On Friday night, just hours before they were scheduled to take the stage at a music festival in Colombia, Foo Fighters drummer of 25 years and Fort Worth native Taylor Hawkins was found dead in his Bogota hotel room. He was 50 years old.
Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine summed it up better than almost anyone when he tweeted “Taylor Hawkins may have been the only drummer alive who could have supported Dave Grohl in Foo Fighters and not make you wish Grohl was sitting behind the kit.”
Hawkins was able to come up with the most head-spinning drum parts and play them in a way that made the average teenager think “I can do that!” Conversely, he was able to take a simple drum pattern, and play it in a way that felt more intricate and complicated than it actually was. Take the jet engine energy of “Rope” from the band’s magnum opus album Wasting Light. From the song’s wind-up drum fills to the rhythm switch between the verses and chorus, Hawkins navigates the obstacles with the finesse and aggression of an aerial dogfight. Not to mention, he’s singing co-lead vocals with Grohl nearly the entire time, and on top of that, he gets a show-stopping drum solo.
Hawkins was able to bash and attack the drums with punk rock fury yet also command a groove in the truest sense. “Aurora” from Hawkins’ first album with Foo Fighters, Nothing Left to Lose, is a masterclass in alternative rock drumming dynamics: just enough softness and just enough air between hits, so that the song has room to say what it needs to. Grohl’s caveman-like drumming would likely have been a bit heavy-handed to allow the song the space it needed.
Mind you, Hawkins could be a caveman when called upon. On songs like “La Dee Da” from Concrete & Gold or “White Limo” from Wasting Light — debatably the Foo Fighters' most ferocious moments — Hawkins drives the band’s homage to the hardcore punk and heavy metal that fueled the adolescent angst that propelled him and Grohl out of their garages and into the "real" world.
Hawkins originally cut his teeth in the mid-'90s as the live drummer for a 21-year-old Alanis Morrissette, giving her live band the rock ‘n’ roll edge that she was looking for to differentiate her performances from the studio recordings of her breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill. Eventually, after an expressed mutual admiration in a couple of chance meetings between Grohl and Hawkins at festivals, the Foo Fighters had a vacant drum spot. It was quickly filled by Hawkins, who had the daunting task of having to replicate the already-legendary drumming that had been laid down by Grohl himself on the first two Foo Fighters records, informed by Grohl’s mammoth drumming in Nirvana.
In his own drumming MasterClass, Hawkins said that it was intimidating to be a drummer in Dave Grohl’s wake, as Grohl was rather particular about how he recorded his own drumming, but that he was rather patient with Hawkins as they assembled what would eventually become Nothing Left to Lose, which features both Grohl's and Hawkins’ drumming.
From the album One By One onward, Hawkins was never made to yield the drum throne to Grohl ever again. The only time in the last 16 years that a Foo Fighters song featured a drummer other than Taylor Hawkins, it was none other than Sir Paul McCartney behind the kit on 2017’s “Sunday Rain,” which features Hawkins on lead vocals.
Grohl later said that yielding the drums was not as daunting of a task with Hawkins’ capabilities.
“When you have a drummer like Taylor Hawkins in your band, I don’t necessarily miss being the drummer,” he told Anderson Cooper in 2014. “Because I have the greatest drummer in the world.”
Taylor’s more technically minded drumming opened up new avenues of rhythmic and dynamic possibility, not only in being able to replicate masterful hard rock works such as “Everlong” in the live setting, but also carry a band that would soon be embarking on acoustic outings with the likes of Bob Dylan.
Any video of a performance by Taylor Hawkins shows a visibly giddy grown man thrilled to be doing the thing he is getting paid to be doing. It’s a passion that most rock stars attempt to conceal as to not risk looking uncool. Hawkins’ breaking down of that illusion made the possibility of being a successful rock ‘n’ roll musician a reality. You can be successful at this as long as you love it.
Of course, that passion glowed greatest when he talked about his absolute unabashed love for Queen, and his hero-worship of Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor. Hawkins was inspired by Taylor in nearly all facets, not just in his approach to a drum kit. Hawkins' adoption of Taylor as his given name (Hawkins’ real first name was actually Oliver, Taylor was his middle name) was a tribute to Roger Taylor. In one of practically hundreds of endearing interview moments, Taylor and Grohl once said that they spent most of their time “just talking about music.” When they were asked by Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes to give their thoughts on Queen, Grohl smiled and answered: “Don’t get him started on that,” while Hawkins sighed amorously and began his tangent: “That’s a whole other 60 minutes.” “More like 600 Minutes,” said Grohl jokingly while Hawkins talked over him: “Queen was my first concert, I wanted to be Roger Taylor …”
Hawkins’ love for the greats of rock ‘n’ roll and for rock ‘n’ roll itself — the concept, the genre, the spirit — was more akin to that of your local long-haired record store employee who sang too loud when “Message in a Bottle” came on the radio or always mentioned how Charlie Watts almost never played the snare and hi-hat at the same time. He was somehow able to maintain a sense of childlike fascination and admiration for his chosen field, despite the fact that he himself was one of the most lauded and well-known drummers on Earth.
If you stopped keeping up with music after 1995 and watched Rush’s 2013 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you probably would have said to yourself “Who is this kid jumping up and down next to the guy from Nirvana?” only to then watch Hawkins, Grohl, and producer Nick Raskulinecz absolutely nail the first movement of “2112” — while wearing Rush-style wigs and kimonos.
Try naming one other drummer to emerge in the last 25 years who has ascended into the upper echelons of the greats like Neil Peart, Roger Taylor, Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland, or any other drummers who they themselves looked up to growing up and then got the opportunity to play with/for them.
[Hawkins] was somehow able to maintain a sense of childlike fascination and admiration for his chosen field, despite the fact that he himself was one of the most lauded and well-known drummers on Earth.
The epitome of this art-imitating-life dynamic may have come during Foo Fighters’ Wembley Stadium concert in 2008 (the first of more than a decade of stadium-sized dominance), when Hawkins and Grohl were joined by none other than Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. You know, from Led Zeppelin.
In the wake of Led Zeppelin’s triumphant reunion the year before, Page and Jones were in search of a frontman willing to somewhat fill the shoes of Robert Plant, who opted out of any further Zeppelin-related activity, and of course those of late drumming titan John Bonham. The quartet performed “Rock and Roll” with Hawkins taking Plant’s place up front and Grohl behind the kit, and “Ramble On” with Hawkins manning John Bonham’s parts and Grohl singing.
Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins got to be in Led Zeppelin for a night. The only other humans who can say that are Jason Bonham and Phil Collins. While nothing further came from the Page/Jones/Grohl/Hawkins arrangement, it proved that Hawkins was a sort of ambassador to rock ‘n’ roll greatness for the everyperson. The embodiment of the idea that “Yes, you too can get here eventually.”
Foo Fighters themselves were rightfully inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, their first year of eligibility, by none other than McCartney.
Grohl often referred to Hawkins as “the best drummer in the world” and “the best singer in the world,” especially when yielding frontman duties to Hawkins for a song or two — a regular part of Foo Fighters’ concerts, not just the Led Zeppelin experience. However, instead of performing one of his lead vocal showcases or compositions with the Foos like “Sunday Rain” or “Cold Day in the Sun,” Hawkins usually opted to sing a Queen song, like “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Under Pressure,” “Somebody to Love,” “I’m in Love With My Car” or “Now I’m Here."
There were many times when Hawkins felt to fans like the band’s second frontman.
It doesn’t seem to get easier the more the news settles: The death of Taylor Hawkins is a tragedy. Unquestionably one of the biggest losses by the rock music community in recent years. One can only imagine Dave Grohl's heartbreak after going from being the drummer in the most acclaimed rock band on Earth (Nirvana) and unexpectedly losing your one-of-a-kind singer at a much-too-young age, to then rebuild from scratch, become a singer in a new band that eventually also becomes one of the most acclaimed rock bands on Earth, only to lose your one-of-a-kind drummer at a much-too-young age. If there was ever a time for “our thoughts are with them during this difficult time,” this is it.
Hawkins’ jovial presence combined with Foo Fighters’ relentless touring schedule voided the urgency to go see them if you lived outside of a primary music market. I was never lucky enough to see Taylor Hawkins in concert. I found myself in the vicinity (within a six-hour drive) of a Foo Fighters concert five times in the last 11 years, none of which I was able to attend. Family gathering here, school here, work there, “too far,” excuses. They always came back.
One of those instances, a pit stop on a family road tip led to a chance encounter with Dave Grohl (who was, extraordinarily nice, as usual), but fate led to Taylor Hawkins being just out of sight, around the corner, and out of reach at that moment. In the words of Jonathan Tyler in "Disappear": “The time wasn’t right, but it never is.”
Unlike the recent deaths of Neil Peart and Charlie Watts — while nonetheless sad — this one feels truly tragic. Rush had already disbanded and effectively sealed their legacy, Watt’s longevity with The Rolling Stones stretched to the point of becoming a punchline; their passing was almost ceremonious. Taylor Hawkins had only recently proved himself worthy of potentially going down in history as one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. His death was unexpected and shocking to say the least (at the time of publication, his cause of death has not been revealed). The band had several stadium tour dates planned, including a performance scheduled at the Grammy Awards on April 3. Foo Fighters were about to cross that line from modern rock staples to classic rock heroes, beloved by the older and newer generations alike. The victory lap was almost here.
That’s not to say that the songs of Foo Fighters won’t certainly become classic rock staples, but it does mean that those who enjoy and share the band’s music will refer to their exuberant drummer in the past tense. A generation will hear “Bridge Burning” for the first time emanating out of a car stereo, get their sonic muscles stretched by Hawkins’ furious opening drum roll, become inspired to pick up drumsticks for the first time and learn to play the song’s serpentine groove. Except they won’t be given the opportunity to experience the sound and fury of Taylor Hawkins’ everyman drumming live in concert, nor will they be given the opportunity to fantasize about experiencing the goosebumps of hearing his kick drum in the buildup to “Walk” and feel the potential of new beginnings ahead.
Saying goodbye to possibly the greatest drummer of the new millennium recalls Dave Grohl’s own words in song: “There goes my hero, he’s ordinary.”