Foo Fighters' lead singer tries to have it both ways and succeeds.
If Dave Grohl radiated any douchiness, Foo Fighters would not have got away with the last few weeks. Name another band that would not be the national whipping boy after it launched an HBO mini-series that is in effect an eight-week ad for its new album, did a week-long residency on The Late Show with David Letterman, and been the subject of an Anderson Cooper profile on 60 Minutes. True, Foo Fighters didn’t invade your iPhone like U2, but Bono was scolded for “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” while Grohl, like your dad on a family vacation, used the first two episodes of Sonic Highways to show you kids the places where he learned to rock.
Foo Fighters headline Voodoo's Le Ritual Stage Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and his paternal return to his old stomping grounds takes viewers to a lot of places that aren’t overly familiar. His story of Chicago music goes to things we know—the blues—and things we don’t—Steve Albini’s studio and Cubby Bear, the latter a punk venue in the shadow of Wrigley Field where Grohl saw his first punk show. The Washington, D.C. episode focuses heavily on go-go and Dischord Records—two stories that have a lot of life left in them.
Like dad pointing out the meaningful places in his life through the windows of the family van, Grohl’s reverent toward these people, institutions, and moments. The usual generational hand-me-down notion that the good stuff all happened before you were here is passed along by Grohl as he beatifies Ian MacKaye and talks about the early days of go-go—cool scenes that we’re shut out of by time. Everybody and everything he talks about was important, and his refusal to draw connections across time makes Sonic Highways play like an implicit scolding of kids these days with their mp3s and Spotifys.
It’s part of the story in his Sound City documentary--the recording console’s got a vibe, unlike boards these days--and a thought he expressed at the 2012 Grammy Awards ceremony when he said in effect that EDM lacks the humanity of dudes recording in an analog studio to two-inch, reel to reel tape. He later partly recanted, allowing, “I don't know how to do what Skrillex does (though I fucking love it) but I do know that the reason he is so loved is because he sounds like Skrillex, and that's badass.”
But he didn’t back up entirely:
[S]ome of these great advances have taken the focus off of the actual craft of performance. Look, I am not Yngwie Malmsteen. I am not John Bonham. Hell…I'm not even Josh Groban, for that matter. But I try really fucking hard so that I don't have to rely on anything but my hands and my heart to play a song. I do the best that I possibly can within my limitations, and accept that it sounds like me. Because that's what I think is most important. It should be real, right? Everybody wants something real.
Grohl can get away with all of that in a way that others can’t because he has an impressive ability to understand audiences. You can question why he wanted to guest-host E!’s Chelsea Lately show, but he was good at it when he did. Not ha-ha funny, but funny enough and able to feed the comedians on the panel. Sound City was perfectly pitched to the people likely to see a rock documentary and gave them a Mojo-like deep dive into a very specific studio and set of musicians, illuminating a moment of California rock that had been treated since the late ‘70s as unworthy of a reconsideration. The music history presented by Sonic Highways is more inclusive than any we’ve seen on television in the past, and Grohl’s relationships with many of the figures produces comfortable, candid interviews. His experiences mean he knows the right questions to ask.
He can also commit. In the 60 Minutes interview, Grohl talks about trying to link a place’s musical culture with the music that comes out it—even today. I’m not sure I hear anything more than strained lyrics that tie the songs to Chicago and D.C. so far, but the 60 Minutes profile shows that the concept continues.
He also believes in the ineffable—the ghosts in the recording console, the artistic atmosphere energized by the musical figures who went before, the mystical residue in the instruments of the greats. It adds a spiritual dimension to the band’s music—something that’s otherwise missing from Foo Fighters’ meatloaf, peas and mashed potatoes hard rock.
But it doesn’t feel phony, and that counts. Grohl’s success is that he conveys a fundamental honesty. His belief in his band, his music, his history, his mixing board, and his notion of American music is real, but it’s not so concrete that it doesn’t breathe. In the 60 Minutes interview, he tells Anderson Cooper how his take on Nashville changed after doing a Sonic Highways episode there. Similarly, the songs that Foo Fighters have premiered on Sonic Highways have the band’s trademark wiry, tensile strength and intensity, but they’re affected by time’s passing and changing recording contexts. They couldn’t have appeared on The Colour and the Shape, Wasting Light, or the Cheap Trick-like In Your Honor, even when joined by Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen.
His average guy quality has a reflexive dynamic. It makes his reaches for profundity in the new lyrics as he tries to nail down his understanding of a city feel down to earth, and makes listeners who identify with him feel artful too. His telling the untold rock ’n’ roll history doesn’t seem eggheaded, and it makes fans feel smart. His belief in the intangible doesn’t seem soft, and it makes being spiritual feel rugged.
Grohl’s not an average guy, of course, but his ability to project that also gives those who identify with him hope that if they were as big as he is, they’d play covers on Letterman, turn the world on to their heroes, and be so comfortable in their fame that they too would walk with an open beer down St. Charles Avenue while being interviewed by Anderson Cooper.