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Dave Grohl Revisits His Phantom Limb On ‘Sonic Highways’

Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

This is the one we’ve all been waiting for; ‘Sonic Highways’ is about how place influences music, but it’s also about director and star Dave Grohl. “I wouldn’t be here without Seattle,” the head Foo Fighter says. “Seattle’s like my phantom limb.”

Neither would a lot of great music made over the last 25 years. Not since the British Invasion had a regional scene exerted as much global influence as the Seattle scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s. As is true of a lot of regional scenes, it grew out of one tiny seed: isolation.

Seattle was so far off of the cultural map that touring bands rarely, if ever, made it to the Pacific Northwest. This led to a do it yourself movement quite similar to what ‘Sonic Highways’ covered in the Washington D.C. episode. If the bands won’t come to you, then you must become the band, and that’s what kids did. You know the names: Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Green River, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana. These were just local guys playing for each other.

Which isn’t to say that no music had ever broken out of Seattle. Jimi Hendrix was a Seattle boy, after all, as was Ray Charles. Heart, too. The real find of the episode, though, is a mid-’60s Seattle band named the Sonics that can only be described as proto-grunge. Check these guys out:

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The DIY ethos didn’t just permeate the bands playing the clubs, either. We’re treated to a brief history of Sub Pop, the little fanzine that became one of (if not the) most important labels in independent music. These were the guys who first released Green River, after all — the band that spawned both Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. If that’s all they ever did then Sub Pop would have earned its place in history, but they also released the first albums by Soundgarden and Nirvana.

And speaking of Soundgarden, the cover photo of Chris Cornell on that first release, ‘Screaming Life,’ was taken by Seattle local Charles Peterson. Even if you don’t know that album you recognize Peterson’s work. His blurry, black and white photos of Seattle bands during the period are the image most of us have of that time and place. That’s by design: When Sub Pop saw Peterson’s work, they knew how iconic it would be.

Peterson shares a great story about the one that got away. He attended Nirvana’s first Seattle gig, shot the opening act, and split without ever taking a single photograph of Nirvana because he didn’t like them and couldn’t imagine them going anywhere.

Nirvana. That’s really what this episode is all about, It can’t be about anything else. Nirvana is the vehicle that turned Grohl into a superstar. Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear was sort of a silent fourth member of the band, too. Even more importantly, this is where the two men lost their friend, Kurt Cobain. Bassist Duff McKagan, another Seattle boy, apologizes to an off-camera Grohl for not calling after Cobain’s death. “Thanks man,” we hear a very sincere Grohl reply.

Every ‘Sonic Highways’ episode results in a song recorded in a local studio, this time at the wildly eccentric Robert Lang Studio. Lang is a Seattle native who grew up just three blocks from the location of his studio, which he has literally been digging out of a hillside for the last 30 years. The joint started as a single garage, but Lang would trade bands studio time for shovel time, removing 400 truckloads of dirt from the side of the hill to build a labyrinth of underground stone and marble rooms.

Digging deep emotionally, recording underground. What else could the Foos name this week’s song but ‘Subterranean?’

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Next: Foo Fighters Premiere Music Video for New Orleans-Inspired ‘In the Clear’

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