Anyone looking for score-settling or dirt-dishing, be warned: “The Storyteller” isn’t that kind of book. Grohl spends more time rhapsodizing about his unsuccessful cross-country odyssey to visit a strip club owned by metal gods Pantera (yes, Pantera has its own strip club, and, yes, it’s in Texas) than he does on his entire first marriage, which he mentions only in passing.
Grohl was raised in Springfield, Va., by a single mother who taught public school in Fairfax County and remains his best friend to this day. By his own account, he is awkward looking (“Barney Fife with a skateboard”) and oddly prone to mishaps. At various points in “The Storyteller” he is hit with a golf club, run over by a car, dumped into the Potomac without a life jacket and falls off the stage in Sweden.
It’s otherwise a mostly idyllic childhood, until Grohl falls in love with Sandi, a fellow middle-schooler prettier than Cheryl Tiegs. She was “the most beautiful girl in the world,” he recalls fondly, “or at least in our grade.” They are a week into their romance when, in one of the book’s most finely rendered passages, she informs him, rather sensibly, that she isn’t ready for a relationship.
A devastated Grohl, who has already built an altar to Sandi in his carport, decides to devote his life to rock-and-roll and, eventually, local hardcore legends Scream. He leaves high school to tour with them, ushering in a long period of punk rock dues-paying that eventually leads to Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, two-thirds of the up-and-coming band Nirvana, who are strangers in need of a new drummer.
Cobain and Grohl, who become friends, are on twin beds in a shared Best Western hotel room when they see themselves on MTV for the first time, Grohl writes, excitedly calling their friends in other rooms to tell them (“It’s on! It’s on right now!”). Within weeks, Nirvana becomes a culture-ravaging behemoth, with a gold record to prove it. “Our worlds had now changed forever,” Grohl writes, somewhat grimly, “and so had yours.” As Cobain slips further into the undertow, Grohl’s relationship to him comes to resemble ours; he is both the center of Grohl’s universe and an unknowable figure at its edges. It’s easy to read between the lines and imagine the vast gulf that must have existed between the two men, Cobain tormented and secretive, Grohl cheery and enthusiastic, thrilled at his first $400 advance, enough to buy a BB gun and a Nintendo console.
In any Nirvana-adjacent memoir, there’s always a chapter where Cobain’s manager/friend from Seattle/bandmate realizes with a sinking feeling that the singer is a heroin addict. The realization hit Grohl extra hard: He had never known anyone who did heroin before. Grohl had never even done cocaine, he writes, though he did drink five pots of coffee a day. The closest “The Storyteller” gets to an intervention, a rock memoir staple, is when Grohl’s doctor suggests he switch to decaf.
Grohl seemed an afterthought to those in the Nirvana universe, a hurried phone call minutes before the bad news appeared on TV, which he would watch along with everyone else. He was told that Cobain had died weeks before he actually did, making his eventual death by suicide even more surreal and difficult for Grohl to process.
“The Storyteller” is sparing in its account of Cobain’s last days and affecting in its depiction of the rootless aftermath. “I was just twenty-five years old with a whole life ahead of me, but in many ways I felt like my life had ended too,” Grohl writes. “I was too young to fade away but too old to start again.”
Grohl soon formed his own band, Foo Fighters, who settled into a comfortable groove as the stadium rock stars Nirvana never had a chance to become. The band’s revolving door membership hints at something uncomfortable beneath its surface that probably would have been interesting to read about, but Grohl doesn’t go into detail.
“The Storyteller” becomes more episodic and remote the further Grohl travels from a relatable kid to a typically distant celebrity, rolling down the shutters. Its last third is a travelogue through a wax museum of fellow famous people whom Grohl is excited to encounter. Because Grohl seems so guileless, and the prospect of anyone being unkind to him so unbearable, these passages are strangely suspenseful: Will Joan Jett read his adorable daughter a bedtime story after she shyly asks her to? (Of course she will.) Will Little Richard be mean to him when they randomly meet? What about Paul McCartney, or George W. Bush, or Trent Reznor, during their weird encounter that time at the Sharon Tate murder house? (Thankfully, everyone is lovely.) Was Lemmy from Motörhead as awesome as you imagined? (Yes.) Will Madeleine Albright assume Grohl is a dopey rock star when they see each other at Kennedy Center events? (Possibly! Her opinion goes unrecorded.)
Grohl was born into suburbia, and it is to suburbia he eventually returns. By the book’s end, he is settled into life as a doting girl dad in the San Fernando Valley, once traveling 16 time zones in two days to not to miss a daddy-daughter dance at school. He makes it on time, and it’s a joyous night he’ll remember forever, Grohl writes, even though his daughters abandon him to hang out with their friends, and he gets food poisoning on the plane ride back.
Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.
Tales of Life and Music
By Dave Grohl
Dey Street Books. 384 pp. $29.99