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September 19, 2017
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Mrs Grohl on raising a rock star

Virginia Hanlon Grohl with her son, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, when he was about 12 years old. | Dave Grohl, the former drummer in Nirvana, has been the frontman for his band, The Foo Fighters, for nearly 22 years.
By Rees Shapiro
The Washington Post

What’s it like to be the mother of a high school dropout-turned-stadium-filling music legend?


Virginia Hanlon Grohl spent more than 30 years in the classroom as a Fairfax County, Virginia, public school teacher, and she remains passionate about the value of an education. So then why did she allow her 17-year-old to drop out of high school and leave their Springfield home to tour the country with a rock band? Because mothers know best.

“Everyone thought I was out of my mind,” said Grohl, 79. “I knew it was risky, yeah, but it seemed to me a way that he would learn about the world, and that’s what education is supposed to be. It’s not about getting all the answers, but showing you how to learn.”

She was right, and her son, Dave Grohl, found quick success as the drummer for Nirvana and later, after fate and tragedy intervened, as the frontman for his band the Foo Fighters.

In her new book, From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars, Virginia Grohl documents her son’s whirlwind rise from living in the suburbs to performing for Barack Obama and headlining stadium concerts worldwide.

She also shares stories from mothers of other star artists, and the result is a conversational book filled with anecdotes about some of today’s most famous musicians, including from Verna Griffin, mother of Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr Dre.

In an interview, Grohl told of her son’s amazement that she spent time chatting with the superstar rapper.

“It’s just sort of difficult getting used to talking to your mum on the phone and she says, ‘I’ve got to go. I’ve got to call Dr Dre,’” she said her son recently told an audience.

Before retiring in 1995, Grohl taught at Poe Intermediate, Thomas Jefferson High, Fairfax High and Annandale High. She specialised in public speaking and English, teaching students to parse the narrative in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and her all-time favourite, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

Her own book, released in April, is a paean to mums everywhere and their herculean behind-the-scenes efforts to bring their children’s dreams to fruition. As a single mother, Grohl wrote, she knew that no-one else was going to drive young Dave to his concerts at the local community centre near Lake Braddock Secondary School.

To rock fans, Dave Grohl’s story is familiar. He grew up in Fairfax County, played in local punk bands and after dropping out of his third high school, parlayed his prodigious talents on the drums to a tryout with an Aberdeen, Washington, band that soon after he joined became an international sensation. But it all dissolved when lead guitarist and singer Kurt Cobain, addicted to drugs, ended his life with a shotgun blast.

In her book, Virginia Grohl related the tumult of conflicting emotions she faced as a mother after Nirvana ascended to fame overnight.

“The bleak days when the kids go from city to city with just enough money for hot dogs and Slurpees aren’t what mothers of the musician-adventurers fear. It’s that next step, the one where money and fame replace impoverished obscurity. What will all that money be used for?” Grohl wrote. “We had all heard about ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll.’ Was it true? I knew about all the pot smoking. That wasn’t alarming. Most of my high school students (and, if truth be told, quite a few of their teachers) were doing that. But David had vowed he would never use cocaine or heroin. I believed him.”

But then Cobain succumbed to his tormenting demons, Virginia Grohl wrote, and Nirvana disintegrated.

“As the gold and platinum records piled up, his will deteriorated. Overdoses and cancelled shows and tours replaced the thrilling firsts of big festivals that drew thousands of fans,” Grohl wrote. “Three short, dramatic years — that was all. In the end, one gunshot. Searing pain. Irreversible loss. The music stopped.”

Although despondent in the aftermath, Dave Grohl turned back to music. What started as a one-man band transformed into the Foo Fighters.

“He had a very quick and unpredicted period of being a rock star, and yet that wasn’t ever the goal, and it wasn’t the endgame either,” Virginia Grohl said. “So he went back to playing music, and you never know where that’s going to take you.”

By Dave’s side the entire time was his mother, whom he honoured in the Foo Fighters song Arlandria, a nod to the Northern Virginia suburb where he grew up and where he returned to rake leaves and mow the lawn whenever turbulence interrupted Nirvana’s momentum.

“My sweet Virginia, I’m the same as I was in your arms,” Dave Grohl sings. “My sweet Virginia, I’m the same as I was in your heart.”

Dave Grohl, now 48, declined an interview request to discuss his mother’s book through his publicist, Steve Martin.

Virginia Grohl, who now splits her time between Virginia and California, likes to reveal hidden details for her son’s fans. His first exposure to music came from listening to Beatles classics on AM radio during long car rides. He played the guitar at home when he was very young, not the drums. Their Fairfax home was so small he did not own a drum set; he learned to play drums in a neighbour’s house.

“I’m almost ashamed to say,” she told The Post. “We just didn’t have room for it.”

After all these years, Virginia Grohl said, she’s still a proud mother. At a grocery store one day, she was puttering by the produce when she spied a women wearing a Foo Fighters shirt.

“She was taking her cabbage from the bin,” she said, “and I said, ‘Oh, you’re a Foo fan?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s my son’s band.’ I couldn’t help myself.”

 


@treesshapiro

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