Rock and Roll Book Club: Dave Grohl's mom meets her peers

Virginia Hanlon Grohl's 'From Cradle to Stage.'
Virginia Hanlon Grohl's 'From Cradle to Stage.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Dave Grohl's mom wrote a book? Oh, fer cute. That's what I thought when I first learned of From Cradle to Stage, Virginia Hanlon Grohl's slim volume subtitled Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars.

Reading the book, though, I learned much more than I expected. Did you know that Geddy Lee's mom survived the Holocaust? Or that some of Rage Against the Machine's social consciousness was inspired by Tom Morello's globetrotting mom? Or that Miranda Lambert's parents were private investigators who were hired by Paula Jones to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton? Or that Dave Matthews's mom is a writer with her own book titled Poems About This and That? Okay, maybe that last one isn't so surprising.

Intrigued by the musical calling that turned into a lifelong passion for her own son, Virginia Hanlon Grohl writes, "I wanted to talk about it with some of the other mothers whose sons and daughters were sharing those stages. But they weren't to be found at the shows and festivals I attended."

So she went to them. She traveled to Athens, Georgia to meet the mother of Michael Stipe. She met Pharrell Williams's mom in the "Happy" singer's Miami apartment, where Carolyn Williams was babysitting while her son was working in L.A. She connected with Amy Winehouse's mother in a "sunny London garden."

Interspersed among the chapters describing these meetings, Mom Grohl recounts her own memories of raising a rock star, which she did largely as a single mother. There's a sweet reminisce about Kurt Cobain, who Grohl says she handed a copy of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine and suggested he adapt it into a musical. She writes about being evacuated from her Virginia home by tour bus in the nervous wake of 9/11: she shared the bus with Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule, who was heading to a gig in Denver.

Virginia Hanlon Grohl's contact list is impressively diverse. She talks with the mothers of everyone from Josh Groban ("a sweet, funny boy") to Dr. Dre. Verna Griffin tells Grohl that she finds the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton "truthfully and beautifully told," including the scene where she herself is depicted slapping her son when he moves out of the house to pursue a musical career.

Most of these stories have happy endings, but not all of them. Winehouse's mother remembers how "she had to stop reading newspapers and magazines" as her daughter's downward spiral made tabloid headlines. Cobain's mother says she felt "betrayed" and "devastated" by the documentary Montage of Heck, which portrays her as "an uncaring, distant mother."

Throughout, some common threads emerge. Every mother describes the combination of pride and nervousness that come with their kids' decisions to pursue music professionally. Many have a version of the Griffin story: a moment of truth where they have to decide whether a musical career is something they'll embrace or discourage. Most report that it was clear early on that their kids had something special, whether "hyperactive" charisma (Stipe) or a preternatural gift for music (Gary Clark Jr.).

Many of the moms have used their own rock-star status for good. For example, Mike D's mom, an artist, runs a nonprofit that publishes books about sculpture. Carolyn Williams and her son run a program providing arts education to underserved youth. The corpus of rock-mom literature, we learn, could also fill a healthy bookshelf. Winehouse's mom and Dre's mother, among others, have written their own memoirs.

After talking with 18 rock moms (including both Zac Brown's biological mother and his stepmother), does Virginia Hanlon Grohl have any takeaways? Yes. Trust your kids, talk to your kids, and buy them musical instruments.

One more thing you might be curious about: do these moms like their kids' music? Absolutely. "Some sneer as if to say, 'Oh, c'mon, you can be honest with me,' and don't believe me when I say I love Foo Fighters music," the Foo Mom writes. "Have they not heard the throbbing melody of 'Everlong'?"

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