This may come as heresy to some, but Dave Grohl deserves credit for being the "Voice of a Generation" as much as his late Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain. After all, the Foo Fighters frontman has come to imbue the work hard-play hard aesthetic of the entrepreneur class, but he’s as much the everyman grunt of the 99 percent, as the filthy rich, I-can-do-whatever-I-want celebrity
So it’s no surprise he was everything to everyone — in the best possible way — during his keynote speech at South By Southwest. Structured as a musical history of Grohl’s life, from discovering music through his unpredictable first love, Edgar Winter‘s (the key riff of which Grohl sang through, hysterically) to his recent documentary on forgotten recording studio Sound City, where Nirvana recorded their classic . “This was not the major-label recording studio I had imagined,” Grohl said, lovingly. “It was a shithole." The theme of the speech was transparent: do what you love and success will find you.
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To illustrate this point, Grohl took the packed house on various anecdotal life adventures, first telling the story of discovering punk rock via his cousin Tracy on a family trip to Chicago. “She was a fucking superhero come to life,” Grohl said, charmingly, leaning foot-forward while wearing reading glasses, “Something I’d only seen on the TV shows or . Tracy was my first hero,” Grohl said, rattling through her vinyl collection, name dropping everyone from Black Flag to D.O.A. He then moved on to his first shows — a dingy club gig from forgotten punks Naked Raygun across from Wrigley Field, and a life-defining punk rock rally on the mall in Washington, headlined by the Dead Kennedys.
“When Kurt died I was lost. I was numb. The music I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I turned off the radio. I put away my drums. I couldn’t bear to hear someone else’s voice singing about pain, or joy.” — Dave Grohl
Although for many younger members of the audience it was likely hard to imagine Nirvana’s hard-edged sound being anything but mainstream-appropriate, Grohl walked through their signing process — and how absurd it was that they broke through at all — by rattling off a list of the top 10 songs of 1990, the year before Nevermind dropped. It included Mariah Carey‘s “Vision of Love” and Bel Biv Devoe‘s “Poison.” Still, when in a meeting a label executive asked Cobain what he wanted from signing a record deal, he answered, according to Grohl: “I want to be the biggest band in the world." So much for that indie humility.
“How Kurt could even we’d make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me,” Grohl explained. “It was the kind of hopeless, shallow aspiration we had been conditioned to reject.”
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Still, the idea of a DIY ethos being essential made its way into every part of the keynote, telling the audience, repeatedly, that the most important part of every musical equation is that the musician comes first. “What matters most is that it’s voice,” he said. “Scream until it’s fucking gone. Every human being is blessed with at least that. It’s there if you want it.”
Grohl also touched on his reaction to Cobain’s death, something that’s always been something of a tender subject for him. He seemed to pause a bit when he got there, after walking through the band’s independence while recording what would be their final album,.
“When Kurt died I was lost,” Grohl said. “I was numb. The music I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I turned off the radio. I put away my drums. I couldn’t bear to hear someone else’s voice singing about pain, or joy. It just hurt too much.”
It was an empathetic moment that, once again, demonstrated Grohl’s ability to relate to everyone — unabashedly.