Dave Grohl: The Path To Nirvana
In April 1992, Cobain announced to Grohl and Novoselic that he wished to redraft Nirvana’s publishing agreement. Up until this point, publishing royalties had been split evenly between the three band members: Under the new arrangement proposed by Cobain, the band’s publishing would be altered so that Cobain would receive 90 percent of monies due. And more contentiously, the agreement would be applied retroactively, dating back to the release of Nevermind. In effect, this agreement meant that both Grohl and Novoselic now owed Cobain money. The ensuing arguments nearly split the band.
“This is a sticky conversation,” Grohl told me in 2009, “but yeah, let’s just say that things changed. And I realized, ‘Okay, wait, this isn’t three guys in a van any more.’ I kinda knew that, because my mom had a gold record on her wall, but that’s when I started thinking, ‘You know, I don’t know if I signed up for this, this isn’t what I signed up for.’
“When we signed our deal it was a three-way split. And sometimes that changes after you sell 10 million records, you know? So the publishing issue came up ... and I got nothing. Close to nothing. Like, nothing at all. My first reaction was, ‘Okay, yeah ... I mean, like, how much do you need? I’ve already made enough money to buy a house ... Holy s__t! So that’s not too terrible.’ And then I found out what it really meant. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, should I be punished because I didn’t know what I was signing?’ Because apparently nobody else did either. So that was a big one. I considered bailing out at that point. But I stayed ...”
While Nirvana lay low, seeking to deal with their internecine issues out of the glare of the world’s media, the “grunge revolution” gathered pace. No one had paid much attention at the time, but on the day Nevermind reached the summit of the Billboard 200, another Seattle rock band had chalked up a modest, yet significant, chart success of their own. For Pearl Jam, news that their debut single “Alive” had broken into Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart at #32 wasn’t a cause for wild celebration in itself, but it demonstrated that four months on from the release of their debut album, Ten, they still had impetus, still had momentum. And Nirvana’s milestone achievement had laid down a new marker: “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it’s on now,’ guitarist Mike McCready told one U.S. journalist a decade later. “It changed something. We had something to prove: that our band was as good as I thought it was.”
Five months later, on May 5, 1992, Ten was certified platinum in the U.S., as it passed the 1 million sales mark. By mid-July, when Pearl Jam and their friends in Soundgarden left their hometown to start the second annual Lollapalooza tour alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, and ex-N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube, both Chris Cornell’s group and Alice In Chains had platinum albums under their belts, too. Jumping upon the bandwagon somewhat belatedly, Rolling Stone and Spin began to hype Seattle as “the new Liverpool,” and scores of major-label A&R men descended wolfishly upon the community to strip it of its assets. In every down-tuned riff and misanthropic grunt emanating from the Crocodile Cafe, The Showbox, and The Off Ramp, the majors thought they heard the “new Nirvana”: Mudhoney duly left Sub Pop for Reprise; Tad inked a deal with Warner Bros. imprint Giant Records, and Melvins signed to Atlantic. As former Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe was bringing the “Seattle Sound” to Hollywood, with Matt Dillon starring as disaffected rocker Cliff Poncier in the sappy Jet City–based, grunge-soundtracked romantic comedy Singles, a host of fame-hungry Californian rock bands were donning flannel shirts and cherry red Doc Martens boots and heading in the opposite direction, hoping to buy into the feeding frenzy enveloping the city. A generation of down-at-heel, ornery local musos were left wondering where it all went right.
In the midst of all this drama, noise, and confusion, hardly anyone noticed Dave Grohl’s first solo album emerge without fanfare on the tiny Simple Machines label run out of a suburban home in Arlington, Virginia, by Jenny Toomey and her Tsunami bandmate Kristin Thompson. Released on cassette only, as part of Simple Machine’s Tool Set tape series, Pocketwatch was packaged as the work of a band named Late!, but the cassette inlay card credits revealed “all music and instruments” to be the work of one “Dave G.” And here lay the foundations of a career of which the young multi-instrumentalist could not at this point have imagined.
Author Paul Brannigan is the former editor of Kerrang! magazine and is a respected authority on the punk scene in Washington, D.C., where Dave Grohl cut his teeth. He currently lives in London.