The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music
- By Dave Grohl
- Dey Street Books
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Daniel de Visé
- November 29, 2021
This pleasant recollection from the affable rocker is light on revelations.
A transformational moment in Dave Grohl’s new memoir, The Storyteller, arrives when his Seattle band, Nirvana, plays a New Year’s Eve gig at the close of 1991 with two other ascendant bands, Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
All three had lived out of rank tour vans for years. Not many months earlier, Grohl himself had subsisted on convenience-store corndogs and weed. Each group had released a new record in the fall of 1991. In 1992, all three acts would become superstars.
Two of those ensembles, Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers, would fill stadiums for decades to come. The third, Nirvana, would grow into the biggest rock band on Earth, only to flame out two years later with the suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain.
Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, would rise from those ashes to form a band of his own, Foo Fighters. Before long, the Foos were filling stadiums, joining Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers atop the rock-music pantheon and delivering Grohl the lifetime of fortune and fame that his doomed bandmate could not endure.
Storyteller straddles two well-trodden genres of entertainment memoir. Most readers, let’s be honest, will want to know anything Grohl can tell us about the elusive Cobain, a tragic hero of punk with a legend to rival those of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Elliott Smith.
Kurt Cobain burst out of the Seattle punk scene in 1991 with a brace of the most compelling four-chord rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written, enough to fill one album, the landmark Nevermind, and half of another, the uneven In Utero. But Cobain could not handle even a smidgen of the global fame he had so desperately sought. Once he had it, he spiraled into heroin addiction, ultimately shooting himself in the head in his Seattle home.
Cobain and Grohl met only four years before Cobain’s death, but the two became musical soulmates. Both men had grown up worshipping hardcore punk even as they quietly channeled the Beatles, embracing the soul-lifting simplicity of a catchy melody atop a joyous, jangly chord progression. (Exhibit A: Cobain’s Lennon-esque “About a Girl.” Exhibit B: Grohl’s Cobain-esque “Big Me.”)
Both men possessed musical talent to burn, their brains so thoroughly colonized by rhythm and sound that they shared an odd little vice, clicking their teeth to accompany the endless procession of songs in their heads.
No retelling of the Cobain story would be complete, of course, without some account of his romantic partnership with Courtney Love, a fellow Seattle punker who met Cobain around the same time as Grohl. As far as I can tell, Love does not appear anywhere in Storyteller. Hers is one story, apparently, Grohl declined to tell.
And therein lies the central flaw in Storyteller. For reasons of his own, Grohl never delves too deeply into the Cobain saga. Seekers of that truth will have to content themselves with Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are and Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven, those writerly biographies, respectively, of the band and the man. Storyteller supplies some lovely details of a musical friendship, but not much more.
That leaves the reader with a pleasant rock-star memoir, a portrait of a really nice kid from the DC suburbs who matured into one of the great rock drummers. That, I think, is Grohl’s signal accomplishment. He is easily the standout drummer of the era Nirvana ushered in.
On the night he arrived on the national stage, breaking a stick on a 1992 broadcast of “Saturday Night Live,” Grohl introduced a whole new style of play, a thundering beat borrowed from the metal machine music of Motorhead and Pantera and applied to latter-day Beatle songs. He held his drumsticks backward, pummeling the skins with the thick end. His work as a guest star on the 2002 Songs for the Deaf album with fellow travelers Queens of the Stone Age, taken alone, would qualify him for rock immortality.
Deathless fans of Foo Fighters and anyone with Grohl’s face tattooed on their arms are sure to enjoy Storyteller. But I think Grohl would be first to admit that the Foo story falls well below the top shelf of epic rock sagas. Led Zeppelin they are not, thank God.
Grohl grew up with a single mother who worked three jobs, “a life somewhere between Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me and Tim Hunter’s classic River’s Edge,” he explains in this 384-page account that he seems to have written himself. Grohl’s father was a journalist, and Grohl’s Storyteller voice sounds genuine.
But the younger Grohl could have used a more intrusive editor. One early chapter frames a reunion between Grohl and the high-school beauty who had dumped him in his geeky teens. At the chapter’s close, she smiles up at Grohl from the front row of the Verizon Center and gives him the finger. We never learn why.
Too often, Grohl lapses into industry glad-handing, hailing “the wonderful people” at the David Geffen Company, a string of decidedly anti-punk syntax that surely never would have escaped Cobain’s mouth, let alone Courtney Love’s.
A chapter on Cobain’s passing segues into a remembrance of another dear friend, a Virginian named Jimmy who would die many years later. Jimmy is eventually revealed as a worthy, three-dimensional character, but his incongruous introduction here cries out for an editorial cut and paste.
Love’s absence points to an unfortunate overall scarcity of female characters in the memoir, especially its first half. All of Grohl’s bandmates are guys. I would’ve liked to read more than one reference to his first wife, whom Grohl never names, perhaps at the behest of his second.
Grohl ends the book with a breathless account of his journey back to L.A. from a gig in Australia to attend a father-daughter dance, only to scamper back to LAX and return Down Under to overcome jet lag and food poisoning and play another triumphal gig. This heartwarming tale feels very Dave Grohl, but not very punk rock.
Daniel de Visé is the author, most recently, of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.