Rock and Roll Book Club: Dave Grohl's 'The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music'

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Profile photograph of Dave Grohl wearing glasses.
Cover detail: Dave Grohl, 'The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music.' (Dey Street Books)

"I have always felt like a bit of an alien," Dave Grohl writes in his new memoir. Whatever, precisely, that means to Grohl, it works to the benefit of his readers. While Grohl has now been a proper rock star for three decades, he's never disappeared into the role or identified with it to the extent that he can't connect with those of us who don't play to sold-out stadiums. He recognizes the absurdity of moments like the shuttle ride to the Kennedy Center Honors.

For security reasons, all performers are required to be shuttled to and from the Kennedy Center on one of those large buses that tourists usually fill to visit Washington's most popular attractions, except instead of gangs of blue-haired seniors from the Midwest, the bus is filled with America's most recognizable artists, usually breaking into a roaring version of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" (take it from me, the song really acquires a whole new life when sung by Steven Tyler, Herbie Hancock, and the Jonas Brothers).

The Storyteller is full of moments like that, as when Grohl visits the Obama White House to play a Fourth of July concert with Foo Fighters. "If you guys need to use the restrooms," the Secret Service tells the band, "there's one over there and one over there. Whatever you do, don't go pee in the bushes. There are people in the bushes."

The book's dedicatees include Grohl's mom, who as readers of her book know, granted her son not only permission to quit high school and go on tour with the band Scream ("You'd better be good," she told him dryly) but a down-to-earth demeanor that's served him well as an increasingly vaunted star in the musical firmament.

As the title indicates, Grohl approaches his book as an opportunity to tell some of his favorite stories. He has an eye for details that fills the volume with unforgettable vignettes like the newly-appointed Nirvana drummer trying to get some sleep on the couch of the ratty Seattle apartment he shared with Kurt Cobain, being kept awake by Cobain's pet turtle repeatedly knocking its head against the glass wall of its terrarium "in an attempt to escape our shared den of filth," writes Grohl. "I couldn't blame the poor thing. I often felt the same."

When did Grohl realize he'd made it as a rock star? There are numerous candidates in The Storyteller, among them the moment the phone rang in Nirvana's Saturday Night Live dressing room; "Weird Al" Yankovic was on the line, asking permission to parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Then, there was the time Little Richard's son recognized Grohl at an airport and brought him over to a limo to meet the rock and roll legend. "To David," wrote Little Richard on a photo, "God cares."

Grohl's book is a warm reminder that music stars' biggest fans are their fellow stars, who have a special perspective on their gifts. If you're only going to read one chapter of The Storyteller, skip straight to "Inspired, Yet Again," where Grohl recounts his encounters with many of his fellow celebs. (Huey Lewis, we're not surprised to learn, "is a most excellent hang.") Or you could read "Swing Dancing with AC/DC," about the time Grohl ended up arranging for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to crash a dinner party he was holding with Paul McCartney and, yes, AC/DC. (Grohl appreciates the irony of Brian Johnson, "the man who sang AC/DC's 'Have a Drink On Me,'" ordering his own drink at the bar.)

There are a lot of music books you can only recommend to big fans of the artist they're about. That's not the case with The Storyteller; it's less for the superfans wondering about the details of the In Utero sessions than for the people who'd prefer to read about what it was like to run into the kid from the "Heart Shaped Box" video when she happened to be Grohl's clerk at a boutique decades later.

(Grohl was suiting up to play "Blackbird" at the Academy Awards. When he told McCartney what he'd been asked to do, the former Beatle wagged his finger at Grohl and said, "Cheeky." Grohl's friendship with McCartney provides several of the book's sweeter moments, as when the drummer invites the bassist over for dinner and has to spend an hour going over his house to avoid any awkwardness. "You never know how much Beatles memorabilia you have," he writes, "until a Beatle comes to visit.")

As a writer, Grohl has the ability to turn even the most mundane foibles into good reading. When he writes that Pantera owning a strip club is "like me owning a Starbucks," you may wonder what he means — until you read on and learn that he's such a coffee fiend, he had to slow down under doctor's orders. He writes wryly of "the now-infamous YouTube clip 'Fresh Pots,'" a supercut of Grohl's addiction indicators released to promote a single by his supergroup Them Crooked Vultures. He writes that he started second-guessing his agreement with the clip's release when a kid bagging his groceries at a supermarket said, "Hey man...want a cup of coffee?"

While this book made me laugh more than any Rock and Roll Book Club pick I can remember, it's also poignant in its tributes to people like Grohl's mother (such a cool mom that she landed him a gig sitting in with a jazz band as a gift to her), his daughters (his Australian misadventures include not just a scooter DUI that he has to rehash every time he goes through customs, but an extremely nauseous trans-Pacific flight sandwiched between gigs Down Under and a father-daughter dance on the other side of the world), his late childhood friend Jimmy Swanson (he played a Neil Diamond tribute show strictly so Swanson's mom could meet the honoree), and of course his late bandmate Kurt Cobain.

Usually beginning with a riff from Kurt, Krist Novoselic and I would follow his lead with our practiced intuition, serving as the engine room to his screaming vision. Hell, my job was easy! I could always tell when a chorus was coming by watching Kurt's dirty Converse sneaker as it moved closer and closer to the distortion pedal, and just before he stomped on the button, I would blast into a single-stroke snare roll with all of my might, like a fuse burning fast into the heart of a bomb, signaling the change.

Early in The Storyteller, Grohl recounts a photo op with some of rock's elder statesmen. Without naming names, he remembers one who'd undergone extensive alterations to preserve the appearance of youth — "which ultimately had the adverse effect, giving the appearance of an old wall with too many layers of paint." Another one, by contrast, looked defiantly wizened. "I decided right then and there that I would become the latter."

Grohl's still a long way from wizened, but when the day comes one suspects he'll still give off an air of youth, if only due to his tireless joie de vivre. He's kept in touch with his inner child, even when he's sitting in a songwriting session with the former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Served minestrone and SunChips, Grohl writes, "if John Fogerty hadn't been sitting there, I would have sworn I was home sick from school."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

October 14: Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality by Eric Harvey

October 21: Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers by Stephen Deusner

October 28: I Put a Spell on You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins by Steve Bergsman

November 4: Unrequited Infatuations by Steven Van Zandt


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