If Dave Grohl's career had ended in 1994, he still would've been a Hall of Famer. As Nirvana's third (or, depending on your biographer, fourth) and final drummer, he was responsible for everything post-Bleach. His perfect timing, hard-hitting, ear for "catchy" drum parts (e.g. the fills in "In Bloom"), and gift for background vocals took the band from indie sensation to pop juggernaut. In the studio, he was a selfless song-servant and crucial component of the band's chemistry (light-hearted, funny, inexhaustible). Live, he transformed their sound; suddenly they were big enough to fill an arena. With Grohl behind them, poppy punk songs became anthems. You could argue--and Kurt Cobain did--that the addition of Dave Grohl was as crucial to Nirvana's success as anything. That success sparked a pop cultural revolution, changed the landscape of 90's rock, and the format of one particular rock radio station, 95.7FM The Modern Rock Alternative...also known as 96X.
Of course, Grohl was always a talented songwriter, guitarist, and singer. He offered song ideas throughout the In Utero sessions that went largely ignored ("Scentless Apprentice" being the lone exception), and his harmonies helped carry Unplugged. Following Cobain's death, Grohl formed a new band, became its chief guitarist, singer, and songwriter, named it the Foo Fighters, and--fourteen years and tons of great music later--the rest is history.
Although the Foo's first round of singles ("I'll Stick Around," "Big Me," etc.) earned steady rotation on 96X, I didn't become an unrelenting fan-boy until 1997's The Colour and the Shape. If the first record proved that Grohl was a songwriting talent in his own right, the second proved he was one of our best. "My Hero" and "Monkey Wrench" formed a graceful transition from post-grunge to power-pop, smart and beautifully-crafted. But it was "Everlong" that cemented their status as one of Rock's Elite, and gave me a new favorite song.
(Click here to watch the insane/hilarious/awesome music video of "Everlong." Audio included.)
By 2000, I was so wrapped up in the Foo that when a classmate asked me if I'd rather have the Foo Fighters or take a chance on what Nirvana could've been, I had honestly forgotten that Nirvana begat Foo. This isn't to imply that I wasn't a Nirvana fan, because my fandom had long-since spilled over into obsession. I just forgot that Cobain's death catalyzed a series of events, which led to (then) five years of unadulterated greatness by the Foo Fighters. And I never really considered what would've happened to any of that if Cobain had lived and Nirvana persisted.
To be clear, my classmate's question isn't "who's the better band?" While I'm a staunch advocate and lifelong fan of all things Grohl, and firm believer that the Foo remain one of our best groups, they'll never reach Nirvana's status. As good as the Foo Fighters are, they're not changing the game. They're just great at it. Nirvana did change the game, and that's the difference between Great and Legendary. Nirvana's the better band. The question is whether you'd give up the entire existence of the Foo Fighters to see what might've been with Nirvana, accepting all achievements or disappointments therein. It's the Solid Choice vs. the Great Unknown.
A few non-facts, just to clutter up the debate:
At the time of Cobain's death, rumors persisted about Nirvana's imminent breakup. Internal conflict had reached a breaking point. Cobain wanted no more of the limelight. Substance abuse rendered all future plans impossible. Novoselic and Grohl were increasingly interested in other projects. Courtney Love had become Yoko. Etc. So, it's possible (if not probable) that Nirvana was finished anyway.
Of course, rumors also swarmed about their next record. At one point, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe even discussed it publicly, revealing that Cobain wanted to take the band further in the direction of the Unplugged material. The new record would have acoustic guitars and string arrangements. It would be intimate and ground-breaking. It would once again reinvent the band, blow away all preconceptions, and further cement their legendary status. So, it's also possible they could've continued doing what they had done exclusively to that point: make classic, era-defining pop music.
While smart money's on the breakup, it's impossible to know what would've become of Nirvana. Buoyed by the popular theory (the thesis of a Klosterman book, no less) that the greatest career move is early death, Nirvana historians claim that Cobain finished on the highest possible note. Nothing after April 5, 1994 would've been better than what came before it. We got the best of Nirvana and, to boot, a perennially great band rose from their ashes. Sure, Nirvana's great unknown is tempting, but would you really sacrifice the entire Foo catalogue to find out? And, if nothing else, isn't "Everlong"--surely one of the decade's best rock songs--enough to end the debate?
Yes, sure, absolutely. This is me, in the armchair, general managing, knowing that the Foo Fighters are the wiser choice. But then I remember 2003's release of the the long-lost Nirvana single ("You Know You're Right") like an NFL scout remembers gaudy combine numbers. Wasn't that song legitimately, undoubtedly, ruthlessly great, or did I just want it to be***? Wasn't Cobain ultimately too competitive, too ambitious, and too aware of his own legacy to give up or get lost in experimentation? And then I remember that 100 great bands still can't replace one legendary band. I remember that, for all the 96X joy the Foo brought me, 96X wouldn't have existed without Nirvana. I remember most of all my answer to my classmate in 2000, almost without hesitation, "I'd roll the dice with Nirvana."
But this is 2009, the music industry is impotent and without vision, A&R is a fairytale, popular rock is so undependable even the Counting Crows can't paint by their own numbers, and the Fleet Foxes are on SNL. So I take the Foo, listen to "Everlong" and forget about Legends.
We need all the Greats we can get.
Gotta promise not to stop,
***I think it was. The greatest artists create with such facility, such effortless brilliance, that each next hit (no matter how complex, important, or pressured) sounds easy, even obvious. It's the ultimate "you're in good hands" listening moment. The Beatles had it more than anyone. Jimmy Page had it. I think Outkast has it. And Nirvana still had it, long after they finished and everyone assumed they didn't. "You Know You're Right" kills me to hear now. Arrrggggg.
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