What Foo Fighters Song Is About Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain?
Though Foo Fighters are now Rock and Roll Hall of Famers in their own right, there will always be a fair amount of fascination with Dave Grohl's pre-Foos band Nirvana and the overlap between the two acts. Among the most searched questions concerning the Foo Fighters on the internet are ones that tie the two acts together. Fans remain interested in how Grohl may have incorporated his Nirvana past into the Foo Fighters present, though the singer has openly expressed how uncomfortable the topic of Nirvana remains in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain's 1994 death by suicide.
Dave Grohl joined Nirvana in 1990, having previously played in the Washington, D.C.-based band Scream in the late '80s. He appeared on their massive 1991 sophomore set Nevermind as well as the 1993 follow-up In Utero and the band's 1994 MTV Unplugged in New York set, but Nirvana's hugely successful run came to a conclusion with Cobain's death, leading Grohl to start the next chapter of his musical career with Foo Fighters.
What Foo Fighters Song Is About Nirvana's Kurt Cobain?
This remains one of the most searched questions about the Foo Fighters, and while there has been speculation concerning several songs having ties to Cobain and Nirvana, there remains only one that definitively was written about Cobain.
One of the most popular Foo Fighters songs and the one most frequently assumed to be about Cobain is "My Hero," though Grohl has downplayed that notion in multiple interviews over the years. At best, it might have been part of a variety of influences that factored into the song, but Grohl has often stopped short of noting Cobain's impact on the song.
After being asked by Howard Stern in a 1999 interview if "My Hero" was "loosely based on Kurt Cobain," Grohl paused before commenting, "Errr, it’s kinda more about heroes that are ordinary.” He then added that he looked up to "regular people, more than up to [celebrities]."
Then, in 2008, when John McCain used the track for his presidential campaign without the band's permission, the band issued a statement that read, “The saddest thing about this is that ‘My Hero’ was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential. To have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song.”
The closest Grohl has ever supposedly come to confirming a Cobain connection to "My Hero" came when the singer was alleged to have said, "There's definitely an element of Kurt in that song."
Foo Fighters, "My Hero"
So if "My Hero" is not definitively about Cobain, what Foo Fighters song is? That would be "Friend of a Friend" that appeared on the 2005 album, In Your Honor. The song's origins actually date back to 1990 when Grohl had first met his Nirvana bandmates and was staying in Cobain's Olympia, Washington apartment.
The song actually reflects Grohl's first impressions of both Cobain and fellow Nirvana musician Krist Novoselic, with lyrical nods to borrowing a guitar from Cobain and the reveal of a musician who "thinks he drinks too much."
Reflecting on the song in a 2005 Q Magazine interview, Grohl shared that he was concerned how fans would take it that he had shared a song about Cobain. "But also I didn't want to edit myself. I recorded it, people thought it was a powerful song and so there it is," he concluded.
"I'd just moved in with Kurt. I didn't know anybody. I had a drum set packed in one box and flew up there. I would stay up till the sun came up and sleep all day," he commented. "Olympia, Washington, is fucking depressing enough and I was living with this person that I didn't know. But he had a four-track so I wrote songs: 'Marigold' and 'Friend of a Friend.' It was an observation of Kurt and Krist and I."
Foo Fighters, "Friend of a Friend"
An earlier version of "Friend of a Friend" was recorded for a 1992 cassette album titled Pocketwatch with Grohl using the pseudonym Late! to hide his identity. It was the first acoustic track that Grohl had ever written. Pocketwatch featured 10 tracks from two separate session in 1990 and 1991, with Grohl teaming up with Barrett Jones to record the music.
Among the tracks that also appeared on that collection included "Marigold," which was initially titled "Color Pictures of a Marigold" on the Pocketwatch release. A re-recorded version of "Marigold" with Novoselic on bass but absent Cobain would be used as a b-side for Nirvana's In Utero single "Heart-Shaped Box." It would also turn up on Nirvana's With the Lights Out box set and found its way onto a Foo Fighters record with the live album Skin & Bones. Though the track is not specifically about Cobain, its origins come from that period where Grohl had first lived with the singer after joining Nirvana.
Foo Fighters, "Marigold"
By 1992, Grohl again got the recording itch, and this time Cobain caught wind of his working outside of the band on music. The musician had been shy to share his work initially, but with some encouragement from Cobain he eventually did. “Kurt heard that [I recorded something], and kissed me on the face, as he was in a bath,” Grohl revealed, as shared by Far Out Magazine. “He was so excited. He was like, ‘I heard you recorded some stuff with Barrett [Jones].’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He was like, ‘Let me hear it.’ I was too afraid to be in the same room as he listened to it.”
Cobain was well aware of Grohl's talent, with Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg telling the Washington Post, "Kurt just said to me, 'I don’t think you realize how good a singer Dave is, but I hear him singing harmonies every night.' It was like he was really doing it so I would know this because there was this very fraternal side of him and a sweet side of him, but also it had a touch of envy in it. I mean he was competitive."
Among the 1992 demos that Grohl had worked on at the time, the songs "Alone + Easy Target," "Big Me" and "Exhausted" ended up on Foo Fighters' debut record after Grohl decided to continue with music following Cobain's death. But, once again, the tracks were not directly about Cobain.
Do Foo Fighters Play Nirvana Songs?
One of the other most researched questions concerning the Nirvana-Foo Fighters overlap is whether or not Foo Fighters play Nirvana songs. That, for the most part, can be answered with an asterisk as throughout Foo Fighters career, Grohl has been keen to keep a clear delineation between the two bands with which he is most often associated.
Part of the reason for that is the traumatic way in which Nirvana's career came to an end.
“For years I couldn’t even listen to any music, let alone a Nirvana song,” explained Grohl in a 2018 GQ interview. “When Kurt died, every time the radio came on, it broke my heart.”
“I don’t put Nirvana records on, no," he continued. "Although they are always on somewhere. I get in the car, they’re on. I go into a shop, they’re on. For me, it’s so personal. I remember everything about those records; I remember the shorts I was wearing when we recorded them or that it snowed that day.”
That said, Grohl has revisited some songs with Nirvana ties over the years while playing with Foo Fighters. The aforementioned "Marigold" has been played 123 times during Foo Fighters shows, per Setlist.fm. But as noted before, that song was a Nirvana B-side that also lays claim to being a recorded Foo Fighters song appearing on a Foos album.
One other song with Nirvana ties that Foo Fighters have performed is "Molly's Lips," a Nirvana cover initially recorded by The Vaselines. The track was first serviced as a vinyl-only Nirvana split single in 1991 with The Fluid's "Candy" being the other half of the split. It then later appeared on the 1992 tour EP Hormoaning and the Nirvana rarities set Incesticide. According to Setlist.fm, the Foos covered it twice — once at Edinburgh, Scotland's Murrayfield Stadium in 2015 and a second time at Seattle's Safeco Field in Seattle with Krist Novoselic sitting in with the band.
Foo Fighters + Krist Novoselic Perform Nirvana's Cover of The Vaselines' "Molly's Lips" in Seattle
One other instance of Foo Fighters playing Nirvana in concert was a rather sneaky inclusion that found them doing a live mash-up collaboration with pop star Rick Astley at Japan's Summer Sonic festival in 2017. The band invited the "Never Gonna Give You Up" singer onstage during their set and managed to play the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" backing with Astley singing the "Never Gonna Give You Up" vocals. Though Astley and Foo Fighters would recreate their live mash-up in future onstage collaborations, the Foo's used "Everlong" for backing instead.
Foo Fighters / Rick Astley, "Never Gonna Give You Up / Smells Like Teen Spirit" at 2017 Summer Sonic Festival
Where Novoselic is concerned, the Nirvana bassist has found his way back into Foo Fighters' orbit on multiple occasions over the last decade. He first appeared on the Foo Fighters 2011 Wasting Light album playing bass and accordion on the song "I Should Have Known."
He then later turned up on Dave Grohl's compilation album to promote the Sound City documentary in 2012. The Sound City: Real to Reel set included the song "Cut Me Some Slack" with Grohl and fellow Nirvana members Pat Smear and Novoselic fronted by Paul McCartney. "Dave, Pat and I hadn't played together for 20 years, until last year, when we were in the room with Paul McCartney, of all people," recalled Novoselic. "He's a left-handed guitar player, like Kurt. He's playing this mean slide … All of a sudden, this song comes together. It came together in an hour. I looked at Dave and Pat and kind of forgot about Paul. I was like, 'We haven't done this in so long.' It's like we walked out that door 20 years ago, we walked back in and it was all still there. In the film, when Paul says, 'I didn't know I was in the middle of a Nirvana reunion . . ." Novoselic would also return for the special Sound City shows in support of the documentary and album.
Grohl, Novoselic and Smear also reunited onstage at Nirvana's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2014, utilizing Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, St. Vincent and Lorde to front the band during the performance portion of their induction.
One other Foo-Nirvana crossover happened in 2018 when Foo Fighters curated Cal Jam '18 in San Bernardino, California, and this one finally saw the Grohl, Smear and Novoselic trio go down the Nirvana path outside of their Rock Hall induction.
The Foo Fighters first played a stellar career-spanning setlist, but when it came time for the encore, only Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Pat Smear returned to the stage with Krist Novoselic, who had played earlier in the day with his band Giants in the Trees.
Fans started to figure out this was a Foo-free Nirvana reunion with the trio soon joined by Deer Tick's John McCauley who sang on "Serve the Servants," "Scentless Apprentice" and "In Bloom," while Joan Jett led the band through "Breed," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "All Apologies."
Nirvana Reunion at Cal Jam '18
While Grohl, Novoselic and Smear have been reluctant to go down the Nirvana path with Foo Fighters, that doesn't mean they haven't performed the material together without an audience. In 2021, Grohl revealed on SiriusXM's Howard Stern Show that they have randomly played together and even recorded some of the material from their jams.
"We like to be together. We like to see each other and if there are instruments around or a studio that’s available, we’ll just get together and kind of jam, you know?," explained Grohl. “And we don’t like run through a big old Nirvana setlist but we do like to fool around and sometimes as we’re fooling around, songs happen. And you know if we’re in a studio we’ll record them. So we’ve recorded some stuff that’s really cool. But we’ve never done anything with it. But to us, I think, to us, it’s, it’s more just like friends, jamming around, it doesn’t really seem like any sort of like big official reunion or anything.”
It should also be noted that there have been instances of Foo Fighters digging into Nirvana that also didn't happen on the concert stage.
While Foo Fighters were recording for their 2014 Sonic Highways documentary series, we got an impromptu outtake of a Foo Fighters jam that included "Smells Like Teen Spirit." While hanging at the Austin City Limits recording space, the band looked for familiar riffs to play between "What Did I Do?" and "God as My Witness" on the record. Having messed around with "Stairway to Heaven," "Smoke on the Water," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Layla," Grohl dropped the opening riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The fun continued with Grohl adding bits of "Come as You Are" and "Lithium" before returning to the song.
One other instance of Grohl revisiting his Nirvana past came in 2021 as Dave Grohl booked several shows to promote his Storyteller autobiography. Though Foo Fighters were not involved with the show, Grohl did step behind the kit for audiences to play drums while a recording of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" played.
Dave Grohl Plays Drums to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at 'Storyteller' Show in New York
So, the answer to whether or not Foo Fighters play Nirvana material is that it only seems to happen in the rarest of situations, even when Krist Novoselic is around to guest with the band. Grohl seems to prefer to keep any Nirvana-related performing separate from the rest of his Foo Fighters bandmates.