During last weekend’s Global Citizen Festival on Central Park’s Great Lawn, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, in the midst of a brief but hits-heavy set, made a solemn announcement. “Without making a big deal out of it, we don’t have any shows after this. This is it, man. Honestly I don’t know when we’re gonna do it again … and this is the perfect place to do it.” Soon after, the modern rock heavyweights officially announced their impending hiatus. While many of the Great Lawn’s inhabitants that night were chagrined at the decree, I breathed a sigh of relief (I apologize for the humblebrag, but I was fortunate enough to score tickets).
Attending primarily to resolve my childhood love affair with Neil Young (his music, not his person) and to see if those fellows in the Black Keys could measure up to their records in a live setting, I saw the Foo Fighters as little more than a palette cleanser. I would not necessarily call them a bad band. At moments — particularly during the uplifting chorus of their signature anthem, perennial set-closer “Everlong” — their music borders on the sublime. But to endure a Foo Fighters concert is to endure a barrage of rock clichés: false starts, grandiose endings and, worst of all, sickeningly earnest lyrical turns (“Times Like These” was packed with nauseating couplets, rhyming “live again” with “give again”). Still, the Foos have managed to uphold a certain respect in the music industry. Why? Perhaps it’s their remarkable proficiency; their performances are impressive in their muscularity and, as far as pop jollies go, they deliver. Perhaps it’s their cuddly personas and lovably tongue-in-cheek music videos that paint them as grounded, goofy rock stars. Perhaps it’s just the fact that in the field of modern rock, they win points for not being Nickleback or Linkin Park. In reality, though, it’s not any of those things; it’s Dave Grohl.
Let’s be real: Dave Grohl is the freaking man, and for that reason he can get away with being the lead singer of such a vanilla rock band as the Foo Fighters. His resume is beyond impressive: He drummed for alt-rock legends Nirvana, paid his dues in the DC hardcore scene, played a memorable cameo on Queens of the Stone Age’s classic Songs for the Deaf, dabbled in comedy-metal with Tenacious D, collaborated with Cat Power for You Are Free and helped form super group Them Crooked Vultures with QOTSA’s frontman Josh Homme and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. He did all this while maintaining a boyish enthusiasm about rock-and- roll, always wearing a smile onstage. He’s also known for his advocating for gay rights, rarely getting into legal troubles (save an errant DUI in, of all places, Australia) and being one of the few sane participants in the management of Kurt Cobain’s estate. So, while he breaks from his most successful act, let’s pay tribute to the man by observing his five greatest musical moments thus far.
1. “Everlong” by Foo Fighters
This is the definitive modern rock anthem, if there is one. Churning guitar riffs, climactic bridges replete with showy drum fills and the finest chorus Dave Grohl has ever written show that even simple sentiments — in this case, the desire for a moment to never end — can become that much more powerful when paired with the proper melody and a healthy helping of fuzz pedals. When, after the second chorus, the guitar cuts to a near-whisper, one realizes that he learned a lot from Kurt Cobain’s worship of the LOUDquietLOUD formula poached from the Pixies; in fact, it’s what he built his career with the Foos on.
2. “Drain You” by Nirvana
As Nirvana’s drummer, Grohl was forced to play second banana to an admittedly formidable songwriting force. Still, on “Drain You,” he managed to carve out his niche. Instead of trying to complement Cobain’s strumming pattern, he bludgeons the listener with it. On the feedback-soaked bridge he almost manages to fade into the back, but ever the showman, he provides a percussive buildup that shows that while he likes to pummel you into submission, he can just as easily impress you with subtle tricks. But, mostly, he likes to pummel the hell out of his kit.
3. “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” by Queens of the Stone Age
Even as a drummer, Grohl has panache for LOUDquietLOUD dynamism. In perhaps the heaviest track on an admittedly heavy album, Grohl delivers a simple pounding beat with as much enthusiasm as possible, spicing things up with machine-gun snare fills, false stops and cymbal embellishments. More than anything, though, it’s Grohl putting his worship of Zeppelin drummer John Bonham to work. Bonzo would be proud.
4. “New Fang” by Them Crooked Vultures
Okay, let’s be real: just listening to the man drum is a pleasure. Pair the man with John Paul Jones and you get … well, just listen, because damn.
5. “Tribute” by Tenacious D
It’s fitting that Grohl drummed for Tenacious D. Jack Black and Kyle Gas joyfully skewed rock clichés by pairing their fictitious band’s puny ambitions with a thoroughly real rock experience. “Tribute” is their best song, but that’s not why it’s on this list. The real reason: Dave Grohl’s hilarious turn in the video as, of all things, the devil himself. Always ready to play the joker, the cameo exemplifies the pleasure he gets from being a rock star, as he knows just when to play the joker. Now if only all rock stars would have a laugh at their own expense (cough Bono cough).