Paul Spella

“Your writing has punch, David. Punch is power!”

After all these years, this simple message, my first words of true validation as a fledgling writer, has never left me. It echoes in my mind like a long canyon scream each time I sit down to a blank page, and inspires me to fill it with my true voice. After a childhood of failed classes and dismal report cards (most of which ended with comments such as, “David has potential, but his hyperactivity and attention-seeking behavior are a constant distraction to the class!”), it was if I had pulled the proverbial red pen from the stone. No small victory for the delinquent son of a public-school teacher, but let’s be honest, I was never destined to become the next Bill Shakespeare (ask any of my traumatized English teachers). It only makes sense that this particular validation wasn’t given by any of the poor, frustrated educators I left in my wake. No, it came from a truly brilliant writer who shaped my love (and fear) of the written word. The man, the myth, the legend … my father, James Harper Grohl.

Born to a blue-collar, Ohioan steelworking family in 1938, my father was a complicated man of many, sometimes-conflicting layers. Actor, writer, award-winning journalist, lover of art and food, and a ferocious, classically trained musician. A true Renaissance man, yet so conservative that he would sometimes be mistaken in public for the legendary political commentator George Will. All this and more, poured into a crisp, clean seersucker suit.  

James Grohl, pictured here with Nancy Reagan at the White House in the 1980s, worked as a national political reporter for Scripps-Howard News Network, and later as a political consultant. (Courtesy Dave Grohl)

At night, you could find him reclined in his Eames chair with a glass of Johnnie Walker Red, baton in hand, listening to jazz records as the smoke of his sweet pipe wafted through his Alexandria, Virginia, apartment. But from 9 to 5, the dude made Ronald Reagan look like Abbie Hoffman. Cool as a cucumber, he could turn on the charm and work any Republican Capitol Hill shindig like he was to the manor born. Still, for all his starched shirts and Brooks Brothers socks, a beatnik was trapped somewhere deep within that perfectly tailored tuxedo, just screaming to come out. (He once very proudly bragged to me that the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg had hit on him at a party. Cutest-couple alert!)  

How far does the apple fall from the tree? In my case, it not only ripped off the branch; it rolled all the way down the fuckin’ hill. Imagine Charles Schulz’s Pig-Pen moving in with Mr. Clean, and you’re getting warm. The Odd Couple on acid … I mean, you can’t really blame the guy for feeling terminally frustrated throughout my adolescent years. I’ve had feral pets that were easier to tame than me in my prepubescence. To put it mildly, Dad and I just didn’t see eye to eye. Nevertheless, DNA is a funny thing, and I don’t need a 23andMe kit to prove that my genetic code is candied with some of his more paradoxical qualities. And no matter how hard I tried to rebel, his hand always seemed to focus the lens through which I see the world (blurred as it may be). Beyond all our differences, if there is one gene that I am most thankful for, it is the one that fueled my love of music. A love that long ago inspired me to give my father his first taste of my literary prowess: a runaway note I left on his dining-room table in 1985.

By then, I was a full-fledged, hardcore punk-rock teenager. I had taken the hereditary generosity of my father’s musical abilities and mutated them into the antithesis of his classically trained ear. I was the garage band to his conservatory, the screeching feedback to his perfect pitch, the Dead Kennedys to his Leonard Bernstein. We may have shared the same passion for music, but eventually I swapped his trademark baton and Eames chair for my splintered drumsticks and leather jackets. Steeped in the DIY culture of underground, independent music, I wanted nothing to do with the convention and formalities of becoming a classical musician. I wanted noise. I wanted chaos. I wanted the sweat and grime of a crowded gig on a Saturday night, covered in bruises from slam dancing along to my favorite band. I wanted to scream my voice hoarse, break every drumhead, and celebrate the disregard of “proper” technique. I wanted maximum rock and roll.

At the time, I was in a band with a ragtag group of other misfits, suburban teens by the name of Mission Impossible. (Don’t laugh, but we often opened our shows with the nerdy theme song from the classic 1960s TV series. Actually, go ahead and laugh—it was ridiculous.) Fueled by our love of American hardcore music (and near-toxic amounts of Mountain Dew), we were like gnats with amplifiers. Among us, we had enough teenage angst and energy to support every major metropolitan power grid from Vegas to Virginia Beach. Furious tempos driven by raging attention-deficit disorders, any song in our repertoire that lasted more than three minutes we considered a virtual “Bohemian Rhapsody.” A blur of ripped jeans and Vans sneakers, we were following the path that our heroes had laid before us. And growing up on the outskirts of one of America’s most thriving punk-rock scenes, Washington, D.C., our heroes just happened to be the local bands that we could see every weekend. Minor Threat, Faith, Void, Government Issue, Bad Brains, Rites of Spring, just to name a few. These were bands that existed entirely outside the conventional, corporate music industry. They did it all themselves. So we did too.

The author, pictured before his transformation into a Mountain-Dew-soaked blur of ripped jeans and Vans. (Courtesy Dave Grohl)

Having been to countless shows at various community centers, art galleries, Knights of Columbus halls, and other “alternative” venues that actually allowed these types of raucous gatherings, I marveled at what appeared to be the simple method of promoting a punk-rock show: Find a place to play, fork over a security deposit, find some bands and a PA system, plaster handmade, xeroxed flyers on every telephone pole within walking distance of a cool record store, and pray that enough people would show up so that you wouldn’t be run out of town by an angry mob of debt collectors. Heck, I could do that! All I’d have to do is mow some lawns, pick up an odd job here and there, hawk some gear, and I could become the next Bill Graham! My mind was set, and I soon decided to try my hand at promoting a show all by myself. As with most achievements in my life, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing; I just followed my gut and hoped for the best. What could possibly go wrong? (Altamont, anyone?)

Determined, I put my plan in motion and found a suitable venue. A rather nondescript, sterile community center in Bethesda, Maryland, just across the state line. It was no CBGB, but who else was going to trust their property to a 16-year-old kid in a beat-up Ford Fiesta? It had a stage, some lights, and a room big enough to hold maybe a hundred pent-up teenagers just like me. As far as I was concerned, I was well on my way to turning this bingo hall into motherfucking Madison Square Garden! Once I had convinced the staff that I was planning nothing more than a battle of the bands, next came the daunting task of finding a cheap PA system and a few other groups to round out the bill. A few phone calls, a few favors, and all systems were go. A date was set. My own personal lemonade stand from hell. The countdown began …

Now, truth be told, I wasn’t technically “allowed” to be in a band at this time. Unfortunately, my grades had fallen to the point that my father had restricted me from playing any music with my friends, the one thing that I loved most in life. Old James believed that music was the thing keeping me from my studies, obviously. How dare he! I thought. I had finally found my voice, my identity, my tribe, only to have it all cruelly pulled out from under me on account of another disastrous report card. (Fuck biology!) I was beyond devastated. A seriously low blow that burned me from the inside out. Nevertheless, being the quintessential stubborn Capricorn that I am, his ruling only strengthened my resolve. No drum set? I practiced for hours on the pillows in my bedroom. No band rehearsal? I would rehearse the songs in my head as I made my 30-minute walk to school each day, memorizing arrangements as I played every drum part with my teeth. (Yes, I can play the drums with my teeth, just ask my horrified dentist.) Nothing could keep me from doing what my body and soul commanded—no, demanded. Restriction or not, I was going to find a way to fulfill my insatiable need to play music as if my life depended on it. Because it did.

I now woke up every morning with a newfound sense of purpose. I had finally found a reason to be. A chance to prove myself to the world. For once, my mind was laser-focused on realizing one solitary goal. (This was not the case in most other areas of my life, believe me.) My heart was inflated with a feeling that I had yet to find in life: the feeling of worth. Being in charge of something. Feeling like I could actually be who I wanted to be. These were the same emotions and ideas that filled the songs I sang along to every Saturday night in those sweaty nightclubs, so it only made sense that I was compelled to apply them to my own life and follow a path outside convention. If only I had applied that same energy and focus to dissecting frogs in biology class! I could have become the next Charles Darwin! But as far as I was concerned, blood and guts belonged on the stage, not under the cold, fluorescent lights of a schoolroom laboratory.

The gig itself remains a bit of a blur, but I fortunately managed to escape without having to file Chapter 11 in juvenile court. Better yet, the security guy I was required to hire must not have enjoyed our particular style of “music” (a most generous term) and took off without getting paid the 50 bucks he was owed! So, with that wrinkled cash in hand, my bandmates and I retreated like bandits with a few pizzas to celebrate our lofty accomplishments. I passed out in a pile of greasy cardboard boxes, relishing in my sweet, adolescent victory.

I remember hearing my father’s footsteps as he came through the front door the next morning. “Where's David?” his voice bellowed. Still in bed, I knew I was dead meat. Though he had no idea about the night before, I dreaded the undoubtedly harsh repercussions of him finding out about my forbidden, secret operation. My feeling of accomplishment quickly vanished, as did my newfound sense of purpose and identity that had filled me with so much pride. I fucked up, I thought. I got cocky. I should have just stayed home, stayed in my lane, played by the rules, fallen in line, and conformed to the “norm” like everyone else. Like my father had done. What was I thinking? My bedroom door opened, and my backpack was thrown into my lap with the words “Get dressed, let’s go.”

The long, silent drive to my father’s apartment was suffocating. My mind went from remorse and regret to anger, frustration, and revenge. From my highest high to my lowest low in a mere 24 hours. I wanted to explode from the strafing of conflicting emotions I was experiencing. My dreams had been shattered, and I was now reduced to being just another high-school failure with nothing but a dismal life in a dead-end rat race to look forward to. That was everything I railed against. That was my greatest fear. Arriving at the apartment, I was instructed to study alone until dinner. As I sat there at his cluttered desk, books open, pen in hand, my mind was reeling. It was time to take a stand, I thought. I was not destined or designed to live a life of starched shirts and penny loafers. It was time to fight back.

The dreaded “What do you want to do with your life?” lecture followed soon after dinner. A searing prosecution to which I had little defense. I was broken down and reduced to rubble, lowering my head in shame as my father delivered my sentence from his Eames chair. The verdict: a lifetime of mediocrity and squalor. It had become painfully clear to him that I did not want to follow in his footsteps, a bitter pill for any parent to swallow, so in his mind I was left with a hopeless existence as a failure. To him, my dreams were just dreams. Nothing more than fleeting illusions that fade away without a trace.

To his credit, I now understand his concern. As the father of three amazing children of my own (all musically inclined), nothing is more important to me than their safety and well-being. My life duty now is to ensure that they're prepared to take on the world the day they decide to step out and make it their own. I wasn’t on the fast track to becoming a professional musician by any means, and having actually tried his hand at a career in music, my dad knew that the odds of success were minuscule. Especially considering the type of music my heart had chosen to play. Dissonant, antiestablishment thrash? Not a lot of Brooks Brothers socks in my future, even if I had wanted to wear them. But that made no difference to me. I needed music like air. Like food. Like water. Without it, I was just another kid, searching to belong.

So that night, I waited for him to go to sleep, and I grabbed a (red) pen and a pad of paper. My hand pressed hard as I delivered my searing rebuttal, unleashing 16 years of fury as my tears hit the page in blurred stains. I rejected his narrow-minded life coaching and chastised him for his lack of faith in me, proudly confessing to my whereabouts the night before as an example of my capabilities. The line was now drawn. Don’t fuck with me. I quietly placed the note on the dining-room table, grabbed my backpack, and left. As the door closed behind me, so did a painful chapter in my life. A new, brighter chapter was about to begin. One in which I would never think of myself as a stupid fuckup destined to a life of mediocrity and squalor. I knew deep down that I was better than that. I turned and took one last look at the number plate on the door: Apartment 606.

And the apple rolled a bit farther away.

When does a boy become a man? Is there a particular moment of liberation from the age-old father-son conflict that can define such a profound transition? Some sort of metamorphosis, when the boy emerges from the chrysalis of adolescence, stepping out into the world to make it his own? Perhaps it’s the moment when the apple grinds to a halt at the bottom of the hill.

My father read my letter. He felt the “punch” in my words. The next day, he called and only said, “Don’t ever do that again, David.” Fortunately, I never had to, because from that moment on he recognized that I knew in my heart who I was and who I wanted to be, and that nothing could stop me from becoming that person no matter what.

From that day forward, my father and I formed a new dynamic in our relationship, and over the years we developed a friendship based on mutual respect. It was if I had stepped out of his shadow, and my love for him was now allowed to grow. I learned to appreciate his wonderful eccentricities and puzzling idiosyncrasies (finding glimpses of myself in more than a few of them) and reconciled many of our past differences. As the years passed and my dreams of becoming a musician came true, he was always there to impart little gems of insight and wisdom, often steering me clear of the clichéd occupational hazards that typically clutter life in the music business. Now, rather than delivering imposing lectures from his dreaded Eames chair, he spun yarns of his childhood in Ohio, or of his time as a reporter in D.C. in the ’70s during Watergate, or of his years in Stuttgart serving in the Army. Take it from me, the guy knew how to tell a story. And with the advent of email, my dad and I struck up a most amusing correspondence of anecdotes and quips that ricocheted off one another like two skinny swords in a fencing match. Who else would send me an email beginning with “To writ” or containing words like redolent? He was endlessly entertaining and, without realizing it, inadvertently shaping my sense of composition and prose while quickly becoming my favorite read.

During the pandemic lockdown, when I’ve had more than what I can generally tolerate of “downtime,” I’ve focused on a newfound pleasure in writing, telling various tales from my life. As I go over them from my own dreaded Eames chair with the proverbial red pen I inherited, I can’t help but think of my father, the journalist and master wordsmith. My father was my first, and best, reader. It was through him that I found my love of writing, filling me with the same sense of purpose and accomplishment that I felt that night at the Bethesda Community Center as a rebellious teen. So much that I’ve even contemplated trying my hand at writing a book someday. Imagine that. Just call it “kicking the apple back up the hill a bit.”

If only he were still around to read it.

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