Late in the autumn of 1986 Dave Grohl, now playing with the soon-to-be-disbanded Dain Bramage, found himself buying new drum sticks in Rolls Music in Falls Church, Virginia. It was here that he spotted a note pinned among the flyers on the shop’s bulletin board. It read “Scream looking for drummer. Call Franz.” At first disbelieving, Grohl reread the note several times, before tearing it from the board and stuffing it into his pocket. With Dain Bramage in limbo, he figured that he might as well take the opportunity to jam with a band he considered heroes. When he got home, he picked up the phone and dialed the number.
Dave Grohl was just 17 years old when he joined America’s last great hardcore band. Bruce Springsteen once sang of learning ‘more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school’; similarly, three years in Scream’s Dodge Ram van would provide Grohl with the finest education he could ever wish for. In a wonderfully evocative phrase which neatly illustrated the feral, lawless nature of the mid-’80s underground touring circuit, an ex-girlfriend once memorably claimed that Grohl was “raised in a van by wolves.” Twenty-five years after joining Scream, Grohl still regards Pete and Franz Stahl as family.
“I was 18 years old, doing exactly what I wanted to do,” says Grohl. “With $7 a day, I travelled to places I’d never dreamed of visiting. And all because of music. The feeling of driving across the country in a van with five other guys, stopping in every city to play, sleeping on people’s floors, watching the sun come up over the desert as I drove, it was all too much. This was definitely where I belonged.”
In August 1990, at Thurston Moore’s invitation, Nirvana was invited to open a clutch of West Coast dates for Sonic Youth. Moore, his partner Kim Gordon, and Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis had caught a Nirvana show in New Jersey the previous summer, and had been blown away by the band’s brutish power. Having acquired a dubbed copy of Nirvana’s Smart Studios cassette, he was now talking the band up to everyone he knew. For Cobain, the opportunity to support the revered New York noiseniks was too good to pass up, irrespective of the fact that his band once again had no drummer. With Dan Peters (Mudhoney’s drummer and Nirvana’s go-to fill-in following previous drummer Chad Channing’s dismissal in May of 1990) committed to a European festival tour with Mudhoney, Cobain turned to his old friend Dale Crover of Melvins for help once more.
Two days before the tour was due to start at Bogart’s in Long Beach, California, Cobain, Chris Novoselic (who hadn’t yet adopted the Croatian spelling of his first name), and soundman Craig Montgomery drove down to San Francisco to meet up with Crover at Buzz Osborne’s house. It was then that Osborne suggested the party should head over to the I-Beam to watch his friends in Scream.
Cobain took some persuading. Together with his next-door neighbor Slim Moon, the owner of Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars record label, the singer had gone to see the band from Bailey’s Crossroads play Tacoma’s Community World Theater back in October 1987, during Dave Grohl’s first tour with the Stahl brothers. Expecting a set of righteous punk rock, Cobain was horrified to discover that Scream’s live show was now largely built around the kind of strutting hard rock he himself was trying to disown.
“Kurt hated it,” remembers Slim Moon, still a respected figure in Olympia’s tight-knit and fiercely independent musical community. “He kept saying, ‘It sucks when good bands turn into Van Halen.’ For some reason he was particularly annoyed that they were playing guitar solos on Telecasters. He talked about how much he hated it for the whole drive home.”
Back in San Francisco, Cobain agreed to go to the I-Beam to keep the peace. This time he didn’t notice what guitars Franz Stahl was playing, or that Pete Stahl dressed more like Sammy Hagar than Ian MacKaye. This time his focus was solely upon Scream’s powerhouse drummer.
“I was standing with Kurt and Chris,” recalls Montgomery, “and Kurt said, ‘That’s the kind of drummer we need.’ Dave had an energy that was hard to miss and Kurt and Chris were pretty blown away by his playing. He seemed like a good fit for what they were doing.”
Six weeks later Dave Grohl packed his drums into a large cardboard box and boarded a flight bound for Seattle.
Grohl arrived in Seattle on the afternoon of Friday, September 21, 1990. Cobain and Chris Novoselic were at the city’s Sea-Tac airport to greet him. As Novoselic nudged his Volkswagen van out of the airport for the 18-mile drive to his home in Tacoma, where Grohl was due to crash for his first few weeks in Washington, the drummer offered Cobain an apple to break the ice.
“No thanks,” said Cobain. “It’ll make my teeth bleed.” The rest of the journey was conducted in silence. The following evening Nirvana were billed to play an all-ages show with local punks Derelict, Dwarves, and Melvins at Seattle’s 1,500-capacity Motor Sports International Garage. The gig was a huge deal for the band: It was by far their biggest hometown headline show to date, and Sub Pop had flown journalist Keith Cameron and photographer Ian Tilton from Sounds magazine across from London to write a cover story on the group ahead of their first full U.K. headline tour in October. With Mudhoney on hiatus while guitarist Steve Turner finished college, Cobain had asked Dan Peters to play drums for the evening. That afternoon Cobain informed Grohl that he wouldn’t really be able to speak to him, or introduce him to friends, at the show, as the sudden appearance of an unknown drummer at the gig might set tongues wagging among local scenesters. A bemused Grohl duly watched the show from the crowd, soaking in the atmosphere. He was astonished to see that every other kid in the room seemed to be wearing one of Nirvana’s new Fudge Packin’ Crack Smokin’ Satan Worshippin’ Motherf__kers T-shirts.