By all rights, Dave Grohl should have faded from public view once Nirvana ended in a final, irreversible decision by Kurt Cobain 15 years ago.
At most, he should have either squeezed out a brief, increasingly irrelevant solo career or found another group where he could pound away in the background while someone else claimed the spotlight. He was a vital member of a seminal band but ultimately a secondary one who didn’t write songs in Nirvana until it was too late to matter and never got a single vocal as prominent as even Krist Novoselic’s mocking refrain of “Get Together” at the start of “Territorial Pissings.”
For crying out loud, Grohl was the drummer. There’s a whole field of jokes devoted to drummers. (For instance: What was the last thing the drummer said before getting kicked out of the band? “Hey, guys, I wrote these songs….”) There was no reason to expect him to do much more than coast on his past association.
Things didn’t work out that way. In the wake of the sudden end of his iconic band, he formed a merely very, very good one. Unlike, say, George Harrison, Grohl didn’t chafe under the yoke of being a sideman to Nirvana’s resident genius. He simply transformed himself into a frontman, something toward which he’d previously shown no aspirations, to such a successful and odds-defying degree that there might not be any precedent for it in the history of rock ’n’ roll. In terms of Foo Fighters’ longevity and consistent popularity (though not, of course, musical style), it’s as though Mitch Mitchell had followed the Jimi Hendrix Experience by forming Queen.
Both sides of Grohl’s career are captured by the simultaneous release of Nirvana’s Live At Reading CD/DVD (Geffen) and Foo Fighters’ Greatest Hits (RCA) on Nov. 3. One offers a fleeting glimpse of a generation-defining band at its impossible peak, just before the experience began to sour; the other is a survey of a more or less uninterrupted run of solid work that shows no signs of flagging after 14 years. For those keeping track, that’s three times his tenure in Nirvana. More sobering, it’s also more than half as long as Cobain’s lifespan.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of Reading is more on Cobain than Grohl (or anything else, really). It’s a stark reminder of just how much Cobain was blessed with: surfer-boy good looks, a feral intelligence, unquantifiable charisma, immeasurable talent. All he truly lacked was a way to deal with the world. Music worked for a while, but only a while. He tried family, which came too late to fully take. And he tried drugs, which would eventually backfire in the worst possible way.
On Aug. 30, 1992, though, with steam rising up from a massive festival audience, Cobain gritted his teeth, smiled (so it would appear) exactly once, spattered blood on his pickups, and solidified his band’s stature so thoroughly that he would spend the rest of his life trying to bring it back down to earth (that his efforts had the opposite effect demonstrates how complete the apotheosis was).
The piecemeal From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, released in 1996, might be a more comprehensive live album, but Reading has the advantage of being all of one piece, each song building off the energy of the last. Cobain’s raging antipathy is so entrancing that neither the camera nor the lights can seem to be bothered with Grohl, but he’s crucial to the performance: Steady and firm, he held back the chaos that Novoselic gleefully pursued and that Cobain couldn’t fight by giving them something to which they could tether themselves.
On Foo Fighters’ Greatest Hits, the chaos is gone, replaced by a controlled intensity (control being necessary for a project that began as a one-man band). It confirms how sharp Grohl’s songwriting, singing, and guitar playing—all things he largely kept under wraps while in Nirvana—truly are. While none of it is quite as soul-shattering as what Cobain was capable of (the guitars, in particular, are harder and more hammer-like, as opposed to corrosively acidic), the upside is that Grohl, unlike Cobain, could walk away with his soul intact.
That doesn’t devalue a catalog that includes excellent songs like “This Is a Call,” “Monkey Wrench,” “Times Like These” and “The Pretender,” which span a decade and a half without any discernible drop in quality or ferocity. It just means that Grohl found a way to remain at the forefront of mainstream rock but at a less headlong, more manageable pace. It means that he figured out something Cobain could never handle: how to sustain a career at the top.