Because of the enormous advances publishers have to shell out for celebrity autobiographies, most have firmly, contractually attached ghostwriters. This arrangement ensures the books come out close to on time and presents the public with a coherent product for them to plunk down money to buy it — mass celebrity ghostwriting makes for more consistent, though often sanitized, reading experiences.
I would bet money that Dave Grohl’s memoir The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music did not have a ghost within 783 miles of the manuscript. It’s simply too sprawling and chaotic to have been put together by a “collaborator,” to use the latest terminology. For worse and often for better, the stories it has to tell read like 384 pages of stage patter.
One of the things Grohl communicates most effectively is the squalor and starvation that marked his early musical career. As a drummer for the punk band Scream in the early 1990s, he camped out at the home of a female mud wrestler in Laurel Canyon and watched his band fall to pieces.
“We regretfully had to call and cancel the gig that we had booked for that night,” Grohl writes. “Reality started to sink in. No Skeeter meant no show. No show meant no money. No money meant no food. And no tour meant no way home.” He swears off the phrase “doesn’t amount to a can of beans” because he quite clearly remembers “one day finding a can of beans” in the kitchen of said mud wrestler’s home and it “actually saving my f***ing life.”
Nirvana, in the early days, wasn’t much better. Though the band had already had one indie hit when Grohl joined, it took a while for the financial ship to come in. In the meantime, he and frontman Kurt Cobain stayed in a dingy one-bedroom apartment in Olympia, Washington. And Grohl subsisted almost entirely on corn dogs.
“At the time, I had figured out how to survive off a three-for-ninety-nine-cents corn dog special at the Ampm gas station across the street,” he writes. “The trick was to eat one for breakfast (at noon) and save the other two for a late dinner after rehearsal, holding me over until the hunger pangs set in again and I was forced to shamefully wander back into the fluorescent glow of the convenience store lights with another crumpled dollar bill in my hand.”
Grohl eventually found great financial success to accompany his massive critical acclaim. He is a two-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, first for Nirvana and then for his one-man project that grew into the Foo Fighters. He has also collaborated with most of the biggest names in the music business at one time or another, including Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.
Even though his fortune is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Grohl’s self-image as a man of the lower middle class persists. He writes of two friends in Springfield, Virginia, playing golf during his childhood: “That is some bourgeois rich-kid s***. We had sticks! And rocks! And creeks full of crawfish! What did we need with funny hats and plaid trousers?” He adds that his father’s “dreams of my becoming an upstanding Republican businessman [was] the most implausible of all scenarios.” In reality, he’s done better for himself than a dozen Republican businessmen.
Grohl’s parents divorced when he was 6. He was primarily raised by his single schoolteacher mother in Springfield. His father disowned him when he dropped out of high school to drum for Scream, though the two reconciled before the old man died in 2014. After a brief marriage fizzled out in the 1990s, Grohl remarried in the early 2000s and has three daughters. The Storyteller’s first chapter begins with the eldest daughter Harper’s words, “Dad, I want to learn how to play the drums.”
From there, Grohl stage-patters to his own education or lack thereof. He was largely self-taught, with one exception. Legendary jazz drummer Lenny Robinson came to his Springfield home for a single lesson. After observing the young Grohl’s epic drum solo for several minutes, Robinson said, “OK, first of all, you’re holding your sticks backward.”
The section in which Grohl reacts to fellow bandmates, onetime roommate, and friend Cobain’s death is a cruel cheat and then a good example of bleeding on the page. It begins, “He’s gone, Dave.” And then, several paragraphs later, “Hold on, he’s not dead, he’s still alive.” The thing Cobain survived the first time was an overdose. Thirty-six days later, it was a shotgun, and he was gone for good.
“I hung up the phone and waited for that same shattering pain to bring me to my knees again, but it didn’t come. It was stuck somewhere deep within me, blocked by the trauma from a month before when I had been left in a state of conflicted emotional confusion,” he writes.
One person who is never mentioned in this book by name is Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love. After Cobain’s death, she sued Grohl and fellow Nirvana band member Krist Novoselic over control of the band’s name and intellectual property, and they countersued. The conflict got heated, and she made and then retracted many accusations against Grohl that could have been career-ending.
Most ghostwriters would have insisted on at least mentioning Love, but it’s understandable that Grohl leaves her out, given the kind of book this is.
After all, who wants to stage-patter about that ugliness?