“Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways”: an uneven soundtrack to a killer roadtrip

Sonic

Fearless independent filmmaker Werner Herzog is a passionate believer in what he has called the “voodoo of location”*, the notion that specific location filming not only naturally informs the look of a movie but also can appreciably influence how it feels, that history is so inextricably tied to a given place that it almost can’t help, on some level, but be absorbed into the production. Though he’s never spoken the exact words, lead Foo Fighter Dave Grohl is obviously at least a sympathetic mind. His 2013 documentary Sound City was a full blown love letter, equal parts celebratory and wistful, to the titular Los Angeles studio, which served over the course of multiple decades as home base for the recording of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, among others. Grohl is the kind of music aficionado who turns amateur historian via happy accident, a product of deep-seated enthusiasm and wide-ranging experience, with no traditional academic reinforcement required. The good thing about the history of rock and roll, I find, is that its study provides innumerable rewards to such seekers, while making anything less than unbridled enthusiasm the only true barrier to entry. Grohl’s documentary returned to Sound City in its waning days, collecting funny stories and fond remembrances from staff and alumni, and even recording a soundtrack album’s worth of decent or better original songs featuring the likes of Trent Reznor, Josh Homme, Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, his former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, and even Sir Paul McCartney, true believers all in the healing, sustaining powers of rock and roll and, to one degree or other, the voodoo of location. Grohl, then on a hiatus from fighting Foo, went home with his latest of many passion projects in the can and also with Sound City’s mammoth Neve 8028 mixing board – in the film he all but explicitly stated it was responsible for the massive sound of Nevermind and its forebears – in tow. He couldn’t stand the thought of it being sold at auction or otherwise consigned to the dustbin of ignoble history.

*This is the reason Herzog has not merely favored but required filming on location throughout his acclaimed and esoteric career; why, for instance, his masterpiece “Fitzcarraldo” – the tale of a late 19th century Irish rubber baron who, determined to access pristine Peruvian territory cut off from conventional modes of transportation, engineers the transit of a 320-ton steamship up the slope of a perilously steep hill – was brought to the screen via the arduous, unaided, real life hauling of a 320-ton steamship up the slope of a steep, actual Peruvian hill. Herzog, who, admittedly, is not a timid man, nor anyone’s idea of strict, stuffy logician, was cognizant of but undeterred by the logistical nightmare that was “Fitzcarraldo”’s production. Instead, he saw the grand gesture as the only possible way to bring his vision to full fruition. As an armchair history enthusiast, nursing passions that sprawl in multiple directions, I find such notions patently delightful. The “voodoo of location”, albeit in a much humbler and more manageable portion size, helps explain why musical artists the world over continue to flock to record at Abbey Road, or to NYC’s Electric Lady, or to Sun Studio in Memphis, to name but three examples. Location matters.

For his next passion project, an ambitious and expansive eight-episode HBO docu-series called Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways, Grohl sought to dig much deeper into the voodoo of location. Made in conjunction with the recording of the new Foo Fighters album with which it shares its name, Sonic Highways was filmed in eight different American musical meccas, splitting its focus roughly 80/20 between exploring the enduring history of each location by touring its landmarks and interviewing its rock, punk, country and blues mainstays, and the complicated physical recording of the album itself, one (presumably) locally-influenced track at a time. Grohl’s voiceover narration is unobtrusive and occasionally quite illuminating, and each episode features a roundup of and limited behind the scenes look at important locales (The Grand Ole Opry, the Austin City Limits soundstage, Rancho de la Luna Studios, etc.) in addition to a metric ton of talking heads waxing nostalgic and rhapsodic about what music means to them and what coming of age in and contributing to the local music scene meant to their careers and their souls. Everyone with camera time is a worshipper at the church of American music, whether a comparatively lowly scenester or an unalloyed god like Buddy Guy or Willie Nelson. The show’s focus, as estimated above, is just about right, though the best episodes of Sonic Highways (such as the pieces on New Orleans and Austin, TX) delve so far into an area’s scene and native sounds, necessarily pushing the Foos deeper into the background, as to render that week’s song debut – delivered as slick black and white or sepia tone performance footage with the accompanying lyrics floating around Grohl, drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarist Pat Smear, et al, as they play, just before the end credits roll – a bit rote or even anticlimactic. Again, it’s location that matters, and the time invested in that week’s archaeological dig. Even the best song included here is little more than a digestif tacked onto the end of a banquet.

I had already taken Sonic Highways the album for a couple of spins by the time I started catching up with the series on DVR, and, frankly, had found it lacking. However ambitious and fascinating its production, Highways still came hot on the heels of an announced (and prolonged) hiatus and, in 2011’s tremendous Wasting Light, the most consistent collection of quality songs in the band’s career, to which it proved underwhelming by comparison at almost every turn. Watching Sonic Highways the series has actually helped me reevaluate Sonic Highways the album, and encouraged me to see it in a somewhat softer light. Though I know it’s unrealistic, the ideal way to experience the album, in my opinion, would be to accumulate it piecemeal in just this manner, enjoying each track’s full accompanying episode first and then attempting to absorb the song in its proper context. I’ve heard these songs as components of a traditional album, and, a handful of winners aside, found the majority of them dry at best. Married to, and the ostensible product of, an engaged, inquisitive, and loving exploration of America’s musical heritage, those same songs are afforded additional juice and depth of feeling by association, and the effect, I’ve found, carries forward into subsequent listens, independent of the show altogether. It’s not a quantum leap in quality or anything, but I can report that the difference is perceptible. I’m fairly certain the genesis behind including the performance aspect in the docu-series was to have each song serve not only as its episode’s climax but also a unifying “what did we learn in town?” segment, although outside of Grohl’s lyrics, which are pasted together in a fetching but haphazard manner and littered with free-associative references to the interviews contained in the episode, there is rarely much connection detectable between the locale and the song recorded therein. Of course, Grohl’s lyrics have rarely ever seemed to have excess meaning to begin with, so it’s interesting to see his process at work here.

The best episodes of Sonic Highways and the best songs off Sonic Highways do not necessarily always intersect, though I would say that every episode is at least probably worthwhile for a music fan to experience. Every song, objectively, is probably not, though the Foos do return/live up to their long and storied history of being a “singles” band, and none of the subpar tracks here are truly all that bad. I’ll skip through some highlights of both below, grading episode and track alike on a 10-point scale for the high-minded critical purposes of “just because”…

“Chicago / Something from Nothing”: The debut episode of Sonic Highways sets a strong tone immediately, and unfolds at a brisk, informative pace that sucks the viewer in, splitting time, among other things, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen jamming in the starstruck Foo control room, an extended brainpicking session with infamously opinionated, iconoclastic producer Steve Albini while touring his Electrical Audio studio, and even a visit to Grohl’s cousin, who took the then-barely teenaged goober to see local punk stalwarts Naked Raygun as his first ever concert. The real meat of the Chicago trip is found in its discussion of the migration of blues music from the Mississippi Delta to its new home in the Windy City, and its unquestioned coup is Grohl’s conversation with blues legend Buddy Guy, whose warm “seen it all” attitude offstage (“I came to Chicago looking for a dime, but I found a quarter”) is the perfect complement to his playing onstage, which is still fiery and almost impossibly soulful at the age of 78. All Foo lead tracks have inherent expectations to live up to, and “Something from Nothing” doesn’t disappoint, despite trying perhaps too hard. It builds slowly and deliberately from contemplative verse to escalating, rockier bridge to pummeling chorus, getting impressive extended mileage out of the album’s most indelible guitar riff. Rock solid start to both versions. Episode: 9; Song: 8.

“Washington, D.C. / The Feast and the Famine”: Grohl’s visit to D.C. is a homecoming (we spend some in his mother’s kitchen thumbing through photo albums) for the Northern Virginia product, and, as such, is steeped in personal memory to a slightly distracting degree. D.C. has a rich and singular place in the history of American music as a font of positive youth protest and a foundry for both 70s funk, particularly the loping, percussion-heavy homegrown sound called “Go-Go”, and hardcore punk, embodied by the episode’s headlining talking heads, Daryl Jenifer and Dr. Know from pioneering punk outfit Bad Brains and the ever articulate and passionate Minor Threat/Fugazi leader Ian MacKaye. I wasn’t quite engaged with the Washington stop the way I was with its predecessor (or some of its successors) – because of its comparatively lower profile, D.C. has always seemed a bit more inherently insular and enigmatic to me than some of the other locales, for which I at least arrived with a list of preconceptions to test – but it did send me on an impromptu mission to Amazon’s digital store to look further into the band Trouble Funk, perpetually party-planning ringleaders of the go-go scene at its height. On the song front, Washington inspired “The Feast and the Famine”, a snappy, instantly memorable old-style Foos rager that is my clear pick for best song on the album. Episode: 7; Song: 8.

“Nashville / Congregation”: As a “punk rock guy”, Grohl obviously doesn’t know entirely what to make of Music City, U.S.A. going in, but is so taken with its history and charmed by its people that his initial wariness melts away into nothing. The episode spends a lot of time on his budding friendship and surprising musical kinship with country outsider Zac Brown, for and with whom Grohl produced an album and appeared as a special guest on the CMA Awards respectively. Nashville is held up as a fairly magical place where songwriting is just as important as stage talent, if not more, by a group of soon to be recurring talking heads including Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson, but the highlight for me was Grohl’s extended conversation with effervescent country legend Dolly Parton and his tour of the historic Grand Ole Opry, two signifiers/welcoming beacons of a music scene truly unlike any other in America. For its part, “Congregation” bends over backwards to incorporate something of a countrified vibe into the muscular power pop the Foos are famous for. It’s a tricky maneuver the band more or less pulls off. Episode: 7; Song: 6.

“Austin / What did I do?/God as my Witness”: “Archie Bunker’s chair is in the Smithsonian!” Grohl laments during the apparent sensory overload that is his tour of Studio 6A, where, for close to forty years, the television show Austin City Limits presented arguably the most eclectic and representative overview of American music possible. “And the piano Tom Waits played on is stuck back there in a corner with a sheet thrown over it!” Austin’s stylistic diversity is front and center throughout, making this among the most fun and involving episodes of the entire trip. Grohl books time talking to the inimitable Willie Nelson, blues/rock guitar heroes Billy Gibbons, Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmie Vaughn (brother of the late Stevie Ray), punk bon vivant Gibby Haynes and psychedelic legend Roky Erickson about ACL’s enduring influence, the history of the annual SXSW mega-festival, and the rootsy, esoteric music scene they’re all so proud and protective of. As a longtime fan, I was disappointed that Gibbons’ inclusion didn’t angle into a discussion of ZZ Top, but Austin, in terms of pure subject matter, already has much more paint than will comfortably fit on a canvas. Track 4, despite being a two-parter, can’t quite stand up to the inspiration of its companion episode. “What did I do?” is the kind of lazy, jangly earworm Grohl can conjure in a minute’s time, though it’s somewhat redeemed by its pairing with yearning b-side “God as my Witness”. The two together comprise a track that is far from my favorite song on the album, though, in typical Foo-Tang Style, it’s also the song that tends to stick in my head whenever nothing else is obstructing its path. Episode: 9; Song: 6.

“Los Angeles / Outside”: The only overtly disappointing episode for me, mostly for the thoroughness with which it avoids exploring L.A.’s wild and wildly varying traditional exports (glam, hardcore, funk, hair metal, more) in favor of a deep dive into the admittedly little remarked upon “Desert Rock” scene of the 1990s, best exemplified by Kyuss and carried forward by Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age. Pat Smear gives Grohl a guided tour of his hometown, and recalls the heyday of Sunset Strip glitter rock and the rise, fall and fallout of his own first band, the abrasive but undeniably influential Germs. Joan Jett and DJ/club owner Rodney Bingenheimer are among the luminaries interviewed, though their cut up conversations about this “city of transients” lack the focus and insight of other installments. Palm Desert’s recording oasis Rancho de la Luna has a laid back, rumpled charm that is worth spending most but not all the time it is afforded, though it does seem to have much in the way of voodoo to offer. The Foos play their final song somewhere out in the desert, presumably because the film crew proper couldn’t fit into the tiny Rancho space. No matter their outward expressions of affection, practically everybody but Smear seems to see L.A. as a chore on one level or other, and that general feeling permeates the episode, though drummer Taylor Hawkins absolutely (and memorably) loses his sh*t upon meeting and collaborating with former Eagle Joe Walsh. That song, “Outside”, is the album’s snoozer, up tempo but comparatively anemic and virtually riffless, with an uninspired identikit chorus. It rambles on in search of nothing, like a Foo in the desert. Episode: 6; Song: 5.

“New Orleans / In the Clear”: Everything comes together during Grohl’s visit to New Orleans, the birthplace and preeminent hotbed of jazz music, a mysterious but welcoming city whose musical legacy, the show persuasively argues, is ingrained in its people to a degree no other can match. The Foos set up shop in the French Quarter’s historic Preservation Hall, a 53-year-old analog and wormwood structure/pilgrimage site where hungry kids and local royalty alike nightly play for rapt capacity crowds in the high dozens, sans ego, amplification or air conditioning. Grohl interviews jazz greats Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, homegrown heroes Cyril Neville and Trombone Shorty, learns the ins and outs of the traditional “jazz funeral” and even plays guitar with the third line as a horn company marches down Bourbon Street. New Orleans is painted as kaleidoscopic in diversity, gloriously alive, and fairly pulsating with music. If you never previously cared about making a visit someday, you may well find your mind changed here, or blown, or both. When the topic inevitably turns to Hurricane Katrina and its still-lingering aftereffects, the images and stories are harrowing and unforgettable. “I still have nightmares about things people told me happened to them,” says Neville, who, on tour at the time, saw events unfold to his horror from a Memphis hotel room. Watching these people in action, so open and collaborative and supportive of one another under any circumstances, so invested in the restoration and celebration of their community, and in the practice, protection, and, yes, preservation of their native art form, was moving and not a little inspiring. “In the Clear” is still the Highways song I have the most difficulty reliably grasping, but it has a steady, forceful, understated craftsmanship to it (plus brassy adornment courtesy of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band) that I innately respond to. Episode: 10; Song: 7.

“Seattle / Subterranean”: “I wouldn’t be here without Seattle,” Grohl muses toward the beginning of this episode, the raw, ragged strains of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” fading out behind his voiceover. “I have wonderful memories, and I have some heartbreaking ones. Seattle is like my phantom limb. I still feel it.” Despite detours and layovers with interview subjects like Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Death Cab for Cutie leader Ben Gibbard, and modern DIY rapper Macklemore, or producer Robert Lang, whose sprawling, mostly subterranean, possibly haunted, still under construction (after decades) recording studio must be seen to be believed (if then), it was inevitable, given its cache and Grohl’s personal history, that the Seattle stop would be overly concerned with the ‘90s grunge scene, the rise of Nirvana and Sub-Pop Records, and, finally, the gut-wrenching return to earth of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Much of this material has, of course, been presented before from slightly different angles, though never in a particularly reflective light, nor with this notable a tour guide. As a kid of the times, and an inveterate Nirvana fan, I still find it fascinating. Your mileage may vary. Grunge was a great shooting star, and the story of how this insular scene evolved from unassuming basement shows and arty pictures into the epicenter of popular music for a self-cannibalizing three-year stretch, then a spent husk and borderline self-parody, and on into a period of reflection and tentative renewal, is a tale that bears repeating. There are moments of pain and grace sprinkled throughout, as when Guns ‘N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan stops his interview to personally apologize to Grohl for not reaching out in the days following Cobain’s suicide, and hints of the “screw everything” fun that makes bored kids everywhere want to start bands to begin with, as when Grohl’s longtime roommate ambushes him with countless reels of the rough solo demos written during his tenure with Nirvana. Seattle, we are reminded time and again, is, at heart, an isolated and patently weird town, a possibly unholy though self-aware intersection of pure artistic expression and disappointing corporate compromise, that latter a stain it has sought to purge (mostly) ever since. Seattle never aspired to greatness, merely produced it on occasion. Also, the drummer from the Screaming Trees is the head cashier at the Sub-Pop store in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The album component seems more irrelevant here than ever, though “Subterranean” is musically lush and lyrically heartfelt, the kind of song that sounds flat and plain at first but subtly rewards repeat listens. Episode: 9; Song: 6.

“New York City / I Am a River”: My brain is swimming with both possibilities and requirements as I seek to do justice to the Sonic Highways finale, itself a fairly mind-bending summation and distillation of 70 or so years of New York City’s vast and varied contributions to American music. New York is not just a regional variant but the de facto epicenter of punk and hip hop, glam rock and the Greenwich Village folk scene, along with the countless nooks, crannies, and expanses bridging the gaps between them. NYC is the Ramones and Public Enemy, and Kiss and the Beastie Boys, and Paul Simon and the New York Dolls…and pretty much everyone who didn’t come from New York went to New York to chase their dreams. Grohl plunges into the deep end of the pool, interviewing Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore** and Kiss’ Paul Stanley, Chuck D, Mike D, and LL Cool J, mega-producer Rick Rubin, mega-progeny (of Woody) Nora Guthrie, and respected Rolling Stone critic David Fricke. The Foos themselves are more or less irrelevant to the larger show, and, I think, okay with that, although Grohl engages in a poignant, winding conversation about love, legacy, and depressing economic realities with the owner of his studio du jour, Soho’s Magic Shop (a quaint hole in the wall where, in 2012, David Bowie famously recorded The Next Day unbeknownst to anyone), and gives a family who recognizes him on the street an impromptu guided tour of the studio and control room. No matter how much Grohl is able to cram in, you’re left with the distinct feeling he’s only scratching the surface. I want a three-hour edit of this show. “I Am a River” is the band’s first attempt in some time at a truly epic closer – in this case to both the album and the series – and it is a stirring and worthy effort, a wall of guitar augmented by strings and the best vocal performance of the entire session. These are twin finishing notes that resonate and that, given the circumstances, could hardly have turned out better. Episode: 10; Song: 8.

**Moore surprisingly emerges as the all-star talking head for perhaps the entire series, recounting, among other anecdotes, how the gritty feel and image of punk in its formative days clashed head-on with established folk stars like CSNY, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, whose album covers, “were all just them on a boat, with a dog, or sitting on a porch, smoking a doob.” He recalls being instantly attracted to the Ramones’ seminal debut, sound unheard, just on the basis of its iconic album cover, with the four leather jacket-clad Bowery youth arranged as in a police lineup against a stark brick wall. “Led Zeppelin was, like, superhero rock. Robert Plant was all shirtless and muscular. Roger Daltrey, too. That guy (Joey Ramone) is just as tall and ugly as I am. What IS that? I gotta hear it.”

“Can you add strings to that?” Grohl asks noted producer/arranger Tony Visconti as they finish listening to a soaring early take of “I Am a River”. Both men, seasoned studio hands naturally receptive to inspiration’s spark, whatever its origins, are not merely taken with how the chorus is shaping up but something approaching giddy. “I’m already writing it,” he responds, smiling. The studio, by this point, is pretty much all smiles, and pushing fire code capacity. Part of the charm of Sonic Highways is how it elegantly transforms bystanders into storytellers and storytellers into collaborators, insisting on the inherent worth of every part of a regional music scene. Everyone has a tale to share, or a guitar lick, or production notes, or a personal testimony. Watching Sonic Highways makes me want to travel extensively and soak in all this music myself, which, of course, is any travelogue’s overarching goal. Job well done, then. I suppose the alternative will have to suffice, at least for the time being.

Sonic Highways the album is top heavy and a bit scattershot. It is a full step or maybe even two below its predecessor, though, like any Foo Fighters album, it shines brightly enough given the proper light. With its structure and mission statement, Sonic Highways the docu-series can only ever be as good as the subject matter it has to work with. That is rarely ever an issue, however, and the show achieves a blissful, almost serendipitous, groove in its later installments.*** It has an inherent worth and probable staying power its aural counterpart just can’t match, though, to be fair, it sets an entirely unrealistic standard. Grohl has described Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways as “a love letter to the history of American music”, which is an appealing sentiment, coming at such a highly fractious, fragmented, and impersonal time for the music industry. Commercial concerns (it almost certainly will move albums and get people talking) taken as a given and then laid aside, Sonic Highways the series is a real and commendable achievement, ambitious, insightful, and, I think, an important document that has the potential to be revisited periodically by future generations, whether or not they know or particularly care who the Foo Fighters are. At its absolute worst, the show is still engaging and borderline fascinating. At its best, it is near-miraculous and not a little moving, or at least to a (fellow) true believer like me.

***NYC, as a finale locale, is both fitting and practically predestined. Again, I await the 3-hour director’s cut. Breathlessly.

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