A couple of recent discoveries got me to thinking, and here’s the realization I came to: while you weren’t paying attention, the most wildly diverse, entertaining, accomplished, and righteous musical performer of the last 30 years has revealed themself as none other than Dave Grohl. You heard me right, Dave MF-ing Grohl.
Scoff if you must. I know some will. There are those who somehow feel readily dismissive of Dave, that maybe he’s a musical Forrest Gump stumbling into success, or even that he’s not cool enough, just too nice a guy to be taken that seriously. Both of which are, of course, demonstrable nonsense. Grohl’s made his own path, actually blazed it, every step of the way. And if “too nice” is some kind of legitimate critique then I guess Gump’s portrayer Tom Hanks hasn’t won two Oscars and four Golden Globes as Best Actor.
No, while Grohl may be a relatable rock and roll everyman, he’s been a workhorse, a tireless yet unapologetically enthusiastic and optimistic force for the music industry, and for those who support it. Grohl’s composite feats are so widespread, so positive and formidable, in fact, that the challenge lies not in finding someone to match them (you won’t), but in trying to sufficiently capture them. I’ve decided to go one better: let’s rank them.
The Best of Dave Grohl (in reverse order):
Break a leg
In 2015 during a show at a Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg, Sweden, Grohl miscalculated a step onto a ramp and plummeted awkwardly off the stage. “I think I just broke my leg,” he announced to 52,000 attendees. And he was right. But several minutes after being carried off on a stretcher and tended to backstage, he made a triumphant return where he finished the show seated while a doctor kneeled next to him holding his strapped leg together. “I may not be able to walk or run but I can still play guitar and scream,” he proclaimed. The spill occurred during the 2nd tune of the night; the band would go on to finish its full 26-song set. A month later following subsequent surgery, with plates and pins in his repaired limb and wearing a heavy cast, Grohl continued the tour, performing while perched in a crazy, specially-designed stage throne outfitted with some 20 guitars. Now that’s playing hurt.
D.G. & The Dee Gees
One of my aforementioned new findings further illustrating the range of Grohl’s audacious abilities was when my friend Terpsy forwarded me a clip this month of ‘You Should Be Dancing’ covered by The Dee Gees, who, it turns out, are a Bee Gees tribute band quite literally made up of the Foo Fighters and, of course, fronted by Dave Grohl (D.G., get it?). And what do you know, the execution was electric and fantastic. While their disco alter-egos could’ve been either hokey or jokey it was neither. The approach seemed to be not as parody, and without pride or ego, but to put their own exuberant and certainly harder spin on it. And have some fun. One online commenter wrote, “The Foos have now entered the because we f*cking can phase of their career,” to which I would add, and it’s f*cking glorious.
A team player
Collaborations have been a constant aspect of Grohl’s career, including several with some bold-faced names. He played on four albums between 2001-2018 with Tenacious D (Jack Black & Kyle Gass); formed the 2009 rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures along with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and John Paul Jones who used to be in – what was that band again – oh yes, Led Zeppelin; and, previously with Queens of the Stone Age, Grohl played on two albums including my favorite collab piece, Songs For The Deaf, the 2002 earth-shaker that included the single ‘No One Knows’ on which Grohl’s frenetic drumming resembles a cattle drive.
In 2015 a group of people in the small town of Cesena, Italy (no, I’ve never heard of it either) brought forth something truly remarkable: Driven by the dream of an ultra-passionate superfan, Fabio Zaffagnini, a total of 1,000 musicians – yes, a thousand! – were somehow engineered into a cohesive unit named Rockin’ 1000 to play a rendition of Foo Fighters’ favorite ‘Learn To Fly’ in a production that would’ve humbled Cecil B. DeMille. Viewing this exhibition is awe-inspiring, and gives me goose bumps every time I watch it (which has been quite a lot). Why, you may ask, did they conceive of such an elaborate gesture? As a desperate, seemingly ludicrous plea to Grohl’s Foo Fighters to come and play a concert in their tiny coastal town. And did Dave answer this preposterous call? Well of course he did, recording a glowing video of his own to thank the participants, in free-flowing Italian, and vowing to come – a promise they soon carried out, adding an extra date to close out their 2015 world tour (the same one in which Grohl fractured his leg), and proving once more that Dave Grohl is simply an awesome dude.
Video didn’t kill the radio star
Right from the beginning, Grohl and the Foos presented themselves in a stream of music videos with a winning blend of snarky, eye-winking campiness that proved endearing and irresistible. Starting with a spoof of a Mentos ad for the breezy ‘Big Me,’ taking off on the Jim Carrey comedy Me, Myself & Irene in ‘Breakout,’ and reaching a parody peak in 1999’s ‘Learn To Fly’ in which Grohl exhibits a truly impressive range of silent-comedy skills as he smirks his way through the 6 distinct characters he inhabits. Though other efforts proved equally compelling – exploring surrealism (‘Everlong’), psychedelia (‘Times Like These’), and anti-authority rebellion (‘The Pretender’) – I’ll always gladly first associate Grohl’s videos with burlesque, satire, and mockery, traits the world probably can never get enough of.
Saving the best for last
When the legendary David Letterman returned to the air on Feb. 21, 2000 for the first time following his open-heart surgery, he introduced the musical segment as “My favorite band playing my favorite song.” Grohl led the group through an impassioned take on ‘Everlong,’ doing so only after they’d cancelled a tour in South America in order to appear (you read that right). During a storied career encompassing 6,080 shows over 33 years, David Letterman, of course, hosted thousands of musical guests. Only one of them, however, ever had a residency. That particular group’s week-long run, in October of 2014, saw Foo Fighters perform a total of six consecutive times (to say nothing of participation in numerous sketches, Top 10 lists, and Grohl interviews). And then, for Letterman’s final show, his send-off on May 20, 2015, he could’ve had literally any act. But I guess you know who he picked. Following another emotional Letterman introduction (speaking of the band, the normally constrained Letterman stated “These people saved my life”), Foo Fighters, decked out appropriately in black tuxes, rocked the Late Show stage one last night, while the most densely-packed, tightly-edited clip reel of all-time rolled for the home viewers (seriously, for Foos and Letterman fans, this is worth the watch).
I was over a year behind on the other fresh Grohl-related discovery, but Mazel Tov that I finally did. In late 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Dave Grohl, who is not Jewish, joined producer extraordinaire Greg Kurstin, who is Jewish, for something that, as Grohl noted, “Started as a silly idea, and grew to represent something much more important.” In what would become known as The Hanukkah Sessions, they recorded covers of one Jewish artist a day – spectacularly! – for each of the holiday’s eight days, turning what Grohl jokingly called “the Festival of Lights into a festival of tasty licks!” Then they did it all again with eight more in 2021. Displaying, dare I say, an almost miraculous range, they created blessed renditions of tunes from the Beastie Boys to Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan to The Ramones, Velvet Underground to Van Halen, and Kiss to Lisa Loeb (whose black metal treatment of ‘Stay (I Missed You)’ was completely meshuganah). Kurstin described the videos as little nightly ‘gifts.’ “In Hanukkah, a lot of families will give a present every night, and the kids get very excited,” he said. “And that was the spirit where this came out of.” Through what often felt like pretty desperate times, Grohl’s generally faithful and occasionally off-the-wall offerings provided something resembling hope. “It showed me that the simple gesture of spreading joy and happiness goes a long way, and as we look forward, we should all make an effort to do so, no matter how many candles are left to light on the menorah.” L’Chaim to a real mensch.
“You have museums all over the world preserving art and culture. I honestly believe that we should be doing the same thing, just with music” – D. Grohl
In 2014 Dave Grohl earned his rock PhD. With the arrival of the eight-part HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, he was less a rock star and more a passionate professor enlightening us about the history of rock and roll in the US of A. Centered on eight essential locations – in order, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York – Grohl’s exploration uncovered the roots, experiences, evolution, and context of music scenes specific and inherently unique to these classic American cities, paying respectful homage to many of the places and players responsible for the direction of modern popular music in our nation. At each stop, as well, Grohl and the Foos developed and then recorded a new original song, in collaboration with the applicable local legends: every episode began with a quote from a song that would be created and ended with a music video for that same song with animated lyrics appearing in the background (the combined end product also became Foo Fighters 8th album, Sonic Highways). Watching the song creation process unfold was amazing; tracking the historic musical and cultural narratives was gripping; observing the genuineness of Grohl’s reverence as he painstakingly honored the many lesser-known forebearers was thrilling; and when the band played their way out of Preservation Hall into a spontaneous parade down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, it was, in the end, what rock is supposed to be, a goddamn party.
It was a group that changed the direction of rock music history. Despite being around for barely more than a few years, and producing only three albums, they’re unquestionably among the most impactful bands ever. Nothing would be the same once Nirvana came into existence. Some people may not realize, though, that Nirvana actually went through five drummers from their birth in 1987 through the fall of 1990 (including on their first album Bleach). Then, following the break-up of Dave Grohl’s Washington, D.C. hardcore punk band Scream and just days after his arrival in Seattle, Grohl auditioned for Nirvana founders Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer,” Novoselic said. A short time later a little album named Nevermind was released that would create a new global music phenomenon while selling 30 million copies. In Utero came out in 1993, and Cobain was gone in April of 1994. An excruciatingly short run for three early 20-something kids that merely changed the world. Would it have occurred without Dave Grohl’s inclusion? There’s really no way to know. But it sure didn’t happen without him.
An amazing rock star (and Dave)
When Nandi Bushell recorded her video of ‘Everlong,’ and with delightful irreverence challenged her “favorite drummer” Dave Grohl to a drum-off, she was an adorable, pig-tailed 10 year-old girl in Ipswich, U.K. What followed were a series of Twitter, YouTube and network television exchanges in which Grohl conceded defeat in the epic drum battle, wrote an original song for Nandi performing it directly to her on a Zoom call (sample lyrics: “number one supergirl / the best drummer in the world”), and generally brought people a lot of joy while elating a British drumming prodigy beyond her wildest possible dreams. “It has been an honor battling you, Mr. Grohl,” a captivating Bushell said in a last video, “and I can’t wait to write our song together.” That would have been enough (Dayenu! – as might’ve been heard during Grohl’s Hanukkah Sessions). But, no. In one of the coolest-ever gambits you’re likely to see, about six months later Nandi was invited to join Foo Fighters in concert to perform ‘Everlong’ live with the band at the L.A. Forum. She stepped onto the stage showing understandable trepidation – a little kid thrust in front of an arena of 18,000 screaming people – but Grohl takes her by the hand, ushers her to a waiting drum kit (at stage front, yet), kicks into his familiar opening guitar lick, and stands back as a beaming Bushell locks in and absolutely kills it! It’s simply one of the most inspiring, spine-tingling moments I’ve ever witnessed on a concert stage. And if you tear up a little bit watching it…you weren’t the only one. Sing it with me: “If everything could ever be this real forever / If everything could ever be this good again.”
From grunge to the foo-ture of rock & roll
Following Kurt Cobain’s suicide there was nothing predictable about the idea that Nirvana’s drummer would become the guitarist, singer, and songwriter of another band. Let alone that such a band would become the rock behemoths the Foo Fighters have. Nearly three decades, 10 albums, 55 music videos, 12 Grammy’s (of 29 nominations), first-year-eligible Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, etc., etc. As one other interesting note, Grohl is also a 14-time musical guest on Saturday Night Live, more than any other artist. Incredible as all that may be, to me none of it speaks sufficiently to what truly makes Grohl the icon he is. For that I go back to the night of Feb. 19, 2008 when I attended a Foo Fighters show with my son at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where I watched Grohl treat the World’s Most Famous Arena like it was his living room. The energy was at-his-peak Springsteen-like. He was in total command. Musically. Emotionally. Spiritually. I left there drained, feeling idealistic, and telling my then 15-year-old boy “We saw a real rock star tonight.” Raucous and righteous: at its best, that’s rock & roll. And that’s rockin’ Grohl.
…Oh and by the way, Dave Grohl wrote a book. Published in 2021, The Storyteller is described as “A collection of memories of a life lived loud,” and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Then, in early 2022 Foo Fighters made a movie – yeah, like a full-length feature film – called Studio 666, which is based on a story written by Grohl, who also stars in it. Honestly, unless this man begins juggling chainsaws I can’t imagine what the hell else he can do.
Let’s wrap things up with what’s probably my favorite Foo Fighters song, ‘Monkey Wrench’ – though with near a dozen best-loved possibilities picking a single tune is awfully difficult; it’s a little like choosing from “one in ten” (see what I did there, Foo fans?)