Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Virginia Hanlon Grohl watched as her son David — as she calls him — developed a love for music but struggled in school. Through her experience as a teacher, the single mother knew that the then-17-year-old drummer would learn actually more from touring Europe with the D.C. punk band Scream than he would in class — so when he asked if he could hit the road and leave high school behind, she said yes.
“He needed to drop out of school to do that, and by that time, he’d been through 11 years of school, of going to classes — not every day, but sometimes. Everyone liked him. He was a nice kid, but he just didn’t do well in school. He wasn’t interested,” Virginia tells Yahoo Music. “So when he got the chance to go to Europe, I thought, ‘There’s where you get an education. That’s going to be better than showing up in somebody’s geology class tomorrow.’ I thought that was a great idea.”
Dave Grohl, of course, then went on to join Nirvana just before they rocketed to success, and when that band dissolved following frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide, he became a frontman himself with his equally successful Foo Fighters. Virginia was often along for the ride, and those experiences led her to share her tale — and anecdotes from the rockin’ moms of Michael Stipe, Dr. Dre, Miranda Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Amy Winehouse, Tom Morello, Josh Groban, and other famous musicians — in From Cradle to Stage: Stories From the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars.
From Cradle to Stage offers plenty of insight into Virginia’s superstar son’s life, beginning with the foreword penned by Dave Grohl himself. In the intro, Dave reveals some of his earliest musical memories with his mother, including riding in the car listening to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” with Virginia singing Mick Jagger’s backing vocals and Dave singing Simon’s. Dave was just 6 years old at the time. “He has an ear, as they say,” Virginia says. “There was always a lot of music in our house. It was just the three of us — my son, my daughter, and me — and when we were in the car, we always sang or played music games.”
Dave’s musical education included accompanying his mom and sister to summertime gigs at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. “When the Motown acts came, I would go see them and they would go with me, and we’d dance around our blankets. And I’d go to their punk-rock shows with them,” Virginia recalls. Initially, however, she didn’t realize that her son’s early talent and love for music were unique. “For a long time, I thought everyone could harmonize and everyone had rhythm,” she shrugs.
Eventually, the teenage Dave auditioned for Scream, and four years after that, he joined Nirvana shortly before the band hit the big time. That experience allowed Virginia to witness the highs and lows of the music industry through her son’s eyes. “I got to watch the thing build into something that no one ever thought would happen,” she marvels. “I got to travel a little bit. My first trip to California was for a bunch of shows up and down the West Coast. That was fun — and then, it wasn’t fun anymore. It just happened really fast.” Still working as a high school teacher at the time, Virginia retreated to her classroom.
Many years later, Virginia got the idea to write From Cradle to Stage from music business attorney Jill Berliner, whom she’d known since the Nirvana days, while chatting at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Berliner helped Virginia set up some of the initial interviews with the mothers of three of her clients — Dr. Dre’s mother Verna Griffin, Geddy Lee’s mom Mary Weinrib, and Dave Matthews’s mother Val — and accompanied her on her earliest meetings, but after that, Virginia was on her own.
Initially, Virginia went “mother to mother,” mailing letters to the moms of famous musicians hoping to get a response. Then she followed up with phone calls to the artists’ managers. “It was a slow start trying to get people interested in the beginning,” she admits. “Not everyone signed on enthusiastically. But the more people I got interested, the more came on board, so it got easier.”
Her hit list for the book included the mothers of artists she personally likes, but she also sought out musicians from a number of different genres and made sure to feature mom of female artists. “They were hard to get, actually, and I think I understand why,” she says. “Women often have more gossip written about them in interviews, and I got turned down by all kinds of people. But for the most part I chose people whose music I really admired, like Gary Clark Jr., Warren Haynes, and Miranda Lambert.”
In doing the interviews, Virginia noted that there are some commonalities in bringing up a future rock star. One is what she calls “the age of recognition. That’s when they realize that music is my life and there’s nothing else,” she explains. “And that happens right around 12 or 13. That was a universally shared situation. My son and I have talked about that a lot since then. There must be some little switch in the brain that when you’re 12 or 13 that kicks in and says, ‘I must do this.'”
Another common bond is that the mothers profiled in the book were, like Virginia, supportive of their children’s dreams of musical stardom. “Maybe they were a little late in doing it — like Geddy Lee’s mom really didn’t want to do it, but she finally said OK — but most of them, when they realized that this is what it’s going to be, did whatever they could.” Virginia points to Gary Clark Jr.’s mom, Sandi. “She was an accountant, and she bought a book on how to make a record and how to put a record out, how to do a website. She started everything for him, because she had been laid off and she had some time.”
Some of the mothers also let their aspiring-rocker kids quit college to pursue their dreams, as was the case of Stipe’s parents, Marianne and John. “They said, ‘You can drop out of school and you can always go back.’ He didn’t expect them to say that, but they did. Most of [the parents] said, ‘You can practice in my basement,’ and most of them were OK with it. They knew it was risky and nothing was guaranteed, but they knew that was going to be the program.”
Although Virginia did have to settle for phone interviews with some of the actual musicians, when writing her book she insisted on face-to-face interviews with the mothers, and she even traveled to meet her fellow rock moms in their private homes. “I wanted to see where they lived and the house where the person was brought up,” she says. “And the area — the geography, I think, plays a part in all this. So does the time in history that the mother occupies.”
Grohl cites Weinrib, the mother of Rush singer/bassist Lee, and Ellen Taylor, the mother of Gov’t Mule singer/guitarist Warren Haynes, as examples. “The fact that Geddy Lee’s mom was in a concentration camp and came to Canada later in her life, that’s really significant to his upbringing, and so is Warren Haynes’s mother growing up in a poor family of 10 in North Carolina and him being born there. That’s what introduced him to the mountain music and Celtic tunes and all that.”
Some of these meetings resulted in lasting friendships, as is the case with Lee’s mother. “We became really close friends,” she says. “We’ve been in touch ever since. It started a relationship with both of our families” — so much so that when Lee’s nephew Rob Higgins and his band Dearly Beloved recorded at Dave Grohl’s Los Angeles-area studio last year, Virginia brought them dinner.
Through Virginia’s meetings with the various mothers, From Cradle to Stage readers learn some fascinating stories. Along with the tale of Lee’s parents meeting in a concentration camp is the bombshell that Miranda Lambert’s parents, Bev and Rick, worked as private eyes who were hired by the lawyers working for Paul Jones to investigate Bill Clinton. “I had no idea that was coming up,” she says. “And [Miranda’s] mother is just a firecracker. She is really high-energy and fun. I was at their house for seven or eight hours. They made lunch for me and we just had a really great time. It gave me a really good taste of their family dynamic, and then I met Miranda when she was [in Los Angeles]. They have a great story and I could only tell part of it. That’s a whole book in itself. I’m really counting on [Bev] to write that book.”
Another mother who particularly impressed Virginia was Mary Morello. “She is 92, and she was a very early activist in the anti-censorship movement. And this was way before [Rage Against the Machine founder] Tom started being active in those scenes. She was ahead of him on that.” Mary Morello’s background also includes a stint teaching in Germany after World War II, living in Japan, and traveling to Africa, where she met her husband (Tom’s father). “Her life is just fascinating, and then when you see what Tom is like because of that. He has a Harvard degree and formed his band and got out on the road, and she thought it was great. They’re pretty incredible people. I have great admiration for the Morellos.”
As for her son’s late bandmate, Virginia does write about some of her interactions with the Kurt Cobain and Kurt’s mother, Wendy, but she didn’t interview Wendy Cobain for From Cradle to Stage. When asked by Yahoo Music about the Cobains, Virginia understandably bristles, noting that most of the stories in her book are happy ones. “And I’m not doing the next book on the unhappy stories,” she stresses. “That’s for you.”