Dave Grohl: The Path To Nirvana

From his roots as a punk-worshipping Virginia teenager, Dave Grohl climbed the musical ladder with passion as his guide until his monumental break with the scrappy grunge outfit Nirvana rocked his, and our, world forever.

It was in Washington, D.C., at a Wilson Center show by Void, a chaotic, impossibly intense punk-metal quartet from Columbia, Maryland, that 15-year-old Dave Grohl first met Brian Samuels in autumn 1984. At the time Samuels’s band Freak Baby were seeking to add a second guitar player to their lineup, just as scene elders Minor Threat, Faith, and Scream had done the previous year, and Samuels invited the young guitarist to an audition at the group’s practice spot in drummer Dave Smith’s basement. Grohl wasn’t the best guitar player the band had ever seen — Chris Page remembers him as being merely “competent” — but what he lacked in technical dexterity he made up for in terms of the energy, enthusiasm, and infectious humor he brought to the band. In addition, Grohl’s simple but effective rhythm playing neatly complemented Bryant Mason’s more proficient lead guitar work. Freak Baby’s newest member made his debut with the band that winter, playing as support to Trouble Funk at Arlington’s liberal-minded, “alternative” high school H-B Woodlawn. It would prove to be the band’s one and only show as a quintet.

Freak Baby’s demise was sudden and brutal. One afternoon in late 1984 Grohl was behind Dave Smith’s kit at practice, trying out some of the rolls, fills, ruffs, and flams he had been practicing for years in his bedroom of his family home in Springfield, Virginia. He had his head down and eyes closed; his arms and legs became a blur as he hammered out beats to the Minor Threat and Bad Brains riffs running through his head. Lost in music, Grohl was oblivious to his bandmates urging him to get back to his guitar. Standing 6' 5" and weighing in at around 270 lbs., skinhead Samuels was not a figure used to being ignored. Grohl didn’t notice his hulking bandmate rise from the sofa, so when Samuels yanked him off the drum stool by his hair and dragged him to the ground, he was more shocked than hurt. The rest of his band, however, were mortified. They had felt that Samuels had been increasingly trying to assert his authority and control over the band, but this was too much. As Grohl stumbled back to his feet, Chris Page called time on the day’s session. Within the week he would call time on Freak Baby, too, reshuffling the lineup to move Grohl to drums, Smith to bass, and Samuels out the door. With the new lineup came a new name: Mission Impossible.

With the domineering Samuels out of the picture, initial Mission Impossible rehearsal sessions were playful, productive, and wildly energetic: All four band members skated, and at times Smith’s basement resembled a skate park more than a rehearsal room, with the teenagers bouncing off the walls and spinning and tumbling over amps and furniture as they played. But there was also an intensity and focus to their rehearsals. Songs flowed freely as they bounced around ideas, fed off the energy in the room, and experimented with structure, tone, pacing, and dynamics. Just two months after forming, the band felt confident enough to record a demo tape with local sound engineer and musician Barrett Jones, who had helmed a previous session for Freak Baby. Jones fronted a college rock band called 11th Hour, northern Virginia’s home-grown answer to R.E.M., and operated a tiny recording studio called Laundry Room, so called because his Tascam 4-track tape deck and 12-channel Peavey mixing board were located in the laundry room of his parents’ Arlington home. Now running a rather more sophisticated and expansive version of Laundry Room Studios out of South Park, Seattle, Jones has fond memories of the session.

“I’d recorded a tape for Freak Baby with Dave on guitar, but when he switched to drums their band was just so much better,” he recalls. “They went from doing one-minute hardcore songs to doing ... two-minute hardcore songs! But those songs were more ambitious and involved and dynamic.

“Back then Dave was probably the most hyper person I’d ever met,” he adds. “When we did that first Freak Baby demo he was literally bouncing off the walls. They were a hardcore band, so they all had that energy, but he was something else. But musically his decision to switch to drums was definitely the right one.”

Fugazi lead singer and Dischord Records cofounder Ian MacKaye recalls his first experience seeing Grohl behind the drums with Mission Impossible, at a Lake Braddock Community Center show on July 25, 1985. “Everyone said, ‘You gotta see this drummer, this kid, he’s 16, he’s been playing for two months and he’s out of control.’ And then I saw them, and Dave was just maniacal. He didn’t have all the chops down, but he was dialing it in from the gods. His drumming was so out of control, and he wanted to play so hard and so fast. It was kinda phenomenal. Everybody was like, ‘Whoa, that guy is incredible!’”

“One night Ian came up and told me that he thought I played just like [D.O.A./Black Flag/Circle Jerks drummer] Chuck Biscuits,” recalls Grohl. “To me, that was like saying, ‘You are just like Keith Moon,’ because Chuck Biscuits was a huge inspiration to me. So from then I became that kid in town who played like that. I had this reputation as being this super-fast, out-of-control hardcore drummer.”

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The Leap To Scream

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.”

Scream Into Nirvana

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.

The Hazing

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.

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The following day the Novoselics threw a barbecue at their house for the visiting British journalists, and the drummer sat quietly in the background chowing down on surf and turf as Cobain, Novoselic, and Peters outlined their future plans to Cameron. The next day he joined Cobain and Novoselic at the Dutchman, the grubby Seattle rehearsal room where the pair had written “Sliver” with Peters just a few months earlier, and auditioned for a vacancy Peters understandably thought had already been filled. Before the trio had finished running through their opening number, Cobain and Novoselic knew that they’d got their man. The following day Kurt Cobain dropped in unannounced to Calvin Johnson’s KAOS radio show to play an impromptu four-song acoustic session. During the show he casually informed Johnson that Nirvana had a new drummer, nothing less than “the drummer of our dreams.”

“His name is Dave and he’s a baby Dale Crover,” he enthused. “He plays almost as good as Dale. And within a few years’ practice he may even give him a run for his money.”

Dan Peters missed Cobain’s surprise announcement on KAOS. So when Nirvana’s frontman called him the following day, Peters assumed Cobain wanted to talk about the band’s imminent UK tour. Instead, he was sheepishly informed that the band had recruited a new permanent drummer. Communication had never been one of Cobain’s strong points, as Grohl himself had immediately discovered.

“I don’t remember them saying, ‘You’re in the band,’” Grohl admitted years later. “We just continued.”

Nirvana’s new drummer played his first gig with the band at the North Shore Surf Club in Olympia, Washington, on October 11, 1990. The 300-capacity club had sold out within a day of the tickets going on sale, a feat which so impressed Grohl that he felt compelled to phone home to share the news with his mother.

The show was sweaty, frenzied, and intense. Grohl had to start the set’s opening number, a cover of The Vaselines’ “Son Of A Gun,” no less than three times, as the band kept blowing the power in the tiny venue. A few songs later the bare-chested drummer put his sticks right through his snare drum skin: Cobain held the broken drum aloft like a war trophy to the cheering crowd. Grohl had officially arrived.

“I felt I had something to prove,” he later recalled. “I knew we sounded good as a band. And we were f__king good that night. Absolutely, I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone — no one in the audience, no one in the band. I was completely on my own. That was the only thing that mattered, that hour on stage. That’s what I was focused on.”

“Grohl was simply a monster,” says Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross, then editor of Seattle’s The Rocket. “Chad Channing is often underrated; he was a great drummer for the early van-touring Nirvana because he was an affable guy, a talented drummer, and he played the punk-era songs of Nirvana as well as anyone. However, with Dave Grohl Nirvana became a very different beast. He powered Nirvana’s shows and made them spectacular events. It was Grohl who turned Nirvana into the powerhouse it became.”

“His contribution transformed us into a force of nature,” said Novoselic. “Nirvana was now a beast that walked the earth.”

This Is The Life

After returning from a whirlwind ten-day U.K. tour in late October 1990 with L7, Dave Grohl moved in with Cobain at 114 North Pear Street in Olympia. He was quite unprepared for the squalor in which his friend lived: 114 North Pear Street made the scuzzy European squats where Grohl had laid his head during his days with Scream look like palatial Georgetown townhouses. The kitchen was filthy, covered in mold and littered with half-eaten corndogs, beer cans, and putrefying takeaway food. There was only one tiny bedroom, which Cobain had painted black. The living room was cramped and foul-smelling, the TV was broken, and the floor was barely visible beneath the detritus of Cobain’s bachelor life. Half the room was taken up by Cobain’s stinking turtle aquarium, the other half by a couch which doubled as a spare bed. This was to be Dave Grohl’s home for the next eight months.

Grohl did work on his own music while under Cobain’s roof, sketching out song ideas with an acoustic guitar on the singer’s 4-track tape recorder. But the priority, obviously, was Nirvana. The band had rented out a rehearsal space in Tacoma, essentially a carpeted barn with a P.A., and Cobain insisted they practice every day. Grohl soon settled into his new routine, and in Tacoma new songs began to take shape.

“My day would start about three or four in the afternoon,” says Grohl. “It was winter in the Northwest, and we’d wake up when the sun was going down. We would go to the AMPM and buy corndogs and cigarettes. Then we would go up to Tacoma and rehearse in the barn until about midnight, then drive back down to Olympia.

“We’d always start rehearsals with a jam, an open, free-form jam, and a lot of the songs came from that. At the time we were really experimenting with dynamics, with the quiet verse/loud chorus thing. A lot of it was derivative of Pixies and Sonic Youth. You just knew when the chorus was supposed to get bigger, and you just knew the point of the song where just when you think you can’t take it any higher you do take it one step higher. From that came songs like ‘Drain You’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I didn’t really think that much of ‘Teen Spirit’ at first. I thought it was just another one of the jams that we were doing; we had so many jams like that, that we’d record onto a boombox tape and then lose the cassette and lose the song forever. But ‘Teen Spirit’ was one we kept coming back to because the simple guitar lines were so memorable. That song definitely established that quiet/loud dynamic that we fell back on a lot of the time. And it became that one song that personifies the band.”

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Reaching The Top

On 30 September MTV introduced the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video as a world premiere on its flagship alternative show 120 Minutes. Two weeks later the video was moved into the channel’s Buzz Bin slot, intended to showcase new talent: artists selected for the Buzz Bin could expect to have their video aired between 12 and 30 times a day. With “Teen Spirit” also riding high on the Billboard Alternative, Modern Rock, and Top 40 charts, it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the Seattle trio.

“It didn’t matter what time of day or night you turned on MTV, ‘Teen Spirit’ was on,” recalls Nirvana PR Anton Brookes. “You’d walk down the street and you’d hear it on the radio. You’d walk into a shop or bar and it would be blaring out. Everywhere you went it was there. It was surreal.”

“My band Kyuss was on tour,” recalls Queens Of The Stone Age/Them Crooked Vultures frontman Josh Homme, “and I remember seeing the video on MTV at 3A.M. in a hotel room. I was saying, ‘Man, this is so good, everyone should be into this music but they’re not going to be. It’s not going to get played because it’s too good.’ About a week later I realized how wrong I was ...”

“The video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit,” says Grohl. “People heard the song on the radio and they thought, ‘This is great,’ but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, ‘This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they’re tearing up their high school.’ We were touring and we’d go back to the hotel and turn on the TV and see our video and go, ‘That’s so funny, we’re on TV, and we’ve just played the 9:30 Club!’ or whatever. And then with the video came more people and the clubs got bigger and bigger.”

On October 12, 1991 Nevermind entered the Billboard album chart at #144. That same day Butch Vig drove down to Chicago from Madison to meet up with the band at their headline show at The Metro, the same venue Cobain, Novoselic, and Chad Channing had played as a support band on the eve of their Smart Studio session 18 months previously. The drummer was astonished to find around 5,000 people waiting in line for the 1,100-capacity club.

“At that point there was a huge buzz in the air,” says Vig. “People were calling me going, ‘Oh my God, the Nirvana record is amazing.’ And I knew there was this electricity in the air, that something was going to happen for them.”

Keeping A Cool Head

On November 2, 1991, as Nirvana headed over to Europe for six weeks of headline shows, Nevermind broke into the Top 40 of the Billboard 200, hitting #35. The following week the album moved up to #17. One week later it was at #9: the next it sat at #4. In the two months since its release the album had now sold 1.2 million copies in the U.S. alone.

“I was at Geffen when [Guns N’ Roses’ hugely successful 1987 debut] Appetite For Destruction was released,” Mark Kates, then the promotions director at Geffen, told Details magazine, “so I’d seen a phenomenon happen before. And in this job it’s very helpful to have had that kind of experience, to be able to read signs and be able to see things that indicate far more than the specific nature of what they are. Let’s just say you get an inner feeling that something is going on that not only can you not control, but also you wouldn’t want to control.”

This inability to control the momentum around Nirvana may have been exhilarating for the suits at Geffen, but soon enough the three young men in the eye of the hurricane began to feel like their lives were no longer their own. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Nirvana — an autograph, an interview, a photograph, a handshake, an endorsement, an outrageous quote, a punk-rock gesture. And Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl were expected to comply with every request, every demand.

The first indications that the pressures engendered by the unexpected success of Nevermind might be having an effect on the mental health of the three musicians behind it came during Nirvana’s winter ’91 European tour.

“On that tour I remember the introduction of anxiety into my life,” says Grohl. “I had this fear of being alone, because I was so surrounded. I was being pushed and pulled to go do interviews, and go do TV and go say hello to these people and those people. We had no idea what it all meant then. I didn’t have my own hotel room, I was sharing with [tour manager] Alex MacLeod, and when I got back home it became really hard to go to sleep at night if I was in a room by myself. I was so used to being surrounded by chaos that silence or solitude kinda flipped me out.

“But was I comfortable selling 10 million records and buying a house and finally being able to support myself playing music? Absolutely. I never had a problem with that. I have never, ever wished for less.”

Gathering Clouds

On January 11, 1992, Nevermind displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album from the top of the Billboard 200. Nirvana were now the nation’s favorite, and most bewildered, new pop stars. That same weekend the band were in New York City to perform on Saturday Night Live, America’s highest-rating TV program, and the show on which Dave Grohl had first stumbled upon the existence of punk rock 12 years previously. It was a weekend no one in the Nirvana camp would ever forget.

On the morning of January 11, Danny Goldberg received a phone call at home from Courtney Love, asking if he could deliver $5,000 in cash to her at the Omni Hotel in midtown Manhattan, as she and Cobain were of a mind to do some shopping before the SNL taping. Nirvana’s manager dropped off the money in $100 bills later that morning. That afternoon Love and Cobain strolled down to “Alphabet City” on Manhattan’s scuzzy Lower East Side and scored a quantity of China White heroin, returned to their hotel suite, and locked the door.

According to Come As You Are [by Michael Azerrad, Main Street Books, 1993], Cobain and Love first did heroin together in Amsterdam during Nirvana’s winter ’91 European tour. Both had dabbled with the drug previously — Cobain started using on a casual basis in Olympia, while Love later claimed to have first shot up at a party at actor Charlie Sheen’s house — but using together helped the couple spin their own little cocoon in which to shelter from an increasingly turbulent outside world.

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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 ...”

White Noise

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.