Hammer Of The Nice, Ordinary Guys

(Note: A much shorter, very different version of this story originally appeared in CMJ New Music Monthly in 1997.)

It's a few days into the Foo Fighters' American tour, and they're staying at the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin. The desk clerks know what's going on--the name "David Grohl" is blue-highlighted on a piece of paper at the front desk--but the only thing they or I mention is, very obliquely, the "Brandt party."

That would be tour manager Gus Brandt, because if you're going to be heading out on a tour with two buses, a truck, four band members and 20 crew people, you need a heavy-duty person to run it all. Gus has been doing music-business things since he booked Black Flag and Saccharine Trust shows in 7th grade. He's a great big guy who, as a member of the group who shall remain nameless points out, looks a bit like Mr. Potato Head.

Over at the Austin Music Hall, where the Foos are going to be playing in a few hours, Gus is holed up in a slapped-together business office, taking care of the calls that come in on his pager once or twice a minute. Dave Grohl is sprawled in a chair, talking to a friend who used to be in Marginal Man, back in the old D.C. hardcore days. He's showing off the cover of the new issue of some drumming magazine, featuring the band's Taylor Hawkins looking very sharp in drag. Nate Mendel, eating a banana, wanders off. Pete Stahl, the assistant road manager, pops in, in his standard uniform of freshly shaven head, red shirt and great big flashlight.

Dave, a few months ago, talking about Pat Smear: "He's so nonchalant about everything, but he's an amazing musician and he has great ideas. When you're having a bad show and staring out at the crowd, wondering if you're going to make it through the last three songs, and you see him bouncing around in a baby-blue flight attendant outfit, it's really inspiring."

After months of rumors, Pat left the Foo Fighters halfway through their set at the MTV Video Music Awards a few weeks ago, and turned over the second guitar position in the band to Franz Stahl--Pete's brother. Pete and Franz used to be in another Washington, D.C. hardcore band, Scream, which had a bunch of records on Dischord. The final Scream record, Fumble (recorded in 1989 but not released until 1992), featured the band's new drummer, a young guy named Dave Grohl, who also wrote and sang one of its songs himself.

Pete has come to get Dave to do an interview at some radio station (and another, by phone, from the car en route). The band is deluged with interview requests these days, and since the powers-that-be claim they're helping to propel The Colour And The Shape back up the charts, they're doing a lot of them. But there are limits. "I kinda blew off an interview with the guy from Guitar magazine," Dave confesses. "Hey, Gus, how many minutes was I supposed to have with him?"

Dave, speaking this past summer, on being a public figure with a private life: "There are some things that should be kept to yourself, and there has to be a line drawn. There are a lot of things that people who are very close to me don't even know about me."

Dave and Gus talk about a dream Dave had last night. "I dreamt there was a kick drum, and inside the kick drum was the universe." Whoa, everyone agrees. He heads off to do his interview as Taylor, having finished a lengthy and loud soundcheck, wanders in and signs for his per diems--the daily cash allowances Gus doles out to the band. He's a bottle-blond spazz from Laguna Beach, and a born drummer, doing little drum-rolls on his legs, the chair, the wall, anything within reach as he talks.

Craig Overbay wanders in--a lot of wandering goes on at soundchecks, since there's not much to do if you don't have to do something right now. "Hey, Craig," Taylor yells, "are guitar players a fuckin' dime a dozen?"

"Guitar players--you trip over 'em," Craig says, and wanders out again. Craig is the Foo Fighters' sound man. He's resorted to putting up a plexiglass baffle around Taylor's kit to keep it from bleeding into every mike on stage. Taylor is a very hard hitter.

"Pat and I were into the same exact kind of music," Taylor says--Queen, Pink Floyd, the Police. "It was like having a big sister in the band." Mentioning the Police has triggered something in his head, and he starts playing the drum part to "Next To You" on his legs.

Of course, there's an up-side to not being the fresh face in the band any more. "I took the beating for being the new kid for so long," Taylor continues. "'New guy!'"

Now Franz is the new guy, but he's not getting ribbed nearly as much--maybe because Dave was the new guy in his band once upon a time. It may also be because he's the oldest one in the band, at 35. After Scream broke up, he and Pete formed a band called Wool, which toured for a few years, put out an major-label album (Box Set), toured some more, and abruptly got dropped. The band fell apart, and the brothers played a bit with some other people, but eventually went their separate ways--Pete to working at the Viper Room and later the Foos' entourage, Franz to Japan, where he worked in a band with a guy called J.

Then, a month ago, with very little warning, he got the call: Pat was leaving the Foo Fighters, would he be the new guitarist? Starting right away? He flew in two days before his first performance, on the MTV Awards. "The only thing that kept me from losing it was that I was jet-lagging so bad," he says. He's had about a week of rehearsal, his girlfriend is very pregnant, and he's about to play his third show with the Foo Fighters; it's unclear what's keeping him so calm now.

Here's what's on Franz Stahl's stereo: the new Radiohead, the new Supergrass, Steve Earle's Train A-Comin', David Bowie's Hunky Dory, and Stevie Wonder's Music Of My Mind. What does he want for Christmas? "A healthy baby. A very healthy baby."

A snapshot of the Foo Fighters' dressing room: 20 bottles of spring water, 8 bottles of Perrier, a cooler full of soda, Snapple and iced tea, a cooler full of beer (including microbrews), two bottles of merlot, two giant bottles of IBC root beer, three loaves of French bread, several other varieties of bread, pitas, crackers, chips and picante sauce, coffee with sugar, cream and lemons on the side, granola bars, bite-size candy bars, a big stack of towels (one of which Pete is ripping up), a bowl of fresh fruit, another bowl of fresh berries, a few varieties of gum, and a hanging basket in the shape of a bull's head. This last is not in the band's contract, and Taylor is trying to figure out how to wear it.

Note that all this is not dinner--just backstage snack material. (At the end of the night, Pete hijacks a lot of what's left for the tour bus.) For dinner, there's surprisingly good catering--teriyaki chicken, rice, various vegetable and tofu things. As people eat, Taylor is drumming on the table--he eats a bit, then heads up to the drum riser to play some more. There's a Nick Cave tape playing over the PA, which doesn't stop him from taking a crack at "When The Levee Breaks" before the audience starts arriving.

Back in the dressing room, guitar tech Earnie "Guitar" Bailey (everyone says that's legally his middle name) is holding court, telling Nirvana stories--he started touring with them in early '92. After Nirvana ended, he and his wife had a restaurant in Seattle for a year; he sold it, figuring he'd take it easy for a while. And promptly got a call from Dave: "'I'm going on the road next week, wanna come?'"

Dave bursts through the dressing room, wearing a skull mask for no apparent reason and grabbing everyone in his path. Franz, paging through the tour itinerary, looks up: "Dave, why are we going to Sweden in November?"

"Because we need to rock, man! We need to fuckin' rock!" And out he goes.

Earnie, unfazed by the interruption, continues. "It's been interesting watching Dave growing into being the ringleader. At first, he wasn't used to calling all the shots--being the charming frontman. Now he's hilarious when he starts rambling on stage... I wish he'd be the same guy on stage he is on the bus.

"I think the second record's a lot more personal--"

Dave suddenly walks back into the room. Earnie pretends he doesn't notice, and raises his voice a bit: "Of course, the main thing about Dave is to never turn your back on him--he'll fuck you over in a second."

Smirking, Dave attempts to change the subject. "I had these breakfast burritos--for breakfast--"

Taylor interrupts: "Seeing as how they're breakfast burritos--" Dave whacks him, and the room abruptly degenerates into everyone trying to toss candy-bars and fruit into the bull's-head basket. Then Taylor starts drumming again, this time on the bottles on the food table.

An hour or so later, various Foos and friends are watching the opening band, Verbena, doing their very loud Stones-via-Royal Trux thing on stage. Dave is really getting into them. Franz, backstage, is quizzically examining a box of ginseng that a "runner" has retrieved for the band. Nate, who's been missing for the past few hours, comes back with two huge bags of clothes; he's got a bad toothache and isn't talking much, so he pretty much keeps to himself. Taylor is in the dressing-room bathroom, drumming on the fixtures. He's liking Verbena. "They sound kinda like Nirvana! Bleach!"

Amount that a band gets paid to open for the Foo Fighters: minus $700. It goes toward taking care of expenses (catering and so on).

By 8:30, the band are finally all in the same room. Let's just say drumsticks are a dangerous thing to have in a dressing room. Dave eventually starts doing a little rhythmic exercise on the wastebasket; Taylor joins him, on the other side of the basket. This, it turns out, is a nightly ritual, a drill to focus their concentration. There are two drummers in this band.

Afterwards, everyone's knocking back the ginseng. This is not a euphemism.

Showtime. The hall, we later find out, is about 3/4 full, but it sure looks fully occupied. They start out the set with both Taylor and Dave playing drums; after a minute, Dave switches to guitar, they go into "This Is A Call," and we get to see the results of all that ginseng. Everybody's leaping around the stage like crazy for the hour-plus set. They do a new one, called "The Colour And The Shape," a fast, Pixies-ish thrasher; they do most of the hits (though not "Big Me"). But the big cheers are for "Everlong." "You get that just right," Nate said earlier, "it's kind of orgasmic, really. It's amazing when it really comes together." In fact, everything comes together--not bad for this lineup's third show.

Nate, on The Colour And The Shape: "It's almost like a concept record, some people say--the lyrics were all written at one period in Dave's life, and they really reflect well what was going on in Dave's life."

Dave's perspective: "Writing lyrics, you're taking something completely intimate and turning it into something completely not-intimate."

Taylor, on Dave: "Do not compliment him. He can't take a compliment."

Backstage after the show, Verbena is hanging out in the Foo Fighters' dressing room. (Dave, who likes pretending to be an asshole for like half a second, sees the singer coming in, barks "Hey! You see the name on the door?," then invites them all in and points them at the beer cooler.) I get to chatting with Verbena about Sebadoh. "Which do you like better--skinny Lou or fat Lou?" the drummer asks. Uh, what's the distinction? "Before or after our lawyer fucked his girlfriend?" It occurs to me that this actually is a useful way of dividing Sebadoh's stuff into two periods, if a little crude.

After the inevitable post-show industry meet-and-greet, we pile into the bus to head back to the hotel. "Hey," Dave announces as he gets on, "I'm gonna go shoot up. Anybody wanna shoot up?" "Shoot up" turns out to be a euphemism for "sit in the back of the bus and watch a Simpsons videotape."

There's some discussion of going out to an after-party, but everyone's pretty wiped out and conserving their energy for tomorrow, except for the indefatigable Taylor, who heads out with me and Gus to Austin's famous dive Emo's--"grunge Cheers," Gus calls it. The singer of the awful band on stage there makes a joke: "Why do girls dig Jesus so much? [strikes crucifixion pose] 'Cause he's hung like this." Taylor and, subsequently, the rest of the band, spend the next day repeating this to everyone they meet.

As it turns out, Taylor isn't even as much of a party animal as all that. As everyone gets onto the tour bus the next morning, Gus asks him what happened with the two women he'd been flirting with at Emo's. "Left 'em there, went back to the hotel, went to sleep."

The inside of the tour bus basically looks like a nice hotel room itself: tasteful curtains, a little couch-and-table setup, a ceiling

mirror, a kitchenette with a coffee machine, a set of bunks for people to sleep in (stacked three-high). There's a stereo/VCR in front, another in back. Texas passes by outside. Taylor is up front, chatting with congenial driver Larry Ellis and singing snatches of "Billie Jean." Dave is chatting with Gus: "Did I tell you I found out I ripped off a Def Leppard song? That song 'Hysteria' and 'Everlong.' It's got a line 'breathe out so I can breathe you in.'"

A dialogue:
Gus: Do you guys want to go to Pensacola on your day off and go to the beach?
Dave: Fuck off.
Taylor: Day off after what?
Gus: Read your itinerary!
Taylor: Dude, I wanna go jet-skiin'!
Franz: In the rain?
Taylor: Oh, dude!

Skeeter Thompson, the old bass player of Scream, is coming in from Little Rock tonight--"Scream reunion!" There's some concern over the number of tickets the Dallas show tonight has sold: 1400 for a 3200-capacity venue. The Stones, Gus is quick to remind the band, have only sold 12,000 tickets for a show with Smashing Pumpkins opening, though, so it's not that big a deal. Things are tough all over. The album's down a notch in the charts this week, but there are five big debuts that came in above it--it's actually sold more copies this week than last. Eventually, almost everyone heads back to catch some Z's; Pete stays up front to watch Short Cuts on the VCR.

Looking in USA Today, I see a description of what looks like the worst movie ever. "Another 9 1/2 Weeks. Despondent at losing his lover, a man (Mickey Rourke) wanders the streets of Paris and has an affair with her kinky friend (Angie Everhart). (1997) (R)"

When the bus pulls into the Bronco Bowl, the converted former bowling alley they'll be playing in Dallas, it's just about soundcheck time, which means, since they're still teaching Franz the songs, that it's time to learn "Big Me." That's basic enough, so they follow up with an Angry Samoans cover that Taylor's never heard either--it's a little weird watching him figure out how to play hardcore. Dave demonstrates the drum break by waving his arms in the air. Taylor has an idea for a slight change in the arrangement of "This Is A Call," so they try it a couple of different ways. "I don't know if we should do that at the end of every verse," Dave says. "I think it fucking sucks," Taylor declares, and that's the end of that.

Taylor, on what the Foo Fighters' songs mean to him: "'I'll Stick Around' means it's the end of the set..."

Nate, the band's quiet literary type, retreats to the dressing room and reads Vaclav Havel's The Art Of The Impossible, while Dave and Franz go off to talk to a guitar magazine.

Over dinner, Verbena's guitarist tells me that Earnie offered him some extra parts for his make of guitar. "'Yeah?' 'Yeah, my old boss used to smash one every night.' Right--that old boss."

It can't be emphasized enough how amazingly nice and not-maladjusted the Foo family is--not just the guys in the band, but all the guys (and the one woman, merchandise person Kelly McDonald) they've surrounded themselves with. They're not just polite to the strangers who are constantly intruding on their lives, but earnest, casual and pleasant to be around. Most of them have known each other for a long time. If you're going to be spending a year living out of a bus, you might as well surround yourself with old friends.

Right after Verbena finishes their set, their singer storms into the Foo dressing room, mock-angry. "I believe this belongs to you," he says, and pulls a Mentos out of his pocket. This may be the down side of learning "Big Me." There is some discussion of the video arcade at the front of the hall, and the possibility of holding the meet 'n' greet there. Dave keeps doing his Atari Teenage Riot impression: "Destroy two souzand yeass of cultcha!" Taylor is, what else, drumming--this time on the floor, which looks like the only viable surface.

Dave, on Verbena's singer: "Dude, that guy is so fuckin' Kurt Cobain it's not even funny."

Verbena's drummer, on hearing this later: "We hear that sometimes--but Dave Grohl saying that is kinda different."

On stage, Dave dedicates "Long Way Home" to Skeeter Thompson, who's showed up with his wife and daughter but won't be playing tonight. See, Dave explains, a long time ago, I joined up with this band called Scream--small cheer from audience--actually, Franz here was the guitarist--another small cheer--and then I was in Nirvana--immense cheer that more or less drowns out the rest of the dedication.

Unlike last night, the backstage scene afterwards is something of a party, thanks to the arrival of a handful of gorgeous friends of Taylor (admirers of his since the days when he was drumming for Alanis Morissette--"I really love the way he holds his sticks," one of them explains) and the great big bottle of tequila they've brought with them. Dave and Franz put in appearances at the meet-and-greet, with wan smiles on their faces, but spend more time hanging out in Verbena's dressing room, trading airplane-travel stories and telling the Jesus joke again.

Earlier, it looked like I didn't have a place to stay tonight. I figured that since my plane was leaving at 7 AM, I'd either get a cheapo hotel or go straight to the airport and write the rest of the story overnight on my laptop. I mentioned this to Gus, who said "Why? We booked you a room--everything's taken care of." Now I ask him what's the hotel and the best way to get to it. He says "Uh, bad news--the bus driver thought the room was for somebody else, and that that somebody else didn't show up, so he cancelled it--and now the hotel's booked up." One of the Taylor-groupies (the cutest one, actually--named Kim) overhears and says "Oh, you can stay with us--what time does your plane leave?" 7 AM. "Oh, no problem--we'll be up till then. Our place is just like two minutes away." I am very grateful.

Eventually, Pete and Gus round up everybody into the buses--they have to take off now, because they've got a 12-hour drive ahead of them. Kim gives Taylor an acrobatic kiss goodbye. As Dave walks out, he brushes his hand against the back of his head, revealing the Foo Fighters logo tattooed on his neck.

So now I'm heading out to the car with three ridiculously beautiful Taylor Hawkins groupies, Kim, Shelly and Stacy, all of whom it now becomes apparent are very, very, VERY drunk. Uh, should I drive? "Oh, no. We're all great drivers, and besides it's just a couple of miles away."

In fact, it's a good half-hour away. Fortunately, there is almost no traffic on the roads, which is a good thing because a) they're nearing triple-digit speeds, b) they keep missing turns and having to do U-turns, and c) even if somebody were beeping at us, we wouldn't be able to hear it thanks to the window-rattling volume of the Marilyn Manson CD playing in the car stereo. I realize that I simply have no choice but to roll with whatever happens for the next six hours. "Doug, can I ask you something personal?" Stacy asks. "Do you like drugs?"

Nnnnnot really, no. "Do you mind if we do 'em?" Go right ahead. Stacy follows this up with a sentence I never thought I'd hear out of a human mouth: "Hey, I really wanna hear that Matchbox 20 CD again!"

The Matchbox 20 CD lasts in the player about half a song before they decide it's time to play Korn, even louder. Suddenly, Kim gets an idea: "Hey, let's take him to the Ranch!" Yeah! they all assent. What's the Ranch? "Oh," Kim explains, "it's the Fantasy Ranch--the titty bar where we all work. Don't worry, it's only a couple of miles away from our house. I'm one of the girls who sell beer by the door, so I get to wear a dress, Shelly works the bar so she wears a dress too, and Stacy is one of the dancers. I've never taken my clothes off there--it's just not something I'd do. I mean, I respect the people who do, but I never would. I've been offered up to a thousand dollars to do a table dance, but I won't even do that."

We turn into a little business area and pass something called the Ranchero or something like that. Is that it? "Oh, no, that's the other place. They're totally naked there." Kim tells me that she covets my Spaceheads T-shirt--it reminds her of Crash Worship. She's very impressed that I've heard of Crash Worship. A few hours later, she's very impressed that I've heard of Rudyard Kipling. Kim impresses easily, I suspect.

The Fantasy Ranch is a few more blocks away. "You know we're not supposed to be here..." says Shelly. "Oh, like they're going to fuck with us," Kim snaps, and explains to me that the girls aren't allowed to be there on their nights off. "If anybody asks, say Douglas here is your cousin and we're just showing him where you work."

We stroll in (past the valet parking, the front bar where Kim sells $5.25 bottles of beer, the Western-style entrance hall with the wagon-wheel chandelier) and over to the main bar. The bartender, who is wearing something that can only be called a "dress" in the most technical sense of the term, hands me the cranberry juice I ask for and gives me a "pshaw" look when I ask her how much it is--I'm with The Girls. "C'mon, Doug," Kim says, "you're supposed to turn around the other way--that's where the naked ladies are!"

It's amateur night at the Fantasy Ranch, the women on stage are shaking it to "Atomic Dog," and I'm clearly a little terrified. Stacy beckons over an older, white-haired guy with a camera, slips him a bill, and has him take a few Polaroids of us all (in the one I get to keep, I'm lying on my back across their legs, trying very hard to mask my fear and confusion). After he walks away, she explains that he hasn't been around in a few months; he's a talent scout for West Coast pornographers, and every so often he offers one of the girls a whole lot of money to fly out to the coast for a week or two. As she's telling me this, there's a certain amount of chatting and giggling behind my back, but I don't really notice what's happening.

As it turns out, it's okay that my new friends are in the club tonight, because it's the final night for the "house mom"--a slightly older woman whose job is to make sure the dancers are okay--and everybody's there to wish her farewell. The DJ, like every other DJ in Texas, is playing Smash Mouth's "Walkin' On The Sun," and the House Mom strips off her clothes and dances around a pole while the regular employees stuff 10s and 20s in her G-string. As this is happening, I get tapped on the shoulder and gently grasped by the wrist by a woman who looks to be in her early 30s and is wearing something very frilly. "Don't worry, girls, I'll bring him back in a few minutes," she says, and leads me off as my new friends burst into insane giggling.

She leads me to the table-dance room, sits me down, and nestles up next to me. "This is their present to you," she says. "So what do you do?" I'm a magazine writer. "What kinds of magazines?" Music magazines. "What kind of music?" Well, I'm in town doing a story about the Foo Fighters. "Oh. Who are they?" One of the guys from Nirvana. "Oh, I remember them--that 'Teen Spirit' song. Did one of them OD or something?" Something like that, yes. She gets up and does her strip-and-dance routine. I'm kind of detached from the situation, sitting there realizing that yes, this really is happening, but since I haven't slept since 7:30 that morning or so and the circumstances keep getting stranger by the second I'm not really able to grasp its reality. After a few minutes, she says "Thank you!" very sweetly and returns me to my friends.

Shortly thereafter, it's closing time, so we all pile in the car and head to Shelly and Kim's apartment, which is in a very nice complex with a big swimming pool in the middle of it. There are some guys watching TV in the living room; the impression I get is they aren't supposed to be there unsupervised. Shelly and Kim show me their rooms, which are heavy on the black-light decorations, especially black-light jigsaw puzzles. They're very big on jigsaw puzzles, particularly of warlocks and lions and stuff like that.

Kim is very funny and articulate; as it turns out, though, she's funny and articulate on basically a 45-minute loop that repeats continuously and doesn't allow for much speech by anybody else. The course of the loop touches on the following bases: that the thing she loves most is music; that she loves her grandfather, an aviator, very much; that she also loves jigsaw puzzles and glow-in-the-dark things; that she has an ex-boyfriend who's kind of a jerk; that she will never, ever take her clothes off for money, though she has the utmost respect for people who do; that she really wants to find out more about, especially, Jeff Buckley and John Zorn, but she can't find any of their records except the one apiece she has at Barnes & Noble and the only other place she knows of to buy records is Blockbuster and she won't go there because they don't let their male employees have long hair and that's hypocritical because they've made so much money selling records by men with long hair; that she was in a terrible car accident some years back and had to go back home to Kansas for physical therapy for a while; that she's subsequently become a massage therapist, is almost licensed, and gives the best massages you will ever get; that she makes jewelry. Repeat.

Around 5 or so, she decides it's time to go over to casa de Stacy (who left an hour or so before). Shelly stays behind, so as not to leave the guys who are still watching TV unattended. Stacy had to pick up her 2-year-old daughter from the babysitter (at 5 AM, mind you). She's left a note that she'll be back soon. We hang out in her back yard for a few minutes, since nobody else answers the door. Eventually, Stacy gets home; turns out there were people there, but they were doing massive bong hits and didn't notice us.

Kim has brought over her jewelry-making equipment to make a necklace for me. Stacy says "Can you make a bracelet for my baby too? She needs to get a health bracelet so that she'll get better and I won't have to take her to get surgery on her arm."

Stacy puts her daughter to bed, while I collapse into a beanbag and Kim works on the necklace for me. "Hey, Douglas," Stacy asks a minute later, "d'you have a dollar?" Through my sleep-haze, I hand her a dollar, then sit up; she's tried and failed to snort a line of coke through one of those roll-up horoscopes you get in supermarkets (it got clogged), and is now using my dollar instead. "You know, 85% of American paper currency has cocaine residue on it," she explains as she sniffs a few times.

When Kim finishes the necklace, it's a bit after 6 AM, and I'm starting to get pretty antsy. Everyone agrees that the necklace looks great, so we head off to the airport. They accompany me in, give me a signed card with the photo of all of us at the Ranch on it ("Thanx fer hangin' w/ us! You're one of the few beautiful people left!!!"), and give me their addresses and pager numbers (with a request to look them up next time I'm in Texas, and to send them Jeff Buckley and John Zorn tapes). As soon as my plane starts boarding, I dive onto it, and finally collapse into sleep for the first time in a day.

When I tell Robin all about this the next day, she can't stop giggling.