"Mamma said to me, 'You don't have to be the best. You just have to be the best until the best shows up.'"
Buddy Guy : Sonic Highways
"They figured two wrongs don't make a right, so maybe forty would."
Taylor Hawkins : Sonic Highways
"We couldn't get anyone to produce our stuff so I said, 'Hey, let's start our own record label.'"
Ian MacKaye : Sonic Highways
"Don't idolize your heroes. Try to become them."
Joe Walsh : Sonic Highways
Disclaimer: Dave Grohl is one of my heroes. I think he is one of the most significant cultural figures of our time. I have followed his music since I heard the opening chords to Smells Like Teen Spirit almost 30 years ago. His art evolved over the decades from the frenetic concussive will of a teenager discovering his hormones make him angry, to the more structured philosophical impact of middle age. I can't wait to see what he does as a senior citizen, and I hope I am here for it.
Foo Fighters : Sonic Highways
is both an album and an HBO
documentary special. The video is produced and directed by Grohl as an answer to the question often asked to musicians, writers, artists: "Where does this stuff come from?" Grohl feels he is reflecting the influence of his own childhood origins plus all the places he's been to record plus all the human lives he has interacted with in the process.
This is a very human documentary, focusing on the idea of the practice of music not as a way to make a living but rather as an end unto itself that sometimes yields fortune, but most often does not.
Each one hour episode ends with an original Foo Fighters song whose lyrics consist of a thread of quotes from the individuals Grohl interviews. Thus, in interviewing the people who make up the cultural family of music production and origination, he creates the music itself.
This is the interesting concept, and while Grohl is probably more of an amateur documentarian his desired effect is very pronounced for Foo Fighters fans. There are few soft, calming passages in this body of music. Fingers and picks slam across guitar strings. Grohl does his characteristic sing-screaming. Fuzz boxes are enabled. Rock and roll is made. This is not environmental ambient art. It is appropriate to slam body parts into sheet rock, to scream at your rearview mirror, to hop in place in the Starbucks line, to raise your face to the sky and thank god for life while listening to this stuff.
So I was quite surprised at my reaction to the chapter on Los Angeles and the resulting song: Outside. Except for the 32-bar guitar solo by Joe Walsh, this is not a quiet piece. Taylor Hawkins, Foo Fighters drummer for the past 20 years says, "Joe Walsh does his solo and he plays absolutely nothing for eight bars. Then two notes. And it's fucking great."
And it is.
And there I am listening to this song, feeling tears well in my eyes.
At first I thought it was just something I could attribute to some form of senior hormonal changes. Perhaps I've become an idiotic weepy old guy.
Nah. You're supposed to cry at this song.
It's like opera, or a symphony, or a James Joyce novel, or a Kubrick film, or a poem you know is beautiful but is too old or foreign to be easily consumable. It's a grown-up-Grohl way of expressing an intensity you used to feel when you were a kid, that now seems distant but still carves a distinct path that left a mark and directs one furiously through time toward an unknown future.
Life is really like that.
"I came from nothing. I'm something from nothing." - Dave Grohl
"You have to have blind faith. And no false hope. But you have to have blind faith."
- Tony Brown
"You need to write it. You need to play it. The words in you heart have never been heard by anybody. You have to bring what's in your heart. And if there's nothing there, well, just go back to the cotton fields."
- Tony Joe White
There's something about music. It's bright light. Brilliance from the core. Energy carved from the vibration of living itself. It is as alive as we are.
Major world religions offer it to the senior spirits. When the human soul soars it sings. We sing to each other. To the clouds. Children sing to themselves automatically proving music is innate. Genetic.
When I am listening to a song I like - time freezes. Stories play in my mind. A great feeling wells up from within me, populating every cell of my body with the desire to couple with the sound itself as if somehow, someway, I too can become part of the majestic vibration of pure emotion.
We recognize this, all of us, the communication inherent in music. A high bandwidth channel unreachable by simple words or colored light. It is, in essence, a way to be born and end, over and over, without pain or trauma.
Music embodies many languages, and I would be disingenuous if I said I understood them all. The birth music of the Tuva throat singers varies greatly from the guitar pickers of the American south, or the Chicago Blues masters or a Japanese Kabuki orchestra. In the truest sense I do not resonate equally with them all. Thus, when I say, I don't particularly like country music - this is not to say I do not appreciate a soulful ballad sung by Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, because I do own albums by each of them. But their music does not frequently render me transcendent of physical time and space the way other music does.
Thus when Dave Grohl interviews Zak Brown, and later agrees to produce his album and he walks into the studio saying : "Until this moment I have never heard one of your songs," I understand what he means. It takes a guy like Dave Grohl to say something like that, innocently and truthfully, and not be tossed out of the control room the way you or I would. When Grohl says it he means it with the utmost respect to the artists before him, in recognition of their craft, what they offer and how they can bring living grace to their listeners. He means to say that though he doesn't like all country music - it's just that it doesn't resonate with the complex vibration of his own history and thought processes - and not as many of us would say of things we don't like: "it's junk." Dave's not liking it does not make it junk, and he proves it by following through with playing drums with them at the CMAs.
Thus the segment of Sonic Highways on the city of Nashville, Tennessee may seem out of character for the punk-rockers become pop stars, but is absolutely in line with the ethos of the series. Music is a gift of the living. A distillation of life itself, in all forms.
Thus the series continues to offer quotable quotes from country stars and producers - this is about creating songs.
I watch the mannerisms and the body language of the Foo Fighters as they enter each city, a new recording studio in each. Sure, each episode is edited. But what remains after all is said and done is row after row of endless toothy smiles. Continuous exclamation of joy and appreciation. A repetitive mantra of how great everything is: how "rad", how "fucking unbelievable", how "great", how "cool", literally everything is. These are guys loving life and demanding love of it.
I used to fault my friend in show business for liking every single thing he ever saw and subtracting his great power of "quality discrimination." For surely some of the stuff he said was "resplendent" and "transcendent" was actually crap, but I never heard him say that.
Now I understand. Now I get it.
There is something about music. Music like food that satisfies an unrecognized, unreachable, etherial hunger that cannot be touched but by frequency. Within it is the power to satisfy millions of wanting souls, and to accept the tribute they pay, and the supplication to which they are ready to submit to he who brings forth the sound.
Thus we grow up wanting to be rock stars. To walk, run, strut, or prance across the stage while delivering our own gospel of angst and truth and life. It is all great. It is all good.
It is so because at every turn these artists command it to be so.
And herein lies the crucial message of Sonic Highways. To me this is the theme. Spoken in basso by Tony Joe White I paraphrase:
Bring forth what is in your heart. Because it's something that nobody in the world has heard yet. Write it. Sing it. And if there is nothing there, go back to doing something else.
But there is something there in all of us.
What you have to do - every moment of every day - is to appreciate it in yourselves, in others, and ever command it to be so.
The episode is over. I turn off my TV.
Dave Grohl is as much a part of my life as the weather or where canned corn comes from. I don't know him. I will never meet him or shake his hand. I cannot control him. I can summon him with the flip of a switch, but I will never sit across a table from him and swap stories about growing up. Listening to his music is as far as it will go, as as far as it needs to go.
I watch videos of Dave jogging down a 200 foot runway from the stage into a crowd of his adoring fans, hundreds of them at his feet, thousands of palms and fingers reaching to touch him as if he's Christ capable of bringing sight to the blind. And I wonder what he thinks of that. I know what his fans think. When I was younger I was an adoring fan of different bands. And over the years I've had the opportunity to meet some of these people. In fact, while it was a joy to encounter them, their humanity dulled their brightness in my eyes. For they could not make me immortal. Touching them would not bring me glory, or heal even the most minor cut on my fingertip.
They're just people, who do what they do. Was I to meet Dave Grohl I'd find a guy who needs sleep, has the occasional headache, can get the flu, and winds up with loose reeking bowel movements when he eats spicy burritos. In short - not superhuman.
In one episode of the series Dave goes to his mom's house and we meet her. We meet his cousin who took him to his first punk rock concert - the one he credits with changing his life and propelling him to stardom.
And those relatives of his are very clearly indistinguishable from our own family. They live in houses we recognize. They have pictures on their walls mounted in crummy discount store frames. They have furniture they bought at Walmart. They do not radiate super power. Knowing Dave - being related to him, living in his halo does not propel them to heights of glory.
This is how it is.
In my life I have had friends who have become extraordinarily wealthy through standard means. Business, usually. And they have families - brothers and sisters. And they do not meddle in the lives of their siblings. Sure, they themselves have huge mansions with vineyards out back and live-in house keepers and au pairs. Sure, they have the greatest holiday parties. I once saw the Doobie Brothers playing in the backyard of a friend's home for their pool party of 20 guests. Meanwhile, their siblings live in suburbia, in ranch houses, and send their kids to the middle school down the street. I wonder sometimes - why not buy your mom a new house? You can afford it. Why not give your brother a Ferrari for his birthday? You could buy 20 and give one to each of your nephews.
It doesn't work that way. The point is that knowing someone who has achieved great social heights doesn't do anything for you, personally, except give you something interesting to talk about on your lunch break at school or work.
Marcello Mastroianni, the famous Italian actor of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, was my grandfather's first cousin, meaning they shared grandparents. They knew each other as children. But being related to Marcello did absolutely nothing for me in my life despite sharing his odd last name. And my grandfather who knew him lived his life cutting people's hair nine hours per day, six days a week, for a handful of quarters, until the day he could no longer stand.
My own father made millions of dollars starting companies and taking them public on the NASDAQ exchange. And like Warren Buffett - he left me and the rest of his children nothing in his will. His words to me when he was alive, "This is my money. You are more talented than me. Go make your own." And then he emptied his bank account and donated over $10,000,000 to the Children's Hospital. That was his blessing, and it could never be mine.
My grandfather never once complained about being a barber, despite having a millionaire son and a famous cousin, each of whom simply allowed him to follow the path he had chosen for himself in life.
So I know as well as anyone - touching Dave Grohl's feet, catching one of his guitar picks, having him bring me up on stage - none of that will change my life, or who I am.
What will make me successful in my own right is to follow the words of that ever weird Joe Walsh. "Don't worship your heroes. Be like them."
Find your path. Follow it. Sonic Highways is filled with stories of people who were part of Dave's life, and each of them in their own way has found some kind of peace and resonance with their own existence. Knowing Dave's cell number hasn't turned any of them into Dave. And it never will.
So to me, Sonic Highways is the story about our journey through life itself. Each episode presents me with singable quotes. Beautiful thoughts. Psalms for the soul.
Be yourself. You came from nothing and that is the stardom - that is the power and the glory. That is the root and the core. You are created from which comes all of creation, and as gods you are set on your own path of creation.
Bring forth what is in your heart. Do not retreat to the cotton field. Do not look for it to be brought by another to you without effort. Sing. Write. Dance. Be. Do. When you are on the right path the doors will open and all truth and fortune will-to-you-become.
And you may be the only person who knows it.
That's just so cool.