I did the pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long given the fact that it’s only a three hour drive from where I’ve lived the past twelve years. It was a great experience, marred only slightly by the lack of attention given to Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. I mean, c’mon.
The main exhibit area is on the first floor where you find storytelling by memorabilia, large display windows with items like John Lennon’s guitar played in the Get Back documentary, or Mick Jagger’s football pants that he performed in one tour, or Little Richard’s sequined jumpsuit. The higher floors featured smaller exhibits, with the fourth floor displaying hall of fame inductees including the class of 2021. In one corner of a large display were instruments from the band, Foo Fighters. I had seen the HBO airing of the 2021 induction ceremony and loved the Foo Fighters part of the evening. They were inducted by Paul McCartney and played a Beatles’ song with him at the conclusion of the festivities.
That night, as with other times I’ve witnessed him, I’ve been impressed with Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer, and now guitarist and frontman for Foo Fighters. He’s thoughtful about what he does. He seems grounded in family, and he is clearly loved by his bandmates. My middle daughter gave me, Dave Grohl the Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, for Christmas this year, and I’ve been savoring the reading.
I was struck by one of the opening chapters in which Grohl talks about the inevitability of his becoming a musician. “I was blessed with a genetic symphony,” he says, something in his DNA that needed only a “spark” to kindle it into existence. It was something given, less a decision or outcome of a series of decisions and more of a genetic destiny.
Two floors above the Foo Fighters’ exhibit was a small room with video pieces on rock guitar legends. One of them featured Keith Richards, the leather faced guitarist for the Rolling Stones. He began by saying that he had attended art school to be a painter, but came out a guitar player. This was not a choice, Richards says. It was given to him. The guitar chose him.
Nearly the exact same thing was conveyed by Tom Morello, guitar player for Rage Against the Machine. He took up the guitar at the age of 17, later than most accomplished musicians. Yet, once he had one in his hands, he knew this would become his way of life. The guitar chose him.
As someone who teaches theology at a Christian university, I recognize these as “calling” stories. As a university, we spend hours helping students explore their developing sense of vocation, or calling. While we attribute calling to God, at its most basic element calling has an external source and involves a pull into something greater than yourself, a pull into some purpose that makes your life meaningful. Grohl, Richards, and Morello all have a profound sense of this.
I’ve read similar things from and about other musicians. Willie Nelson claims no real gifts on his part as a songwriter, but something of a divine inspiration. Songs just come to him, fully formed. Anyone who has seen the documentary by Peter Jackson, Get Back, on the Beatles, is stunned by how things come to McCartney in particular. He’ll leave for the day and come back the next day with a song that he heard in a dream that night. This kind of genius seems otherworldly, mysterious both to us mere Muggles, and to the artists themselves.
Grohl is something of an exception here. He claims no divine source for his gift, but neither is it merely science, a set of genetic factors that produced a music making machine. He acknowledges that, genetics aside, it also requires a spark of some sort, something that ignites latent possibilities and fans them into flame.
Todd Schultz (my cousin’s husband), a respected and well published psychologist, has devoted his career to studying the “mind of the artist.” In his recent book, The Mind of the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create, he suggests that artistry may be complex, but it is not mysterious. It is largely attributable to personality, and specifically to one personality trait among five identified by psychologists: the trait of openness. The other personality traits might vary among artists, but openness is nearly always determinative. These traits are largely inherited, part of Grohl’s “genetic symphony.”
I’m also reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and his observation that genius typically requires 10,000 hours of “practice,” or performance. The Beatles we see in Get Back are not the Beatles who performed in the Cavern in 1960. By the time we find them in the documentary (1969), they had played thousands of hours in a strip club in Hamburg, and then years after that as a band writing and recording their own music. McCartney’s dreams were fueled by hours of playing other people’s songs, and by hours of collaboration with John, George, and Ringo. He was manifesting, among other things, his broad experience with a tradition and a community of collaborators.
Surely, Dave Grohl’s “genetic symphony” is part of his “rock calling,” but he was also consciously traditioned by his mother into the world of music and found an amazing community of collaborator’s along the way. He undoubtedly has an artist’s personality, but he also has an account of his being in the world that provides meaning. He has stories.
Back to Schultz. The “top floor of the personality system” consists of stories. “The function of the story,” he writes, “is to explain yourself to yourself and to others.” Importantly, Schultz suggests “we don’t introspect and locate traits.” They are abstract, not internally evident. We see the “visible manifestations” of these traits through our participation in the world, and through the subsequent weaving of a sense-making narrative. The title of Grohl’s book is telling: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music. He conveys to us his sense of calling as a musician in a series of tales. He tells not so much a chronological narrative from beginning to end, but a series of stories that tie his past and present together.
I can’t imagine a world without the music of Dave Grohl, or Keith Richards and Tom Morello. I have no doubt that they found what they were meant to do, what they were called to do and to be. And to them, at the user end of calling, lies a sense of wonderment, or forgetfulness, even of mystery as to how the rock gods deposited all of this in one place. But this mystery is also the alchemy of personality, tradition, and community, the elements of all callings. I am agnostic concerning calling by lightning bolt, where the threads of community, tradition, and personality are bypassed completely. Calling by lightning bolt has great appeal to many who need to believe in God’s agency in the world. I do believe that there are catalytic moments, “sparks” to use Grohl’s term, that make things more or less clear. I have greater belief, however, that God must be involved in all these seemingly mundane aspects of our being in the world (community, tradition, personality), making God all the more present and mysterious.