Is There Life After Death?

Esquire 1997

Despite success as the Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl can't escape his past with Nirvana. Courtney, Kurt and the fans always catch up with him in the end.

The past is a different country
In the lobby of a New York hotel, Courtney Love Cobain is playing with her baby. Frances Bean gurgles away. She has no idea that only months ago the press were speculating about her drug addiction: was she born hooked on heroin as a result of her parents' habit? As we wait for Kurt Cobain, Courtney talks about Nirvana's forthcoming album, In Utero. Cobain appears. He wanders towards us, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a pink cardie and white plastic Jackie 0 sunglasses. His nail varnish has seen better days. He plays with "the Bean" but doesn't want to talk yet: it's still light and he's sleepy.
  While waiting for Cobain, I spend some time with Dave Grohl, Nirvana's 24-year-old drummer. He is on fine form. He calls his photographer fiancée to tell her he loves her. Nirvanamania, he explains, does little for him: "What's, the big fucking deal? We're just a band, it doesn't seem like it should be any big deal. But to a lot of people it is." He sighs. "I'm kinda proud of being the drummer in Nirvana, because we've done a lot of good things. We've shaken things up. It took me a while to realise that... how could three fucking losers from Nowheresville make a dent in rock'n'roll?" Then he confides: the low point in his career to date was the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". "If I hear that fucking song again, I'm gonna kill somebody."
Four years on, the singer of his band is dead, his marriage is over and he's cut hiS hair off.

Grunge Keanu
There's a popular game in Hollywood called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the idea of which is to connect an actor to Kevin Bacon in six moves. It's surprisingly easy to play. As we will find out.
  It's a hot, dusty day in LA and Dave Grohl is sitting in Barney's Beanery, once the haunt of legends such as Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, now a place to get a few beers late at night and, in this instance, to do a secluded lunchtime interview.
  Grohl has had an image change. Gone is the heavy metal hair; in it's place a short rough cut and a goatee. "I'm hoping it'll help sell more records." But seriously, why the grunge Keanu Iook? "I didn't want people to mistake me for Alanis Morissette." Today he looks like the old-school indie kid who never quite grew up: brown and white polyester shirt, spray-on black jeans, DMs. There's a bulge in his back pocket where he keeps his wallet and cigarettes.
  Grohl scans the menu and drums his fingers on the table. He drums all the time; when he's excited, nervous, out of control. He even drums to music he doesn’t particularly like. The Smashing Pumpkins - old Nirvana enemies not least because singer Billy Corgan once dated Courtney Love - are being played at volume on the juke-box, but Grohl still drums away.
  Dave Grohl isn't really the sort of person to play Six Degrees. He is more concerned about his stomach than Hollywood, more interested in ostrich burgers than the Oscars, which took place the night before. We talk about his tattoos, which are ugly but which he loves. He had his first when he was 13, after seeing a girl in a Bowie movie do her own; using a needle and ink, his best friend made some small black marks on the back of Grohl's neck. His favourite, however, is the most recent. It's a tiny black heart just below the knuckle on his middle finger. Every time he gives someone the finger, he explains, they see a tiny black heart.
  The last time Dave Grohl had an album to promote, it was the summer of Britpop. 1995 may have been a great year for the likes of Pulp, but our unashamed celebration of home-grown talent resulted in the Seattle sound taking a back seat. Although grunge had become a dirty word, there was one band which sneaked through the anti-American rock propaganda - Grohl's new outfit, Foo Fighters. True, the NME dubbed Grohl "Grunge Ringo", but they also awarded the Foo Fighters' self-titled debut album a rare 9 out of 10. The first single, "This Is A Call", entered the charts at number five - as high a position as any Nirvana single reached in the UK. Looking back on the album's critical success, Grohl is beyond sceptical. "People were into it because I'd been in Nirvana. I think they considered it to be more of a noble effort than a valid rock record. We tried to avoid hype, but... Jesus Christ!" His large burger and kilo of garnish have arrived. "I recorded the first album almost entirely on my own in five days. It was really an excuse to get in a van and tour. Now we've proved we can jump around, we have to concentrate on sounding good. Now I want to show off a new album which took three months to record."
  There are moments of grunge-by-numbers on the album, The Colour And The Shape, but it values personal pain over public displays of angst, and among the quiet-loud-quiet shouty songs, there are moments of raw tenderness ("Up In Arms", "My Hero"). The British music press may say it isn't the album to relaunch American rock over here, but Grohl is happy simply to have made it. "I look at what I've achieved and it's what most musicians spend their lives trying to do. It'd be disrespectful to Nirvana to try and recapture that success. But if someone comes up to me and says, 'Your album sucks', I'll punch them. Ha ha!" He pauses, smirks at my mountain of Greek salad. "You know that if you want to be a member of the Clean Plate Club, you can't leave this table 'til you've eaten it all?"

Six degrees of Kurt Cobain
Unexpectedly, Grohl seems keen for a little nostalgia. He won't answer "what if?" questions (if Kurt was alive, would he have ended up a granddad rocker like Mick Jagger? Would Nirvana have grown up to be Black Sabbath or Neil Young?) He will, however, reflect "When Nirvana became popular, it was hilarious. I thought it was happening to the wrong people. I couldn't take it seriously. Do you know what I'd do? I'd show up and play drums. I still don't understand what the big deal was? Which is probably why I was happy and had such a fucking good time." Did Kurt have a good time? "I don't. You'd have to ask him."
  I don't want to push it, but I'm curious about the past and its shadow on the present. We talk about his recent move from Seattle to Hollywood - he thinks the former is America's finest city, while the latter is simply surreal- and I wonder if he knows Courtney Love is selling her Seattle house. He nods and barely disguises a shrug. Did he see her presenting an award at the Oscars the previous night wearing a Versace dress and a super smile? He shakes his head, drums on the Formica. "I was rehearsing. I would have loved to have seen it." Does he ever hear from her? "The last time I spoke to her was in September." And did you get on? "Next question." You didn't. "You understand why I don't want to discuss it? We haven't spoken in a whi.1.e and the last conversation was... 'I'm very well. How are you?'"
  Perhaps it's time to talk about something else. Dave Grohl is fidgeting. He pushes his plate aside and tips the last of his Coke into his mouth. He starts on a safe subject: his band. There's sometime Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear, bass player Nate Mendel and Taylor Hawkins, who drummed with Alanis Morissette until this spring. His body is floppy and relaxed and he smiles big enough to reveal his perfect, made-in-America teeth and famous gums. Suddenly his body stiffens as a shadow falls over our table. It's Courtney Love. Her conversation starts, as always, mid-sentence. "You know, I've got Wendy and Frances with me. I thought, if I go to Barney's no one will be there." Dave is pale and motionless. Courtney bends to kiss him and he looks as though an electric shock has passed through his body. Finally, he talks. "Hiya, Courtney, how are you?"
  This is not the Hollywood Courtney of the Oscars, but the grunge queen of 18 months ago. The Versace dress is replaced by a lime-green boob tube, ripped Levi's and sandals. Her face is free of make-up and her false nails are breaking off to reveal bitten nails painted a dozen different colours. "I just walked in with Wendy and Frances and Ed and the first thing I heard: Smashing Pumpkins. I know Billy Corgan is producing my new album, but really, I can do without listening to him in here... Hi! How are you, Dave?" She waves a finger around. There's gum on the end. "I've got to get rid of this. Did you see the Oscars? My scene was so easy. It was so easy, I was totally at home." She does a little jig. "Come and see Frances."
  Dave mutters something about getting the bill and Courtney waltzes off. "That was fucking weird. Woah, man," he says, looking at his upturned palms. "Are yours sweaty?" He wipes his hands on his trousers and, still drained of colour, starts drumming. The black heart on his middle finger moves faster and faster. He laughs nervously. "I guess you just made your article!"
  A deep breath and Grohl makes it over to Courtney's table. He normally runs everywhere, but this time it's as though he's just learnt to walk. Frances Bean, Courtney's five-year-old daughter, is sprawled across her knee, examining her own multi-coloured fingernails and chatting away. All blonde hair and big blue eyes, she looks like her father, like Kurt unsullied by fame. Opposite them, Wendy O'Connor, Kurt's mother, is talking about how she succeeded in her mission to sit on the same table as Mel Gibson at last night's Oscars. Her two teenage daughters, Rianne and Kim, look uninpressed. A young man in a grey t-shirt and jeans stares at the cigarette butts on the floor. He seems uncomfortable, almost embarrassed. It takes a few minutes to realise why: he is Ed Norton, Courtney's new boyfriend and her co-star in The People vs Larry Flynt. He seems to be praying for the return of Hollywood Courtney; perhaps this unexpected throwback to her grungy past is beyond him.
  Grohl talks to Rianne, tells her he hasn't seen her since she was this high. "Who are you?" she scowls, pretending not to remember. He is silent for a moment, staring at Frances. "The weirdest thing is hearing her talk," he says, shaking his head. "Last time I saw her, she was a baby. Just a baby." His thoughts are interrupted by the appearance of an obese bloke in his twenties. "Courtney," he drools, "I thought you were awesome last night." She flashes the super smile and turns away. The groupie lingers. He turns to Grohl: "I know you..." Grohl deadpans: "I'm in a band called the Foo Fighters." The groupie looks blank: "Yeah. Totally awesome."
  It is time, Grohl decides, to have his photo taken in the parking lot. He says goodbye like an awkward teenager and disappears. Courtney passes Frances to her mother-in-law and leads me to the bar. She talks in a stream of consciousness. "I need to bum a fag. I haven't been to Barney's for eight years. Is it rock'n'roll? I never knew. I can't believe they're still playing the Pumpkins... the Oscars were incredible. Frances McDormand is the original riot grrri. I feel great; I don't take drugs any more. Can you believe it? Great! They've changed the music." She asks a couple of surprised-looking blokes for a cigarette.
  "You know what? Mr Versace called me this morning to say how much he loved me in his dress... I have to say that it's not so different from a cream one I wore to some music awards three years ago and no one said anything then." She inhales sharply and dances to Aerosmith. "You know I'm selling up? How can I stop Frances Bean from looking out of the window every day, how can I explain why there are people standing out there, day and night? Hey! Do you know how to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Isn't it weird that I walk in here and there's Billy on the jukebox and Dave here with you..." And all this not two weeks before the third anniversary of her husband's suicide.

Dazed and Confused
Dave Grohl returns to Capitol records and runs up several flights of stairs. He finds his band sitting around, bored. "Pat! Pat! You will never guess who I just met." Smear looks blank. "The Cobain family! Courtney, Frances, Wendy... can you believe it?" There is stunned silence. Grohl kneels on Taylor's lap and the drummer accuses him of being stoned. "I feel stoned," says Grohl.

Cheap tricks
There isn't much which makes Grohl angry, but there is one word which makes him curl his fists. Bush. Some Americans think that Bush are the new Nirvana. Grohl thinks they're wrong. "You know Rick Springfield was a rock star but really he was a poster boy who made music? Gavin Rossdale reminds me of,that. There are probably eight or nine million Americans who worship Bush. If you really like Guns n' Roses and John Cougar Mellencamp but now and again you get crazy, you listen to Bush." So listening to them makes MOR fans feel naughty? "Yeah. If you live in Arkansas and you want to go see a punk rock show, you go see Bush at the TherqIodome. It's entertainment." A few days later, as we glide down Sunset in a convertible, Dave asks about British releases. He likes the Chemical Brothers but isn't sure about the Prodigy. He asks about Blur. Well, in a bold rejection of Britpop, they recently released an art-school grunge single. "I heard 'Song 2' on the radio the other day. I thought it sounded familiar."

Rock'n'roll suicide
Dave Grohl once said he never feels like a rock star. He always makes the same statement: "I'm doing it Just because I love to do it." It's a bit indie to believe, but perhaps it's true. Perhaps he learnt something from his best friend's suicide. "Do you know what I do?" There's that smile. "My family and childhood friends - who are in Virginia where I grew up - have made a promise. If I become an asshole, you know, a star-studded freak... they have to punch me, knock me down. I don't want to take this thing too seriously."
  But though he wants to live for today, there are times when Grohl has to deal with the past. He will always bump into Courtney, probably when he least expects it. And Nirvana's fan base didn't die with Kurt. When we return to the record company, Grohl is handed a brown bag of fan mail. He holds it carefully, as though it contains the band's ashes. "This is the first time I've had Nirvana mail for a long time... Today of all days!" Are people still upset? "God, yeah. That's one of the great things about it: it has the capability to touch someone whether they're from Germany or Iceland."
In a way, it's the fans who have documented that part of his life. "It's strange when you hear from an aficionado who knows every move we made; what we ate after a gig in Argentina. It's lucky there are people obsessed enough to document this stuff because my memory's full up. That period is a blur... I was only 21 when I joined Nirvana."
  Occasionally, a freak letter arrives. "Oh God yeah, there was one which I saved. 'Hi, Dave. I'm 11 years old and I'm in a mental institution. I think you're the greatest. I love Nirvana and every time I hear a record, it makes me cry. I love you very much.' At the end, it said: 'Good luck and fuck as many girls as you can, love Michelle.'"
  Dave Grohl throws his head back and laughs, showing his great gums to the world. Without warning, his laughter stops. He looks at the floor and I can't see his eyes. "To be honest, I don't care what they write, what they ask, just so long as they don't ask one question. Just don't ask me where I was when he died. Think about it: if you lost your good friend, you would still be hurting."

Words: Amy Raphael

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