Around Halloween 1990, Dave Grohl moved into Kurt Cobain’s one bedroom apartment at 114 North Pear Street, in Olympia, Washington. Though the 21-year-old drummer had spent the previous two weeks sharing a cramped tour bus and scuzzy hotel rooms with Cobain on a six date Nirvana tour of the UK, nothing had prepared him for the squalor in which his new roommate lived at home.
“It was chaos,” Grohl told this writer, recalling a filthy, foul-smelling, mould-covered residence littered with rotting take-away food, beer cans, rolling papers and the messy detritus of Cobain’s bachelor life. “You walked in and there was sculptures and paintings, there were turtles and medical books and Leonard Cohen records. It was, like, ‘This is Kurt’.”
Grohl spent the next eight months sleeping on Cobain’s couch. Homesick and lonely – “Olympia, Washington, is fucking depressing enough,” he told me, “and I was living with this person that I didn't know” – the drummer would wake up each day as the sun was going down, travel to nearby Tacoma to rehearse in a barn with Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic, then sit up all night playing acoustic guitar, playing quietly so as not to wake his sleeping flatmate. On one such evening, he borrowed Cobain’s four-track home studio, and sketched out a delicate song based upon his observations of the intimate, tender relationship shared by his new bandmates - the introverted singer who ‘plays an old guitar, with a coin found by the phone’ and his best friend who ‘thinks he drinks too much.’ It was the first acoustic song Grohl had ever written.
The drummer never played Friend Of A Friend to Cobain or Novoselic. But on December 23, 1990, while back in Virginia to spend Christmas with his mother, Grohl recorded the song, along with a clutch of other compositions conceived on Cobain’s couch, at his friend Barrett Jones’ Laundry Room studio in Arlington. That same evening, Jenny Toomey, the owner of local record label Simple Machines and frontwoman of Arlington indie-rockers Tsunami, dropped by Jones’ studio, and was given a playback of the session. “She said ‘Wow, this is really cool, we should put out a cassette’,” Grohl recalled. “I was like ‘Okay…’ I was just excited that someone was excited enough to want to hear it.”
“I always had a crush on Jenny, she was so fucking cute, and I was secretly in love with her. Up to that point the only people who’d heard anything I’d done were my mom, my sister, Barrett, [Scream frontman] Pete Stahl and my buddy Jimmy [Swanson] – they were my audience - but she heard it and liked it and wanted to do it. It wasn’t like I was looking to go solo. I think Jenny was still dubbing the cassettes on a dual tape recorder in her room."
The following year, Friend Of A Friend emerged as track three on Dave Grohl’s debut solo album, Pocketwatch, released under the pseudonym Late! as part of Simple Machines’ cassette-only Tool Cassette Series. With Grohl opting not to promote the release in any way, mindful of irritating Nirvana’s management, their new label Geffen and indeed the subjects of the song, initially Pocketwatch went largely unnoticed among the Simple Machines catalogue. That was until Nirvana’s Nevermind album exploded into the mainstream consciousness, and demand for their drummer’s low-key recordings almost torpedoed the indie label, leading Toomey to permanently withdraw it from sale. As such, Friend Of A Friend might have remained a cult curio, had Grohl not decided to re-record the song for Foo Fighters’ 2005 double album In Your Honor, describing it as “a nod to the past” on an album “about looking ahead.”
“Of any song that I've ever written, Friend Of A Friend is most blatantly about my time in Nirvana,” he acknowledged.
Undeniably, the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain gives Friend Of A Friend an added poignancy, as a reminder of a simpler, more innocent time for Grohl and his new pals. But whichever version of the song you know best, it remains a charming, fragile and bitter-sweet sketch of a burgeoning friendship that would go on to transform the rock music landscape and change life forever for two young men sharing a shit-hole apartment in a nondescript American town.