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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Learn to Fly" takes on extra weight in the wake of Taylor Hawkins' death

I'd been sitting on this song for a while, never imagining I'd write about it for this reason... but it painfully fits the moment.

This one hurts.

At 8 PM PDT, on March 25, Foo Fighters announced the death of their drummer, Taylor Hawkins, at age 50. The band had been scheduled to play a festival in Bogotá, Colombia that day.

Hawkins had been Foo Fighters' drummer for close to a quarter-century, and in that time the band became one of the most successful and revered across all of contemporary music. I legitimately have yet to find someone who doesn't like at least one of their songs. Perhaps the biggest praise that could be given to Hawkins, however, may not be dictated by fandom, awards, or streaming figures — it's the fact that Dave Grohl, more than a masterful drummer in his own right, entrusted Hawkins with that role in his own band. In their time working together, Hawkins became Grohl's "best friend and partner in crime," as the latter wrote in his memoir The Storyteller.

In tribute to Hawkins and the legacy he leaves behind, even in his too-short life, my Senior Year Soundtrack selection for today is "Learn to Fly." It's probably my favorite Foo Fighters song (with "Everlong" close behind, followed by some combination of "The Pretender," "Best of You," and "Rope"), and as the lead single of There Is Nothing Left to Lose (1999), it also happened to be the first single on which Hawkins played. Grohl's lyrics on looking for some sort of saving grace and inspiration, knowing he "can't quite make it alone," additionally carry an extra sadness as he, the band, and the world mourn Hawkins' passing.

(There's really no good way to transition from that into showing the song's comedic video, but I couldn't go without including it. It's one of my favorite music videos with the purposeful comedy and how it still ties into the song, and I love how the band play nearly all the functional characters themselves.)

"Learn to Fly" is anthemic, and I think a lot of that comes from its simplicity. It's a straightforward stadium rocker with its I–V–IV chord progression and Grohl's lyrics that are rather evenly placed. Most of Grohl's eight-measure patterns in the verse and chorus follow the same general shape: two phrases that leave a couple beats trailing on the end, then a third that essentially does the same over double the time. That extra space feeds into a couple other qualities of the song. For one, it gives focus to the instrumental, with Hawkins' punchy snare a focal point. More than that, though, the space augments the song's sing-along friendliness; it gives listeners time to catch their breath before belting out those next lines.

Then there's the message those lyrics carry. "Learn to Fly" comes from a place deep within Dave Grohl, as he reflects on his need to get out of where he currently is in life. For him, that was the drug- and party-heavy habits of living in Los Angeles, and he did get out of there — he "[made his] way back home" to northern Virginia, where he recorded much of There Is Nothing Left to Lose with Foo Fighters at his new home studio in Alexandria. Importantly, he saved himself, rather than getting someone else involved and "happily ever trapped," as the second verse suggests. That resilience doesn't come easy — it often leaves you "looking to the sky to save" yourself — but it ends up being the most rewarding.

Yet for Grohl, that inspiration, that internal willingness to keep going, seems to come from making music with others. Judging by the way he's spoken about Hawkins as well as many other collaborators, he gets the most out of collaborating and working for and sharing with the greater audience. That's the feeling I get out of the bridge lyrics:

Fly along with me, I can't quite make it alone
Try to make this life my own

I love this bridge. It switches to the parallel minor key (B minor), bringing new chords and a new perspective with it. As narrator, Grohl has already clear that he wants to improve himself — now we see the greater reason why he wants to do that.

Reflecting on this theming now intensifies the spotlight on the frontman's resolve. Dave Grohl had built his own career in the wake of tragedy, his life and music at large uprooted by Kurt Cobain's suicide. The inspiration Grohl seeks throughout "Learn to Fly" strikes me as a reflection of his internal reckoning and building up of his own walls in the five years between losing Cobain and releasing this song (especially with the use of "burn out" in the chorus, thinking back to Cobain's letter). The larger context of the lyrics offers hope of finding that spark, whether it's internal or external, and making the most of your life from there. Here's hoping that can be the case for Grohl, Foo Fighters, and Taylor Hawkins' family and friends.


Postscript — Rockin' 1000: Want to see a clear-as-day example of the impact music can have on people? Look no further than the Rockin' 1000, a group of musicians who congregated in Cesena, Italy to form the world's largest rock band in 2015, in hopes of Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters playing in their city by playing "Learn to Fly" en masse.

Not only did they succeed, but the Rockin' 1000 have continued to perform since, putting on a full concert at the Stade de France in 2019, where they performed "Learn to Fly" again.


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