Live from Sound City: on site at ground zero of Dave Grohl’s new film
Deep in the most decrepit part of the valley, on a street that smells bad, in the shadow of a giant neon Budweiser sign, I find a building called Sound City Center. It looks like hell, so it must be the right place. Spend enough time in Los Angeles and you come to learn that the best music tends to be made in the worst looking buildings. The top concert venues all look like they’ve been burned in a fire, and the studios where your favorite albums were made tend to be located on the dark side streets of neighborhoods you’d have no reason to ever want to be in. That’s the premise behind the new Dave Grohl documentary entitled Sound City, which documents the low-rent music studio in which some of the most popular rock records of the 70s, 80s and 90s were recorded. As ugly as the place looked from the outside, the film reveals that it looked even worse on the inside as bands like Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana became who they were within those four unkempt walls. And while the true magic of Sound City was it one of a kind mixing board, which has since been relocated to Grohl’s house, I decide I have to go see the building for myself. It’s not far.
My drive takes me north on Sepulveda Boulevard seven miles into the valley, just after sunset, passing the strip clubs while narrowly avoiding an older gentleman who’s jaywalking while urgently clutching a coffee maker, then southwest onto a crummy backroad and finally northwest onto another even crummier backroad. I find myself wondering how many legendary musicians got lost over the years while trying to find this dump. I pull into the front gate, wide open even after dark, and into the parking lot in the center of it all. I spot the parking ramp from the film, which confirms without any doubt that this is in fact the place of legend. It takes me a moment to gather my faculties before get out of the car, not so much because this is the place where Nirvana recorded Nevermind, but because this is the kind of creepy after-dark locale from which people don’t emerge unscathed if they’re not paying attention to who might be coming up behind them. I imagine Rage Against The Machine having fun at the idea of recording at a landfill like this. It’s harder to reconcile the fact that Barry Manilow once pulled into this driveway as well.
The studio has changed hands, but the name of the facade hasn’t.
Stepping out of the car, I hear the sound of a kick drum. The old “Sound City” studio now has another name on the front door, even though they left original name out front. Wouldn’t it be fitting, I fancy to myself, if that’s Grohl in there jamming on the drums right now for the next Foo Fighters record. But it only takes seconds to recognize that it’s not his trademark stick work coming from inside. I find myself wanting to knock on the door, wanting to play journalist (or perhaps just play dumb) with whoever answers, wanting to find a way to finagle myself into the room where all that music of legend was made. Then I realize there’s only one car in the lot other than my own, which means the drummer is in there by himself. If I bang on the door, he’s going to have to stop his recording work to come deal with me. I remind myself that there are only really two rules to music journalism. The first, whose underlying stories will have to wait for another day, is that no matter how close you might get personally with the musicians you cover, your readers are still your real constituents, not the musicians. The second and most sacred, and the one which applies here, is that you never risk screwing with a musician’s recording process in the name of getting your story.
Finding disappointment in my own unwillingness to be selfish, but knowing I’m doing the right thing, I take a few external pictures and get back in my car without knocking on that door. After all, what if some idiot like me had banged on that same door in 1991 and forced Dave Grohl to get off his drums and stop the tape to come answer it? In such case, Smells Like Teen Spirit might have a different drum track than the one that went down in history. Besides, I don’t need to physically be in that room to feel closer to the music I love which was recorded there. All I really need to do is go home and fire up my favorite albums which emanated from it.
Nirvana used to live down the street from me. Who knew?
But before leaving, it occurs to me that if I can find Sound City with such ease on a whim, just a few miles from where I live, then perhaps I can find the Oakwood Apartments that the film says the guys from Nirvana lived in while recording here. The map says there are several buildings named Oakwood in Los Angeles, but the only one that’s within twenty miles of the studio is located back down on… wait, that can’t be right. It’s on my street. Sure enough, I drive back home and learn that Nirvana used to reside down the street from where I live now.
Of course Sound City was less about the room and more about its legendary mixing board. If I ever feel like I need to get my hands on that board, I’ll just have to find a way to convince Dave Grohl to let me come over to his house and play with it. Stranger things have happened in this strange career – and after all, Dave and I are neighbors, twenty years removed. If his documentary drives home one pure truth, it’s that no matter how legendary they may be, your favorite musicians are just people – perhaps most clearly highlighted by the fact that Mr. Grohl and Mr. Novoselic and Mr. Cobain had to drive the same exact roads to get to the studio to record Nevermind each day that I’ve driven tonight. And who knows, perhaps they also had to swerve to avoid hitting the same man clutching his coffee maker.