Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life #2

By

How Dave Grohl Taught Me to Stop Whining and (Against Every Known Impulse in My Body) Embrace Happiness

I was asking Jimmy at the valet stand where I might find some decent food, because we were on Sunset Boulevard, where all the tourist joints smell like frat. “There’s an In-N-Out down there,” Jimmy said.

“How far?” I said. “Walking distance?”

Jimmy looked at me like I’d asked to lick one of his tattoos. “Whatsamatta,” he said, “you don’t got a car?”

A drunk guy came stumbling out of the hotel. He had a sideways Mohawk and a T-shirt reading GET YOUR OWN, BITCH. His female companion was the color of the cheese mix you add to Kraft macaroni. Something in his manner, the belligerent public inebriation, I guess, suggested he might be a rock star.

“Hey,” I said to Jimmy, “was that guy a rock star?”

Jimmy made a sound like he was going to spit. “None of these people are rock stars. They’re rich Eurotrash who come here so they can act like rock stars. The Strip is all poseurs now. Not like it used to be. Man, you don’t even wanna know how crazy that shit used to get.” Jimmy was right. I didn’t really want to know how crazy this shit used to get. But he proceeded to tell me anyway, because the Sunset Strip is one of those self-consciously famous locales – L.A. is lousy with them – where the natives feel a civic compulsion to recite the prevailing mythology.

I was only chatting with Jimmy because the rock star I was supposed to be interviewing for SPIN magazine – Dave Grohl, former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man – had blown me off. It was Labor Day, 2007, and I’d been in Los Angeles for 48 hours and had yet to spend a single minute with Grohl. Instead I’d spent those hours fielding increasingly frantic calls from my editor, who wanted to know why I had yet to spend a single minute with Dave Grohl.

I was so far from knowing the answer to this question that it had become an indeterminate philosophical inquiry. There was an entire circuitry of power and influence crackling around me, a network of publicists and managers and agents and editors, all of whom were yelling at one another on cell phones about access and contingencies and deadlines and all of whom sounded helpless. My life had become a Beckett play, as adapted for the stage by Chuck Klosterman.

My editor was taking it the hardest. It was his ass in the sling. To make up for lost time, he wanted me to fly to Las Vegas to join the Foos for the MTV Music Awards, a plan that sounded glamorous until you realized that it would almost certainly involve me sitting in a hotel room, listening to my editor stroke out on the phone.

“Oh hey,” Jimmy said. “There’s a California Kitchen Pizza down on Holloway.”

My cell phone rang and it was not my editor. It was someone named Elliot, who worked for a music publicity firm employed by the Foo Fighters. Elliot had flown from New York to Los Angeles for the express purpose of making sure I got access to Dave Grohl. The Foo Fighters, in other words, had just paid thousands of dollars to lobby themselves on my behalf. “Let’s make this happen, buddy,” Elliot said.

I turned off my cell phone and fled Sunset on foot. The sidewalks were littered with scuffed photos of young women eager to degrade themselves and flyers of bands who had already failed but didn’t know it yet. Down I plunged, through the lavender smogcrust, which registered as a corroding warmth in the throat. On Santa Monica, I passed an open-air club called RAGE where young men in underpants danced on raised boxes. They looked smooth beyond all feats of epilation, as if they had been flayed. The patio bars were packed for Labor Day. Billboard faces loomed over the avenue, vast and pale, like planets of narcissism. My cell phone buzzed. I had six new messages.

***

Not Famous, Not Almost Famous

Steve Almond

If you’re wondering what it’s really like to write a cover story about a rock star for a national music magazine, this is what it is like. You spend a lot of time talking to people like Jimmy at the valet stand and staggering through hotel lobbies on the verge of nervous collapse.

As to why I took the assignment, this was a complicated question. I’d long since sworn off rock criticism. At the same time, some crucial part of me wanted to see what it was like to be a Big Famous Rock Star with No Integrity, and how such a life might differ from other sorts of lives, such as my own. Whatever cultural sophistication we might aim at, no matter how many Obscure Rockers with Integrity we might visit, the Drooling Fanatic remains an essentially covetous personality. Also, SPIN was offering more money than I had earned in ten years as a short story writer.

Foo headquarters was in the San Fernando Valley, which meant numerous trips over the dirty yellow mountains that divide the hip part of L.A. (mansions, movie studios, boutiques) from the unhip part (strip malls, porn sets, ethnic worker bees). The first time I arrived at the Foo compound, some asshole in a black Beemer pulled up behind me and laid on his horn, then burned rubber into the parking lot. That was the closest I would come to interacting with Dave Grohl for the next two days.

Instead, I was left to skulk accusingly while the Foos got their photos taken by Japanese magazines and huddled with managers and rehearsed, in private, for the MTV gig. I wasn’t even the only reporter on the premises. A guy from GQ, who looked about seventeen, was getting major face time with Dave. I was eventually reduced to eavesdropping on the band’s inane conversations during photos sessions, a practice I suspect produces 50 percent of the quotes printed in SPIN.

Why couldn’t I just set up a time to interview Dave Grohl? Because there was a protocol, one that operated on two levels. The first was practical. Grohl was a rock star who ran his own multimillion-dollar-yet-still-impressively-disorganized corporation. He had no fixed schedule and 80 people required his attention at all times. The second level was psychological and largely subconscious. It was predicated on the fact that a reporter was an interloper, a nonfamous person, an envoy, in fact, from the larger world of nonfamous people. The idea that a non-famous person would make a demand on the time of a famous person is inherently offensive to the keepers of celebrity.1

Journalists are dependably loyal to this protocol, because their professional stature depends on access. When that access is promised then suddenly denied in irrational ways, when you are basically standing around in a strange place far from home with an unctuous publicist as your only ally, it makes you angry, but more than that it makes you very very needy. And so when you finally get to talk to the rock star (or movie star or politician or athlete) in question it’s like they’ve rescued you from a terrible nightmare, which is the nightmare of your own helplessness and your unfamousness and your accession to the shitheadedness of fame, and by your affiliation with them you are temporarily elevated into the world of the semidivine. This is one of the reasons celebrity profiles are so fawning: because they manage to capture a spirit of slavish gratitude that is the result of weeks (sometimes months) of hegemony and self-colonization.

I hope this helps explain why, the first time Dave Grohl spoke to me, approximately 59 hours after we were first supposed to meet, six hours before my return flight to Boston, I was so instantly grateful, so starstruck, so possibly and confusingly in love, that I could only nod my head and fight back tears. Grohl didn’t just say hello. He walked up in plain view of his posse and smiled at me and said, “Hey man, you’re always so mellow. I love this guy. We’ve got to get some time to hang out. Can you hang out tonight?” – an outburst of such diabolical psychological brilliance that for a few moments I actually felt guilty. I was going to have to blow Grohl off to catch my flight. Man, I’m sorry, Dave.

But then I realized that this was how they got you, these famous people. They made you feel responsible for their burdens, then gave you the slip. So I said, “Could we talk right now?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Sure man.”

There was nowhere private we could go except the bathroom. This was how I wound up interviewing Dave Grohl in the crapper. I wasn’t sure where to sit, but Dave dropped right onto the floor and I sat across from him, a bit closer to the toilet than I maybe would have liked. Here’s the thing about Grohl, though. It didn’t even matter. Because he was so completely the opposite of what I expected (i.e. egotistical, bratty) that he came off as the least neurotic person I’d ever met. Within five minutes, he had confided in me about his idyllic childhood, how he met and wooed his wife, the drug overdose that nearly killed his best friend, drummer Taylor Hawkins, how this trauma helped convince him to have a baby, and how much he adored his baby. Then he lit up a cigarette and offered me one. We’d just had celebrity profile sex.

***

Ghost in the Machine

A minute later, Grohl’s manager knocked on the bathroom door and told him that the crew from Wal-Mart had arrived to shoot the official Wal-Mart promotional video for the new album. The Foo Fighters were very tight and very loud and Grohl himself sang in such a manner that the veins in his neck turned red and sort of vibrated. It was impressive.

Afterward, I stood in the lobby of Foo HQ, considering what would happen if I didn’t get any more time with Grohl. And what I realized (depressingly) is that I already had enough material. It almost doesn’t matter what you write when it comes to celebrity profiles. The only salient point is that you got access. So if you’re wondering how much face time you need to write the cover story for SPIN, the answer is ten minutes. Rolling Stone is more exacting; you probably need twelve minutes.

As I was thinking this, Grohl strolled over and invited me to swing by his house. This, too, was a calculated move, because he knew that I had a baby daughter at home and he, too, was a new father; this would give us something over which to bond. So I followed him up to his mansion in the hills above Encino and interviewed him on the veranda and met his stunning wife and watched him goof around with his stunning daughter and change her diaper.

But here’s the strange thing: while I recognized that Dave Grohl and I were engaged in a deeply contrived scene, staged expressly for PR purposes, hanging out with him made a deep impression on me. He was the first musician I’d met – hell, the first artist – who’d achieved stardom without turning his life into shit. Who, on the contrary, had maintained the tranquillity of his domestic life despite the pressures of fame. In fact, the reason he’d blown me off for the first two days of my visit was so he and his wife could interview nannies.

Grohl’s equanimity struck me as even more remarkable given that he’d spent his early twenties backing Kurt Cobain, the modern archetype of self-destructive rock stardom. I assumed Grohl, having spent so many years in Cobain’s shadow, would avoid talking about him. But I was wrong. As we sat out on the veranda, Grohl, apropos of nothing really, volunteered that he’d been watching a YouTube clip that morning, of Kurt’s home movies. “He’s hanging out with his family in a park,” Grohl explained. “Sitting by this stream as these little girls run around, and it broke my heart because I knew when that was and I knew that he wasn’t necessarily happy at the time.” Grohl shook his head. Down below him, the L.A. sunset stood ready to flare. A few feet away, his beautiful toddler Violet Maye was circling a barbecue grill, murmuring to herself hot hot. “He couldn’t fully experience the joy of life,” Grohl said softly. “And I’m at that point now where I can.”

Grohl looked dour for a moment. Then he looked over at Violet and scooped her up and suddenly I had a pretty good idea why Cobain’s ghost had been sucking around. It had nothing to do with the burden of living up to his genius, or even his loss as a friend. It was the simple and horrifying fact that Cobain was, at the time of his death, the father of a girl almost exactly Violet’s age.

***

The Myth of the Suffering Artist

So there I was talking to Dave Grohl, but what I was thinking about was my friend Lee, who wept the day after Kurt Cobain died and insisted that he was our generation’s John Lennon. I hadn’t said this to Lee at the time, or to any of the millions of other DFs voicing similar sentiments, but this struck me as dead wrong. Lennon wrote hundreds of songs, in a wide range of emotional and musical vernaculars, and became one of the most important political activists of his era before he was murdered. Cobain wrote in one genre, in two moods at most, and shot himself in the head while on heroin. He was instantly canonized for this act, which totally fucked over everyone in his life.

So what I was thinking about, really, was the Myth of the Suffering Artist, the obdurate notion that success should come at the expense of happiness. I was thinking about Boris and Nil Lara and Ike Reilly, guys who had twice the talent necessary to be stars, but who remained essentially neglected figures. And I was thinking about myself (as usual) and the ways in which I identified with these guys because of my own knack for greeting creative triumphs with self-punishment.

Bob Schneider had told me this story about touring with Dave Matthews and how charming Matthews was to everyone and how much this had made everyone want to help him. His point was that charm was the crucial ingredient to making it big. But I saw something more fundamental in Grohl. He struck me, above all, as an empathic guy, someone who had resolved his internal conflicts, the guilt and grievance that we use to bar ourselves from the kingdom of happiness. Maybe he wasn’t Saint Kurt of the Wounded Heart2, or Mozart or Van Gogh or Rimbaud, but he was a genuine artist doing his best with his given portion of talent and being kind to the people around him.

Hokey as it may sound, the guy struck me as a role model just then. Because so often in my life I’d assumed that the only score that mattered was the one for artistic merit, and that I was almost duty-bound to screw up everything else on its behalf. That wasn’t how I wanted to measure success anymore. I wanted to be a loving husband and father, a good friend, a conscientious citizen, someone whose life affirmed the compassion of his work. Maybe that meant that I’d never be anything but a mid-list toiler. But why did I need to be anything more? Why did anyone?

Hell, wasn’t the very concept of “fame” a modern pathology? For most of our history as a species, after all, fame didn’t even exist. The only true celebrities were figures from mythology or religious stories. And there was no commercial barrier to creative expression. It was enough to be able to sing or tell a story or ride a horse with grace or make a beautiful shoe – these talents were recognized for the immediate pleasures they provided.

But somewhere along the line we’d convinced ourselves that acts of imagination only had value if strangers would pay for them, or if they won fancy prizes, or if critics decided they had merit, notions that had proved a boon to the Myth of the Suffering Artist. Because now, in addition to the anguish that arises from trafficking in unbearable feelings, artists now had to worry about these vile forms of regard.

It was a fucking crock, and I wanted to tell Dave Grohl as much. But we were too deep into our own fame charade to turn back at this point. Grohl did his best to make it bearable. He remained friendly and self-deprecating, and even though his estate was at the top of a mountain and contained a tennis court and a waterfall, he made a joke about how the terra cotta roof tiles reminded him of a Chi Chi’s franchise. When I mentioned that I’d be back in L.A. soon he asked why and I told him for a reading and he said, “Hey, I’ll have to check that out.”

We were standing in Dave Grohl’s circular driveway, gazing down upon the Valley of the Non-Famous, unto which I would be descending momentarily. A gleaming turquoise Harley was parked beside a tiled fountain. I wanted to say, Look man, you don’t have to try so hard. But it seemed important to Dave Grohl that he be the sort of rock star who would show up at a reading given by the reporter interviewing him, and it seemed wrong, given all he’d taught me, to dash his hopes.

***

1For a micro version of this dynamic, consider the last live show you attended. Did the band members begin at the time advertised? Of course not. They sat in the greenroom and bitched about the deli platter. This delay not only sold lots of overpriced beer for the club, but served as a potent reminder of the power structure. You might have acted annoyed, but deep down you were relieved. The band’s negligence affirmed your status.

2Let me add for the record here – knowing it to be a mortal sin against Rock Critic Dogma – that I consider Dave Grohl a more talented musician than Kurt Cobain.

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This is an excerpt from the book “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life” (which we love). For more about the book, go to StevenAlmond.com.

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Read “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life #1.”


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →