Heavy Lifting with Dave Grohl

Tim Johnston, the author of Descent, used to make his living as a carpenter, a carpenter to the stars — well, one rock star, one day, one time. Here’s the story of that day.

dave grohl sound board
This is the rock star, Dave Grohl.

• • •

The last time I was in the same room with a rock star, I didn’t know who the guy was. My buddy Mark had to tell me.

“There’s your Dave Grohl,” he said.

“Your Dave what?”

Johnston_Tim_Author_LR - (c) Dave Boerger
This is the author and carpenter, Tim Johnston.

We were standing around the main recording room of Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, which, if you have watched Grohl’s 2013 documentary, Sound City, you know is the studio where some very big names of the 80’s and 90’s laid down their classics — Neil Young, Pat Benatar, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and, of course, Nirvana.

Mark and I had been in college together in Iowa when Petty dropped his Damn The Torpedoes, though in those days you released and did not drop an album. I worked at Musicland and scored Benatar’s Crimes of Passion promo poster — a sizzler in its day, the petite rocker in a black leotard and spike heels. The Mac’s Rumours crammed our airwaves, but we were way out of range of the Seattle grunge scene where Grohl and Kurt Cobain were hammering out the raw stuff of Nevermind. After college, Mark headed for Los Angeles to become an actor, and I headed east to become a writer, and it was a few years after that that he called to tell me about the crazy-big apartment he was subletting above a mechanic’s garage in Hollywood, and wasn’t I ready — again — to get the hell out of Iowa?

Which is more or less how we came to be standing, fifteen years later, in that recording studio when Dave Grohl walked in.

Grohl was there to claim Sound City’s original recording console — the very piece of equipment upon which he and Cobain had laid down “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a long two decades ago — and Mark and I were there, along with our buddy Chris, because we were the guys, the three of us, who were tearing out the old Sound City and putting in the new. Because whatever else we’d dreamed of becoming in our lives — actors, novelists, playwrights — what we’d become, indisputably, was carpenters.

We ripped from the studio’s walls great stinking rags of 70’s-era shag, shoveled up one-thousand squares of crumbling toxic floor tile, and demo’d down to its bare pipes a bathroom that hadn’t seen a scrubby since Reagan was governor. We broke down and raised up and breathed in the molecular stuff of Neil and Kurt and a young Stevie Nicks, who, it was said, had once lived in a tiny loft over the back storage room. By the time Grohl came for the console, we’d hauled several tons of rock history out to the Dumpsters, until the only traces of those old souls lay in the grit beneath the toggles and knobs and slides of the console itself — four decades of cigarette ash, coke dust, hair, and dried sneeze crystals. A forensics gold mine.

Custom-built in 1969, the console was enormous, inelegant, and massively heavy, and so Grohl had brought back-up — four musician pals, his seven-year-old daughter and a cameraman. Grohl had some beef to his arms, but his musician pals were all tattoo and skinny jeans and not a pair of work gloves among them. Somehow the eight of us had to raise the console from its resting place of forty years, rotate it 90 degrees in the cramped control room and feed it into the studio through the viewing window, which swung upward on a piano hinge.

Tim Johnston lifting
The author (right) does some of the heaving lifting.

The musicians fidgeted and proposed half-hearted strategies. Grohl laughed and watched his daughter run around our legs. The cameraman filmed.

Finally, we’d seen enough. Mark propped the window up with two-by-fours, I diagramed our three-stage lifting plan, and Chris showed Grohl and his gang where to get their grips.

On three we lifted. The console gasped free of its base, and we took two collective steps clockwise and set her down again. Grohl got his little girl out of there. We lifted again, took two steps forward and lowered the console onto the window sill, balancing it scarily while Mark and I and two musicians hustled out into the studio and walked the console forward until we held most of its weight in our twanging, quavering arms. The others came running and together we lowered the console onto dollies, rolled it out the door, and rolled it up the U-Haul ramp.

And that was that. The musicians gave us soul shakes and lit up and got in their rides and drove off. Grohl and his daughter and his cameraman said thanks and goodbye.

Mark and Chris and I stood around feeling very salt-of-the-earth. Practical men. Problem solvers. We didn’t know it then, but we would all appear in Grohl’s film, in the very scene we’d just enacted. Don’t blink and you’ll see three guys with no tattoos, no bracelets, the un-skinniest of jeans. That’s us. The guy in front, in the baseball cap, that’s me.

Six months later I was on the East Coast again, well into my one-year visiting writer gig at The George Washington University, when I decided to fix my sticky bathroom door. I dug out my tool belt and buckled it on and reached into the nail pouch and felt a small pile of grit, perhaps an ounce. I rolled the silty stuff in my fingertips, gave it a sniff; it did not smell like teen spirit, but it did fly me back, as if on airwaves, to a good day’s work with old friends and rock stars.

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One comment

  1. Excellent story! I’m reading “Descent” now and enjoying it so far. Cheers from Alexandria, VA!

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