As I write this, Dave Grohl’s book The Storyteller is number one on The New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. A high school dropout who came out of the punk scene with his original band Scream, Grohl shot to fame as the drummer for Nirvana and then started Foo Fighters, for which he sings and plays lead guitar. Who knew that he would go on to win twelve Grammys, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (for the second time) this month, and write a best-selling book? His mother probably knew because she was the one who gave him the freedom to follow his rock and roll dream.
A fan of the Foo Fighters since their inception, Grohl’s words and music have been the soundtrack to many parties, hours on a treadmill, hikes with my dogs, and my radio show. But over the last few years, Grohl has gone global: celebrating the band’s 25-year anniversary, producing documentaries, performing at this year’s inauguration event, the aforementioned Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and two limited-engagement runs on Sirius radio. Not to mention this book. And he continues to present himself as a man of the people – someone you’d want to have a drink with and talk about the latest pair of purchased Vans.
How It Started
Divided into five parts, the book is organized into a series of vignettes that are meant to demonstrate who Grohl is today and how he got here. All the photos of him as a kid are precious and I find it interesting that none of them have captions or dates. Almost every chapter starts with a quote which, as a longtime journalist, I know is a clever way to grab a reader’s attention. Whenever he wants to emphasize a point, highlight a crossroads or pivotal moment, or point out a revelation, he changes from Times New Roman to a font that looks like handwriting in all caps – similar to the Rocksalt font I used for my book!
The first photo the reader sees (that is not of Grohl) is his parents’ (who divorced when he was six years old) wedding photo. He looks just like his father. But they never got along and, although he’s mentioned very sporadically throughout the book, we never get his name. Clearly not a coincidence. Conversely, his mother is an enormous part of his life and this book. She let him listen to any kind of music at any volume (something I can relate to) and let him leave home as a teenager to tour the country in a van. Raised with his sister by his mother, Grohl has always been and continues to be surrounded by women and this book is dedicated to five of them – his mother, wife, and three daughters. “We are all indebted to the women who have given us life. For without them, there would be no music.” Amen.
How Its Written
In addition to his well-written prose and exciting stories, what makes the book so successful is that I can hear Grohl talking throughout. It’s also extremely relatable as he pulls off writing something like “Are you fucking kidding me? Mind. Fucking. Blown.” about a person finding his wallet ten years after he lost it, and then poignantly describes how he felt the moment each of his three daughters were born.
In the first chapter we learn that when his daughter Harper asked him to teach her how to play drums, he says yes and then realizes he doesn’t know how to teach drums. Grohl only had one drum lesson in his life, doesn’t know how to read music, and plays by ear. He quickly figures out that he has to show his daughter the only way he knows how – by grabbing a copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black. “I eventually realized that she had a strong aural memory and an advanced sense of pattern recognition, which made it easy for her to imitate or repeat things perfectly by ear.” He pays attention and I like that.
Why We Care
Grohl is a famous musician who blows roofs off venues on any given night and will also sacrifice sleep and sanity to cross multiple time zones to attend a dance with his daughters. A man of the people. In every photo with his girls, Grohl has an enormous grin on his face – Cheshire cat-like in fact – and it’s very cute. He is the proudest of dads. Like someone else I know.
He cares about his fans, his family, his bandmates, and the people who got him where he is today. As a result, most of the chapters are captivating, page-turning, and every other reading cliché one can think of – especially the story of when he broke his leg two songs into a show and finished the show. His description of pain and determination is one of my favorite vignettes because he powers through. Not so much as a martyr, but someone who would rather sit on a chair with a broken leg than have fans miss a show they spent time and money to attend. “The only thing I felt in that moment was the responsibility of finishing the show for the thousands of people who had come to see us tear this place down with our well-oiled stadium-rock machine.”
But occasionally he goes off the rails. For example, the entire chapter about his middle school crush is unnecessary, along with the chapter in which he talks about meeting famous people who become friends. We know you have famous friends Dave – obviously. That being said, I do like the chapter on Joan Jett and the way he introduces her to his daughters after they buy her doll. “In a world full of Barbies, every girl needs a Joan Jett.” Yes.
It’s fascinating that his life seems to be a series of crossroads and interesting encounters: After reading an article in which Grohl cites Little Richard as a hero, Little Richard’s son approaches Grohl and asks if he would like to meet his dad who happens to be sitting in the car down the street. Amazing. While getting fitted for a suit, because he was scheduled to play at the Academy Awards, the young woman dressing him happened to be the little girl in the “Heart-Shaped Box” video. Mind. Fucking. Blown.
What Almost Doesn’t Work
There is no question that Grohl is one of my favorites of all time, but I don’t love the anti-school aspects of this book. Although I, of course, appreciate that he made something of himself (to say the least), he still dropped out of high school in eleventh grade. I don’t appreciate the “learning lessons that can’t be a taught in a classroom” part of his story because he is unequivocally the exception and not the rule when it comes to succeeding without a high school diploma. He talks about how he had too much energy and not enough focus for school, which is brave of him to divulge, but he’s lucky his schoolteacher mother had the foresight to know this was going to work out for him because it doesn’t work out for most.
Another aspect of the book that’s not my favorite is how he describes Nirvana’s meteoric rise. Grohl’s description of all the attention being “a life sentence that most are not prepared to navigate” is tough to read. It’s common knowledge that Nirvana was an anomaly, but the woe-is-me-the-rockstar-life-was-too-much mantra is hard to swallow. That being said, while I have heard snippets of Nirvana stories throughout the years, it was illuminating to read the whole narrative at once. The firsthand account of how broke yet prepared these guys were when they went into the studio is fascinating – they practiced hard (rather than spending all their time gigging) because they could only afford a few days in the studio. Nevermind is a landmark album because Kurt Cobain, Grohl, and Krist Novoselic (whose name is never mentioned in the book) were beyond ready and producer Butch Vig was too. Next thing they knew, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit MTV, the album dethroned Michael Jackson who was sitting at number one, they performed on Saturday Night Live, and the band’s swift rise proved too much for Cobain.
One of the most interesting vignettes in this book is the story about Grohl getting a phone call to play drums for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on SNL. At the time (a few months after Cobain’s tragic death) Grohl was working on recordings that would eventually become the first Foo Fighters record, but he took the gig and had the best time. After the show, Petty asked him to go on the road with the band. His decision not to go, because he wanted to finish what he was recording, ultimately changed the trajectory of his life. Arguably, if Grohl had gone on the road with the Heartbreakers, the Foo Fighters might not exist. And that would have been a shame.
With every major decision in his life, Grohl always went back to his mother – asking for permission in his youth and for advice in his adult life. “I never wanted to disappoint her, because aside from being my mother, she was my best friend. I couldn’t let her down. I like to say now that she disciplined me with freedom by allowing me to wander, to find my path, and ultimately find myself.”
Freedom and the idea that the next adventure was always around the corner is also a monumental and reoccurring theme of the book. Grohl craved freedom – from his suburban Virginia upbringing, the confines of school, and the people who didn’t understand him – and he got it. Grohl makes it clear that he knows exactly how lucky he is to do what he does for a living and there is a lot to be said about that.
As a mother to a son who blows my mind on a daily basis, a daughter of a mother who has supported me every step of the way, and a lover of music, I can relate to Grohl in so many ways. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the advice and support I’ve received from my mother over the years. I’m a music fan because she’s a music fan and now, hearing Fleet ask Wookie and I to play Van Halen as he strums his red guitar blows my fucking mind. I hope that as he gets older, he talks about me like Grohl talks about his mother.
“Each instrument ages entirely differently.”
“Even the oldest wounds can reopen.”
On Nirvana: “A sense of capturing the unpolished, imperfect essence of human performance was much aligned with our ragged sound.”
“We delivered [songs] with our usual manic abandon, beating our instruments to within an inch of their lives as the crowd sang every word.”
“We had gone from three disheveled young men with nothing to lose to three disheveled young men with a gold record.”
On the Foo Fighters: “The band, born from heartbreak and tragedy of our broken past, was a celebration of love, and life, and the dedication to finding happiness in every next day. And now, more than ever, it represented healing and survival.”
“There is that golden moment in any child’s life when independence and identity intersect, steering you in your ultimate direction, and this was mine.”
On becoming a father: “This was a love I had never experienced before.”
“Life is just too damn short to let someone else’s opinion steer the wheel.” Yes.
“It’s hard to put into words the belief that I have in music.”
“I believe that people are inspired by people. That is why I feel the need to connect with my fans when they approach me. I’m a fan too.”
“Some circles are meant to be broken. Some are meant to be reinforced.” When it comes to family – no truer words.
On his mother: “She was forever my hero and greatest inspiration; I owed all of this to her.”
On the clothes he wore as a kid: “Bargain jeans from Sears that came in a rainbow of nauseating colors.”
“I was living a classic 1980s John Hughes coming-of-age film without realizing it, aesthetically and emotionally.”
On swaddling: “I’m bad enough at rolling joints; how could I successfully roll a child?”
“The president of the United States of America just called me ‘dude.’”
Talking about getting ready for a father/daughter dance: “Though I have always had an aversion to formal wear (as I tend to look like a stoner in court to pay a misdemeanor marijuana fine), I would do my darndest to clean up and look the part.”
- First/only drum lesson – taught by a local jazz drummer Lenny Robinson.
- First live show – Naked Raygun.
- He includes his report card on page 76.
- Nirvana’s (pre-Grohl) album Bleach cost $606 to make.
- Grohl has been on SNL fourteen times – more than any other musician.
- 1997’s The Colour and the Shape is the most popular Foo Fighters record to date.