Dave Grohl Reveals How Teenage Heartbreak Pushed Him to Become a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer

Foo Fighters frontman also talks finding Nirvana, collaborating with Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger, and his new autobiography “Storyteller”

September 28, 2021

Dave Grohl may be a world-class music maker, but his skills on stage and in the studio are just a few of the many methods the Foo Fighters frontman and longtime Nirvana drummer has to keep a crowd engaged. The soon-to-be two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer returned to the Stern Show on Tuesday and put on a different kind of performance, regaling Howard and his listeners with a litany of amazing stories, many of which are featured in his upcoming autobiography “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music.”

Many of the anecdotes involved famous names, from improbably sharing the stage with pop star Rick Astley to a his recent quarantine collaboration with upcoming Stern Show guest Mick Jagger. Perhaps the most life-altering one, however, involved a failed romance with a girl named Sandy which left a hole in Dave’s 13-year-old heart that only a guitar and drum set could fill.

“She was my first love,” Grohl told Howard, adding, “When she accepted my offer to be the future Mrs. Grohl, I was overjoyed. This was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.”

Unfortunately, some relationships just aren’t meant to last.

“When she told me she didn’t want to be the future Mrs. Grohl, I was so heartbroken that I turned to the guitar. This was the beginning of that connection with my heart and music,” he continued. “I sort of realized the only way I was going to get out of this was to pick up my guitar and become a fucking rock star.”

The night she dumped him, young Dave had a dream. He was playing guitar at a sold-out show and Sandy was in the crowd. “The audience was going fucking nuts,” he recalled of the dream. “And I look down and she’s in the front row crying, consumed with regret that she made a horrible mistake.”

At a sold-out arena concert a few decades later, it briefly seemed like his dream might become a premonition. “That night I’m onstage, doing a solo at the lip of the stage. The audience is going, ‘You’re fucking amazing.’ And I look down, Sandy is right there just like she was in my dream,” Dave recalled.

That’s where real life and fantasy diverged, however. Instead of crying over a missed opportunity with Grohl, Sandy apparently gave Dave the middle finger. “She was looking at me like laughing,” Dave laughed, explaining he’d previously told her all about his dream and she was determined to not let it become a reality.

Father Doesn’t Know Best

In Dave’s case, as he explained in a recent article, the proverbial apple fell very far from the tree. Though both he and his late father James Harper Grohl were skilled musicians, the Foo Fighters frontman told Howard on Tuesday that they never saw eye-to-eye on music as a viable career path.

“We were very conflicted,” Dave told Howard, adding, “But I am who I am because of this person.”

When Dave told his parents he was dropping out of school to pursue a career in music, his mother largely supported the decision while his dad objected. Even after Nirvana became hugely popular his dad remained skeptical. “One of the first things he said was, ‘You know this isn’t going to last, right?’ … ‘Every check you make it, treat it like it’s the last check you’ll ever make,’” Dave recalled.

As Dave grew older, he and his father’s relationship improved. The two eventually even became friends. James Grohl passed away in 2014, but Dave told Howard he has fond memories of him listening approvingly to some of the records he created. “There were times when I sent him a Foo Fighters record and he’d sit in his Eames chair with like a scotch and a pipe and a conductor’s baton, and sit there and conduct along with the music,” Dave recalled. “He was a trip, man.”

A Road Trip Virginia Grohl Will Never Forget

Dave grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., so even though he was in Los Angeles when terrorists struck the Pentagon on 9/11 he was still worried for his friends and family back home. Chatting with Howard on Tuesday morning, the rocker recalled frantically calling in all the favors he could to help his mother Virginia Grohl—who lived just a few miles away from the site of the D.C. attack—safely evacuate the area. Planes were grounded but Dave pulled a few strings to get sweet Virginia onto the next bus out of town.

It wasn’t just any bus.

“There’s a tour bus and they can pick her up in three hours, but there’s a catch: she has to share it with Warren Haynes from Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers,” Dave recalled his management telling him. “And I knew him. He’s the sweetest man in the world. He’s amazing … So, he and my mother jumped on a tour bus—came all the way across [the] country to California—and the two of them made best friends.”

Drumming With His Teeth

Plenty of rock stars grow emotionally attached to their musical instruments, but in Dave’s case the attachment is more literal. The legendary drummer said he has used his own teeth as a de facto drum set since he was a kid. As Grohl described it, his late Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain sometimes did the same thing.

“If you watch the ‘Unplugged’ footage that we shot, you can kind of see [Cobain’s] jaw moving back and forth and he would sort of use that as a metronome to like keep time whenever he was playing something,” he said.

Howard had trouble imagining what teeth drumming sounded like, so Dave offered up an oral presentation.

“A lot of musicians do the same thing. I think what happens is when you discover music and you start getting really into it, it’s like an obsession. So, whether you’re just playing drums on a table or you’re humming something in your head, you’re kind of utilizing any resource to do it,” he explained after his teeth drum solo. “I would walk to school with my backpack and just play songs with my teeth until I got to my locker.”

While teeth drumming may be a viable path to rock ‘n’ roll stardom, it’s also a good way to get on a dentist’s naughty list. “[My childhood dentist] was like, ‘Do you chew a lot of ice?’” Dave recalled with a laugh. “I made him listen to me do it and he was like, ‘Get the fuck out of my office right now. That is the fucking stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’”

Lust for Van Life

Stern Show staffer Richard Christy isn’t the only rocker who spent a few of his formative years in a dirty van. When Dave was drumming for the D.C.-based punk band Scream, he and the guys toured in one of their very own.

“I feel like anyone can do it if they love music that much,” Grohl recalled of his van life, adding, “I was a professional musician making $7 a day, fucking rolling around in some rust bucket with six other stinky dudes. It was fucking great, dude.”

Thankfully, Scream’s time on the road occasionally netted Grohl more than just a few bucks for dirt weed and fast food. In one instance, he and his bassist got a chance to play behind punk rock legend Iggy Pop. After reading about the run-in in “The Storyteller,” Howard was eager to hear more details.

Dave explained he and his Scream bandmates were hanging out in their van outside a venue about six hours before a gig. “This guy comes up to the window and [says], ‘Who’s the drummer?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, what did I do?’” Dave recalled. “He said, ‘Do you want to play drums with Iggy Pop?’”

Dave was taken backstage and, before long, he and Iggy were jamming on the iconic Stooges song “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” “He said, ‘Okay, we’re on at six o’clock,’” Dave remembered. “And for that one night, to me, that was the first time I ever felt like I like [I was] making it, and if it was the last time I would’ve been fucking good.”

“The record company people, they thought we were his band, and they were like, ‘Can I get you anything?’ And I realized, ‘Oh my god, I can have anything I fucking want right now,’” he continued. “And two hours later it was over. I was back in the van with my stinky friends and a sleeping bag.”

Finding Nirvana

Grohl’s story didn’t end in a van down by the 9:30 Club, of course. In 1990, Dave received an invitation to fly up to Seattle and audition for Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic’s up-and-coming grunge act Nirvana. The audition went well, so after consulting with his mom Grohl decided to leave Scream and give a new band a try.

Dave said the guys in Scream were “bummed.”

“We’d been through so much fucking shit together,” he explained. “[We were] touring fucking squats in Europe where you show up and they’re pirating electricity and burning the linens out front because there was a scabies outbreak.”

“You band together when there’s a situation like that,” Grohl continued. “So, to decide to leave those guys and move on with my next phase of life, it was difficult.”

Dave, Krist, and Kurt eventually found tremendous success, but for a while times were tough. “I hadn’t met Nirvana when I first joined the band. I just flew up there and fucking moved in with Kurt in this tiny little apartment,” Dave recalled. “And now I’m surviving on three corndogs a day.

The first check Dave received with the band was for $400. It wasn’t much, but it was more than he’d made touring in a van with Scream. What did he do with his big pay day? Dave told Howard he blew it on a B.B. gun and video games.

“Your father was right, you really can’t be trusted with money,” Howard laughed.

“To me, that was like winning the fucking lottery. What I did was I went out and bought all this shit I didn’t have when I was a fucking kid,” Dave said. “And then one week later I’m back to the fucking corndogs for 99 cents because I spent it like MC Hammer. Like, what the fuck was I thinking?”

Dave Grohl’s autobiography “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” is available Oct. 5.

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