So Happy Together: Dave Grohl Finds Nirvana in the Foo Fighters
Three years since Nirvana's glorious run came to its catastrophic end, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters may finally be free of the ghosts and expectations that followed.
Sixty degrees Fahrenheit is a little chilly for poolside banter, but at least the sun is shining down on Pat Smear’s face. We’re lounging in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion near Beverly Hills as Smear tapes a segment for MTV’s House of Style swimsuit show, and HoS‘s newest roving correspondent is attired appropriately for his surroundings, if not the current climate: He’s sporting a bright red silk robe with tiny blue polka dots (and a $1,500 price tag still attached), a blue ascot, black slippers with a gold dragon on the toes, and—of course—the requisite pipe.
A painful-looking rug burn on Smear’s knee pokes out from under his robe as he reclines on an aqua green chair next to the snakelike pool and interviews a succession of former Playmates, tossing them questions seemingly torn straight from the questionnaire underneath the centerfold staple. Never mind Cindy—It’s Pat!:
Pat: “What month were you?”
Jessica Lee: “Miss August 1996.”
Pat: “That’s my birthday!… What are your turn-offs?”
Jessica: “Stinky guys.”
Pat: “No comment!… Words to live by?”
Jessica: “I don’t know.”
Pat: “You hate me!… What’s your typical day?”
Jessica: “Hanging out.”
Pat: “What are you wild about?”
Jessica: “Shopping and spending money.”
Pat: “You lead the life of exactly how I thought a Playmate lives!”
After the poolside chats Smear is introduced to Ava Fabian, Miss August 1986, who is dressed in white pants and an orange shirt that fits so tight you can see her, uh, ventricles. Fabian holds Smear’s hand as she leads him on a tour through the Mansion grounds, with the camera crew scurrying quickly behind them. They put coins in a wishing well, stroll past the tennis courts, step over Hugh M. Hefner’s star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and arrive at the game room, where Fabian points out her picture on the backglass of the 35th Anniversary Playboy pinball machine. The tour concludes with Fabian and Smear venturing inside a 30-foot-high cage full of squirrel monkeys in the corner of the backyard, just past a dazzling array of macaws, flamingos, cranes, peacocks, and other exotic birds roaming freely amidst a lurid expanse of flowers and foliage. It’s a remarkable sight, but Smear is blase about the view; this isn’t the first time he’s been to the Playboy grounds. Years ago, he applied for a job here taking care of the birds in the aviary, though he didn’t get hired. “Fuckers,” he hisses. “My whole life would have been different.”
Actually, Smear’s whole life has been different. It may have taken him a while to get the prime-time vehicle that he deserves, but he’s been ready for his close-up for almost 20 years now; it’s the rest of us who’ve been slow on the zoom lens. “He’s just a star,” says Grohl. “There are people that somehow become stars whether the world loves them or not.”
Born Georg Ruthenberg jn Los Angeles roughly 37 years ago, Pat grew up in West L.A., the son of a German immigrant father who was an inventor and photographer—Smear’s grandmother baked cookies for Hitler, Smear claims—and a foreign-language teacher/opera singer mother of African-American and Cherokee extraction. “I’m a mixture of the most oppressive people and the most oppressed,” he jokes. When Georg was in 7th grade he met 8th grader Jan Paul Beahm through a mutual speed dealer, and the two eventually discovered they shared an affinity for Queen and David Bowie. When Ruthenberg returned home after running away at 13 to join a “Jesus commune” for a year, the two friends became classmates at University High’s alternative ed program, although they spent most of their time pursuing such extracurricular as stalking Queen whenever that band was in town. It was in the act of chasing Freddie Mercury up the elevator at the Beverly Hilton, in fact, that the pair met future Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, who would soon become the drummer in an embryonic lineup of the Germs.
In the Hollywood dream factory, where identity and image are fluid, punk was an equal-opportunity employer, which meant not only that anyone could form a band—even if they couldn’t play a lick, like the Germs—but that alienated teens could mimic the show-biz Ellis Island effect that had turned previous drama queens like Theodosia Goodman and Norma Jean Baker into “Theda Bara” and “Marilyn Monroe.” Thus purported vocalist Beahm became “Bobby Pyn,” and ultimately, “Darby Crash,” while fledgling guitarist Georg was reborn as “Pat Smear.” “I was in health class, 11th grade, and I read about Pap smears and I thought that was the most disgusting thing I could imagine.”
Initially more of a gang than an actual band, the Germs eventually learned to handle their instruments, recording the L.A. scene’s first single in 1977 and first album, (Gl), in 1979, which remains one of the most vital documents of American punk. Unfortunately, what most people remember the Germs for today isn’t Smear’s dynamic fretwork but the shock theatrics of Crash, whose tightrope walk on the edge of madness many punks have tried since to imitate. The self-proclaimed “Annihilation Man,” Crash killed himself by deliberately fixing up a heroin OD, reportedly in tribute to Sid Vicious, on December 7, 1980; the murder of John Lennon the next day deprived Crash of whatever coverage his passing might have garnered.
“The Germs’ contribution to history sucks as far as I’m concerned,” says Smear of his Germ-spree adolescence. “It’s about somebody committing suicide and becoming a legend because of it, and that’s disgusting. I think it’s sad that somebody had to be so sad to become a legend.”
With the Germs an unpleasant memory for him, except for having met his girlfriend Jena at the band’s second show—the couple are still together after almost 20 years—the dawn of the ’80s found Smear on food stamps. He continued playing guitar on and off (with bands like Vagina Dentata, 45 Grave, and Twisted Roots) and put out two solo albums, but had to fight off poverty by doing phone sales, working as a receptionist at a modeling agency, and serving as a Hollywood punk rock extra. Wherever an offbeat-looking presence was needed, there was Smear: from Blade Runner to Howard the Duck, from CHiPs to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” video (“I’m all over that one, with really bad hair”). It was on the set of the breakdancexploitation flick Breakin’ that Smear met fellow extra Courtney Love, who soon became one of his closest friends. “I just remember running home afterwards and telling Jena, ‘I met the most amazing girl! Everybody hates her and I love her to death!'”
By the turn of the ’90s Smear was working part-time as a clerk at the SST Records retail outlet, where he was immortalized, or something, when Sonic Youth used his name as the chorus of their song “Screaming Skull.” In 1993 he passed on Flea’s invitation to replace John Frusciante in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but when Courtney’s husband called a few months later with an invitation to join Nirvana, Smear was all ears and no apologies. Smear actually had an “ESP thing” that Cobain would call and offer him a job. “I had been trying to figure out a way to get a hold of him to tell him I wanted to be the second guitar player, and before I had a chance he called me.”
“I expected him to be this bitter old junkie from the crazy SST scene,” says Grohl of his first meeting with Smear upon Pat’s arrival in Seattle, “but it was 180 degrees the other direction. I felt like he saved the band when he started playing with Nirvana. He walked into the room and it just lit up, and Nirvana practices never lit up like that.”
Smear is still able to liven up any room he’s in, yet the flamboyant extrovert is also exceedingly shy. Smear’s had a lifelong reluctance to being interviewed—his most memorable line in 1980’s L.A. punk scene documentary The Decline of Western Civilization was sneering “Is the time up now?” at the camera—but despite his inexperience, his HoS on-air persona reveals that he’s a natural at the interrogation process. “Interviewing is fun,” he explains. “You get to learn things about people other than yourself. When you’re being interviewed, you’re talking about things you’ve already lived. I’ve already done that, so what fun is that?”
Despite his bashfulness, Smear is a wild card on camera, and has become as ubiquitous on MTV as videos used to be: One day he can be spotted making out with Kelsey Grammer during a poker game on Rodman World Tour, while another he’s covering the Oscar nominations for MTV News dressed in a woman’s business suit to look like an L.A. TV newscaster. Smear turned a guest appearance on House of Style cavorting with Amber Valetta and Shalom Harlow into a regular gig as a creative consultant, and he now appears monthly to take the Spice Girls shopping at Contempo Casuals or receive prom etiquette tips alongside his “date” Kurt Loder.”He’s funny, he’s a smart-ass, and he’s got amazing style,” says Alisa Bellettini, executive producer of House of Style. “His sense of cool is just a little different than everybody else’s, so it works perfectly for us.”
Absolutely fabulous, Smear is dancing.” He’d rather dish than mosh, and he’s fond of wearing women’s clothes, especially high heels, miniskirts, and accessories. “I’ve always liked to dress up,” he confesses. “I’d choose a halter top over a Led Zeppelin T-shirt when I was in high school. I’ve always been attracted to the gayish side of fashion. It’s just more interesting.”When shooting finally wraps at the Mansion, Smear changes back to his own clothes—no miniskirt today, just a T-shirt with daisies on it, sky blue trousers, and a pair of boots from the 70s with the Playboy rabbit logo stamped on them, worn especially for the occasion. Alas, it turns out that Smear’s performance “It’s important to break out from behind the dunce throne they call the drum set and do things that are challenging,” says Grohl. MTV’s coolest on-air personality, and perhaps the most camp presence on television since Paul Lynde.
Smear’s penchant for cross-dressing, his post-queer patois, and his playfully swishy manner have confused some quarters into reporting that he’s homosexual. An L.A. gay weekly even matter-of-factly referred to him as a “gay guitarist.” Well, they got the “guitarist” part right. “I don’t care” shrugs Smear when I ask him about being “outed.” “I’ve been called a fag all my life. I learned what the word ‘fag’ meant when I was called one when I was 12. That’s the difference between being famous and not being famous: now people yell ‘Pat!’ out the window, where they used to yell out ‘Fag!’ and it doesn’t even sound that much different.”
“Isn’t it incredible?” marvels Smear, packing up his stuff after eight long hours of impersonating Oprah. “The ultimate fantasy job interviewing Playmates in their bathing suits at the Mansion—and it’s still incredibly boring! Who could believe it?”