If you are curious about Dave Grohl, drummer from “tragic grunge poster boys” Nirvana, whose Nevermind album has just turned 30, The Storyteller might not be the memoir for you. The band’s legacy remains overshadowed by the 1994 suicide of singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain. Were they so inclined, Nirvana’s surviving members – Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic – could rehash the most painful time of their musical lives in perpetuity, such is the insatiable appetite for Cobain-themed rock’n’roll rubbernecking.
There’s relatively little here about all that. Cobain’s death was preceded by disenchantment, heroin addiction and a tempestuous marriage to Courtney Love. Grohl deals with the addiction factually and sadly, and steers round the latter entirely. In 2014 Grohl, Novoselic and Love ended years of suits and counter-suits over the rights to Nirvana’s music with a very public show of solidarity. It seems obvious that Grohl would not want to tear open cauterised wounds. He also has three daughters who will in all likelihood read this; the book feels like an intentionally PG take on what could be a much rowdier, more hair-raising tale. “Some day I’ll have to tell you the rest,” he writes in the acknowledgments. But it sounds like that might be over coffee – Grohl loves coffee, to the point of nearly having a heart attack – with his publisher rather than inside a dust jacket.
For anyone interested in how a hyperactive misfit from suburban Virginia became a third of Nirvana and went on to become a stadium-filling star with his own Foo Fighters, The Storyteller lives up to its billing. This is a compendium of vignettes from a rock’n’roll life lived with brio.
It starts as an account of how the young Grohl goes from grinding his jaws rhythmically, to fashioning a drum kit from pillows, to summoning the spirit of the Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham on a rudimentary altar and petitioning him for musical success. The seance worked a treat. He is now pals with Paul McCartney, eulogiser to the late Lemmy from Motörhead.
Rage and disaffection are fundamental to punk, grunge and rock. Equally, these genres run on bonhomie and positivity, coexisting alongside the nihilism. Grohl himself is, infamously, a Tiggerish character, genial and enthusiastic. An irrepressible yang to Cobain’s more anguished yin, he has always chosen life.
Raised in a household short on cash but big on maternal love, Grohl believes he probably had ADHD, such was his restlessness and inability to turn his natural curiosity into good grades. While his mother, whom he adores, encouraged him to seize the day, Grohl’s divorced father disowned him when he dropped out of school to join punk band Scream, playing venues Grohl wasn’t legally allowed to enter because of his age (he had lied to get the gig).
As with many memoirs, artists’ origin stories can resonate far more sonorously than their victory laps; so it is with Grohl’s. Those years spent crammed into vans, living off fumes and the kindness of female mud wrestlers are some of the most vivid here. The camaraderie and sudden violence of the international punk ecosystem is beautifully evoked as he lurches from high jinks with Italian tattooists to Dutch squat riots.
With Scream suddenly defunct, Grohl hears on the grapevine that Nirvana – then merely well-regarded – were interested in him. His second secondment finds him (not) sleeping on Cobain’s couch, kept awake by the butting of a desperate terrarium tortoise. Until he gets his first pay cheque, an emaciated Grohl eats nothing but cheap corndogs from a petrol station.
The band’s ascent is exciting and bewildering – until it isn’t. When Nirvana ends, he turns down a cushy number playing drums for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to record Foo Fighters’ terrific debut album in a makeshift home studio, playing every instrument himself.
The “fame” half of the book doesn’t dip exactly – Grohl is so rock’n’roll that he falls off a stage and breaks his leg at a Foo Fighters festival gig in Sweden in 2015, goes to hospital and returns to finish the show. But somehow, the A-list fun is less exhilarating than the time a very pre-fame Grohl is roped in to play drums for Iggy Pop.
He is constantly grateful for his good fortune, meeting his idols and not being disappointed, delirious at playing in a supergroup, Them Crooked Vultures, with Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. And while Grohl is a lively and thoughtful writer, deeper than his great bloke reputation, what rankles are the weird editorial decisions: the repetitions, and the changes to a weird font when he wants to emphasise a point. That hand-holding jars with the image of a bespectacled rock elder statesman on the cover, gazing maturely backwards.
• The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply