The Cover Story

Taylor Hawkins: A wild light blinding bright

He was obsessed with rock’n’roll and one of the greatest drummers on the planet, but more importantly Taylor Hawkins was a man brimming with love and kindness. Here, we remember a true one-of-a-kind…

Taylor Hawkins: A wild light blinding bright
James Hickie
Oliver Halfin

Manchester, November 16, 2002. Cave In are on the first date of a UK arena tour with Foo Fighters. Nerves, as you can imagine, are at an all-time high. Drummer John-Robert Conners (known as J.R.) walks into the venue then known as the Manchester Evening News Arena and is greeted by the sound of someone thundering away behind a kit as if their life depended on it.

“I sneaked up on the side of the stage like a little kid and, sure enough, Taylor was laying down a sick beat,” recalls J.R. now. “He finished playing while we were loading our gear in and we crossed paths backstage. I complimented him on the beat I’d heard him playing and he told me it was something he was trying to learn, part of a song from the Genesis album [1974’s] The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. He went on to gush about the record, and the band’s drummer Phil Collins, for a while. He got me so pumped for checking out Phil Collins as a drummer, because at that point I only knew him as a singer.”

The next day, both bands reached Newcastle, for an appointment at the city’s Telewest Arena (now called the Utilita Arena Newcastle). Cave In were in the process of loading their gear in when Taylor rushed over, excitedly, and thrust something into J.R.’s hand. “It was a copy of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway on double CD,” he recalls. “It was such a cool moment. He was stoked to share one of his favourite drummers with me, and I was stoked to have received a gift from not only an incredible drummer, but one of the kindest humans I had ever met.”

Many things will be written about Taylor Hawkins in the coming weeks, months and years following his sudden death at the age of 50.

People will discuss him overcoming the challenge of being the drummer in a band featuring Dave Grohl. How he played the same way he lived, irrepressibly and excitedly, with the same abandon a child has the first time they pick up a pair of sticks. Of the enviable chops that guaranteed his place on any self-respecting list of great rock players. Of his love of Queen. And Led Zeppelin. And how he got to share stages with members of both.

What may get less recognition, however, is Taylor’s kindness and generosity. Just ask J.R.

Or Tony Woolliscroft, the photographer who worked with Foo Fighters since their earliest days. Despite hailing from Stoke-On-Trent, some 5,300 miles from the band’s then-homebase in Los Angeles, he was quickly assimilated into the fold, part of the gang, particularly by Taylor, perhaps in recognition of Tony having a longer association with the band than he had.

“They’d just finished touring the world with [Foos’ third album] There Is Nothing Left To Lose,” explains Tony. “Taylor told me they were going to start writing the next album, so asked if I wanted to come to his house in Topanga Canyon for a week. ‘Me be there while you’re actually writing?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘You’re one of us now.’”

Or you could ask this writer, who in June 2017 found himself in a plush suite at The Savoy. I was there to interview Taylor and Dave about the band’s imminent date with the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, after they’d had to cancel their 2015 headline slot when Dave broke his leg. Both men chatted and smoked enthusiastically, but while Dave focused on the business of the day, Taylor was more interested in sharing some of his food. Scones, to be precise. He was eating them like a man who’d been on a desert island for weeks and they’d just washed ashore. “Take some,” is what I think he said, offering a plate of them he’d made a major dent in, a sultana shooting out of his full mouth like a bullet.

I didn’t, but I really wish I had.

Perhaps that generosity of spirit came from the belief shown in him by his mother. Upon seeing Queen play the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in 1982, a 10-year-old Taylor had turned to her and declared: “I’ll play that stadium one day.” She didn’t question the declaration and went along with it. Fifteen years later, on September 19, 1997, he made good on that promise as a member of Foo Fighters, then touring their album The Colour And The Shape.

Or maybe it was the faith of Alanis Morissette, who recruited Taylor shortly after her Jagged Little Pill album had made her one of the biggest artists in the world. “I would probably be delivering pizzas to someone you know tonight if it wasn’t for her,” Taylor suggested when he presented Alanis with The Icon Award at Billboard’s Women In Music Awards in 2019. “She was an amazing boss.”

Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying that the women in Taylor’s life played hugely influential roles in it. Perhaps it was his unerring respect for women that meant he portrayed them so sensitively in the videos for Monkey Wrench and Learn To Fly. Here’s another thing that might not get enough recognition: he looked great doing it.

“I was partying in London one night, and I mistakenly did something and it changed everything.” That’s how Taylor described the incident in 2001 when he suffered a heroin overdose in London that left him in a coma for two weeks.

“I believed the bullshit myth of live hard and fast, die young,” he reflected with Kerrang! writer Simon Young during a career-spanning interview in October 2019. “I’m not here to preach about not doing drugs, because I loved doing drugs, but I just got out of control for a while and it almost got me.” Indeed, despite his near-death experience terrifying him into swapping mad nights for mountain biking, bad habits were something he could laugh at, as Simon can attest.

Back in November 2002, a year after Taylor’s overdose, Simon was K! News Editor and Foo Fighters were scheduled to play the aforementioned Newcastle show. The decision was made to put the band on the cover of the magazine’s Christmas issue and Simon was promptly commissioned for the job. He eagerly agreed; with Cave In supporting the Foos, this was a chance to see two of his favourite bands.

What’s more, Simon’s mum and stepdad lived less than 10 miles away. It was therefore decided that hosting a Christmas dinner in this homely setting was just what the cover shoot needed. So Simon’s mum, Margaret, gamely prepared a full dinner with all the trimmings, while ensuring her house was immaculate for her famous guests.

Unfortunately, tight scheduling meant the band wouldn’t have the time to make the detour, so Simon and Margaret promptly packed up and headed to the venue, with the aim of recreating the scene in the venue’s backstage area. Upon arrival, the band greeted the dinner-carrying duo with a warmth exceeding that of the foil-wrapped food. “They clearly appreciated the time and effort my mum had spent making it all,” recalls Simon. “And they had a lot of questions, in particular, about the Yorkshire puddings.” Places had barely been set or turkey carved, however, when Taylor proceeded to tip out the contents of a salt shaker, fashion himself a line and pretend to snort it – lampooning rock star excess to Margaret’s shocked amusement.

More than 20 years on, Margaret, now 77, looks back fondly on that day and the picture that proves the veracity of this special encounter. In the pic, the band stands around her, bassist Nate Mendel, Dave, guitarist Chris Shiflett, all smiling broadly. It’s Taylor’s body language that’s particularly lovely, though, as he stands in the middle next to Margaret. His head is tilted, touching hers, with an affectionate hand on her shoulder. He was “a nice lad” who made her feel part of the gang and gave her a peck on the cheek when she left.

Taylor’s brush with death was something Dave Grohl wrestled with for years afterwards, privately and in his music. In the 2011 Foos doc Back And Forth, the band’s leader admitted On The Mend, from the acoustic portion of 2005 double-album In Your Honor, was written about that time. “It’s my love song to a dying best friend,” explained Dave – who’d remained by Taylor’s bedside at the time – sharing an insight with viewers he’d not even told the subject of the song. “I don’t want to fucking talk to [Taylor] about that,” he reasoned. “I want to talk to him about other shit.”

The relationship between the two really was akin to a marriage. In his recent memoir, The Storyteller: Tales Of Life And Music, Dave describes Taylor with a reverence that brings a tear to the eye now: ‘Upon first meeting our bond was immediate, and we grew closer with every day, every song, every note that we played together. I am not afraid to say that our chance meeting was a kind of love at first sight, igniting a musical twin flame that still burns to this day. Together we have become an unstoppable duo, onstage and off, in pursuit of any and all adventure we can find. We are absolutely meant to be, and I am glad we found each other in this lifetime.’

While the two men clearly worshipped each other, they had a shared obsession in common; and a passion shared, as they say, is a passion doubled. “They were both head over heels in love with rock’n’roll,” says Kerrang! Global Creative Director Phil Alexander. Like all close unions, however, particularly a triangle between two men and their music, it could occasionally be fraught.

As Paul Brannigan points out in his biography of Dave, This Is A Call, all was not well within the ranks of the Foo Fighters when they made their fourth album, 2002’s One By One. In fact, the band came perilously close to calling it a day, with one particularly heated spat taking place while K! journalist Ian Winwood was in the next room of the Melrose Avenue studio they were working in. Later that afternoon, with tensions seemingly dissipated and photos being taken, Taylor sidled up to a white grand piano and playfully plinked away, before asking Ian his thoughts on the new songs.

“He seemed uncommonly invested in my answer,” Ian recalls now. “I inferred that Taylor had his doubts about [One By One]. And what I extrapolated from that was that this was more than a guy who just hit drums and had a pristine smile. He cared about the music and he cared about what he was playing. It meant something to him.”

Taylor would have his own musical dalliances too, of course – most notably with Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders, an outfit that counted Liam Gallagher as a famous fan. The singer paid tribute to his fallen friend during his Teenage Cancer Trust gig at the Royal Albert Hall last weekend. “I want to dedicate this, our last song, to the one and only Taylor fucking Hawkins,” boomed Liam, before launching into Oasis classic Live Forever, a picture of the man himself above the stage, looking every inch the rock’n’roll star.

Taylor Hawkins made dreams come true, starting with his own. He’d been a Beach Boys fan who later became entranced by Pacific Ocean Blue, the great ‘lost’ album by their drummer, Dennis Wilson, who died in 1983. Given the similarity of the two mens’ voices – “Not exactly Pavarotti, a bit scratchy” – Taylor would be asked to contribute vocals to Holy Man, an unfinished composition later included in the album’s reissue.

“I was a little nervous,” he’d tell MOJO of the experience. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck am I to do it?’ This stuff is pretty sacred. I didn’t want to piss on his Picasso.”

He was similarly respectful of Rush, the Canadian prog-rock legends. Alongside Dave, Taylor would induct his heroes into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013, giving particular attention to the contributions of their drummer, Neil Peart. “Bringing the drums to where they fucking should be,” roared Taylor from the stage. “To the front and centre of every song.”

What’s extraordinary isn’t how disparate these two musical loves were, but how effortlessly Taylor bridged them. You could say it was testament to the breadth of his education, of course, but they represented the different sides of his character, too. Despite Taylor being a born Texan, Dennis Wilson’s music soundtracked the Californian component of his soul. Taylor was the blissed-out surfer dude permanently in a pair of shorts and flip-flops, who could sit on the floor of a suite in The Savoy, cross-legged, as if next to a campfire. Rush, meanwhile, provided the perfect outlet for his propulsive hyperactivity, the virtuosity evident even when drumming on his legs with his hands, or a table with some pens, as he did waiting to greet fans at K!’s signing tent at Download Festival in 2010.

“He had that duality in how he played,” suggests Phil Alexander. “Heavy, complex and proggy at times, but swinging, smooth and poppy as the occasion demanded.” Indeed, that chameleonic playing and aversion to broadcasting his achievements meant some of his efforts flew under the radar, no matter how famous his collaborators were. Who knew he played on Elton John’s latest album, the Lockdown Sessions, for instance? “He was a true musician who loved all sorts of music and loved life,” a sombre Elton said from the stage in Des Moines, Iowa. “It seems so sad that at 50 years of age we’ve lost someone who had that much passion.”

That passion was evident right until the end. Just three days before he died, he posed for pictures with nine-year-old drummer Emma Sofia. Emma had intended to try and meet Taylor when Foo Fighters played the Asunciónico music festival in her native Paraguay, but severe weather conditions led to the event being cancelled. Undeterred, Emma travelled with her father to the band’s hotel, set up her kit and started playing in the hope her hero might hear. Thankfully, Taylor eventually appeared in the crowd gathered for the performance to say hello and pose for a picture. ‘Thank you for so much love,’ she later told her 34,000 Instagram followers, clutching the picture in one hand, and her lucky drumsticks in the other.

Supporting the next generation of musicians was clearly important to Taylor. Just look at how much he backed Nandi Bushell, another young drumming sensation, who played Everlong with the Foos at The Forum in Inglewood, California last August – an experience the then-10-year-old would describe as the “best night ever”. And while it was Dave who’d traded songs and conducted drum battles with her in the months beforehand, it was Taylor who sat beaming as she rehearsed for the show, and proudly relinquished his stool for her big moment.

And now there is no-one to occupy that drum stool. Instead of a band on the stage of Bogota’s Festival Estéreo Picnic, where Foo Fighters were due to headline on March 25, candles burned for the man whose talent illuminated the lives of so many. “We count ourselves extremely lucky to have witnessed Taylor knock our masterful solos night after night,” says Biffy Clyro drummer Ben Johnston. “The world truly is a darker place without him.”

In 2020, following the death of his hero, Rush drummer Neil Peart, Taylor said of him: “There can never be another Neil Peart.” Neil’s surviving bandmates, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, would return the compliment via a tribute neither of them expected to have to write. ‘He was such an incredibly positive source of music, energy and love, and a true artist to his very core.’

They’re right, of course. Because there can never be another Taylor Hawkins.

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?