I don’t understand music. This is not to say that I don’t love music – I do, and I listen to it nearly constantly, across a wide variety of artists and genres – but, on a fundamental level, it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like listening to a foreign language, where I can enjoy the immediacy of sonic experience and even recognize certain sounds or patterns, but the underlying meaning – why those sounds are in that order – remains inscrutable.
Like I said, though, I listen to a lot of music, and no band more so than the Foo Fighters. When their first album, a grungy self-titled release, came out – in 1995 – I hadn’t yet caught the alternative train, feeling a little embarrassed when, at various birthdays and bar mitzvahs, all my public school friends would gush about REM and Greenday and Foo Fighters and other bands that I didn’t know (given that my brother and I were the only Catholic school kids in the mix, it was easy enough to feel like an outsider). It wasn’t until the next year that I turned my clock radio to the end of the dial and discovered 107.9 “The End,” Cleveland’s alternative rock station, where the music felt more suited to my inchoate adolescent rage than the Mariah Carey tapes I’d bought two years earlier. It was late in seventh grade when I first came to love the Foo Fighters, the same time I started watching “The X-Files” and shopping around for combat boots.
“The Colour and the Shape,” the Foos’ second album, is what really hooked me. In the fall of 1997 I was a freshman in high school, jealous of the upperclassmen I knew who were allowed to go to concerts; they got to hear the Foo Fighters live! I’ve since seen the Foo Fighters live on four occasions, and I still think “Everlong” is among the most romantic songs I’ve ever heard, as well as a pretty bitchin’ rock jam.
“The Colour and the Shape” was the soundtrack of the first half of my high school experience, and “There Is Nothing Left To Lose” covered the second half (“There Is Nothing Left To Lose” also carries the distinction as the only album containing a song that I actively dislike, the grating and repetitive “Gimme Stitches,” which never approaches the dramatic denouement the Foos so reliably produce). Their fourth album, “One By One,” was released in my sophomore year of college, while I was taking a semester off, living at my parents’ house as they sorted out whether or not to stay together and I tried to come to terms with the decision I’d made to transfer schools from California to DC. It was an uneasy time, when I controlled the world around me with fastidious dieting, constant workouts, and antidepressants, but once it came out I would put “One By One” on repeat and at the first strains of “All My Life” I could finally relax, sink into the album that I still regard as the Foos’ grimmest (from the chorus of the uptempo “Overdrive”: “Overdrive, we’re going life or death/two strangers, no relation…”).
“In Your Honor,” a double-disc of hard rock (on disc one) and acoustic efforts (on disc two, some of them more completely arranged versions of songs off a Dave Grohl demo from his Nirvana days, recorded under the name “Pocketwatch” and diligently scoured for by yours truly in my freshman year of college), was released shortly after I graduated, and I wiled away the days until I moved back to California by driving through the backroads of Ohio with the album on full blast. When I did drive out to San Francisco in August my mother made the trip with me and music became a quick point of contention; the acoustic CD was our best compromise. Several months later I went alone to see their small acoustic show in Berkeley and the entire concert was one of those moments of sublime immersion, overwhelming and beautiful.
Their next major release came in the fall of 2007, when I’d moved from the Bay Area back home and then out to California once again. I was living in Marin, working at Borders and putting together my portfolio and applications for graduate school in architecture – a futile effort, ultimately, as I was universally rejected and wound up spending four months squatting in a Caltech basement, living on ramen noodles and the final track of “Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace”, a stripped-down piano number called “Home.” The song occupied the top spot on my iTunes most-played list for months as I wrote with it on endless loop, encapsulating all the terrified longing I was too full of at the time to articulate.
One of my favorite attributes of the Foo Fighters – besides Dave Grohl’s love of “The X-Files” (the band appeared on the soundtrack of both the show and the movie, and Grohl makes a cameo in an episode) – is the ease with which they veer between outright comedy and an enigmatic, plaintive sincerity. The video for “Learn to Fly” could have been produced by Funny Or Die:
While the video for “Low,” similarly featuring Jack Black (Dave Grohl would appear in various Tenacious D joints as Satan), takes a much darker comedic turn:
Their less-funny efforts tend towards concert videos, blasts of unapologetic, guitar-driven rock. "Best Of You" still gets me more revved up than any other song, ever. "Wheels,“ from their 2009 "Greatest Hits” CD, is the anthem of finding myself in comedy, shedding the boundaries of old identities and moving forward into something new and right.
And now? Now I have pre-ordered their soon-to-drop “Wasting Light,” which gets its official release on April 12, the same day that I depart from SFO at six in the morning on a multi-month, multi-country South American trek, chasing a lifelong dream of adventure and dialogue. I may not understand music much at all but I know what I like from a soundtrack, and “Wasting Light” is in a language that – much like the Spanish I am trying to learn – has come, over so many years, to make a kind of sense.
It is a new chapter, but I trust that the Foo Fighters will not let me down.