October 26, 2002
I don't remember where I was when I learned Kurt Cobain had died. Actually, I don't even remember being aware of the news when it happened. I was in second grade at the time, and was just beginning to dip my toes in the pop music world. Artists like Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows, and the Cranberries were who I was starting to obsess over. I don't think I had heard Nirvana's music when it was current, and I'm not sure what 7-year-old me would've thought of it. But I have to believe that if tragedy hadn't taken its course, I would've loved the band and all the music that could've been created in some alternate history.
The breakup of Nirvana left a void on alternative radio that I don't think has ever been fully filled. Many different bands and sounds became staples in the years since, but it's never been the force it was when grunge ruled the airwaves. Still, one band seems to have emerged as the central tentpole that the rest of alternative radio revolves around to this day. And they never would've existed had Cobain not died.
Dave Grohl was born in 1969 in Warren, Ohio, and grew up in Springfield, Virginia. His parents divorced when he was seven, and he was raised by his mother, a teacher. He gravitated toward music as he grew up, teaching himself to play guitar and playing in punk bands with friends. He taught himself to play drums by listening to Rush albums and emulating drummer Neil Peart. He became involved in the Washington, DC punk rock scene, and joined hardcore band Scream in 1986. When Scream broke up in 1990, Grohl was introduced to Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, who were in need of a new drummer for their band Nirvana.
I could spent a big portion of this column on how awesome Nirvana is, but since this is supposed to be about Foo Fighters, I'll try to keep it short. Nirvana formed in Aberdeen, Washington, and released their debut album Bleach in 1989. The album made some waves on college radio, but none of the songs charted anywhere. Grohl joined the band in time for them to record their second album Nevermind.
Quite simply, Nevermind is one of the greatest albums of all time. There's many reasons for this, but one is Grohl's concussive and animated drumming. The album made Nirvana one of the biggest bands in the world, but the sudden, newfound fame didn't sit well with Cobain and he eventually became addicted to heroin. Nirvana released their next album, the amazing and perhaps underrated In Utero, in 1993, but Cobain couldn't keep his demons at bay for long, and was found dead of suicide at his Seattle home on April 8, 1994.
After Cobain's death, Grohl tried to figure out what to do next. He briefly performed with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam, but ultimately decided to launch his own project called Foo Fighters. Grohl played all the instruments on the Foo Fighters' self-titled debut, but kept a low profile during the album cycle. He recruited former Sunny Day Real Estate members Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith to fill out the band, as well as Pat Smear, who toured with Nirvana as a guitarist during the band's last days. The Foos' debut decent business, though none of its singles reached #1 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart.
The Foos' followed up their debut with 1997's The Colour and the Shape. It's this album that starts to give the band a more focused sound and identity. When I first discovered it as a teenager, I played the shit out of the CD. To this day, it's probably my favorite Foo Fighters album.
During the recording sessions for The Colour and the Shape, Grohl was unhappy with Goldsmith's drum tracks, and recorded his own to replace them. Goldsmith was naturally pissed off by this and left the band. Before long, Grohl found a replacement in Alanis Morissette's touring drummer, Taylor Hawkins. Hawkins and Grohl made a perfect combination. You could tell in interviews their chemistry always seemed to be on point. They also just seemed like really funny dudes you wanted to hang out with.
The Foos' momentum kept building with their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose. The first single from the album, "Learn to Fly" became the biggest hit of the band's career to that point, becoming their first #1 song on the Modern Rock chart, and reaching #19 on the Hot 100. I have to think the song wouldn't have had so much success if not for its deliriously funny video, a parody of airplane disaster movies of the 1970s, where the band members played several different characters. Jack Black and his Tenacious D bandmate Kyle Gass show up as custodians who spike the plane's coffee with drugs. It's still one of my favorite music videos of all time.
(Tenacious D's biggest hit on my top 40, 2006's "POD", peaked at #8.)
The band set out to record their next album toward the end of 2001. They kept alive on the radio with the song "The One", from the soundtrack to the pretty good movie Orange County, at the beginning of 2002. (It peaked at #11 on my top 40.) But behind the scenes, things weren't going so well. Grohl felt the band's sound had gotten more middle-of-the-road with songs like "Learn to Fly", and wanted to change course. Only nobody in the band could agree on what that course should be. The arguments within the group got so heated that the members went their separate ways and considered breaking up. After the band played a set at Coachella in 2002, they decided not to break up, and to try and finish the album, starting over from scratch. The result, One by One, was an album that is darker and more raw and introspective than previous efforts.
"All My Life" was the first single from One by One. The song begins with guitar strumming that sounds uncannily like a heartbeat. It feels like the band is just letting things rip, and not trying to sound controlled or canned. The song gradually builds from its intro, reaching what feels like a sonic boom during the chorus. Grohl sings with abandon during the chorus, a stark contrast to way he seems to whisper during the first verse.
I never gave much thought to what the lyrics in the song meant at the time it was out. They read like they could be about pursuing a romantic partner, or the ups and downs the band was going through at the time. In reality, Grohl claims the lyrics are about performing oral sex on a woman, which honestly makes much more sense. I'll never hear the lines "nothing satisfies, but I'm getting close/Closer to the prize at the end of the rope" the same way again.
I find the song impressive considering going down on a woman isn't a topic covered much in rock music. It's also seems like a topic a woman is much more likely to tackle than a man. Of course, Lil' Kim has a whole oeuvre on the subject. But from the man's perspective, songs like "Love In an Elevator" by Aerosmith or "Peaches and Cream" by 112 are the most notable examples I can find. (Aerosmith has already been in this column. I'm surprised to learn I never charted "Peaches and Cream" when it was out in 2001, which is a shame because it's a pretty good song.)
But "All My Life" doesn't feel like a horny song, at least in the way I interpret horniness in music. In a way, it comes off more as celebrating the experience of oral sex. I tend to think of alternative rock in the early 2000s as a very sex-negative, prudish environment. The airwaves were almost exclusively filled with male voices, and if relationships were the subject of songs, they were about negative experiences. Case in point: when "All My Life" reached #1 on the Modern Rock chart on November 23, 2002, the #3 song that week was "She Hates Me" by Puddle of Mudd. So for a song like "All My Life" to exist at all at the time feels like quite an accomplishment. ("She Hates Me" is a terrible song, and I never charted it. Puddle of Mudd's biggest hit on my top 40, 2001's "Blurry", peaked at #2.)
"All My Life" would go on to spend ten weeks at #1 on the Modern Rock chart, easily becoming the Foos' biggest hit on that chart. Even though the song wasn't released to pop radio, its airplay on rock radio was enough to push it to #43 on the Hot 100. Grohl himself was also having a moment on my top 40. For two of the weeks that "All My Life" was at #1, Grohl appeared on my top 3 songs on my chart. We'll talk about the #2 song during those weeks very soon. Peaking at #3 was an unreleased Nirvana song that, after a rash of legal disputes regarding Nirvana's catalogue were settled, finally saw the light of day as part of a greatest hits compilation. "You Know You're Right" brought Nirvana back to alternative radio with a new song for the first time in years, and as an angsty 16-year-old who would've fit right in with the Seattle grunge scene, I couldn't have been happier.
The Foos followed up "All My Life" with another banger of a single, "Times Like These". The video I remember seeing on TV was different than the one on the band's YouTube channel; the band performed under a bridge while fans threw random stuff down from it. Regardless, it was another smash for me from the boys, getting to #5 on my top 40. The third single, "Low" barely made an impression on me when it was released, only getting to #37. That's a shame, because it's a fire-breather of a song that should've performed better than it did on alternative radio, where it peaked at #15 in the summer of 2003.
Even though, the Foos only got one #1 song on my chart from One by One, they were entering an imperial phase for me, as well as on alternative radio. If I heard a new song by them, I was going to sit up and take notice. And the Foo Fighters really deserved nothing less, especially in the 2000s. We will see the band many more times in this column.
Apparently, "All My Life" was used in the 2003 thriller Identity, but I can't find the clip online. So let's go with a song from the Foo Fighters' 90s catalog. Here's Dave Grohl performing "My Hero" at a Billie Eilish concert in Los Angeles in 2022.
(Billie Eilish will eventually appear in this column.)