rebels, it’s fair to assume Violet Grohl and her little sisters will get more encouragement from their old man than he did from his own. It’s sadly too late for his friend Kurt, but the “ethically suffocating punk rock scene” that Grohl describes surviving is simply no more. The world may be divided in all kinds of ways, but at a Foo Fighters gig, everyone is the same as everyone else.

“Obviously there are certain types of people that I would hope don’t associate themselves with our band,” he says, “[but] for the most part, when we go out to play shows and you have 10, 20, 30, 40, 50,000 people joining in the chorus of the song, the energy of that communion, the energy of that connection, I think is healing in some way.

“I look out at the audience and I can kind of read people. I know that this guy might be a bit more conservative than this person over here. But when I see them join together and sing, it gives me hope. Maybe there’s something to being the person that can deliver a song and bring everyone together.”

“Maybe there’s something to being the person that can deliver a song and bring everyone together.”Credit:Charles Peterson

To bring the point home, he has one more story that didn’t fit in the book.

“I remember getting this letter from Bruce Springsteen after we played a show … He watched us play My Hero, and the audience sang along, and he said, ‘that’s what it’s all about: for the audience to look to you and see themselves, just as you look at the audience and see yourself’.”

After the year of isolation that produced his book, the act of seeing each other has been profound in itself, he adds. He has a sold-out trans-Atlantic book tour to do right now, and another film in the works, and he jokes that he’d like Shelley Duvall to play him if The Storyteller gets optioned by Netflix. But getting on stage to thrash and roar like a teenaged punk remains his undying joy.

“The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” by Dave Grohl is out this week.Credit:Dey Street Books

“I can honestly say that in the last month-and-a-half, the shows we’ve been playing have been the best shows we’ve ever played. Ask anyone within the band; ask the audiences, it’s just been f—ng transcendent. And I think it’s because we’re reminded of why we love doing it in the first place, band and audience.

“At this point, when we walk on stage, there’s that feeling in the back of your mind that it could be the last time. And I think the audience might feel the same.”

The Storyteller is published on October 5 from Simon & Schuster.

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