Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins and How To Leave a Legacy, by GraciAnn Hicks
Two weeks ago, Foo Fighters held a tribute concert to honor the life of its drummer of 25 years, Taylor Hawkins. He died March 25 of this year. Rolling Stone reported that Hawkins called paramedics because he was experiencing chest pain, but he died before they arrived. A later toxicology test found the presence of 10 different substances. Although the cause of his death has been disputed, no one can argue against the enormous impact he had on the music industry.
A plethora of famous and influential musicians joined forces for the tribute concert Saturday, Sept. 3, in Wembley Stadium in London to celebrate Hawkins’ life and contribution to the rock genre.
The star-studded lineup featured Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen, Paul McCartney of The Beatles, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, Stewart Copeland of The Police, Travis Barker of Blink-182, and more. The collection of rock icons performed a total of 50 songs to commemorate the life of a man who “lived and loved music to an insatiable degree,” Foo Fighters wrote in a press release.
A second tribute concert will be held this coming Saturday, Sept. 27, in Los Angeles.
The gathering of dozens of acclaimed artists and more than 80,000 fans, as well as on-stage tributes and social media posts from countless other celebrities all emphasize the degree to which Hawkins’ death shook the music world. But rather than dwell on the loss of his life, fans and casual listeners alike should celebrate the ways he influenced the music industry.
Before joining Foo Fighters in 1997, Hawkins was the touring drummer for Alanis Morissette, a ’90s alternative-rock icon in her own right. Joining Foo Fighters took guts, as he would have not only been measuring up against their former drummer, William Goldsmith, but also against Foo Fighters founder and frontman Dave Grohl, who first rose to fame as Nirvana’s drummer.
Hawkins quickly claimed his place, though, and is fondly remembered for the enthusiastic energy he brought to the stage at Foo Fighters’ concerts. Few drummers have the ability to charm a crowd from their location on stage — as they are usually positioned behind the rest of the band and are seated while their bandmates are standing — the way that Hawkins did.
With a radiant smile often on his face and a youth-like passion for drumming, Hawkins’ love for music washed over every crowd he played for. Between banter with Grohl and a frequent mid-set swap wherein Hawkins took the mic and Grohl took the drum kit to perform Queen’s Somebody to Love, crowds were enamored by the band’s chemistry and made to feel like part of the Foos family.
In 2019, as part of the Sonic Temple Art & Music Festival in Columbus, I watched a Foo Fighters performance which closed off the three-day festival. Before breaking into “Somebody to Love,” Hawkins imitated Freddie Mercury’s practice of warming up a crowd by having it sing a series of ay-oh’s back to him. The most famous example of this took place during Queen’s 1985 set for Live Aid, which was recreated in the 2018 movie Bohemian Rhapsody.
The act proved to loosen Hawkins’ nerves, as he was famously known for terrible stage fright. At first, he seemed uncomfortable in front of the crowd without the security of the drum kit to hide behind, but as he sang, accompanied by Palaye Royale frontman Remington Leith, his personality began to shine through. The crowd loved him as much from the front of the stage as it did behind his kit.
Outside of drumming, Hawkins recorded the lead vocals to Sunday Rain off the album Concrete and Gold (2017). He also sang with various side projects, such as The Birds of Satan and NHC, which was a supergroup with Dave Navarro and Chris Chaney of Jane’s Addiction.
While his drumming drew upon punk percussion, his singing was reminiscent of folk-rock vocals, with a growling rasp and an even, controlled tone. He slid between notes with a playful bluesy-ness, as is demonstrated on NHC’s Lazy Eyes and You’re No Good At Life No More from Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders’.
In addition to his masterful drumming and impressive vocal abilities, Hawkins is also given writing credit on every Foo Fighters album from 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose through 2022’s Dream Window, which came out the day of Hawkins’ death. This means he contributed to the lyrics and instrumentation of some of Foo Fighters’ biggest hits, including Learn to Fly, Times Like These, All My Life, Best of You, and The Pretender. These songs all reflect an intentional, measured approach to drumming; Hawkins understood the importance of the absence of drums as much as their presence.
This can be heard especially in “Best of You,” which completes the first verse and first chorus without drums before Hawkins comes in with a commanding beat that completely drives the explosive bridge. He then fades out again during the fourth verse, leaving an open space for Grohl’s tender vocals, where he sings: “I’m getting tired of starting again / Somewhere new.”
Hawkins’ drumming also wasn’t self-serving or over-the-top without purpose. He approached each song with creativity and an ability to get stadiums filled with people rocking, but he also played with discipline to keep the band in place. “Times Like These,” one of the Foo’s biggest radio hits, is written in an unconventional 7/4 time signature, which is often difficult for listeners and band members to follow without an anchor point. Hawkins serves as this anchor on the track, providing cohesion that keeps his bandmates in sync and makes the time signature sound right at place.
Still, one of the more emotional Foo Fighters songs comes to mind: My Hero. It was written and recorded before Hawkins joined the band, but he made entirely his own with every performance. The tune leads with heavy drums and palm muted guitars before erupting into the expressive riff that defines the track. Percussion rules every second of the song, especially during the chorus when the guitars dial it back to let the thunderous kick of the bass drum take control.
Hawkins had perfected the performance.
As Foo Fighters closed out its first tribute concert with “My Hero,” Hawkins’ son, Shane, took to the drum kit with an emotional performance that could bring even casual listeners to tears. I could dote on Hawkins for his influence on the music industry with thousands of words, but nothing speaks higher of his character and influence than this performance.
Grohl sang with strained vocals the chorus’ simple, yet significant lyrics — “There goes my hero / He’s ordinary.” The stadium filled with the shouts of thousands of fans singing it back at him. And backing the band, located in the same seat that his father had sat hundreds of times over 25 years, a 16-year-old kid absolutely owned the song with the pain that only losing a father too soon can bring.