Life After Nirvana
New York magazine|October 25 - November 7, 2021
Dave Grohl is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a second time. He’s got a lot to reflect on.
By Craig Jenkins

I meet Dave Grohl the day after a mid-September Foo Fighters gig that almost didn’t happen. A lingering fog had left the band’s private jets stranded on the JFK tarmac for almost four hours; Live Nation asked the members to record a video to play inside Syracuse’s St. Joseph’s Health Amphitheater, which seats more than 17,000, announcing the show had been canceled. Moments before Grohl made the call, he got the all-clear from the pilot. Foo Fighters raced into St. Joe’s flanked by a police escort, opening with the triumphant “Times Like These.” Weather delays are no sweat for the rock lifer, whose path to arena-front-man status wove through Scream, the venerable D.C. punk outfit he left in 1990, to Nirvana, whose meteoric ascent ended abruptly with the death of Kurt Cobain. Foo Fighters, a project that began as a batch of solo demos and ballooned into a brotherhood of punk and emo vets, will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this month, making Dave a two-time honoree after Nirvana’s induction in 2014. Between the ceremony and the rollout of his new memoir, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Grohl is in a reflective mood.

It’s the fall of 1991. Nirvana is in the middle of a club tour when Nevermind is released. It sells a few thousand copies in the first few weeks. By the end of the year, it’s selling hundreds of thousands per week. At what point do you notice things have changed?

We were blissfully unaware of a lot of that because we were stuck in a van with a U-Haul trailer pulling up to little clubs and loading our own gear into the gig. I remember the night the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video debuted on MTV on 120 Minutes. Kurt and I used to share a room. We knew it was going to be on the show. That night, we realized we had gone from a band in a van with the U-Haul to a band in a van with the U-Haul on fucking TV. But we were moving so quickly at that point. I don’t think we realized what was happening until months later. The thing we did notice was the amount of people at the shows. We were booking places like the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. It held 200 people. You would pull up to the gig and see there were more than 200 people in the club and more than 200 people outside trying to get in.

In 1992, you released the Pocketwatch tape, your first solo project, under the pseudonym Late! When did you realize Kurt Cobain was aware of your side projects?

When I first joined the band, they knew I recorded things by myself, but the things I recorded then were these little sonic experiments. I was just smoking weed, and I didn’t have anything else to do. It goes back to the famous old joke: What’s the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? “Guys, I have some songs I think we should play!” Recognizing Kurt’s brilliance as a songwriter, I wasn’t going to try to squeeze in there. I was like, I know what my role in this band is. I need to pound my drums and push these songs out into an audience like a steamroller.

I had a cassette. I played them for Kurt and bassist Krist Novoselic in the van one day. I went back to Virginia at some point and recorded some more shit with my friend Barrett Jones on his 8-track. My friend Jenny Toomey had a label. She heard one of the songs and said, “I’m doing a compilation. Do you want to put a song on there?” I did. And then I started trying to write songs. Before, they were just these fucking crazy punk-rock experiments. I recorded the songs “Floaty” and “Alone + Easy Target.” I was proud of them. I remember playing “Alone + Easy Target” for Kurt. He kissed me. In no way did I think, like, Okay, this is going to be on the next Nirvana record. I was flattered and heartened Kurt acknowledged me as someone who could write a song.

Do you wish when he heard those early songs that he had asked you to pitch in on writing for Nirvana?

No. With “Alone + Easy Target,” he liked the melody and the riff, but he didn’t like the lyrics and he didn’t want to ask me if he could change them. So we never used it. In the last session Nirvana did, we recorded a song called “You Know You’re Right.” We sat in the studio waiting for Kurt for a few days. In that time, I recorded “Exhausted,” which wound up on the first Foo Fighters record. Kurt liked that one, too. But no. I didn’t want to confuse his process.

Nirvana’s third and final studio album was released on September 13, 1993. It has been described as one of the greatest albums of all time. It also drew controversy for songs like “Rape Me,” which Cobain stated was anti-rape.

Around that 1993–94 period, Cobain had two overdoses where it wasn’t clear if he would make it. After one incident, Courtney Love found him passed out in the bathroom turning blue, according to journalist Michael Azerrad’s recent piece in The New Yorker. “Terrified,” he writes, “she sent word out to the band’s crew: Pack up the equipment—there will be no show tomorrow, because Kurt is dead.”

Guitarist Pat Smear left Foo Fighters in 1997 before rejoining as a touring guitarist in 2005. (He has been a full-time member since 2010.) Drummer William Goldsmith played with the band from 1995 to 1997.

Sonic Youth was one of the early bands to pioneer a national circuit for indie artists. The band signed to Geffen’s subsidiary DGC in 1989, when no one else on the scene was looking at any major labels, and they took lesser-known bands on tour. The documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke tells some of that story.

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