“Thank you, I’m a rock star.”
Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl: A Study in Rock Stardom
Two very different kinds of rock star. Which one are you?
After living through the global phenomenon that was Nirvana and having seen the Foo Fighters in action twice—and after coming to know more about both personalities over the years—I’ve come to the conclusion that Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain are two very different kinds of rock stars. One genuinely did not like being a rock star, at least by the standard definition of that term. The other revels in it, and in fact, has been at it for the last 17 years. I think it’s important to highlight some of these differences because it might help fellow musicians decide what kind of rock star you are or may grow up to be. Are you really suited or even qualified for rock stardom? This little case study may help you figure that out, or decide for yourself.
Nirvana’s drummer wants to be a rock star? Seriously…?
A few nights ago I had the good fortune of attending a stadium show of one of my favorite bands, The Foo Fighters. I was a huge Nirvana fan from the beginning and I’ve been following the Foos ever since their debut record in 1995, just two years after I’d started my own pop alt-rock trio, then called The Movies. (R.I.P.) You see, I’d decided to dedicate my life to being a musician after college mainly because of Nirvana. You have to remember that Nevermind effectively knocked Michael Jackson off the charts. That a band as good and cool as Nirvana could get that big gave me and my fellow indie-alt rock friends hope that there was an audience out there for rock—an audience a bit wider than our little mutual admiration societies. So when the Foos came along a few years after Kurt’s death—which genuinely left me sad and disappointed—I was a bit skeptical, if not downright hostile to Dave’s recording at all. I remember hearing it on a jukebox as I was waiting to go on at Doc Watson’s Pub in Philadelphia, thinking: You’re Nirvana’s drummer, and that’s what you will always be. To put out your own thing is capitalizing and presumptuous. You’re no Kurt Cobain!
How Dave proved me and all of us other snotty kids wrong.
I can admit now that this was just my own snotty little 20-something punk rock attitude. I saw the Foo Fighters close a stadium show opened by Weezer on their last tour, and I have to say that the Foos made Weezer look like the hired help at a children’s party—and I mostly went to the show to see Weezer. Seriously, I’ve never seen a band come out and completely command an entire stadium for the duration of the show the way the Foos did. And remember, I wasn’t some slobbering fanboy at the time, I was just a guy who appreciated what they were up to. I mean these guys came out all dressed in black and put on a rock show I will never forget—just hammered it. On top of that, Dave was telling jokes and stories that we could actually hear and that were actually funny. Not in a generic, stadium way, but genuinely funny and in the moment. Fast forward to this latest show I saw, and they did it again: the band just OWNED the audience. I can’t imagine being in that band because frankly, they all looked exhausted next to Dave. Near the end of the show after a very long set, Dave came out with an acoustic guitar and performed a few songs on a riser at the front of the stadium, saying he used to be shy about “this part,” but not anymore. The crowd ate it up before he returned to the stage and blew everyone away with the last few full-on rock band songs of the evening.
“Thank you, I’m a rock star.”
That was something Kurt apparently said into the mic at one of Nirvana’s many stadium shows. A lot of people often forget that Kurt had a very dry, droll, caustic sense of humor that came through in some of his statements and certainly his lyrics. In my view, this was one of those moments where Kurt was slyly asking his audience, “This is the role I’m playing, just as you are playing yours,” and his ambivalence toward that. I know that might sound like so much hackneyed “rock journalism,” but I seriously wish more people would remember Kurt for the kind of “rock star” that he was—smart, subtle, understated, and at times just very funny, if not somewhat hateful.
I never had the good fortune of seeing Nirvana live, but I have seen their concert film and of course plenty of televised live footage in their heyday (all SNL appearances since their first, MTV Unplugged and what not). I know they could really whip up an audience before they became a stadium band. Right before that happened, before Nevermind went supernova, an old bandmate of mine told me about one their performances at one of those airplane hangar type shows. The music was great, he said, but Kurt didn’t say anything in between songs, “not a word.”
Maybe Kurt was sickened by his sudden popularity, the frat boys in the mosh pit, and those masses who “don’t know what it means,” the likes of whom he satirized in songs like “Teen Spirit” and “In Bloom.” Maybe he was just high off his rocker. Who knows? The point is that this period, if not that show, marked a period when Kurt Cobain hopped off the fun and exciting part of playing for those who he felt “got it” and the rest of the world who didn’t, and he wasn’t really stoked about that.
After that, he never was the kind of “rock star” that I see in Dave Grohl: the kind that runs around the stage, plants his foot on the monitor for shout-outs, pays homage to Chuck Berry moves, lets the audience sing along to the lyrics, and tells jokes that aren’t caustic, ironic or sarcastic but fun and inclusive without being annoyingly broad or pandering. Dave Grohl is just one of those guys that loves being on stage, loves the audience, and the audience loves him back. He is a true rock star in terms of being an entertainer, which Kurt maybe never really was or wanted to be. There’s no right or wrong here, it just is what it is.
So what kind of rock star do you want to be?
Seeing this study in contrasts made me think about my own live performances. I can admit that while I’m funny enough in between songs, I’ve never been the kind of performer—like Dave Grohl, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, or any of the other mega-stars—who’s felt comfortable running around the boards in the name of “entertaining” the audience. I have the discipline and knowhow to whip a band into supreme tightness to deliver a collectively solid and engaging musical performance. But I simply don’t have the kind of energy, natural inclination or even charisma to call myself a rock star. If I did, I’d probably be on a tour bus instead of in front of a computer right now.
I’m not saying all this to be self-deprecating or to put down Kurt’s style or Dave’s style. It’s just important to recognize your strengths so that you don’t waste your musical life going down the wrong path and, more importantly, that you find the one that’s right for you.
San Franciso-based indie musician/producer Richard Turgeon is the author of Indie Rock 101: Running, Recording and Promoting Your Band, published by Focal Press. You can keep up with his latest projects at his website and blog at www.indierock101.com.