Earlier this year, my friend Amanda and I ambled down to the Gateway Film Center on the Ohio State campus to see Sound City, the Dave-Grohl-directed ode to a Los Angeles recording studio and its history. Gateway’s a great place to see a movie because all the people there are half my age (and two-thirds of Amanda’s) and plus you can order a double shot of vodka there. Good times.
As documentaries go, Sound City is pretty okay-ish. If you have a decent background in rock history, you’ll shake your head at some of it — as an example, a major percentage of the film is devoted to Fleetwood Mac’s decision to record their Buckingham/Nicks reboot record there, but the facts that the Mac hated the place and that they consciously chose the Record Plant for the considerably better Rumours is conveniently forgotten. But there’s plenty of interesting footage and interviews and performance footage.
Still, the longer I sat there with my vodka in hand, the more something bothered me — and it wasn’t until I was firing up the 993 to exit the parking garage (after a sobering interval, mais bien sur) that I realized what that something was.
It’s impossible to walk out of Sound City feeling any genuine dislike for Dave Grohl. He’s such a nice guy that it’s occasionally embarrassing, as when he plaintively asks Paul McCartney, “Why can’t [writing music] always be this easy,” to which McCartney callously replies,
“It is.” Imagine that you became a famous rock or blues musician tomorrow. What are some of the things you’d probably do? Would you immediately schedule play-dates with all the musicians you’ve always admired? Would you “give back” to the fans with attractively-priced compilations and concert tickets? Would you make sure you had your own signature guitar? Would you build a super-cool home studio so you could have your friends over to make music?
Of course you would. And so would Dave Grohl. When Kurt Cobain decided to suck off a shotgun and leave the young drummer unemployed, he promptly busted his ass in the most dedicated fashion imaginable to making all sorts of music with all sorts of people, throwing fistfuls of darts at the wall until one of them stuck and made him a household name. He’s collaborated with all available Beatles and Led Zeps and Rolling Stones and so on. He’s sold a ton of records on his own. There are hundreds of thousands of Dave Grohl fans who have no idea that he was a fill-in drummer for Nirvana. Admittedly, most of them are wide-assed suburban women, but still.
Dave Grohl does every single thing that a rock star should do, every thing that you or I would do were we to wake up tomorrow as rock stars. Every thing, that is, except one, and that one is write and record original rock music of lasting value. Before the Foo Fans among my readers raise too much of a fuss, let me ask you all a serious question: Have any of Mr. Grohl’s bands produced anything to equal Nevermind? Of course not. The Foo Fighters are a sort of Aerosmith-lite or Nickelback-heavy, and I didn’t choose those bands randomly. My friends in the music business tell me that the guys in Aerosmith and Nickelback are simply GREAT PEOPLE who WORK VERY HARD and are COMPLETELY DEPENDABLE and so on and so forth. And yet the fact remains that Aerosmith hasn’t recorded anything worth listening to since they got sober and Nickelback has been a blight on the North American music scene for well over a decade now. If you want something to depress you, consider that both post-Done With Mirrors Aerosmith and Nickelback have each made more records than Led Zeppelin and Nick Drake combined. Or more than Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain combined. Or more than… you get the idea.
Dave Grohl, by all accounts, is a sober, decent, hardworking, trustworthy, fan-focused, sense-of-humor-possessing, completely dedicated individual. W. Axl Rose, by contrast, is completely and utterly worthless in every respect, except for the minor fact that he was responsible for Appetite For Destruction and Use Your Illusion. Ask yourself who the rock star is: Dave Grohl — or Axl Rose? If Axl Rose could get his shit together long enough to perform for an evening with at least part of the original Gn’R lineup, and Dave Grohl was also performing that evening somewhere else, where would you go?
In a perfect world, Axl Rose would have Dave Grohl’s sterling personal qualities and we’d be awaiting the release of the seventh or eighth brilliant Guns N’ Roses album on iTunes any day now. In a perfect world, John Bonham and Nick Drake and Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix and Bon Scott and Keith Moon and every other incandescent talent who left the stage too soon as a result of their personal problems would still be making music. Instead, we have endless tours from hardworking nonentities like Phish and the group that has the nerve to call themselves the Who. Hell, look at the Allman Brothers, who should have called it quits when Gregg snitched out Scooter at the very latest but who nonetheless continue to shamble across the country jamming it out for middle-aged, middle-class, casual marijuana users who are willing to buy stuff like the Tedeschi/Trucks albums. Talent dies, mediocrity chugs along.
That’s not an accident. The combined evidence of human history suggests that very few people are gifted with both exceptional talent and emotional stability. It makes sense, if you think about it. Well-adjusted people tend to lead well-adjusted lives, and those lives rarely include doing the sort of things that lead to fame or excessive fortune. John Lennon’s mother knew that her son’s desire to play skiffle music with his low-class friends would lead to trouble — and she was right. In a world where John Lennon became a banker or managing director of an English firm, his sons are probably still able to pick up the phone and call him when they feel the need to do so. But that’s a world without many of the songs that are woven into the souls of millions of people.
I’m going to mention Axl Rose again because this guy has befuddled me since I was about twenty years old. All Axl Rose has to do in order to be rich beyond anyone’s wildest imagination is to not fire everybody in Gn’R. Even today, most of us would forgive him if he would put the band back together and show up for gigs on time and try to write a decent successor to the original records. It sounds so easy. It’s no tougher than what most of us do every day without thinking about it. Get up and go to work, you fuckin’ moron. There are ten million people out there ready to buy a good, solid record from Axl… and he just can’t do it. He can’t bring himself to put his head down and go to work like a normal person, like Bob from Accounting does, like Dave Grohl does, like Joe Perry does, like Chad Kroeger does.
I have come to understand over the past twenty years that this is not because Axl is allergic to money or success or anything like that. It’s because the same demons and inner voices that drove him to leave the Midwest and become “Axl Rose” have become too powerful for him to resist. He probably has no idea why he behaves the way he does, for the same reason that Hemingway or Van Gogh found themselves unable to decipher their own motivations. Whatever “breaks” in someone’s mind to make them walk away from “real life” to become superstars doesn’t “fix” itself simply because you feed it cash and parties and women and coke and heroin and stage fright and isolation and distance from reality. Quite the opposite.
An Axl Rose who could get up and go to the studio with Slash and Izzy and Duff and Steven wouldn’t be Axl. He’d be Dave Grohl. There’s a reason Kurt Cobain and Perry Farrell and any number of other people like that were or are so unpleasant and so hateful and so petty. They just don’t see the world the way that Dave Grohl does. Dave is grateful to be rocking; you can see it in his face. Kurt Cobain hated the fame and the MTV stuff. He was like Miles Davis, turning his back to the crowd at the height of his success because the success was a byproduct of who he was.
Which brings us, after one thousand four hundred and fifty-two words, to the subject of my business. Which, of course, is not music. When it comes to musical talent, I am to Dave Grohl as Dave Grohl is to Bob Dylan. As my long-time readers know, I am a painfully enthusiastic and earnest musician with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Not a single one of the ten thousand or so people who visit me here every month is here because they respect me as a musician. I’m okay with this. I do it because I love it, not because I’m any good.
No, I’m afraid that I have to hang my hat on the considerably less glamorous field of the written word in its many permutations and expressions. I started writing about bicycles for print twenty-three years ago, and I started writing about cars for a wider audience in 2006. In the years since then I’ve made every effort possible to sabotage my own career: argued with OEMs, insulted powerful people, published photos of broken products, turned down work, deliberately instigated confrontations, macked on wives, broke the hearts of people with considerable influence, sought out controversy, made fun of well-liked colleagues, trashed hotel rooms, blown engines, straightened the turns (on road courses), and shamelessly bragged about pimping a teenaged girl during a press trip. I’m not sure that’s all the bad stuff, but it’s what comes to mind at one AM.
As a consequence, I’ve made more enemies than I can count on a Cray XMP-1 and I’ve managed to ensure that most of the fairy-tale opportunities that automotive journalists regularly experience are unavailable to me. Earlier this year, I had a chance to do what would have been the driving event of a lifetime, something that wouldn’t be possible for a “regular Joe” to experience if he paid a million dollars in cash or more — but the OEM flatly and specifically indicated that they would physically bar me from the event. They requested a more malleable and friendly colleague of mine instead, and he flew first-class to Europe to live my childhood dream. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I went home and stared at the wall for an hour or so when I heard about it. All the chickens in the coop came home to roost for me that day.
I can tell you what the formula for success is in automotive journalism. Are you ready? I’m serious. I’ll even do it as a bullet-point list so it’s easy for the Millennials to understand.
- Be nice to everyone and follow the scripts you’re given.
- Don’t be the only person to criticize a car, and don’t be the strongest voice of criticism when you’re piling on to a car that others have already criticized. If you need to rag on a car so you don’t come off like a complete shill, choose a car that’s out of production, or a lame-duck car that’s being replaced.
- When you need to say something negative, make it silly or hyperbolic so the PR people can laugh it off.
- If you write in the first person, make sure you are obsequiously humble so the Jalopnik reader in his mom’s basement can feel a kinship with you.
- Put your ear to the ground, get the conventional wisdom, and repeat it.
- When doing a comparison test, rank the cars in order of introduction to the market, with the newest car the winner.
- Save your honest opinion of a car until the successor is introduced. You’ll get one sentence to be honest about the old car when you’re fluffing the new one.
- Build community with your readers by affecting an affection for obscure aspects of the hobby (“Everybody knows that I’m a huge fan of the E30 325iX, it was THE BEST, just SO GOOD, so much AWD GOODNESS.”) that seem achievable for unemployed young readers.
- Don’t fuck a female journalist or PR rep unless you’re prepared to marry her.
- Related to the above point, make sure you come off as a completely sexless dork. Remember that half of your readers are, literally, twelve-year-old virgins who will resent you with the fire of a thousand suns if you mention that you misused a Lincoln MKS press car to get a blowie in the parking lot of a nursing home, just to come up with a completely random and totally fictional example.
- Do not reference: any work of pop culture produced prior to 2000, architecture, Greek history, Roman history, the Renaissance, World War I, non-Eastern philosophy, Coleridge, John Dos Passos, Leon Trotsky, Chiang Kai-Shek, the Bible.
- Make sure you ask the reader a bunch of shit. What’s your favorite color of BMW window trim? Have you ever done a burnout? Who wore it best: Kim Kardashian or a killer whale?
- When it doubt, make it up. As long as your story isn’t obviously enviable, you won’t be called on it. Example: Hey, did I tell you that I had the chance to play on stage with Jimmy Page once? I had explosive diarrhea the morning of the recording session and had to watch it happen on YouTube without me!
- Be nice to everyone and follow the scripts you’re given. That’s a repeat, because it’s the most important one.
Those are the rules. But if you’re in this business, you already know them, and you’re either capable of following them or you aren’t. If you are, then you’ll have the satisfaction of reading this column from the first-class cabin of a British Airways flight to yet another Aston Martin pseudo-event. If you aren’t, then I consider you my brother, for what it’s worth. As fate would have it, a friend of mine e-mailed me recently that a friend of his had been given a chance to record with the famous Sound City “Neve console” at Dave Grohl’s home studio. “Didn’t sound great,” was the verdict. I wasn’t surprised. The Neve console didn’t make Fleetwood Mac great; Fleetwood Mac made the Neve console great. Holding a signature guitar doesn’t make you a rock star. Talent burns brighter than hard work but it doesn’t burn as long. Here we are now, entertain us.