It’s been nearly three weeks since the tragic passing of Taylor Hawkins, but the news is still difficult to process. Watching a video of his final performance with Foo Fighters just five days prior to his death on March 25 only compounds the cognitive dissonance. The 50-year-old drummer looks tan, lean, and at least 10 years younger than his actual age. He is gregarious, magnetic, and charmingly affectionate to his band leader and best friend, Dave Grohl. He is a rock star at the height of his powers. Seemingly invincible. But only seemingly.
Among the last of the absurdly popular stadium rock bands, Foo Fighters have been so ubiquitous for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted. But the reaction to Hawkins’ death over the past several weeks testifies to their reach. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan, you likely know at least a couple of their radio-conquering anthems: “Everlong,” “My Hero,” “Best Of You,” “Times Like These.” “Learn To Fly.” When I wrote last year about the best Foo Fighters songs, I realized that my engagement with them was less casual than I imagined. As Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers did for a previous generation, Foo Fighters have specialized in the kind of broadly appealing rock songs that people incorporate into their lives often without realizing it, as if by cultural osmosis. You don’t have to work to like their music. You just do.
While they were forged by Grohl in 1994 as a one-man project in the wake of another famous tragedy involving a different bandmate, over time Foo Fighters evolved into an actual band that added up to something more than just a vehicle for their celebrity frontman. And Hawkins had a lot to do with that. The drummer in a band started by the most admired drummer of his generation, Hawkins quickly established a dynamic with Grohl that was both little brother and partner-in-crime.
It would be a stretch to call Hawkins the co-frontman of Foo Fighters, but he was clearly the second most prominent guy in the band, even more than the other former member of Nirvana in Foo Fighters, Pat Smear. This was communicated on stage whenever Hawkins stepped out from behind the drums to sing Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” complete with Freddie Mercury-style vocal gymnastics. And it came across in interviews, in which Hawkins was usually the only other Foo seated next to Grohl as figureheads of the band.
Hawkins was, in a sense, the band identity for Foo Fighters, the person who made this one-time solo venture feel like a real gang. But more than that, Hawkins earned his share of the spotlight. If you have a handsome blonde who can still pull off drumming shirtless well into middle age, you put him where the audience can see and appreciate him. Anything less would be rock ‘n’ roll malpractice.
All of this prompts a delicate, uncomfortable question that only Grohl and his partners can answer. There is, of course, no rush to answer it. Grief is a long, hard road, and it will have to be traversed before this question can be pondered. It might take one month. Or one year. Or 10 years. But eventually, the following will have to be addressed: Can Foo Fighters continue as a band without Taylor Hawkins?
As someone who spends a lot of his professional life (and even a good part of my non-professional life) thinking about rock bands, I admit that this question has been on my mind lately. But it felt inappropriate to bring it up in the immediate aftermath of Hawkins’ passing. Some might say it’s inappropriate even now. Death in general is the one topic that is universally upsetting for those of us who remain among the living. I’m no different in that respect. Thinking about Taylor Hawkins dying at such a young age puts a pit in my stomach.
In the context of a band, the proper way to address the loss of a member boils down to another delicate, uncomfortable question: Is it more respectful to break up, or to carry on? Is it a better tribute to recognize how vital this person was by packing it in? Or is it a more fitting honor to continue, and keep that person’s memory alive in arenas and stadiums around the world? This is to say nothing of weighing the personal toll of playing in a band without your close friend vs. giving up the very thing that has defined your musical life for decades. None of this is easy, and I feel for those closest to Hawkins as they try to move forward without him.
Grohl and Hawkins bonded over their nerdy obsessions with rock history, so surely they were aware of previous legacy bands who lost their famous drummers, and how those groups reacted. These examples, inevitably, offer no coherent path forward. In 1978, Keith Moon of The Who died at the cruelly young age of 32, and was swiftly replaced by Kenney Jones and, much later, Zak Starkey. Two years later, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin died, also at the age of 32. But unlike The Who, Zeppelin was shuttered almost immediately. Robert Plant, Bonham’s best friend in the band, was most adamant about not continuing without him. On his podcast last year, Plant admitted that he still dreams about hanging out with Bonham, more than four decades after his passing.
More recent examples offer similarly conflicting models. When Neil Peart passed away in 2020, it effectively ended Rush, the Canadian power trio he joined and elevated 46 years prior. But when Charlie Watts died in 2021, the Rolling Stones quickly committed to touring with new drummer Steve Jordan, who had already been announced as a sub for the ailing Watts before he succumbed to cancer. Mick and Keith made sure to salute Watts every night via a video montage that played before they came on stage. And then the show went on without him.
Neither as young as Moon and Bonham nor as tenured as Peart and Watts, Hawkins was solidly in the prime of his life. When the Foos played their final show with Hawkins in Chile, they appeared to be the most obvious inheritor of The Stones’ legacy of regularly touring the world’s biggest venues well into your senior years as weathered ambassadors of meat-and-potatoes stadium rock. It seemed possible, if not likely, that Hawkins had another 20 or even 30 years of rock stardom ahead of him. For a man who was also a husband, father, brother, and friend, the loss of a career perhaps shouldn’t be counted among the costliest forfeitures upon his death. But given how much Taylor Hawkins clearly relished being a rock star, it is a profoundly sad waste nonetheless.
As for the people he left behind, I felt sickening pangs of sympathy this week after revisiting the 2011 documentary Foo Fighters: Back And Forth. The film offers a reminder that for much of the ’90s, the band was a revolving door of members swiftly joining and exiting. That includes the drummer who preceded Hawkins, William Goldsmith, who quit acrimoniously in 1997 after Grohl re-did all of his drum tracks for the second (and in my mind best) Foo Fighters album, The Colour & The Shape. Grohl split timekeeping duties with Hawkins on the next album, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose, but after that he ceded the drummer’s chair to Hawkins, a testament to his undeniable chops and musical flair.
But the surest sign of Hawkins’ place in the band occurred in 2001, when he overdosed on heroin in London and went into a coma for two weeks. In the film, Grohl talks about sitting at Hawkins’ bedside at the time. The memory causes him to choke up. And then you see relief come over him when he recalls the moment when Hawkins finally woke up. His soul mate hadn’t slipped from his grasp after all.
This scene now is all but unwatchable, as Grohl’s band remains mired in a surreal limbo in which they are somehow, simultaneously, canceling tours and winning Grammys. Foo Fighters are still technically a band, but they currently feel like a body without a soul. Seeing Grohl break down at the thought of losing Hawkins in 2001 makes the idea of continuing as Foo Fighters now seem impossible. Though any scenario in which Foo Fighters aren’t playing for tens of thousands of people somewhere in the world also seems inconceivable. Maybe Dave could sing and drum at the time? Maybe a rotating cast of Hawkins’ friends — Chad Smith, Stewart Copeland, Stephen Perkins — could temporarily fill the void?
As fans, we don’t get to make the decision. For that, we are fortunate. There are no good choices at a time like this. In a deeply unfair world in which vital and beloved people perish well before their time, everything manages to feel wrong.