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AUSTIN — This might 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 he is 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 on Thursday. Structured as a musical history of Grohl’s life, from discovering music through his unpredictable first love, The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” (the key riff of which Grohl sang through, hysterically), to his recent documentary on the forgotten San Fernando Valley recording studio Sound City, where Nirvana recorded its classic Nevermind. “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.
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 f—ing superhero come to life,” the 44-year-old said charmingly, leaning foot-forward while wearing reading glasses, “Something I’d only seen on the TV shows Quincy or CHiPs. 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.
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 its signing process — and how absurd it was that the band 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 a label executive asked Cobain during a meeting 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 think we’d make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me,” Grohl said. “It was the kind of hopeless, shallow aspiration we had been conditioned to reject.”
Still, the idea of a DIY ethos being essential made its way into every part of the keynote, with Grohl 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 your voice,” he said. “Scream until it’s f—ing 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 1994 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 its final album, In Utero.
“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.
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