This was a piece written for a Metal Hammer presents… Foo Fighters special. It postulates an alternative world where the history of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Nirvana took a very different turn indeed.
THERE was a palpable sense of nervous excitement at the Seahawks stadium: although the Dave Grohl Band were billed as the main headliners at the Seattle, Washington benefit for Senator John Kerry, rumours abounded that it was in fact going to be very special show indeed.
Sure enough, Dave walked out onstage alone with an acoustic guitar and started off with a laid back version of ‘Learn To Fly’, then a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Pocahontas’. Then, the atmosphere was electric when Dave announced that he had some “special guests”; there was no mistaking the gangling giant bass player Krist Novoselic, but for most of the crowd Kurt Cobain – fat, balding, bearded, bespectacled, wearing an ill fitting grey suit – was as shocking as it was welcome. Grohl went behind the drums, Krist slapped the bass a few times, while Kurt strapped on his guitar, walked up to the mic and practically whispered “Hello”. There was a long pause before they blasted into a rough and ready version of ‘Polly’. Fat guys in their 30s were stage diving, middle aged career women in faded Nirvana smiley t-shirts were slam dancing in the pit. Nirvana were playing together on the same stage for the first time since their ill tempered split in 1996. For those of a certain age, it was akin to the second coming of Elvis. But for the under 30s sporting Dave Grohl Band t-shirts, the perplexed faces gave away their thoughts: dude, who is that funny old guy that Dave is drumming for?
It’s funny to think that at the turn of the 90s, it was Kurt, not Dave, who was the superstar spokesman of his generation. It was Kurt, not Courtney Love, who was the t-shirt icon for troubled youth. Dave was just the hired hand, brought in to play drums on the band’s second album ‘Nevermind’; Kurt was the troubled genius. Indeed, even after the less than startling third album ‘In Utero’, Nirvana were still well on their way to being one of the biggest bands on the planet. But tragedy struck in early 1994, just as the band were set to play a massive European tour, Kurt’s wife Courtney Love was found at the couple’s Seattle home dead, either by her own hand or as recent conspiracy theories perpetrated by films like Nick Broomfield’s Courtney And Kurt, murdered, possibly by a contract killer hired by Kurt.
The tour was rescheduled, but it was apparent that Kurt’s heart was not in it. The band’s fourth album ‘To Boddah’ was a shambles, with Kurt allegedly strung out or absent during the sessions. Ironically, the band’s biggest ever hit single ‘This Is A Call’ emerged from this album and although Kurt gives a soul shredding performance on disc, he refused to perform the song live. The follow up ‘You Know You’re Right’, an older song, fared less well and the third single from the album, a cover of the Pastels’ ‘Heavens Above’, sank without trace. Newcomers like Korn were starting to soak up Nirvana’s fan base while disappointed fans clogged up the nascent eBay website with unwanted second hand copies of the album.
Dave, meanwhile, had been using Nirvana’s downtime to work with ex-Germs man Pat Smear, who had joined as Nirvana’s second guitarist. The original line-up of The Dave Grohl Band who recorded the band’s 1996 debut ‘Roswell’ consisted of Smear on guitar, Grohl on vocals, drums and guitar and Krist Novoselic on bass. Released to good – if patronising reviews – the album, propelled by its high energy singles ‘I’ll Stick Around’ and ‘For All The Cows’ outsold the Nirvana album. Although to this day Grohl insists the split was amicable enough, the ego clash within Nirvana was intolerable and while Cobain and Novoselic did a few final dates, interest had waned and they were back to playing club sized venues.
The more permanent line-up of the Dave Grohl Band coalesced in the winter of 1997 with ex Steve Vai guitarist Devin Townsend joining the band along with Obituary drummer Donald Tardy and former Fugazi bass player Joe Lally. The resulting album ‘The Dave Grohl Band II’ was a heavy, melodic work, perhaps for obvious reasons consciously eschewing the more Nirvana grunge flavoured songs on the first record lest he be accused of competing with Kurt. ‘Monkey Wrench’ – 15 minutes long with a ‘Moby Dick’ style drum solo split between Tardy and Grohl outdoing each other – and the phenomenal ultra heavy ‘Everlong’ established the band as one of the best metal acts in the world. Their tours with Pantera, Metallica and Slayer brought Grohl to a whole new audience though he retained at least one foot in the alt.rock camp by going out on the 1997 Lollopolooza tour in the US.
The classic DGB recorded one more album – 1999’s ’DGB III’, hailed by many as the band’s masterpiece, though less commercially successful because it was a dense and heavy record that contained only six tracks over 80 minutes – before Dave surprised everyone releasing an album of acoustic songs the following year.
‘Learn To Fly’, the album and the song, reconnected Dave with the Generation X audience that had been big fans of Nirvana. Now older and wiser, Dave spoke to them in a way that Kurt Cobain’s erratic and unapproachable solo works did not.
Embroiled in a bitter legal wrangle with former Hole members Eric Erlandson and Kristen Pfaff over the recorded legacy of his wife Courtney Love, Kurt was a mess. His acting career had been an embarrassing failure and he had lost custody of daughter Frances Bean after a high profile drugs bust. According to gossip, it was Grohl who mooted the idea of a Nirvana reunion to Kurt as a way to help him out of his financial difficulties. Kurt refused. Dave had even tried to interest Kurt in his new project Probot where Dave worked with various hardcore and metal heroes. Again Kurt turned him down flat.
Over the next few years, Grohl has been ubiquitous, joining Neil Young & Crazy Horse on drums for a US tour, playing with the reformed Gang Of Four, sitting in on the Kyuss tour in 2002 and even being tipped to play with Led Zeppelin. His 2003 album ‘Dave Grohl Band IV’ – with a new line-up featuring ex Alanis Morisette drummer Taylor Hackford – went platinum worldwide and puts him firmly up there in rock’s A-list royalty alongside Metallica, U2, REM and Tad.
Yet there are a lot of moody 30 year olds who got drunk for the first time to, lost their virginity to of slam danced to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and for them the prospect of a Nirvana reunion tour is thrilling. Hell, even a few misguided souls have suggested that it was Nirvana appearing at the Kerry benefit show that tipped the election his way and helped him to topple Bush in the 2004 Presidential elections. But Nirvana’s reputation rests on only one album while Grohl has made at least three classics and sustained a career that has ranged across folk rock to ultra-heavy metal, inspiring bands like My Morning Jacket on one hand and Mastodon on the other.
The truth is that Kurt needs Grohl more than Grohl needs Kurt and you can’t really imagine things being any other way. Can you?