Music Book Club July – ‘From Cradle to Stage’ by Virginia Hanlon Grohl

Earlier this year when I was in the music section of the book shop I was disappointed to see only one book written by a woman. That spurred me on to starting this monthly book club, so I thought it would only be fitting then to review the one book which I saw on the shelf. From Cradle to Stage by Virginia Hanlon Grohl is not just the story of her son’s rise to fame but also an interesting and thought provoking project where she interviews and writes about the mothers of musicians such as Miranda Lambert, Haim, Michael Stipe and Kelly Clarkson.

I’m sure many people who aren’t fans of Dave Grohl may walk past this book and think it’s a straightforward mother’s memoir, but actually this fascinating project goes much deeper than that. Virginia has a close and happy relationship with her son, which she recounts in short vignettes through the book. The rest of the chapters trace the lives of many successful musicians and their mothers, subtly asking the questions: is there something in your family history or upbringing that makes you a successful musician or are you just born with the x factor? And what happens to the mother/ child relationship when success occurs?

What she discovers is that most of the musicians were hyperactive children, obviously different from the start. Only a few went down the traditional education route and on to university like Tom Morello from RATM who attended Harvard. Most eventually had to have the ‘conversation’ with their parents about dropping out of education (many of the parents interviewed were actually teachers, including Virginia herself). Most of the mothers are supportive of their child’s decision to make music their priority. She concludes that it is this support which helps them all go on to succeed.

Many of these mothers were creative people and they encouraged their kids to express themselves, be themselves and that has lasting impact on their lives and careers. Many did more, helping with the merchandise or even managing their early careers like Miranda Lambert’s mother, Bev. In the book Bev admits working together when Miranda was a teenager ‘near catastrophic’ to their relationship at the time. Her mother pushed her, used tough love and helped her get on the show Nashville Star which led to her record deal. Success meant Bev could step back, work as a partner in Miranda’s businesses instead. When it comes to the invasion of privacy that Lambert is constantly subjected to her mother says to Virginia: ‘I want to scream: IT’S ABOUT THE MUSIC ASSHOLES’. You can see where Miranda gets her feistiness from.

The Haim chapter is particularly interesting as their mother Donna, like Virginia herself, is one of the few women interviewed who were actually musicians themselves. She recruited her daughters into a family band before eventually enrolling them in performing arts high school and watching them become the band they are today. Donna is now a real estate manager. Unfortunately there is no discussion about how it feels to see your children achieve what you only dreamed of. This is not the kind of book to really delve deep into the psychology of these relationships. It has a tone more of admiration and celebration for the women and their remarkable children.

That’s not to say From Cradle to Stage ignores the problems or tragic side of fame since it does include an interview with Amy Winehouse’s mother Janis. Amy’s story is typical of many in the book – a poor student, intelligent but unable to cope in the rigid school system. Signing a record deal and becoming famous only increased her unpredictable and out of control behaviour. Her early death had an air of tragic inevitability. Janis did what she could but ‘hurricane Amy’ as she called her, was an unstoppable, self-destructive force. A mother’s love was not enough. There are no solutions offered, no real discussion of what might have been done to stop Amy joining that awful ’27 club’ of rock and roll casualties. Virginia writes only of the positive force Amy had and how Janis keeps her memory alive through her charity work.

What this book also lacked was a mother whose relationship with their child had been destroyed by fame, as in most of these stories the relationships remain positive, despite what whirlwinds success brings. However what does haunt this book is, inevitably, the ghost of Kurt Cobain. She often finds herself mentioning Kurt’s mother and hoping to hear from her. In the end Wendy Cobain chooses not to be involved, as it would be too painful for her to discuss Kurt. She asks Virginia to instead write about her favourite memories of Kurt, which are truly lovely. Later on another poignant moment is when Virginia is looking through her box of Nirvana memories, feeling the devastation at how it all ended. Thankfully she has another box, a happy one of Foo Fighters’ memories. Kurt’s mother was not so lucky.

Sure, there are few startling revelations in this book but to hear about the amazing women and their role as mothers to unusual, gifted children is a unique concept and a worthwhile read. I was fascinated from start to finish, even when unfamiliar with some of the artists. I was also pleased to read that a television series is being developed to accompany this book and I look forward to watching that.

If you’ve read From Cradle to Stage let me know what you thought in the comments or on social media.

Next month I’m going to read and review Angela Davis’ book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Feel free to read along or check back here in August for the review and next month’s recommendation.

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