Sonic Highways

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Dave Grohl’s nostalgia trip just might be what music needs 

As Dave Grohl’s first marriage was ending his assets were frozen while his wife’s attorney calculated his finances, resulting in living on a stipend and staying in his friend Pete Stahl’s back room. From time to time Grohl woke up in a wet sleeping bag after Stahl’s dog, Dinky, peed on it. Stories of the Nirvana days and an attempt at playing with Prince on tour are fine, but Dinky and the wet sleeping bag has a charm to it. Buddy Guy configuring a button on a string to make music, Steve Albini playing poker in order to fund his recording studio—we have heard enough about groupies and cocaine—it’s nice to get back to how misfortune and mishap shape music, especially when success and accolade play a part in deforming it.

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Musician, Record Producer and Audio Engineer Steve Albini steels the show with his blue jumpsuit and sarcastic digs.

It seems music needs to retrace its steps more than ever now. The Foo Fighters—like the plain girl from church your mom made you invite to your birthday party—are likeable and edgeless yet have remained popular because they always had a visual story to tell: gimmicky music videos with wigs and fat suits and “Sound City,” Groh’s directorial debut on the legendary music studio Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, have created a rebirth of sorts for the band. Music videos and rock seem to have come undone and documentaries have come along to let us know how sad that is. Recent doc’s including “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” The Punk Singer,” “Waiting for Sugar Man,” and “Muscle Shoals,” have reminded us of the great potential which music holds, if only we had the brain cells to appreciate it.

With the new HBO docu-series “Sonic Highway’s” Grohl moves beyond the visual fluffy duffy, to insightful down and out tales that make studios hum. He’s not interested in the orgies and parties, but the story of how musicians climbed out from obscurity to music studios. The story of how Grohl’s docu-series came into being isn’t much different than the ascent of the musicians he features—solid musicianship and funding from men in high places—the series was made on a shoe-string budget as the band tried to figure out how to make it work.  

According to an interview with Howard Stern earlier this month, Grohl was unsure how the series would get made. With the idea of making an album in eight different studios across America while documenting the musical history of each city, the budget was sure to be astronomical. After doing several appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, Letterman’s producers mentioned he should contact Rob Burnett, who is the executive producer of the Late Show, Burnett and Letterman became enthusiastic about the project and helped Grohl pitch the idea to HBO.

Although Letterman’s production company Worldwide Pants and HBO put a lot of money into the project, schlepping a camera crew of fifteen across the country is costly. Grohl’s producer Jim Roda mentioned taking miles from the band’s credit card, where come to find out six million miles had been saved up, which paid for the entire production crew’s hotels and flights for six months.

As Grohl recently told Stern, while venturing cross-country from studio to studio, Grohl interviewed his subjects at night and made music in the studio during the day. “That night I’d go out and interview some people, Buddy Guy or Rick Neilson, next day come back and do some guitar over dubs, maybe some keyboards. I would go out and interview some people, next day percussion . . .” He also kept a journal with one side dedicated to the lyrics in his songs and the other to interviews, cutting and pasting the two, eventually juxtaposing song lyrics and interviews to create the album. Sure it would be easier to make an album in one city and promote in a traditional way, but The Foo Fighters don’t have a Revlon commercial at their disposal and need to find creative alternatives to get their music heard.

It’s a shitty time for music, perhaps the shittiest it’s ever been. Every generation probably says this about music, but with nothing to finance struggling bands, the crapshoot seems rigged. With struggle comes ingenuity and this is what Grohl gets across with “Sonic Highway.” As he covers each sound studio in Nashville, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, D.C., Los Angles and New York, the people he interviews never come off as rock stars, but as individuals who didn’t mind living in shitty apartments as long as it became part of their trajectory. As Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth shared, “the first place I lived in New York was $150 a month. You could live in New York in the 70’s on no money because the city was really destitute and you know, I would run home every night, but it was $150 a month.”

Struggle is what propelled the artists and the music engineers to go beyond the normal state of things, to a high ground which creates incredible music. After NSYNC proceeded to take over the MTV airwaves, rock music suffered and Steve Rosenthal, a sound engineer at New York City’s “The Magic Shop,” began restoring albums in order to fund his music studio, which included Sam Cooke’s “Live at the Copa.” Rosenthal has won four Grammy’s for his work, but with the advent of home-based sound studios, the future of his sound studio is “cloudy” at best.

Although the series at times is self-congratulatory for Grohl, the personal touches add to the experience, particularly when Grohl and his band reach Seattle, where Nirvana made a name for themselves and The Foo Fighters composed their first album. “Seattle is like my phantom limb, I still feel it.” What set’s Grohl’s Rockumentary series apart is the, ‘this is it this is me,’ vibe. It’s impossible to trace the history of music particularly in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where just about every musician has made some sort of mark. The only way to accomplish such a task is to show one’s love of music through a personal lens. For Grohl telling stories is a hobby, a warm and fuzzy one, that makes the audience smile and perhaps learn a little more about music. The music enthusiasts are probably pissed (yes he passed on Detroit, I know) but Grohl didn’t make it for them, he made for himself, his band, and people who like stories.

 @MeMontgom

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