Upon returning home to my mother’s little house in Springfield, Virginia after Nirvana’s 1992 world tour, I followed my usual homecoming routine of dumping my entire suitcase full of soiled clothes into her old washing machine in the garage, rooting through her fridge full of delicious, comfort-food leftovers like a raccoon in a dumpster, and sitting down to months and months’ of mail that had been sent to her address for me while I was away. This was the house that I grew up in, after all, so my mother’s mailbox was always the best bet if you wanted to track me down while I was out circling the planet with my band. I’d usually find a few gems in the piles of postcards and fanzines sent from new and lifelong friends around the world. There was however, one thing I could always count on tucked inside the stack of packages by the front door: a letter from my Grandmother Grohl. She was the world’s best pen-pal, always preferring to correspond the old fashioned way by crafting her heartwarming letters on delicate, personal stationary, keeping me up to date on life and family relatives in her little town of Niles, Ohio (the area where I was born) something that I appreciated very much. To receive a letter my grandmother was very dear to me, like tradition, so I would always open hers first.
To my luck, that day I found one, and gleefully tore into the hand addressed envelope. To my surprise, this time there was only a brief note:
You might be related to this young man!
Love, Grandma Grohl”
I smiled as I read her familiar cursive handwriting on the card that I pulled from the sweetly scented envelope, and noticed a small newspaper clipping from the Youngstown Vindicator that she had stuffed inside. “LEGENDARY LOS ANGELES PUNK ROCK BAND X TO PLAY YOUNGSTOWN” it read. I found it a bit peculiar that my not-so-punk rock 83 year old grandmother would pay any attention to X’s Ohio tour stop, but upon further inspection I noticed that she had circled the name of one of the band members in the article, DJ Bonebrake, and I quickly realized why this article had caught her interest….
Bonebrake was my grandmother’s maiden name.
The Bonebrake family tree can be traced all the way back to Johann Christian Beinbrech, who was baptized in Switzerland February 9, 1642, eventually emigrating to Germany and fathering 11. It was his grandson, Daniel Beinbrech that bravely traveled to America by ship and settled in a wilderness called “Pigeon Hills” around York, Pennsylvania in September of 1762. Numerous offspring and various spellings followed (Pinebreck, Bonbright) until landing on the most awesome “Bonebrake” moniker with Daniel’s son, Peter who was an American Revolutionary soldier that had 9 children of his own. By 1768, the name was set in stone and carried all the way to the birth of my grandmother, Ruth Viola Bonebrake in 1909 to her parents Harper and Emma.
This was surely a coincidence, I thought. I was no stranger to X, of course, as I had been listening to them since I bought the soundtrack to “The Decline of Western Civilization” as a kid in 1983, but never made any familial correlation. Not to mention, everyone had “punk rock” names back then (John Doe, Bobby Pyn, Hellen Killer……PAT SMEAR) and honestly, is there a better fake name for a punk rock drummer than “DJ Bonebrake?” I laughed and chalked it all up to my grandmother’s wild imagination, thinking this was too good to be true.
“That’d be a good story” I thought….
Years later, I had the honor to record a song called “This Loving Thing” for a movie soundtrack with X’s bassist/vocalist, John Doe, so I made a point to seize the opportunity and confirm whether his drummer was actually named DJ Bonebrake, in the hope that I could solve this rock and roll mystery once and for all and, if I was lucky, forever brag to my friends that I was related to the punk legend known as DJ Bonebrake. To my amazement, John confirmed that it was indeed DJ’s real name, and I gushed with pride. What could be cooler than having an American Revolutionary War soldier, a Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient (Henry G. Bonebrake) and now the drummer of X, all within my family tree?
Still, I needed to see it to believe it. Having never met DJ before, I decided to invite him to a Foo Fighters show at LA’s Henry Fonda theater in 2007. Pat Smear played middle-man, as the two of them had known each other for decades from the Los Angeles punk rock scene. They met in the mid-late 70’s when DJ actually played drums for Pat’s band, The Germs on a recording of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” (According to Pat, they tried to steal DJ from X, but “he just laughed”) Knowing that he was coming, I invited my mother and sister that night too, imagining this summit to be a family meeting hundreds of years in the making.
After the show, Pat brought DJ to the dressing room backstage where my mother, sister and I were having drinks. As he came through the door, we all stood up and warmly greeted him like a long, lost relative, inspecting every feature, desperately trying to identify the trademark family brow or chin, passed down over centuries. Long discussions of distant relatives and our historic family tree ensued, and by the end of the night we parted ways feeling a bit more connected to the lineage that brought us to this place, musical and otherwise.
A good story, indeed.
Recently I finished work on a documentary called “What Drives Us” that explores the inner workings of a musician’s insatiable desire to devote their life to music and jump in an old van with like-minded gypsies to follow their dreams with no guarantee that it will ever pay off, which of course means something different to everyone we talked to. More than just pulling back the curtain on the impossible logistics and hilarious anecdotes of surviving on the road for months on end in a broken-down bucket of rust, the film is a deeper exploration of why anyone in their right mind would choose this as their calling. In interviews with everyone from Ringo Starr to Ian MacKaye, St. Vincent to Slash and Duff from Guns and Roses, The Edge from U2 and Brian Johnson from AC/DC, and a few from today’s generation of younger bands, I found that there is a common thread that connects us all, one that defies convention and logic. It takes a certain type of person to gamble their heart on such a wicked path, and I was honored to sit and unravel the mystery with these most inspiring artists. One of them being Exene Cervenka, the lead vocalist of X. From their inception in 1977 to their latest album, “Alphabetland”, X has traveled the world for over 40 years, playing their signature brand of gritty, punk rock and roll with their original line-up still intact (including my long lost cousin, DJ Bonebrake on the drums) If anyone knows “what drives us,” it’s X.
A few weeks ago, as I watched the completed documentary, I reflected on the invaluable connections between musicians. I then had an idea that elaborated even further on the concept of inspiration and family lineage that I am so fascinated with: I wanted to record a song that would not only pay tribute to the people and music that influenced me to become a musician, but also to pay tribute to my long family history. So, what better song than an X song? And what better person to sing it than my daughter, Violet Grohl, another descendant of Johann Christian Beinbrech.
I picked one of my favorite X songs “Nausea” from their 1980 debut album, “Los Angeles” and forwarded it to Violet, hoping that she would agree to my most impulsive idea. Anyone who has ever heard Violet sing knows that she was certainly capable of doing it, but it was just a matter of getting her in front of the microphone to record, something that the two of us had never done together before. It felt so meaningful to have the first song Violet and I record together be a tribute to our Bonebrake heritage. I crossed my fingers and awaited her response.
Around 9 pm she answered with an excited “Yes!” so I ran upstairs to my little demo studio and recorded the instrumental tracks as fast as I could. After about half an hour, I was done, and I brought her into the vocal booth to sing her part. As nervous as she was, she stepped up to the microphone and sang with the power and confidence of a seasoned pro as I engineered the session like a proud father, encouraging her to let it all out. I then sang my harmonies over her vocal in the chorus, our two voices blending perfectly in the mix, and we smiled upon listening to playback at full volume. It was a moment that superseded anything musical. A life moment that I will cherish forever. A family moment.
It has been my pleasure and privilege to connect these musical dots over the years in documentaries such as “Sound City”, “Sonic Highways,” “From Cradle to Stage” and now “What Drives Us,” but I am always reminded that it is the people behind the instruments and songs that serve as the foundation to the soundtrack to our lives, and that we are all connected in one way or another. An orchestral family tree of sorts. From Johan Christian Beinbrech to DJ Bonebrake to Violet Maye Grohl, it’s a human history that is passed down, one that not only makes the sound of music richer, but also gives hope that we have hundreds of years of music to look forward to.
A good story, indeed.