Virginia Hanlon Grohl, who spawned the Nirvana and Foo Fighters star, tells Mark Beaumont about life as a rock mum
Behind every rock god there’s a devoted mother trying to get strange stains out of leather trousers. Yet, on her regular tours with Foo Fighters, Virginia Hanlon Grohl never seemed to run into any of the other rock stars’ mums. So she set out to interview them, telling the stories of the mothers of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Dr Dre, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, Amy Winehouse, Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Haim, Pharrell Williams and more in her new book From Cradle To Stage. “It turned out to be an amazing group of women who all said in the beginning, ‘There’s nothing special about me, nothing interesting about my story’,” she says, “and that turned out to be entirely untrue.”
What’s life like as the mother of one of the biggest rock stars in the world?
“It’s very good – I recommend it. Buy your kid a guitar and a drum and hope things go the way my life did. I’ve been able to travel the world with them. David always said, ‘Jump on the bus, jump on the plane, come along,’ and I do. I used to think I should hide because I didn’t want anyone to think he was a momma’s boy, but he’d pull me on stage and introduce me. The crew know who I am. I have the best seat in the house.”
Dave’s famously nice. Does he treat you to lots of stuff?
“It’s just one wonderful party after another! I just mentioned on purpose that I wanted to go back to Italy. And guess what? My wish will be granted! He’s making it possible for us as a family to go and have my 80th birthday in Italy.”
Have you found yourself in some strange rock ’n’ roll situations?
“Early on, the fans were difficult with Nirvana – it was hard to get out of a car. I’ve met Stevie Nicks, I’ve met Prince Harry, I’ve met Obama when Dave played at the White House. Paul McCartney was there, so I got to watch the President as he sang ‘Michelle’ to his wife. That was a very shivery evening.”
What was Dave like as a child?
“Full-on energy from morning to night. He and his sister fought a lot. He enjoyed making her angry, so he ruined a lot of her plans. Once, he was showing off while she was having a slumber party with friends. He was doing cartwheels down a short hallway and bumped his head into her door and began bleeding all over the carpet. He required hospitalisation and a great number of stitches, and of course it ended her slumber party. She’s never forgiven him…”
Can you remember what his first musical endeavours were like?
“He never had drums in the house because we had a small house – he played other people’s drums. He was maybe nine or 10 when he got a guitar. I pictured him sitting there strumming classical guitar pieces like Segovia while I prepared dinner, but Segovia turned into Metallica and that dream faded.”
When he got into punk rock, did you ever put your foot down about the tattoos?
“I was never asked for guidance about tattoos or hair. The worst was when he had long hair and half of it was jet black and half was platinum white. It looked great when he was flailing his head around playing the drums, but the rest of the time it was a little bit terrifying.”
How did it feel to watch him become famous almost overnight with Nirvana?
“Nobody expected it; it was one enormous surprise after another. It happened really fast and it was very fun. I got to go to Saturday Night Live to see them and I got to go to Reading Festival and the crowds just got bigger and bigger. It never stopped being a huge surprise.”
What were your fellow rock mums’ funniest and most inspiring stories?
“There were lots of stories about the kids having so much energy – Pharrell Williams’ grandmother couldn’t bear his pounding on everything and bought him a drum set just to get him to stop pounding on the furniture. Look how that turned out.”
Did a pattern emerge?
“No matter what the type of music or what their instrument was, they all committed to music as a lifetime work at around the age of 12. It occurred to them like a flash from the sky and there was no turning back, no matter what their mother did or said.”
Did talking to mothers who’d lost their children to rock ’n’ roll – Wendy Cobain O’Connor and Janis Winehouse – make you feel fortunate to have turned out such a well-adjusted rock god?
“Of course. When they start out on this path, all of us had heard ‘sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll – watch out’. We didn’t know what was going to happen and we all made separate deals with them – they made promises to their mothers no to do certain things. When I met Amy Winehouse’s mom, I was amazed. I’ve never met anyone like her – she’s got multiple sclerosis, she’s lost a daughter in a horrible way and she remains someone who has a positive outlook in life.”
Any advice for musicians’ mums on how to raise the nicest guy in rock?
“I don’t think I can take credit for that – I don’t know how that happened. We had this ridiculous saying ‘It’s nice when things are nice’ and he was nice. I’d suggest certain things about how to keep a relationship with a teenage musician an open one, with communication. Things we already know.”
From Cradle To Stage is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton