After the ceremony, Grohl told me that the decision was made at band practice just a few days earlier. The Virginia-raised 43-year-old remembers asking himself: “‘Can I sing Zep? I can drum Zep.’” So he traded Hawkins a microphone for two sticks. A few days later in Washington, the band took the Kennedy Center stage for a dress rehearsal without telling anyone about the swap. “The producer said, ‘Are those your starting positions?’” says Grohl. “And we said, ‘Yuuuuup.’”
The performance was one of the evening’s highlights. Grohl’s drumming in Nirvana was some of the most explosive rock-and-roll time-keeping since Bonham left us in 1980. And Hawkins was no slouch, either. His performance was poised enough to earn a bear hug from Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant afterward. (**See related: Kennedy Center Honors after-party: Led Zeppelin charms the room, Letterman leaves early)
I recently spoke with Grohl for Sunday’s feature story on Led Zeppelin. Here are a few thoughts that didn’t make it into the final piece.
On growing up in the D.C. punk scene and falling for Zeppelin a little late: “The first CD I ever listened to was Led Zeppelin. I grew up listening to records and loving the Beatles and spinning albums on a turntable in my bedroom. But I had a friend who lived in Arlington who had a CD player. And the first CD we ever listened to was “Houses of the Holy.” And because of the quality and the clarity, I could hear things like John Bonham’s kick drum pedal squeaking, and fingers sliding on frets and strings, and things that I had never really heard beneath the pops and scratches on an album. At the time, I was deep into punk rock and was really only listening to local Washington D.C. hardcore — independent punk rock music. I hadn’t gotten into my Zeppelin phase yet. It was because of that album that I started to listen to Led Zeppelin as if it was a crash course in how to play rock-and-roll.”
On John Bonham’s influence on him as a drummer: “I was completely obsessed with John Bonham. So much so, that I knew that I would never be technically able to do what he did. But I wanted to see if I could crack open his instinct and see why he did the things that he did. Because, as any musician or producer will tell you, John Bonham’s feel was legendary. Just the way that he held down a back beat was something that no one had ever heard. And no one has been able to recreate since.”
On why Led Zeppelin was the best: “They were the most powerful musical entity in the world when they were together. No one could touch them... They were fearless because they were so confident. And they had the chops to back it up. My favorite Led Zeppelin bootlegs, which I have many, are the ones where they go off in uncharted territory. They’re off in their own universe... You’re fortunate to be in the presence of a band like that.”