In September 1993, Pat Smear received a phone call. It was his old friend Courtney Love’s husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. The band had just released their third album In Utero, were set to tour and make promotional appearances, and they needed a second guitarist. The band would be performing on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live in just a few days time. Cobain asked if Smear had any interest in the job.
At a rehearsal space prior to the band’s appearance on SNL, Smear met the man who would change the course of his life. Not Cobain, but drummer Dave Grohl. Grohl was a longtime fan of Smear’s first band, the volatile and highly combustible hardcore punk band The Germs. Smear formed the group with vocalist Darby Crash and released a single album, 1979’s (GI), before Crash took his own life a year later. As Grohl explains it in the Foo Fighter’s documentary Back and Forth: “Pat is from this legendary punk rock band called The Germs that we all grew up listening to. There was no one more badass than The Germs. The Germs didn’t give a fuck.”
In the same documentary, Grohl comically explains his disbelief that Smear was even alive when he showed up in Seattle to join Nirvana. But the musicians quickly formed a bond, and it became clear that Smear had obsessed over In Utero, making him a natural fit to play second guitar and sing backup vocals live. Smear’s time in the band would be chronicled on SNL, the band’s legendary performance on MTV Unplugged, and the live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, plus various assorted compilations and releases. In total, Smear was in Nirvana for about six months, and though never officially credited beyond his role as a touring guitarist, he is now often considered a surviving member of the band along with Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic.
After Cobain died in 1994, Smear moved back to Los Angeles and intended to quit the music industry. It was there that he was surprised to receive a call from Grohl, who had recently finished a demo tape that was getting interest from major labels. After recruiting bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith from the recently disbanded Seattle emo outfit Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl asked Smear if he had any interest in joining the Foo Fighters.
As with In Utero, Smear toured behind the Foo Fighters debut album.
The friendship between Grohl and Smear was already solidified through Nirvana. “For the last year of the band [Nirvana], it made the band a lot more fun to be in, having Pat in the band,” Grohl later explained on The Howard Stern Show. During the same interview, Smear said: “It was only weird immediately, and then it got cool real fast.”
As the Foo Fighters began recording their second LP, The Colour and the Shape, a number of factors led to Smear’s disenchantment with the group. The primary reason was exhaustion from touring, as Smear was nearly 40 years old and did not want to return to the strenuous life of the road. There were other factors as well: Grohl’s divorce from his first wife, Jennifer Youngblood, with whom Smear was a close friend, and the way Grohl dictated the band also played into his decision. Grohl re-recorded almost all of Goldsmith’s drum parts for the album, and Smear witnessed how the drummer nearly half his age was steamrolled out of the band through Grohl’s instance on control.
At the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, Smear publically announced his departure and symbolically handed his guitar over to his replacement, Scream guitarist Franz Stahl. Over the next few years, Smear kept a low profile and witnessed the Foos ascent to their status as one of the top rock bands in the world. Smear would occasionally ask Grohl to return, something that then-new guitarist Chris Shifflet caught wind of. Expecting to be replaced, Shifflet actually wound up sharing guitar duties with Smear upon his return in 2005. He was only credited as a touring member until 2011’s Wasting Light, for which he was reinstated as a full-fledged member of the group, a role he still has to this day.
Today, Pat Smear turns 62 and has one of the most legendary career paths in rock and roll. From establishing the hardcore genre with The Germs to a chance meeting with Courtney Love on the set of the 1984 movie Breakin’ that would eventually result in his involvement with both Nirvana and Foo Fighters years later, Smear’s friendship with Grohl wound up being the most important, and most impactful, of the guitarist’s life.