Taylor Hawkins died on Saturday. It’s one of those rock and roll deaths that hit like a bolt out of the blue. (Charlie Watts is another, and it’s even deeply affected his replacement, Steve Jordan.)
Hawkins rose to fame when he joined the Foo Fighters in their tumultuous early days. What started as an interesting side project for Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl suddenly needed to become more. The Foos were a band in name only with Grohl playing all the instruments in the studio. With the death of Kurt Cobain, the name to mask his nascent album as something more than, “The drummer thinks he can write songs,” Grohl welded a touring band together with Pat Smear, Nirvana’s tour guitarist, and Sunny Day Real Estate’s Nate Mendehl on bass and William Goldsmith on drums. But was it a band?
Grohl immediately Bonded with Mendehl, the only original Foo besides Grohl to be there from the beginning. Smear was basically helping his friend and bandmate out of a jam. Goldsmith?
Goldsmith is the Pete Best of the Foo Fighters, except Grohl didn’t want to fire him, and unlike Best, now the self-appointed lighthouse keeper of the Beatles’ earliest days in Liverpool (including Ringo’s work with Rory Storm), Goldsmith is still unhappy with his exit.
Except a band needs to gel if it’s even going to have the standard five-year longevity most semi-successful bands had in the pre-Spotify days. The Foos had a bass player, and they had Pat Smear on borrowed time, but they didn’t become a band until Taylor Hawkins. Hawkins is not the Ringo Starr of the band. For starters, Ringo is too subtle, too workmanlike for a guy like Hawkins.
No, imagine if the Beatles had replaced Best with Ginger Baker of Cream, minus the anger management issues and even more amped up than the loudest jazz drummer who ever lived. That was Taylor Hawkins. And it was magic for Grohl. He could focus on songwriting and leave his beloved drums to his “brother from another mother.”
Goldsmith looked like a kid in a rock band. Hawkins was a kid behind the kit, and the one guy who could put the beats where Grohl wanted them. Or more importantly, where they actually needed to be. He took the Foo Fighters from that band by the drummer from Nirvana to the FOO FIGHTERS. He had a distinctive sound, hence the Ginger Baker comparison. Equal parts Neil Peart and John Bonham, he passed on a gig with Guns N Roses (probably wise as Axl managed to have more ex-members in “GNR” in ten years than Yes had over fifty years) when Grohl called and asked if he knew any drummers. His manager thought he was insane. Pass on GNR to be Grohl’s stand in on stage?
But Taylor was the partner Grohl didn’t know he needed. I’ve often said it’s Dave’s band, but there is no Foo Fighters without Taylor. Nate, Chris Shifflett, and especially Nate Medehl all play important roles. Pat Smear, despite leaving for over a decade, was also a much needed presence. And let’s not forget Rami Jaffe, whose position as sideman necessitated making him a Foo so the Rock Hall would acknowledge his presence.
But Taylor was part of the core. He was Grohl’s muse. While Dave was up front pogo-sticking to the music, Taylor would channel Animal from the Muppets with his wild hair and manic grin. The almost feral image belied a precision coupled with power. I mentioned Peart and Bonham earlier. He had Bonham’s stage presence and bombast, but the beats Taylor freely admitted he learned from Peart. Dave didn’t need to be the perfectionist he tried to be with Goldsmith. Taylor Hawkins showed up with his own array of techniques and changeups. It was like hiring Ringo Starr and getting Baker, Bonham, and Moon in the same package.
Like a lot of people in his profession, Taylor struggled with addiction. As of this writing, it’s coming out that the struggle had not ended or had reared its ugly head over the weekend. Which is sad because he was able to project more than someone looking for the next high. A couple of friends met him over the years, one not recognizing him as they were in a crowd at some other event. Both said he was a big, goofy kid who could barely contain his excitement. And talented. He was the main backup singer. He played keyboards. At that memorable sellout show at Wembley, he took lead vocals as Dave went behind the kit to play with his Them Crooked Vultures bandmate John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page on “Rock and Roll.” That was for Dave, but damn did Taylor channel Robert Plant beautifully. I seriously doubt Plant would have minded if Pagey, Jones, and Jason Bonham took him on the road. (The fans might have, but that’s a different story.)
The Foos are the last big rock band. Metallica seems to be comfortable with middle age. We’re down to two Beatles (three, if you count Best, but Pete seems to have had his fun.) Eddie Van Halen is gone. Other bands have become a shell of themselves with Roger Waters whining how he’s ignored by a band he quit almost forty years ago.
But the Foos are six – actually seven or eight, depending on side players at a given show – hardworking musicians gathered around a guy who absolutely loves laying the groundwork for all they do, with Taylor as the frenetic, banging heart of it all. The others looked shell-shocked as they returned to LA Monday morning, Grohl looking like his wife or one of his daughters died. They have a habit of attracting good musicians and know themselves well enough to carry on if they choose.
But, goddamn, I’m going to miss that wide-eyed boy behind the kit.