Stayin' Humble on the Sonic Highway

Dave Grohl deserves respect if for no other reason that he’s gone from playing drums in Nirvana (i.e. staying with Kurt and Krist) to playing guitar and being the singer and loquacious front man of The Foo Fighters. That last quality however, being a tawker, combined with his burning need to be in the spotlight (is there a musical event he’s not a part of?), also makes Grohl nauseating at times. Clearly, the concept of overexposure never enters his mind.

Between tree trimming, over imbibing and driving my wife to the brink of full blown mental illness with the up down, jet engine-like roar of the trusty and everpresent VPI 16.5 record cleaner, I’ve spent the time since Thanksgiving catching up on my Dave Grohl, specifically, Grohl’s HBO rockumentary series, Sonic Highways. Here is a man who could endlessly stare into a mirror with little to say other than the not so subliminal—LOOK!, LOOK!, LOOK!, DAVE GROHL! HE’S SUPER COOL! And yet the hair, the beard, the faux self-deprecation he evinces when he sees old photos of himself, especially those taken during his unfortunate hat period (“What a fucking asshole,” he says in one episode pointing at a photo of himself in a hat), has not dragged down what is a pretty fabulous series on American music as he and the band traveled to the country’s most musical cities, where he serves as interviewer and narrator for a short but on target and respectably deep and informative survey of that city’s popular music history. He then records a tune with the Foo Fighters in a storied studio in each of these same chosen burghs. The tracks were then combined into an album also called Sonic Highways, which like most Foo Fighters records (with the possible exception of The Colour and the Shape), is loud, overdriven rock that sounds a lot alike and lacks any memorable hooks. Like Jack White’s many activities on Third Man Records, particularly his recent restoration of the Paramount Records catalog, Grohl’s respect of what came before, for the vital history of American popular music is super commendable, exemplary even. But unlike White who has the good taste to be a semi-recluse, Grohl loves being a public persona. Too much.

When the Sonic Highways films stick to music history however, they are absolutely excellent. In many cases the vintage footage included in each episode is outrageously great. In the Austin episode for example, the 60’s TV footage of Roky Erickson is rarely if ever seen. The same goes for Tom Waits playing Austin City Limits, which has never been commercially released and is probably the most requested bit of ACL footage and audio yet to be released. In every case all the right people are interviewed. In Seattle for instance, producer/engineer Jack Endino, wacko studio owner Robert Lang, Sub Pop founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, photographer Charles Peterson are all interviewed as are Nancy Wilson from Heart and Larry Parypa from The Sonics.

In the series finale which focused on NYC, the well-worn tale of the musical history of Gotham was told complete with among others, Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, Paul Stanley of KISS, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, a rare interview with Rick Rubin and Steve Rosenthal owner of the recording studio, The Magic Shop. While the tangent on the underground streams that run under Manhattan, and impeded Jimi Hendrix from building Electric Lady Studios was fascinating, there were some notable omissions in this episode (I'm a New Yorker, of course there’s something wrong) beginning with just a slight mention of jazz (by Thurston Moore) and continuing through the usual Manhattan centric viewpoint. When the discussion turns to the future of New York music, all we hear is one lame-assed comment from James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem about being 44 years old and never going out at night. I mean WTF? Anyone ever hear of Brooklyn where there endless combinations of cellos, computers and live drums, not to mention trumpets, pedal steel guitars and singers (able and not so much) plowing brave new turf every night? Clearly, this was an enormous subject, and cuts had to be made for the sake of clarity and brevity, but damn Dave, did all this wonderful American music you respect and are so in love with really stop in 1989? Other than the brave work of The Foo Fighters, of course, have all the musical frontiers really been closed? The final interview with President Obama was great—what other president living, dead or living dead could use the term “garage band” correctly in conversation?— but it did not save the day. See Sonic Highways for the history, yet be puzzled by the sense that all America’s musical glories are in the past and by Dave Grohl’s desire to be everywhere, ALL THE TIME.

Allen Fant's picture

I enjoyed this series as well RB.
IME, DG could never get enough exposure. Clearly, he is a man on a mission- I respect him.

After the demise of Nirvana- he could have easily set on his ass and count his money (royalties) indefinitely!

lo fi's picture

Those who can't write snarky opinion pieces about them. I for one am looking forward to a generous dose of Dave Grohl's "loud, overdriven rock" when the Foo Fighters tour here early next year. Hopefully, Dave will have managed to get "tree trimming, over imbibing" and obsessing over the "up down, jet engine-like roar of the trusty and everpresent VPI 16.5 record cleaner" out of his system by then.

doak's picture

Thanks Robert.

rskuras's picture

I thought that was an obnoxious article. I don't even like DG or FF or Nirvana, but the article seems like a personal attack against Dave. I actually went through all the trouble to set up a Stereophile user account so I could tell RB that he just made a total ass of himself. Learn to relax.

argyle_mikey's picture why does Jazz need any more than a mention - if indeed that ?


shp's picture

I confess, I haven't seen the series yet. But the article seems as much about Dave the person and persona as it does the series. So I think it's fair to comment anyway.

It’s true: Foo Fighters produce a lot of "overdriven rock." But that doesn’t mean the band – or its members -- has been entirely monochromatic either. In Your Honor has an entire acoustic CD that includes collaborations with Nora Jones, John Paul Jones and others. “Best of You” was even covered by Prince during the Super Bowl. On There Is Nothing Left to Lose Dave resurrects the talk box and Stacked Actors is musically nothing like Headwires. One By One, to me, is an Eagles album and qualitatively different. Give a listen to One of These Days off Wasting Light: if the music hasn’t evolved sonically much, arguably the lyrics have. And let’s not overlook Dave’s work on Probot and Them Crooked Vultures.

Billy Corgan recently observed the band’s lack of evolution. To be sure, Corgan has ventured farther from his Black Sabbath roots. A Corgan-led “Sonic Highways” might have been artistically broader, too. But based on album sales, the Corgan’s work hasn’t always been successful. Still, if I’m starting a new band and need a guitar player, I’m picking Billy over Dave: Cherub Rock has possibly the best rock solo of the 90’s.

Of the major acts that emerged in the early 90’s and have lasted, Radiohead is by far the most experimental. I love them. But they aren’t the same kind of act: as far as I know, they’ve never performed with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Lemmy.

You might prefer that Jack White is more reclusive. But where Jack takes shots at The Black Keys Dave would probably be trying to perform with them.

While Jack White was part of It’s Gonna Get Loud, Grohl made Sonic Highways. It's a natural extension of his acute reverence for the history of the music he plays, which doesn't include jazz. And it's an interesting next move for a 45-year-old who has already appeared on 141 albums (

Dave might be everywhere right now. But he seems like a kid in a candy store trying to play in every band he ever loved, not some attention-wanting hack. And also, he does stuff like this,

Al from Hudson Avenue's picture

Why piss on Dave? He's successful, he seems to be a very happy guy, what's the problem?