When Nirvana imploded at the height of its popularity in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s shocking suicide, Dave Grohl found himself in an impossible position.
On one hand, he was arguably now the most sought-after rock drummer in the world, and could have his pick to play in literally any band. As a guy who lived and breathed music his whole life, it was a dream come true.
At the same time, though, he understandably was too grief-stricken to jump back into the world of professional music, still deeply mourning the tragic loss of one of his closest friends in Cobain. Not to mention, being in the biggest band in the world one day and waking up to it all ending the next was a headfuck that even the most well-adjusted human being would struggle to mentally reconcile.
So Grohl laid low, staying out of the spotlight and abandoning music entirely. That is, until, one of his childhood idols unexpectedly came knocking a short while later.
As Dave would later recall, “This voice on the phone saying that Tom Petty wants me to play drums with him. I’m like what’s he calling me for? He couldn’t find a good drummer. It was the first gig that I played since Nirvana had ended.”
Grohl ultimately jumped at the job offer, which was a temporary fill-in situation that saw him playing drums for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live. It was exactly the creative spark that Grohl needed at that moment in his life, later recalling that “It was the first time I’d looked forward to playing the drums since Nirvana had ended.”
The gig went so well, that Tom Petty himself offered Dave a permanent drumming job in the Heartbreakers. But despite idolizing Petty, Grohl ultimately made the tough decision to turn it down for a few reasons.
Later reflecting to Howard Stern about his rationale, he said “I just felt weird about going right back to the drums, because it would have just reminded me of being in Nirvana… It would have been sad, for me personally. It would have been an emotional thing to be behind the drumset every night and not have Kurt there.
“So I was like, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m gonna try this other thing’.” This other “thing,” quite famously, would go on to become a little rock band known as Foo Fighters. At the time, it was just some demos with Dave writing and recording all the music. But even these rough demos were so special that Tom Petty and his crew themselves knew that Grohl had to follow his own creative path.
Petty’s keyboardist Benmont Tench encouraged Grohl to go out on his own saying, “He played me this little cassette he’d been working on. It was the first Foo Fighters record. I was like ‘Shit Dave, you should do that.’ He had too much energy and too much talent to just be the drummer for our band.”
Tom Petty himself would later admit that he knew Dave had to pursue Foo Fighters, too, saying: “We’re an older bunch of guys and I thought he would be happier doing his own thing with this great talent that he wasn’t using and with this great opportunity. Not that I wouldn’t have hired him in a second.”
While Foo Fighters now are one of the biggest rock bands of all time, even Grohl knew how risky it was at the time to reject Petty’s opportunity: “I just remember putting the phone down after calling Tom and just thinking. Okay, we’ll see what happens.”
Despite not joining forces permanently, Grohl’s admiration for Tom Petty remains unwavering, and he continues to pay tribute to the legendary musician by regularly covering Petty’s songs, such as “Breakdown,” during Foo Fighters’ live shows.