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Stranded on the Sonic Highway: Dave Grohl, The Foo Fighters and the Most Important Music Lesson You'll Ever Learn

During a recent interview for Sonic Highways, the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl explained how it was always all about the music for him. I wish I'd understood this before I gave up what mattered most to me.
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"This Is a Call To All My Past Resignations"

When I was five-years-old my dad bought me a drum set. It was a four-piece Slingerland Radio Kings kit with a midnight satin flame finish that came with a full complement of Zildjian cymbals, which my father proudly informed me were the best cymbals money could buy as I stood there looking up at him in awe. It was an insane purchase for a child, a fact I proved to my dad in short order by drawing pictures of Batman all over the drumheads.

As punishment for my cavalier lack of care for an item of considerable value, the drums were ultimately taken away, but not before I managed to actually sit down and start learning my way around them. I could keep a beat and found that I had begun to develop a little "independence" in the days before my expensive gift was shipped off to someone more appreciative and, presumably, a little older. I didn't touch another pair of drumsticks for eight years.

When I did decide to begin playing again I was ferocious about it. My uncle was a jazz drummer and allowed me the use his kit for practice. I played hard, trained with the great Gene Thaler -- who once taught a young Max Weinberg the basics -- got pretty good and eventually fell in with some other musicians and we put together a band. We wrote songs. We recorded. We got radio airplay. We played out live. We gathered a good-sized following. We got very drunk. We loved every fucking minute of it.

The time I spent as part of a rock-n-roll band would end up being some of the best years of my life.

"It Started With a Spark"

As I sit here writing this I'm listening to the Foo Fighters. I listen, but something is missing.

When he entered the studio for the first time by himself 20 years ago, Dave Grohl says he didn't have any grand plans to turn whatever he created there into a full-time project. He simply hoped to break the oppressive silence he'd allowed to surround and paralyze him in the wake of Kurt Cobain's death. He just wanted the expression, in the most literal sense of the word -- to force out what he'd kept buried inside him since his friend and the man with whom he'd shared a rocket ride to superstardom had put a shotgun in his mouth and ended it all -- as well as the joy he got out of making music. That was all it was supposed to be. And yet the songs he recorded wound up becoming the Foo Fighters' debut album and the band he built around that admittedly silly name, throughout various iterations, went on to crank out seven more.

Nirvana may have been a more important band, their rise certainly a seismic event in American music. But make absolutely no mistake: the Foo Fighters are a better band. Maybe it's simply a matter of longevity and output, but somewhere along the way, over the past 20 years, Dave Grohl's throwaway project became the best rock-and-roll band in America. Maybe its last, best hope for keeping rock-and-roll alive as an artistic force. Without an ounce of arrogance, Dave seems to be committed to doing just that: to using his band's status to help ensure that the torch of American rock keeps burning. He's doing this by looking backward at where music came from, peeling away the layers of sound and retracing our steps through the years to document the history of what we listen to in the United States. He calls this project Sonic Highways and it's both the Foo Fighters' new album as well as a current documentary series airing on HBO.

If you haven't seen it, it's a pretty simple concept that's startlingly ambitious in its execution. The Foo Fighters travel to eight cities across the country. At each, Dave examines the development of the specific "sound" or sounds that make that town what it is musically, talking and playing with some of its most revered musicians and renowned tastemakers. During those interviews, he takes notes and ultimately turns those notes into lyrics the full band puts into a song they record at a legendary local studio in the area. So what you get is a sonic timeline detailing how, say, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters begat Cheap Trick which begat Naked Raygun -- and eventually Ministry, Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Fall Out Boy -- in Chicago or how Washington DC go-go came to collide and coexist with Bad Brains and Minor Threat. This country is so vast, with so many different musical styles, that a project like this works as both a revelation and a cultural artifact. Dave's entire point is that despite our differences, it's our music that connects us -- it may be the only thing left with the power to connect us.

Dave's love affair with music, so many kinds of music, is almost moving. He's a firm believer in the idea that picking up an instrument and learning it -- putting your blood and sweat and very soul into it and leaving it all out on a stage if you're lucky enough -- can literally save your life. There's no denying that it saved his more than once and with Sonic Highways he's not only looking back but paying it forward, trying to show upstart musicians of the next generation both their past and, if they choose, their future. The Foo Fighters' message with this album and series is to inspire young people to learn to make music and continue this country's rich artistic heritage. Because playing a song can change everything.

"If Anything Could Ever Be This Good Again"

I'm sorry I gave up -- that I sold my drums and walked away.

I was always one of those people who believed that playing rock-and-roll had to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You couldn't be someone who had an actual career and spent his weekends trying to "make it" in music. Those kinds of guys never did. To do it you had to be fully committed. You had to sleep on a floor. Subsist on Taco Bell. Be content with living out of a van. Anything else was a waste. And God fucking forbid you end up as one of those poor, pathetic assholes who plays Jimmy Buffett covers down at the local watering hole for nostalgic women in mom jeans. That was the nightmare I awoke from with disturbing regularity during my years in the band. I never wanted to be that guy. I dreaded one day becoming him -- and so when the band folded I gave up completely. I lied to myself, not about a willingness to get a "real job" since I had no problem with that, but by believing that I'd be content to just listen to music for the rest of my life rather than playing it.

I told myself that whenever I put on a Led Zeppelin record, or a Mother Love Bone or Pearl Jam record, or a Killing Joke record, or even A Love Supreme -- with the brilliant Elvin Jones on drums, backing up John Coltrane -- that I'd be fine tapping out the beat or sneaking a quick air-drum fill if no one was looking. I was wrong. I was so wrong. And if I were a musician coming up now, Dave Grohl would've told me I would be one day.

During a recent interview for Sonic Highways, Dave explained how it was always all about the music for him. He was apparently never as much of a snobbish prick as I once was, because he says that even if he had to be that guy playing covers for a bar full of drunks on a Saturday night in Springfield, Virginia he would've kept doing it. He says this and although it's an easy comment to make when you're a multi-millionaire rock star, I kind of believe him. I have a friend who's a professional drummer. He plays for the Offspring but before that he was in Saves the Day and My Chemical Romance and Devo and he's managed to live the life of a passionate musician while also being completely passionate about his other life: his wife, his children, his home. It's the same thing Dave Grohl does and it's shattered every stupid rock-and-roll myth I ever used to hold tight to. There are never any guarantees that you'll make it in the music business because it's the hardest road imaginable, but the point is that it shouldn't matter whether you make it or not.

The music -- that's what matters.

And if you've got the ability to make that, you'd be a fool to give it up.

I wish I had that old set of Slingerland Radio Kings again, the ones with the midnight satin flame finish and the Zildjian cymbals. I'd beat them 'til my fingers bled. I'd beat them 'til I wore those Batman drawings right off.