Thank you SXSW very much for allowing me the incredible opportunity of being this year’s keynote speaker. Having been raised by a former DC political speechwriter and a former public speaking teacher, it is practically written in my DNA zipper that I should feel the insatiable need to stand in front of a room of total strangers and BULLSHIT them. As a child, MY father’s lectures were legendary. And Frequent. Great works of literature, that stay with me to this day and, if anything . . . taught me how to give loooong lectures myself. Not long ago I was lucky enough to sit down at dinner with another one of my favorite public speakers . . . the one, the only Mr. Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, as you would imagine, is a warm, funny, brilliant man, and a wonderful dinner guest! I congratulated him on last year’s amazing keynote, quoting his insight and humor. And then I told him that this year’s keynote speaker was . . . me. He stared at me for a moment, slowly cracked that famous smile that we all know and love, that smile that could light up an entire stadium, and then . . . he started laughing. AT ME. As if to say “GOOD FUCKING LUCK, BUDDY . . . ” But . . . truth be told . . . that’s not the first time anyone’s ever said that to me, so it is without a doubt my musical life’s greatest honor to be asked to share with you what I know about music.
So. What do I know . . .
The Musician comes first.
My mother tells me that I was born to applause. The morning of January 14th, 1969, there was a class of young doctors in a small delivery room in Warren, Ohio, there to witness their first live birth. As I was born, the room burst into applause. My first moments in this world . . . hanging upside down, covered in blood, screaming as I’m being spanked by a complete stranger. Perhaps the most appropriate preparation for becoming a working musician.
Now . . . before we go any further, I have to thank someone. I have to thank Edgar Winter. For allowing K-Tel records to include his legendary instrumental “Frankenstein” on their 1975 Blockbuster compilation. It was this record that my sister and I bought at the drugstore down the street and brought home to play on the public-school turntable my mother would borrow from school on the weekends. It was this record that changed my life. A veritable “who’s who” of 1975 radio hits. But, it wasn’t KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the way, uh huh uh huh I like it” song that made me want to pick up the dusty old guitar in the corner. Nope . . . and it wasn’t Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston” or Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” that made me want to jump in a van with my friends and leave the world behind for music. No. It was (sings “Frankenstein”). A riff. I gave it all up for a riff.
Interestingly enough, though, that song is completely instrumental. There’s no vocal. It’s drums, guitars, keyboards, percussion, each getting a solo in the song . . . no vocals. But what I heard in all of those solos . . . were voices. The voices of each musician. Their personalities. Their technique. Their feel. The sound of people playing music with other people. It made me want to play music with other people, too.
So, it wasn’t long until I had my first guitar, an old Sears Silvertone with the amp built into the case. It smelled like an old attic full of mothballs and burning wire, and sounded like that “goats yelling like humans” YouTube clip that’s going around right now (look it up, it’s fucking hilarious), but it instantly became my obsession. It was this guitar, and a Beatles songbook that ultimately set my life in . . . ahem . . one direction. Never one for taking lessons or direction, I was left to my own devices and devoted every waking hour to playing music. It became my religion. The record store my church. The rock stars my saints, and their songs my hymns.
Springfield, Virginia, wasn’t necessarily known for breeding rock stars. A “career” in music never seemed possible to me. It just seemed too good to be true. Surely the faces on my Kiss posters weren’t getting PAID to do this! Gene Simmons? Imagine! But that never mattered to me. Because I had finally found MY VOICE. And that was all I needed to survive from now on. The reward of playing a song from beginning to end without making a mistake . . . well, that could feed me for weeks. The discovery of a new chord, or a new scale could make me forget about that kid at school who wanted to kick my fuckin’ ass, or that cute chick with the lip gloss and soft sweater I had a crush on who wouldn’t give me the time of day. I liked my new voice. Because, no matter how bad it sounded . . . it was mine. There was nobody there to tell me what was right or what was wrong, so . . . there was no right or wrong.
As much as I wanted to be in a band, I was there, alone in my bedroom, day in day out with my records and my guitar, playing with myself for hours. I would set up pillows in the formation of a drumset on my bed and play along to records until there was literally sweat dripping down the Rush posters on my walls. Eventually I figured out how to be a one-man band. I took my crappy old handheld tape recorder, hit record and laid down a guitar track. I would then take that cassette, place it in the home stereo, take another cassette, place THAT into the handheld recorder, hit play on the stereo, record on the handheld, and play drums along to the sound of my guitar. Voila! Multi-tracking! At 12 years old! To my chagrin, though, what I got was not “Sgt. Peppers” . . . rather a collection of songs about my dog, my bike, and my dad. Nevertheless, I had done this all myself. Therefore making the reward even sweeter.
But, still, I longed to share this newfound obsession with other people. Eventually, I found a kid up the street with an old drum set. I found a kid down the street with an old bass. I found a kid across the street with an old basement. And we found a kid across town with an old PA. Several awkward jam sessions later, and we had a band. Obstacle one, cleared. When asked what our band name was upon submitting our official entry to our high school battle of the bands, we applied as “Nameless.” We just couldn’t fuckin’ come up with anything better than that. (Finding a good band name is still the fucking hardest part, by the way . . . I mean, Foo Fighters? C’mon . . .) Obstacle two, diverted. That night Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” never sounded so brave . . . Unfortunately, our enthusiastic rendition wasn’t enough to seize the title of “Best Band at Thomas Jefferson High School,” but . . . we carried on. We tried our damnedest at Bowie, Who, Zep, Cream, Kinks, Hendrix . . . we played basements, backyards, keg parties . . . we even played the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side” at a fucking nursing home.
And then . . . I went to Chicago.
It was 1982, and on my mother’s meager public school teacher’s salary, our family had planned a trip to the great city of Chicago to visit our relatives who lived in a suburb up north, right on the lake. We stuffed everything that we could into our tiny, baby-blue Ford Fiesta and started driving. A week and a half of swimming and Italian beef sandwiches was in order, though, upon arrival, the tone of our trip was instantly defined. My older cousin, Tracey, was now a punk rocker.
At first . . . I HEARD her coming down the stairs. The clanking of chains, the stomping of heavy boots, the sound of a fresh leather jacket creaking like an old ship. And then . . . I saw her. Shaved head, bondage pants, torn Anti-Pasti T-shirt . . . she was a fucking superhero come to life. Something I had only seen on the TV shows Chips or Quincy. My heart started racing. My eyes widened. My throat tightened. I stood there, speechless and in awe. Tracey was my first hero.
She took me up to her bedroom and showed me her incredible record collection. Stacks upon stacks of seven-inch singles and LP’s, with names I’d never heard before . . . Names like: The Misfits. Bad Brains. Minor Threat. Dead Kennedys. The Germs. Flipper. The Circle Jerks. . Discharge. Crass. Conflict. Black Flag. White Flag. Void. Faith. The Dicks. The Dickies. The Minutemen. The Adolescents. The Ramones. The Big Boys GBH. DRI. SOA. DOA. MDC. MIA. CIA. Crucifix. Crucifucks. X. X-Ray Spex. Wire. Sex Pistols. The Buzzcocks. Rights of The Accused. The Necros. Fang. Government Issue. The Descendants. I sat down and played every last one. This was the first day of the rest of my life.
That night I went to my first “concert.” Though, it wasn’t in an arena, it was a dingy little hole in the wall directly across the street from Wrigley Field called the Cubby Bear. And it wasn’t any band I had ever heard of. It was a local Chicago punk rock band by the name of Naked Raygun. With a “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” the band kicked into the most ferocious noise and bodies were flying everywhere, spit and sweat and leather and volume and broken glass and piss and fucking puke . . . I was in heaven. And it was our secret.
The next day I took the L to Wax Trax records. I bought a Killing Joke T-shirt and the soundtrack to The Decline of Western Civilization. I was converted. I was no longer one of you. I was one of us.
But, more than the noise, and the rebellion, and the danger . . . it was the blissful removal of these bands from any source of conventional, popular corporate structure, and the underground network that supported the music’s independence that was totally inspiring to me. At 13 years old, I realized that I could start my own band, I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts . . . I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong . . . because it was all mine.
Upon returning to Washington, D.C., I dove headfirst into the local hardcore punk rock scene. Little did I know that one of the country’s most prolific and influential music scenes was right in my own backyard. Minor Threat. Bad Brains. Scream. These local bands were now my Beatles. My Stones. My Zeppelin. My Dylan. And these were the fucking REAGAN YEARS, so protest music was on fire! My first punk rock show back at home was actually the ROCK AGAINST REAGAN concert, July 4th, 1983. With the stage built at the base of the Lincoln Memorial steps on Independence day, it was recipe for disaster. Seven-hundred thousand barefoot, sunburned rednecks from Maryland and Virginia in Lynyrd Skynyrd and Judas Priest T-shirts, stone washed jeans and bandanas, converging on the nation’s capital to watch the fireworks, coolers full of beer and Southern Comfort . . . only to find Texas’ own Dirty Rotten Imbeciles singing their song “I Don’t Need Society”:
Your number’s up, you have to go
The system says I told you so
Stocked in a train like a truckload of cattle
Sent off to slaughter in a useless battle
Thousands of us sent off to die
Never really knowing why
Fuck the system, they can’t have me
I don’t need society
I don’t need society
It was a fucking riot waiting to happen.
I actually bought that record that day from the lead singer out of the back of his van. It was a 33-song seven-inch. Stuffed in a homemade sleeve. It is still to this day, one of my most prized possessions.
When the sun had gone down and the legendary Dead Kennedys finally came onstage, lead singer Jello Biafra pointed and screamed at the Washington Monument, calling it “The great Klansman in the sky, with it’s two blinking red eyes . . . ” Well . . . that was it . . . the powder keg finally blew. Helicopters buzzed overhead, shining spotlights into the crowd as policeman on horses beat their way through the punks with their billy clubs. It was right out of Apocalypse Now. This was my Woodstock. This was my Altamont. This was rock & roll, no matter what T-shirt you wore or what haircut you had. This was fucking REAL. I burned inside. I was possessed and empowered and inspired and enraged and so in love with life and so in love with music that it had the power to incite a fucking riot, or an emotion, or to start a revolution, or just to save a young boy’s life.
So I joined a band, dropped out of high school, and hit the road. I starved. My hands bled. If I slept, I slept on floors. I slept on stages. I slept on the fucking floors under the fucking stages. And I loved every minute of it. Because I was free. And I wanted to incite a riot, or an emotion, or a revolution, or to save someone’s life by inspiring them to pick up an instrument just like I did as a kid. I wanted to be someone’s Edgar Winter. I wanted to be someone’s Naked Raygun. I wanted to be somene’s Bad Brains or Beatles. Because THAT was the reward. THAT was the intention. We played THAT type of music, so we were left alone. There was no career opportunity. There was no hall of fame. There were no trophies. There was no A&R credit card buying Benihana dinners. Our reward was knowing that we had done all of this all on our own, and that it was real.
But . . . inevitably it wasn’t long before I found myself stranded in Hollywood without a cent to my name and no way home, crashed out in a Laurel Canyon bungalow with a bunch of female mud wrestlers. Don’t ask. That’s a whole other fucking keynote address . . .
And, that’s when I heard the 5 words that changed my life forever:
“Have you heard of Nirvana?”
Nirvana were one of “us.” Raised on Creedence, and Flipper, and Beatles, and Black Flag, they seemed to share the same ideals, the same intentions. But they had something more. They had songs. They had . . . Kurt. What they didn’t have . . . was a drummer.
So, without hesitation, I packed all of my drums into one big, U-Haul cardboard box, grabbed my old army duffle bag, and flew up to Seattle.
We practiced in a barn. Every day. It was all that we had. There was no sun. There was no moon. There was just . . . the barn. And those songs. Kurt had, without a doubt, found HIS voice. Every practice would begin with an improvisational, free-form jam, which kind of served as an exercise in dynamic and musical collaboration/communication. We were speaking to each other without words. Verbal communication was never really Nirvana’s forte, so we spoke to each other with our instruments. And the combination of our three “voices” resulted in a sound that eventually caught the ear of a major label record company. Or 10 major label record companies . . .
Suddenly, we were thrown into a bidding war of A&R guys with fancy shoes from Fred Segal, and radio promo dudes with little one-hitters in their glove compartments, and closets full of complimentary box sets, and fucking BENIHANA EVERY FUCKING NIGHT. At one meeting, after playing a demo of our song “In Bloom” for Donny Eiener in his high rise office in NYC, Donny turned to Kurt and asked, “So . . . what do you guys want?” Kurt, slouched over in his chair, looked up to Donny sitting behind his massive oak desk and said, “We want to be the biggest band in the world.”
I laughed. I thought he was fucking kidding. He wasn’t.
Now, you have to remember where music WAS at the time. Here are the Billboard year-end Top 10 songs of 1990:
10. Jon Bon Jovi, “Blaze of Glory”
9. Billy Idol, “Cradle of Love”
8. En Vogue, “Hold On”
7. Phil Collins, “Another Day in Paradise”
6. Mariah Carey, “Vision of Love”
5. Madonna, “Vogue”
4. Bel Biv Devoe, “Poison”
3. Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
2. Roxette, “It Must Have Been Love”
And the Number One song of 1990 . . . Wilson fucking Phillips, “Hold On”
How Kurt could even THINK we’d make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me. It was beyond everyone. It made absolutely no sense. It was simply unimaginable. It was the type of hopeless, shallow aspiration that we had been conditioned to reject, ultimately relieving us of any intention other than to just be ourselves. I mean, the very definition of the word “Nirvana” in the dictionary is “A PLACE OR STATE CHARACTERIZED BY FREEDOM FROM OR OBLIVION TO PAIN, WORRY, AND THE EXTERNAL WORLD.” We had ALWAYS been left to our own devices as musicians, day after day in our bedrooms as children, day after day in that old barn. What did WE need with THAT world?
A few more A&R guys with fancy shoes, a few more box sets, a few more dinners at Benihana, and we signed a deal. Following in the footsteps of our great heroes Sonic Youth, we signed to the David Geffen Company, threw everything in the back of our old Chevy van and headed down . . . to SOUND CITY.
Sixteen days. Thirteen songs. We were used to recording 16 songs in ONE DAY. This was the big time. All of those cold, rainy days spent in that barn, chopping away at those songs, speaking to each other without words, finding our “voice,” it was all . . . for this.
When we pulled into the parking lot of Sound City, I quickly realized that this was not the big, fancy, major label Hollywood recording studio I had imagined. Not at all. It was a shithole. It was a run-down, burned-out, dumpy old joint in a warehouse complex deep in the sunburnt San Fernando valley, miles away from any Fred Segal or Benihana. It was perfect. Famous for such legendary albums like Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight and Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog, it was hallowed ground . . . but it looked like no one had cleaned up the place since fucking Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were runners there. Brown shag carpet ON THE WALLS. A couch that they had been RENTING for 10 fucking years. I thought . . . it looked like a Chi Chi’s that had a fire.
But upon listening back to the first take of “In Bloom,” we instantly understood Sound City’s legacy. That room, and that old Neve board captured something. Something we had never heard before. It didn’t sound like our first record, Bleach. It didn’t sound like the Peel Sessions we had recorded for the BBC, or the “Sliver” single, or any of the demos. Nope. It sounded like Nevermind. It was the sound of three people playing as if their life depended on it, like they had waited their whole lives for this moment to be captured on a reel of two-inch tape.
After a week or so at SOUND CITY, for whatever reason, I started getting worried that no one from the label had come to check out what we were doing. I called my manager John Silva and asked “Hey . . . should we be worried?” His immediate response was “FUCK NO! YOU SHOULD BE HAPPY! YOU DON’T WANT THOSE FUCKING PEOPLE DOWN THERE!” As usual . . . He was right. And, they left us alone.
Just as WE couldn’t imagine making the slightest ripple in the mainstream, no one else really seemed to imagine that happening either. The initial pressing of Nevermind was around 35,000 copies. Enough, by their estimate, to last the label a few months. A pretty good indication of everyone’s expectations. Well . . . those were gone within a few weeks. Within a month, the record went gold. By Christmas, the record went platinum. By the new year, we were selling 300,000 records a week. That ripple that seemed so unimaginable had become a tidal wave.
I’ve never really figured out why that happened. Timing? Perhaps. Legions of disaffected American youth fed up with Wilson Phillips? Probably . . .
But, I like to think that what the world heard in Nirvana’s music was the sound of three human beings, three distinct personalities, their inconsistencies and their imperfections proudly on display for everyone to hear. Three people that had been left to their own devices their entire lives to find THEIR voices. It was honest. It was pure. And It was real.
Up until that point, no one had ever told me how to play, or what to play. And now, no one would ever again.
The follow up to Nevermind, In Utero was a brazen example of this. Twelve songs recorded virtually live in only a few days by infamous record producer and opinionated pundit on the music industry, Steve Albini. It truly was the sound of a band IN A PLACE OR STATE CHARACTERIZED BY FREEDOM FROM OR OBLIVION TO PAIN, WORRY, AND THE EXTERNAL WORLD. Now it was US that had the power. We weren’t Nirvana anymore, we were NIRVANA. Now you HAD to fucking leave us alone. The latch key children that unexpectedly inherited the castle? Maybe. More like Lord of the Flies with distorted guitars . . .
But, where do you go from there? As an artist raised in the ethically suffocating punk rock underground, conditioned to reject conformity, to resist all corporate influence and expectation, where do you go? How do you deal with that kind of success? How do you now DEFINE success? Is it still the reward of playing a song from beginning to end without making a mistake? Is it still finding that new chord, or scale that makes you forget all your troubles? How do you process going from being one of “us”, to one of “them”?
Guilt. Guilt is cancer. It will confine you, torture you, destroy you as a musician. It is a wall. It is a black hole. It is a thief. It will keep you from YOU. Remember learning your first song, or riff, or writing your first lyric? There was no guilt then. Remember when there WAS no right or wrong? Remember the simple reward of just . . . playing music? You are still, and will always be that person at your core. The musician. And, The musician comes first.
Fuck guilty pleasure. How about . . . just pleasure? I can truthfully say, out loud, that “Gangnam Style” is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past decade. It is! Is it any better or worse than the latest Atoms for Peace album? Hmmmm . . . If only we had a celebrity panel of judges to determine that for us! What would J-Lo do? Paging Pitchfork, come in, come in!!! Pitchfork, we need you to help us determine the value of a song!!! Who fucking cares!!!! I fucking LOVE IT!!! Who is to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice. The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowin in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera. “Mmmmm . . . I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. Next . . .”
It’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .
When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me and broken my heart. I had . . . no voice. I turned off the radio, I put away my records, and packed up my drums. I couldn’t bear to hear someone elses voice singing about pain, or joy, or love, or hate. Not one note. It just hurt much too much.
But eventually . . . that feeling that I had Independence Day, July 4th, 1983, at the base of the Lincoln memorial steps, that feeling came back to me. The same feeling that made me feel possessed and empowered and inspired and enraged, and so in love with life, and so in love with music that it had the power to incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or just to save a young boy’s life. I felt it again.
I found a studio down the street. I booked six days. Loaded all of my gear into the car, bought some good, strong fucking coffee, and got back to work. Fourteen songs in five days, with one day to mix. I played every instrument, running from the drums, to the guitar, to the coffee maker, to the bass, to the vocal mike, to the coffee maker, back to the drums, back to the coffee maker . . . here I was again, left to my own devices, with no one to tell me right or wrong, the same one-man band 20 years later, multi-tracking all on my own. Though, long gone were the two-cassette recorders and songs about my dog, my bike, and my dad . . . I was singing songs about starting over. And, maybe a few about my dad …
I dubbed 100 cassettes. Gave it the name “Foo Fighters” so that people would imagine that it was a GROUP, rather than just one strung-out coffee junkie scrambling from instrument to instrument. I gave them to friends. I gave them to relatives. I gave them to people at gas stations. I was . . . starting over.
It wasn’t long before I got the call. An A&R guy. The tape was getting around. Those six days that I spent alone in the studio that I considered to be a demo, I considered it an experiment, I CONSIDERED IT TO BE FUCKING THERAPY, FOR CHRISTSAKES! They thought it was a record! I didn’t even have a band! I called my brilliant friend and lawyer, Jill Berliner, for advice. Know what she told me? The musician comes first.
I started my own label, Roswell records. Yes, that’s right, ladies and gentlemen, you are staring at the president of a record company.
After all that had happened, deep down I was still the same kid that, at 13 years old, realized I could start my own band, I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts . . . I could do all of this myself. It may have been an entirely different world now, but once again, there was no right or wrong . . . because it was all mine.
From day one the Foo Fighters have been fortunate enough to exist within this perfect world. WE write our songs. WE record our songs. WE make our albums. WE decide when the album is the album. WE OWN the album, and we’ll license it to you for a little while, but you gotta give it back. Because it’s MINE.
Because I am the musician. And I COME FIRST.
I have to imagine that the reason I am here today in front of you all is exactly this. Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer-songwriter? Not even in THIS fucking ROOM! But I have been left alone to find MY VOICE since that day that I heard Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” on that public school turntable in my bedroom.
Recently, I directed a full-length feature documentary about the recording studio that Nirvana recorded Nevermind in over 20 years ago: Sound City. In the movie, we not only tell the story of this magical shithole, but we also explore technology and what we refer to as the “human element” of music. How do these things coexist?
There is no right or wrong. There is only, YOUR VOICE. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner, a cello, a turntable, a guitar, serrato, a studer, It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because every human being is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .
It’s there, if you want it. Now, more than ever, independence as a musician has been blessed by the advance of technology, making it easier for any inspired young musician to start their own band, write their own song, record their own record, book their own shows, write and publish their own fanzine (although now I believe you call it a “blog”?) . . . now more than ever, YOU can do this, it can be all yours. And left to your own devices, you can find YOUR VOICE.
Recently, I came home with the new Beatles vinyl box set. It’s amazing. It’s the size of a fucking Tumi suitcase, it weighs 50 pounds. As I walked into the house, my daughters Harper who’s three, and Violet who’s six, looked up and gasped, “WHAT IS THAT????” I said, “It’s all of the Beatles’ RECORDS!!!” Now, I have already spent hours brainwashing them with Beatles songs . . . they’re cool. But this was vinyl! They had never seen that before. I set up the turntable in their room, opened the box, and started showing them how it’s done. “Ok . . . you take the record out of the sleeve, here are the songs on this side, here are the songs on the other side . . . carefully place it on the turn table . . . gently put the needle down . . . CAREFUL!” They were absolutely BLOWN AWAY. I left the room, came back half an hour later, and there they were, dancing to “Get Back,” album covers strewn all over the floor . . . sound familiar? We have all been there.
And, as a proud father, I pray that someday that they are left to their own devices, that they realize that the musician comes first, and that THEY find THEIR VOICE, and that THEY become someone’s Edgar Winter, THEY become someone’s Beatles, and that THEY incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or save someone’s life.
That THEY become someone’s hero.
But then again . . . what do I know?
Thank you very much for your time.