by Robyn Smith
Family. This is the basis of Virginia Hanlon Grohl’s new book From Cradle To Stage: Stories from the Mother Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars. Every artist’s mother she interviewed, every anecdote, every artist’s career is based on the foundation of family. Not all artists had happy or easy family dynamics. Virginia and her son, Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, definitely did not have an easy life. But they made it work. As they shared family stories from their past and present, the 200 people in attendance at the Strand Bookstore in New York City was given an inside look into what this rock n’ roll family is really like.
Dave Grohl introduced his mother as a former school teacher, forensics coach, debate team coach, and former singer. Through the 30-minute interview with his mother, the crowd discovered that Dave grew up in a musical household (not surprisingly, given his respect and dedication to music). Virginia was a singer in an a capella girl group in the 1950s with a group of high school friends. “We were better than The McGuire Sisters,” she said. “But we went our separate ways after high school and that was that.” Music reigned supreme in the Grohl household, growing up in Fairfax County in, coincidentally, Virginia. “I would sing songs to David and his sister,” [Lisa Grohl, who is 3 years older than Dave] Virginia fondly recalled, as she and Dave launched into “A Bushel and A Peck” to the delight of the crowd of mainly Foo Fighters and Nirvana fans. Dave watched and smiled as his mother took everyone on this trip down memory lane. He later chimed in about “driving around in my mother’s Ford Maverick, listening to AM radio and then FM radio in the mid-‘70s.” But what really opened his eyes to music, Dave explained, was “my mother and I were driving in the car one day singing to Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ and we split into harmony. I mean, I’m just singing and she sang the high line. It flipped me out that people could sing two different sets of notes and make a chord.”
Virginia expected she would go to teacher conferences and the teachers would be delighted with her son, during his schooling years. This wasn’t the case. As a former teacher, there were questions about how to support a child who is smart and bright, but didn’t do well in school. But, Virginia recognized that Dave had a gift and she fostered it. He wouldn’t pay attention in school but when he came home, he would sit for hours, practicing, writing, composing. That was his talent, his focus. So, it stood to reason that Mrs. Grohl would let this side of her son blossom. For that, not only should fans of Nirvana and Foo Fighters be forever grateful to Virginia for that, but the music world as a whole should be.
Virginia took a major dig at the public school systems for letting down the artistic kids. “A school in Fairfax County was closed down to make a Science and Technology high school,” she said. “I, along with countless other teachers and community members went to meeting after meeting asking why there wasn’t a school for the arts? If you’re taking away a public school to make one for science and tech, why not make one for the arts as well?”
Other family memories include when she would tour with David and got to stay at the best hotels and eat at fancy restaurants. “This was my introduction to ‘ooh, this is really fun,’” she joked. When asked about the hard times, Virginia paused. She and Dave looked at each other and brought up the death of Kurt Cobain. “It was a tough time for David and for all of us, really,” she carefully explained. Dave added that “whenever times got tough, I went home. So I went back to Virginia for a while.” As Virginia looked lovingly at her son, she said “We got through it as a family. It was a realization that it could have been any of them and that life and success are so fleeting. But eventually, we helped David get back to the music, find his voice again and…here we are.”
Her book, an undertaking of several years and hundreds of hours of interviews, delves into the lives of artists through their mothers’ eyes. Artists including Geddy Lee of Rush, Michael Stipe of REM, Amy Winehouse, Dr. Dre, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Miranda Lambert, Mike D. of The Beastie Boys, Dave Matthews; the list goes on. Peppered throughout the book are vignettes – little personal stories about different times in the musical family’s life. One Vignette is dedicated to Nirvana, how Virginia opened a carton of memorabilia much like Pandora’s Box. She described how Dave joined the band, their struggles and ultimately, Kurt’s death. Virginia ends that vignette with “I’ll put the lid back on my carton of memorabilia now. I’m glad there three cartons next to it. They hold happier memories.” Nirvana holds a dark, solemn space in a lifetime of memories for the Grohl family, one which was, unfortunately, a necessary blow to create the success and happiness they now have.
Solemnity aside, Virginia says that writing this book was “the most fun I’ve ever had.” The list of artists is one “of people whose sons’ and daughters’ music I really admire. Most of the mothers had never done interviews before. But we had this bond, something in common, which was really special. It was truly wonderful. I found out some amazing things about when the dreams began with all of our kids. Between the ages of 12 and 13, they all said “It’s music. Don’t bother me with anything else. I’m going to do it. Don’t get in my way.” None of the mothers got in their children’s way. Some struggled and persevered so that their children wouldn’t have to or more importantly, so their children would understand sacrifice. Amy Winehouse’s mother put herself through school while working, in hopes that Amy would
Sonic Sound Magazine: Virginia, how do you handle Dave’s touring, especially when the reports come in from overseas – particularly when he broke his leg in Sweden two years ago?
Virginia (pauses): “Hearing stories, especially when he broke his leg in Sweden, is tough. And the news outlets just keep replaying and replaying the scene. And there’s nothing I can do. He’s there, he’s my son, I can’t do anything. Then he comes back out on stage with people holding his leg together?” (At this point, her voice breaks as she gets choked up.) “I thought ‘oh my gosh, he must be in shock! How could he continue playing the concert?’” (Dave mimicked drinking, to show he was likely intoxicated at the time.) “But we spoke the next day and then he designed the throne and, the rest is history.”
Dave (regarding the time when he was pulled over for driving a moped while intoxicated in Australia): “When I got out of jail, I called my mom and told her.”
Virginia: “I laughed at him. And I believe that’s where the lyrics “I’ve got another confession to make” really come from,” she says with a smile. (The opening lyrics to Foo Fighters hit “The Best of You” off of In Your Honor) “He will always be my son, my David.”
Virginia Hanlon Grohl’s From Cradle To Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars is available at bookstores and online now.