UN BRO­KEN

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY LIBBY COPELAND IN NEW YORK

Even be­fore he fell off a stage in Swe­den and broke his leg, Dave Grohl was feel­ing creaky. He is 46, drinks too much cof­fee and wakes up at 6 wher­ever he is, even on days he doesn’t need to pack lunches and get the kids into the Honda Odyssey. When he’s tour­ing, his back aches and the mus­cles in his neck hurt from scream­ing. ¶ “The preshow now is, like, a cou­ple whiskies and a cou­ple Advils,” he said with grin­ning de­ri­sion one day in May. ¶ When his Foo Fight­ers play RFK Sta­dium on July 4, the 20th an­niver­sary of the band’s first al­bum, it will be their first time play­ing since Grohl’s June 12 ac­ci­dent forced them to can­cel the re­main­der of their Euro­pean tour. ¶ Even with a freshly bro­ken leg, he in­sisted on be­ing car­ried back on­stage (af­ter get­ting med­i­cal at­ten­tion) to fin­ish the Swe­den show.

And in con­ver­sa­tion, he has the tensed energy of a stalk­ing cat. The Foos front­man is a man of de­light­fully me­an­der­ing anec­dotes, most of which are tame save for a re­cur­rent ver­bal tic that rhymes with “muck” and serves as the equiv­a­lent of “um.” His ap­petites are widerang­ing and ravenous. At one point dur­ing an in­ter­viewin the cafe of the Park Hy­att, to make a point about the power of mu­sic to con­nect, he ex­pounded upon the lyri­cal beauty of the quintessen­tially cheesy ’70s pop hit “Es­cape (the Piña Co­lada Song),” which he learned to ap­pre­ci­ate only re­cently, when it came on the ra­dio while he was stuck in traf­fic.

“Then, the third verse they de­cide tomeet— so they meet, an­dit’s his wife!” he ex­claimed, lean­ing for­ward in ex­cite­ment. “He’s like, ‘I had no idea you liked piña co­ladas and get­ting caught in the rain,’ andthen they fall back in love!” Whoa. “Ac­tu­ally lis­tened to the mu­sic,” he said with sat­is­fac­tion. “Now I’m to­tally down.”

By this point, the con­ver­sa­tion had al­ready touched on the craft shows Grohl’s mom took him to as a child and the time an im­age of the mur­der­ous cult leader Jim Jones in­ad­ver­tently wound up painted on the teenage Grohl’s bed­room wall. (It’s a long story.) The one­time Nir­vana drum­mer has said that he was es­sen­tially anony­mous back when he played with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. But over the years he has fig­ured out how to re­side in the lime­light with­out re­veal­ing too much, us­ing hu­mor and hy­per­bole to defuse in­ter­view­ers’ deep ques­tions about Cobain and the mean­ing of rock-and-roll.

His tal­ent for putting peo­ple at ease is part of the rea­son pro­files in­evitably call him the nicest man in rock, a phrase of­ten con­veyed with sur­prise, since peo­ple ex­pect their mu­si­cal he­roes to come with a side of angst, eth­i­cal lapses and bizarre back­stage de­mands.

In­stead, Grohl and his band­mates are win­ningly adork­able in a way that sug­gests they have lit­tle to prove. They are fully do­mes­ti­cated rock stars. Grohl gave up drugs when he was about 20, and his great­est vice ap­pears to be caf­feine. He talks about help­ing his 9-year-old daugh­ter re­dec­o­rate her bed­room to re­flect her im­prob­a­ble love of Queen. (He has two other kids, ages 6 and al­most 1.) His band­mates talk about the night they rented a limo van to shut­tle them to back-to-back fundrais­ers at the pri­vate schools that as­sorted Foos off­spring at­tend.

Grohl’s sto­ries are laced with self-deprecating hu­mor. There was the first and only time he tried yoga, on the day af­ter a big show, and nearly threw up do­ing down­ward dog. There was the time, about six years ago, when he started hav­ing chest pains. He was 40 and though the might be dy­ing, but in­stead of go­ing to the doc­tor he played a sched­uled show at the White House, with two Bayer aspirin in his wal­let in case of a heart at­tack.

“I ac­tu­ally thought, if I die while play­ing on the South Lawn of the White House, I mean, imag­ine that ‘Be­hind the Mu­sic,’ ” he said.

When he didn’t die, Grohl vis­ited some doc­tors who gave him an EKG, a sono­gram and a CT scan. His heart was fine, it turned out; the cul­prit was his cof­fee con­sump­tion. With two lit­tle kids at home, he was sleep­ing lit­tle and drink­ing four pots a day.

There’s a cer­tain logic to Grohl play­ing the White House through chest pains, or play­ing a stage in Swe­den with a bro­ken leg. Mu­sic is not only his ca­reer but a re­li­gion of sorts. “Noth­ing makes me feel more like a hu­man be­ing on planet Earth than lis­ten­ing to My Bloody Valen­tine or [f---ing] Al Green or the Bea­tles or Slayer,” he said. Declar­ing some­thing “rockand-roll” might be the high­est com­pli­ment he can pay. (The Foo Fight­ers were in New York in May to per­form on the fi­nal episode of “Late Show With David Let­ter­man”; Grohl has de­scribed Let­ter­man as hav­ing “some­thing rockand-roll about him.”) The preser­va­tion of rock history, as well as the ef­fort to de­fine what rock is and isn’t, have been causes of Grohl’s in re­cent years, in­spir­ing his 2013 doc­u­men­tary “Sound City,” about the legacy of a sto­ried-but for­got­ten stu­dio fea­tur­ing an out­dated ana­log sound­board, and his 2014 HBO doc­u­men­tary se­ries, “Sonic Highways,” a city-by-city take on the history of Amer­i­can mu­sic. The Foo Fight­ers even struck a blow for the old school, record­ing their 2011 al­bum in Grohl’s garage.

“When that al­bum, ‘Wast­ing Light,’ came out,” drum­mer Tay­lor Hawkins said in the same cafe on another day, “ev­ery­one came up to us and said, ‘Man, that record sounds so good.’ I said, ‘ That’s be­cause it sounds like a record— it doesn’t sound like some­one did it on their [f---ing] lap­top.’ ” The Foo Fight­ers have a love for vinyl and for a cer­tain sound — “That sum­mer-of-’69 [s--t],” Grohl calls it — that is dis­ap­pear­ing. Some mu­sic heads loudly be­moan the loss of this sound, ir­ri­tat­ing other mu­sic heads who see guitar nos­tal­gia as a nar­row-minded ex­al­ta­tion of old-white-guy rock over newer forms.

But while the rock-ism wars have been noisy and fierce, Grohl has some­how re­mained unbesmirched. His ubiq­uity at red-car­pet events may be mocked in some cir­cles, and his pro­mis­cu­ous tastes in side projects and col­lab­o­ra­tions — from Tom Petty to Diddy— prompted Maxim to joke that he’d “been in more bands than chlamy­dia.” But some­body has to be the face of con­tem­po­rary rock, or what­ever’s left of it — and ev­ery­one seems to agree that there couldn’t be a nicer guy for the job.

Grohl has a gee-whiz qual­ity that can seem like a put-on — he once ex­pressed shock that Kenny G knew who he was and claimed to have al­most fainted upon see­ing Barry Manilow in an air­port — and the In­ter­net abounds with sto­ries gush­ing about his kind­li­ness. (“Dave Grohl Stops Foo Fight­ers Show to Give Gift to Blind Fan.”) On a Web site called Mean Stars, Grohl gets a rat­ing of “100% nice” from av­er­age folks who’ve crossed his path (“he spoke at length with our moms”; “he wished me the best of luck with the can­cer treat­ment”). A re­cent bi­og­ra­phy of Grohl was crit­i­cized for hav­ing too lit­tle Grohl in it — per­haps, one re­viewer sug­gested, be­cause he’s too nice to make for an in­ter­est­ing sub­ject.

That seems a lit­tle un­fair, though, be­cause Grohl doesn’t come across as the least bit bor­ing — just deeply earnest. The son of a sin­gle mom who at one point worked three jobs, Grohl and his sis­ter grew up in Spring­field, Va., and as a teenager he be­came en­meshed in the lo­cal punk scene. He never imag­ined a ca­reer in mu­sic, never imag­ined there was money to be made selling cas­sette tapes or “play­ing squats and run­ning from skin­heads.” By the time he was play­ing drums for the hard-core punk band Scream in his late teens, he was just work­ing to sup­port the mu­sic.

“I never needed much to be happy, so work­ing at Marlo Fur­ni­ture ware­house and play­ing mu­sic on the week­ends and beg­ging my boss formy job back when I’d come home from tour— that’s just how I imag­ined it was go­ing to be,” he said.

In­stead, he found him self broke in Los An­ge­les in 1990, when Scream’s shows were can­celed, he said, be­cause the bass player dis­ap­peared. Hewas “eat­ing pork and beans with mud wrestlers” (another long story for another day) when a friend called to say a Seat­tle band was look­ing for a drum­mer and liked his style. Con­flicted over leav­ing his band mates, Grohl called his mom. She told him, “Some­times, you just have to do what’s good for you.”

Nir­vana hit the big time not long af­ter he joined the band, and those years are fa­mil­iar pop-cul­ture ter­ri­tory. Grohl has said that he es­caped home to Vir­ginia when­ever he “felt sucked into the tor­nado of in­san­ity.” When Cobain killed him­self in 1994, Grohl said he be­came de­pressed and couldn’t lis­ten to the ra­dio, let alone play. “I couldn’t even imag­ine get­ting be­hind a drum set, be­cause it would just sort of keep me emo­tion­ally in that place,” he said. But over time, he re­al­ized mu­sic could be the path out of that sad, stuck feel­ing. He recorded some songs he’d writ­ten and handed cas­sette tapes out to friends. That ul­ti­mately led to the re­lease of the first Foo Fight­ers al­bum on July 4, 1995.

Grohl was ly­ing next to his wife in bed the other night when she came across the re­cent Cobain doc­u­men­tary, “Mon­tage of Heck.” He was “ter­ri­fied,” he said, and fig­ures he caught the one por­tion of the movie — a sliver in the mid­dle — he could stand to watch. “All the footage of him as a child, I think that might make me sad, and then the dark stuff at the end I think would bum me out,” Grohl said. So af­ter 10 min­utes, he rolled over and went to sleep. And any­way, he had to be up at 6 to take the kids to school.

The Foo Fight­ers are now in their mid­dleaged, clas­sic-rock phase. A few years back, they sold more than 170,000 seats dur­ing two nights at Lon­don’s Wem­b­ley Sta­dium, and Grohl has em­braced their big­ness in a way that con­trasts with how Nir­vana’s front­man han­dled its suc­cess. Cobain was fa­mously un­easy with fame, and un happy with the press’s por­trayal of him as the voice of a gen­er­a­tion. Grohl hasn’t felt so con­flicted, though he, too, was raised in a punk scene that set com­mer­cial suc­cess at odds with mu­si­cal pu­rity. “The sim­ple love of mak­ing mu­sic” is his touch­stone, he said, and he re­turns to it again and again when con­sid­er­ing new projects. It helps that he doesn’t feel forced to do any­thing. “We’re on my la­bel,” he said. “We record atmy stu­dio, or other places. We own our en­tire cat­a­logue. I just li­cense it.” If the Foo Fight­ers play a big show at a fes­ti­val with a Heineken la­bel over the stage, Grohl said, that’s bal­anced by the fact that he “got 75,000 peo­ple to sing ‘My Hero’ and ‘Best of You’ with me, and gave them the [f---ing] night of their lives.’ ”

Given that they’ve spent the past two decades do­ing in­ter­views, Grohl and his band­mates come across as de­light­fully un­pol­ished. The front­man me­an­ders, think­ing through ques­tions aloud, con­fess­ing up­com­ing projects and then back­track­ing when he re­al­izes his off hand com­ments trans­late into ma­jor an­nounce­ments. In a sep­a­rate in­ter­view, Hawkins man­aged to spill the beans on the band’s top-se­cret per­for­mance that night on Let­ter­man, then de­nied it, then writhed side­ways on the banquette in mock pain. (“I’m the worst. I do it ev­ery time,” he said, then dug his hole deeper, men­tion­ing another re­cent prob­lem­atic in­ter­view: “I said U2’s al­bum sounded like a fart by ac­ci­dent, and I didn’t mean it like that.” What did he mean? “I meant that . . . [s--t], I can’t be­lieve I’m talk­ing about this.”) Shortly af­ter that, bassist Nate Men­del, who had over­slept, came down to join the in­ter­view, gen­tly chastis­ing Hawkins for be­ing “fussy” by ask­ing the wait­ress for co­conut wa­ter.

The fact that the Foo Fight­ers hit the rockand-roll lottery in time to pre­side over the wan­ing of the genre as the coun­try’s dom­i­nant com­mer­cial mu­sic form gives a cer­tain poignancy to their dis­cus­sion of what rock should be. Grohl said his con­cern about the state of mu­sic doesn’t stem from be­ing anti-tech­nol­ogy or closed off to mu­si­cal in­no­va­tion— he played drums with the EDM group the Prodigy, for good­ness sake. Rather, he said, he’s mak­ing a point about the overzeal­ous pro­duc­tion of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic, about tastemak­ers on “The Voice” get­ting to de­cide what’s good, about kids with their own sound be­ing coached into the same­ness of com­mer­cial ra­dio, about the lovely im­per­fec­tions of voice and in­stru­men­ta­tion be­ing thrown in to com­put­ers and ma­nip­u­lated “so that it sounds per­fect.” In many ways, this is a very old de­bate over what con­sti­tutes au­then­tic­ity in mu­sic. As a kid, Hawkins liked the Bee Gees, “and my dad was like, that is the lamest [s--t] I’ve ever heard,” the drum­mer said. It’s a de­bate still worth hav­ing, even if Grohl’s po­si­tion­ing of him­self as keeper of the rock flame can some­times make him sound like your dad.

Rock-and-roll spokesman is the ul­ti­mate side pro­ject, though Grohl would re­ject the no­tion that he’s vy­ing for such a ti­tle. But it’s clear he likes hav­ing a lot to jug­gle. Grohl’s band­mates say he keeps things tense on pur­pose. Sleeps too lit­tle. Sched­ules too much. Drinks cof­fee till he’s jump­ing out of his skin. Thrives on the con­stant state of func­tional ag­i­ta­tion. Maybe this is what passes for nor­malcy in a rock-and-roll lifestyle, even if it does oc­ca­sion­ally man­i­fest in a bro­ken leg.

PHO­TOGRAPHED ON MAY 20 BY JESSE DITTMAR FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Rock-and-roll can be rough. And no one knows that more than Dave Grohl. But guess what. It’s also still

(ex­ple­tive) rock-and-roll.

JESSE DITTMAR FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

KYLE GUSTAFSON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Dave Grohl and his Foo Fight­ers band­mates pile into a shut­tle bus last month in New York on their way to play the last “Late Show with David Let­ter­man.” ABOVE: Grohl, drum­mer Tay­lor Hawkins and bassist NateMen­del of the Foo Fight­ers at a sur­prise show atWash­ing­ton’s 9:30 Club in­May 2014. The band will be back in D.C. on July 4, play­ing at RFK Sta­dium on the 20th an­niver­sary of the re­lease of its first al­bum.

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