It all started with a riff: the monster jam that gives life to a great rock song. Dave Grohl, the Nirvana basher and Foo Fighters front man, traced his development as a rock and roller Thursday as he delivered the keynote address to a huge crowd at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference.
In Grohl’s case, it was “Frankenstein,” the thunderous 1973 instrumental hit. “I have to thank Edgar Winter for allowing that song to be on the 1975 compilation Blockbuster, by Ktel,” Grohl said. “My sister and I took that album home and we played it over and over … (the song) was an instrumental, no singing, but what I heard were the voices of each musician through their instruments, the sound of people playing music with other people.”
“Frankenstein” gave life to something dormant in Grohl, which was central to his theme on Thursday. “The musician comes first,” he said up front. “Nothing is as important as the musician.”
Bashing on a cheap Sears guitar in his bedroom, Grohl wrote songs about his life, his school, his dog and his dad. “Music instantly became my obsession,” he said. “It was my religion.”
On the podium at the Austin Convention Center, Grohl also demonstrated how he created songs in his bedroom. He inserted a cassette into a recorder and played a short riff on a guitar. He took the cassette and put it in another player, then taped his percussion over the guitar part onto a second cassette.
“I was multi-tracking,” he laughed. “To my chagrin, it wasn’t Sgt. Pepper’s. But I did it all by myself – it was my voice, all mine.”
Another seminal event for Grohl was attending a Fourth of July punk concert in Washington, D.C., on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, when he was a teenager. Thousands upon thousands of angry young people screamed at the walls of power until the cops finally moved in.
“It was a f***ing riot, and I was in heaven,” Grohl said. “It revealed to me that this music had the power to create an emotion, to start a riot and a revolution, or to save a young boy’s life. I knew I wanted to be somebody’s Edgar Winter, I wanted to be someone’s Naked Raygun.”
He was playing in bands, living in Hollywood with a group of female mud wrestlers (“That’s totally another keynote address,” Grohl said) when Dave heard the five words that changed his life: “Have you heard of Nirvana?” Grohl said, “They had Kurt and some songs, but no drummer.”
Grohl hooked up with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic in Seattle, and they started working out songs and practicing in an old barn. “What we were doing was speaking to each other without words. Our three voices resulted in a sound that caught the ears of other people,” Grohl said.
Courted by record companies, the band found themselves in the New York City office of a label bigwig. “What do you guys want?” asked the big shot. Cobain calmly looked back at the man and replied, “We want to be the biggest band in the world.”
Grohl said, “Think about what music was like at that moment in 1990. The Top 10 songs of that year included people like Phil Collins, Sinead O’Connor, Madonna, Mariah Carey … and the No. 1 song for that year was ‘Hold On’ by Wilson Phillips! How in the world did Kurt think we could even make a ripple in that atmosphere? How were we going to compete with Wilson F***ing Phillips?”
But, like those days in his bedroom, Grohl realized his band was being left to its own devices. They went into the dingy Sound City studios in Van Nuys to start laying down tracks, far away from the watchful gaze of the suits. “Sound City was a shithole with brown shag carpet on the walls, and this couch they’d been renting for 10 years!” Grohl said. “But that old Neve board captured something … a sound … it was something we’d been waiting our whole lives for, for this music to be captured on tape.”
It would become Nevermind. “We made that ripple!” Grohl exclaimed. “We didn’t think – nobody thought – though, that ripple would become a tidal wave.
“I like to think the world heard three human beings, finding their voices and putting them proudly on display. It was honest, it was pure and it was real,” Grohl said. “No one had told me what to play … and now, no one would tell me what to play ever again.”
But it all crashed in 1994, when Cobain committed suicide. “I was lost, and I just quit,” Grohl said. “The music had betrayed me, I felt. I turned off the radio and put away the drums … it just hurt too much.”
Eventually, the old feelings stirred back to life. Grohl remembered a day long ago, July 4 in 1982 when he and thousands of young punks rioted at the feet of Lincoln. “I felt it again, so I booked six days of studio time to record some of my own songs,” he said.
Grohl played every instrument on this new recording project, fueled by coffee and the revitalized passion to create music again. “I was the same one-man band who made songs back in my bedroom 20 years earlier,” he said. “But instead of songs about my dog and my bike and my dad, these songs were about starting over. Well, maybe a few were about my dad … I was still the same kid I was at 13 years old.”
This would become the Foo Fighters. “I had to do this all by myself. I was left alone to my own devices, and I found my voice again. There was no right or wrong, it was pure, it was real and it was all mine.”
Grohl said this is a story he seeks to tell in his film directorial debut, Sound City. The feature documentary was showcased at SXSW and Grohl brought his Sound City Players (including members of the Foo Fighters, Novoselic of Nirvana and John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks and others) played in Austin the night of Grohl’s address.
“In the movie we tell the story of this magical shithole that gave birth to great and classic albums by Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield and so many others,” he said. “It’s where we created Nevermind and started our own little revolution. But it’s also about the human element of creating music … it always comes right back to that.”