Dave Grohl's mum Virginia on raising a rock star
Virginia Hanlon Grohl knew school wasn’t the right fit for her son.
She was a teacher, right down the hall from David’s classroom. She understood.
“As much as everybody liked him, and he was very popular and fun to have in class, he just didn’t connect to it,” Virginia tells Double J.
“He needed some other way to educate himself.”
We know now what that other way was.
A few decades on, her son Dave Grohl (she calls him David) has become one of the biggest rock stars of his generation – a drummer for Nirvana, a frontman for Foo Fighters, and a sometime member of various other mega-groups, including Queens Of The Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures.
She remembers when it all began, in a music store in Virginia when he was 16 or 17. Washington D.C. hardcore band Scream had put up a notice on the wall advertising for a drummer, and Dave called the number listed.
“He had to lie about his age because they were older than he was,” Virginia says.
I was amazed at the huge audiences and the reaction, the noise of that roar. It was unforgettable.Virginia Hanlon Grohl on seeing Nirvana play
She also remembers the moment when Dave swapped a gig with Scream for the one that would make him famous.
“They had lost their bass player so they had to cancel all their shows,” she says.
“They had no money, they were living with [founding member] Pete [Stahl]’s sister, all in one little apartment, and they had just played in Seattle and the Nirvana guys heard him and said you sound pretty good.”
What happened after that happened fast. Virginia watched on as her son, then in his early 20s, toured the world as the drummer for a band that redefined rock’n’roll and, arguably, the perspective of an entire generation.
The influence of mothers
Virginia, who is in Australia this week appearing at the annual BIGSOUND music conference in Brisbane, recently released a memoir, From Cradle To Stage.
In it, she draws on her own experiences as well as those of 19 other mothers of famous musicians to explore what it means to see your child attain a level of fame and influence in the music world that few ever do.
He is just goofy and fun.Virginia Hanlon Grohl on her son Dave
She also looks at what effect those parents have had on their famous children.
What prompted her to write the book?
“Years and years of going to shows to watch my son play and sitting on the side of the stage and never seeing any of the other mothers on the side of the stage and wondering where they were and what their stories were,” she says.
“A friend once, as we were discussing this, said ‘go find them, you should write a book’. So I did. It was that simple.”
Virginia interviews the mothers of Michael Stipe from REM, Amy Winehouse, and the HAIM sisters among others, looking for insights that speak to the success of their offspring.
“In Verna’s case it was her endurance,” she says of Verna Young, mother of Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr Dre.
“She had some really hard times, and of course so did Dre. She was so enterprising. She was always finding a new way to get further. She started businesses and she always had more than one job. He attributes his work ethic to her.
“Tom Morello [of Rage Against The Machine] said his mum allowed him to really do what he felt he had to do because that’s the way she lived her life … Mary Morello, she did things that women didn’t do, back in the day. She went off on steamers and travelled around the world and found teaching jobs in foreign places. She said raising a child is really easy – you just have to listen to them.”
My classroom after school was like a fan club.Virginia Hanlon Grohl on teaching high school students when your son is in Nirvana
Dave's early music diet
Virginia raised Dave and his older sister, Lisa, mostly as a single mother in a small city not far from Washington D.C. after her divorce from Dave’s father.
Virginia describes the music in the household as a mix of styles, with Dave’s inclination toward hard rock tempered by his family’s preference for melody and harmony, likely shaping the kind of singer and songwriter Dave would become.
“We had everything but opera and country,” Virginia recalls. “I liked Motown, I liked classical music, I liked showtunes. My daughter listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Husker Du and David Bowie. I think she introduced him to a lot of music. We all listened to The Beatles, too – that went across the board.”
She laments the fact that, in the 21st Century, that shared experience of enjoying music as a family might be less common.
“I see kids in the car and they have got their little phone in front of them, and they have got earphones on and they are listening to something, and I think that is such a shame that they are not all listening to the same thing.”
Virginia remembers the way life changed for her son after Nirvana became a national, and then international, sensation around the release of their second album, Nevermind, in 1991.
She said she could not have avoided the fact of her son’s rising fame if she tried: she taught high school students, all of whom wanted to know every detail about the drummer in their favourite band.
“My classroom after school was like a fan club,” she says. “There was a meeting in there every day with kids asking questions. When he had a couple of days at home I would tell them to bring the things in [that they wanted signed] and he would be there from 3 to 4 and they would all line up.”
She finally got to see Nirvana after travelling with Lisa to the west coast to join the band for a few dates of a national tour. The last of the four shows she caught was in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. The line up: Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam.
“Can you imagine,” Virginia says. “That was very exciting. I was amazed at the huge audiences and the reaction, the noise of that roar. It was unforgettable. It just overtakes you.”
Famous, lauded, but 'goofy'
Virginia has amassed many fond memories as the mother of one rock's best-loved figures. One of the highlights was the opportunity to meet US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House in 2010, at an event honouring Paul McCartney.
“They were sitting just two rows in front of me,” she says of the Obamas.
“And Stevie Wonder was singing ‘Ebony and Ivory’ with Paul McCartney, and David was standing a foot away from the President and Paul McCartney and singing a Paul McCartney song.”
You can tell, through anecdotes like these, how much admiration Virginia has for her son. She says that, even from very early on, when he would make a habit of thanking her for the meals she cooked him, she knew Dave was a good person.
And she says that despite the uniqueness of the rock’n’roll lifestyle – and the money it has afforded him – Dave is the bubbly, prank-loving person he appears to be on stage and in Foo Fighters video clips.
“That’s exactly who he is and has been since he was a couple of months old,” she says.
“He is just goofy and fun.”
From Cradle to Stage by Virginia Hanlon Grohl is published by Hachette Australia