Celebrity misinformation
The Foo Fighters’ AIDS denialism should be on the record

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl performing in 2019. Image via Facebook

A few weeks ago, coincidentally about the time the Foo Fighters were preparing to release a new album, a shaky video shot on a smartphone went viral. It showed a young British doctor intervening in a depressingly misguided rescue mission: relatives of an elderly man, suffering severe COVID-related pneumonia, had come to bust him out of hospital.

Why? As they aggressively and incoherently quiz the doctor, it becomes clear that they believe the virus is a hoax – even as their relative sits gasping on the bed. Then they remove his oxygen mask.

“You’ve taken his oxygen off!” the doctor says, incredulous. “He’s going to die if we don’t put it back on.”

“No, I’m not,” the old man says.

“Yes, you are.”

Security guards are summoned, while the family protests – victims, they think, of a vast and malevolent hoax.

So what does this have to do with the Foo Fighters? Bear with me.

At 52, the Foo’s Dave Grohl is rock’s cool uncle, smiling evangelist and plain-spoken philosopher. Gregarious and media savvy, he recently engaged 10-year-old drumming prodigy Nandi Bushell in a cute online duel, and wrote a love letter to live music in the Atlantic. He jams with Paul McCartney, makes docos about recording studios, sent a hopeful message to the trapped miners of Beaconsfield and, even if his principal band have made insipid pap for the past two decades, is assured street cred by having written “Everlong” and bashed the skins for Nirvana. Everyone, it seems, loves Dave. 

“When Kurt died, I had this whole new outlook at life, that we’re all so lucky to be here,” Grohl told Esquire in 2014. “You can’t take life for granted. It’s short. It’s fragile. And you don’t know when it’s going to be taken away from you. So the short time that you’re here? You just have to kick ass the whole time and not look back.”

This heroic refusal to look back would seem to include not looking back upon his band’s very public support for Alive and Well AIDS Alternatives, an AIDS denial group that argued HIV did not cause AIDS – and that HIV was, in fact, harmless and non-contagious. Alive and Well argued that AIDS was likely caused by recreational drug use and/or the very antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV patients, and as such it discouraged people from taking HIV tests, practicing safe sex, or, for those living with HIV, accepting medication. In the late 1990s, its director was personally received by South African President Thabo Mbeki, a man who also denied the link between HIV and AIDS and, by banning antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals, is credibly blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Alive and Well was not your usual celebrity charity then, but it was nonetheless amplified by one of the biggest bands in the world. In early 2000, President Clinton’s director of AIDS policy admonished them: “For the Foo Fighters to be promoting this is extraordinarily irresponsible behaviour. There is no doubt about the link between HIV and AIDS in the respected scientific community and it’s quite unfortunate that a band reads one book and then adopts this theory. To say [that HIV does not cause AIDS] is akin to saying the world is flat.”

That “one book” was What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? – self-published pseudo-science written by Alive and Well’s founder, Christine Maggiore, a woman diagnosed with HIV in the early ‘90s – and it fell into the idle hands of the Foo Fighters’ bassist, Nate Mendel. After devouring it, Mendel conscripted his bandmates in his advocacy for Maggiore’s group.

The alliance lasted years. In January 2000, the group held a benefit concert for Alive and Well. “I’m living in perfect health without any AIDS medicines,” Maggiore told the cheering crowd between songs. For years, the band’s website featured Alive and Well banners, and listed them as a favoured charity.

When Mother Jones ran an article critical of Mendel in 2000, the musician responded with an indignant letter: “The story takes a decidedly derisive view of our efforts … I am not a medical professional, and I am relatively new to these questions, but I am convinced that those who have tested HIV positive and those sick with AIDS are being done a disservice by not having all the information available to them.”  

The founder of Alive and Well is long dead. So is her daughter. Both succumbed to AIDS. Christine Maggiore fell pregnant in 2001, spurned antiretroviral drugs, breastfed her daughter and refused to have her tested for the virus. As her child became increasingly ill, Maggiore attributed her sickness to other things and sought quacks to reaffirm her delusions. Eliza was three when she died – after an autopsy, a coroner ruled that the “unequivocal” cause of her death was AIDS-related Pneumocystis pneumonia.

The death of her daughter did not free Maggiore from her destructive theories – or the Foo Fighters from their endorsement of them. Instead, Maggiore doubled down. She accused the coroner of political bias and continued to refuse treatment for herself. She died three years after her daughter, of pneumonia as well, and we are left with the very essence of tragedy: a denial of extreme and self-annihilating sophistication.

You might say that this is old news, except that it was never really news in the first place – and there’s almost no cultural memory of it now. Regarding the band’s destructive foolishness, the internet resembles a hastily cleaned crime scene. Professionally rinsed, however, are Paul Brannigan’s “in-depth” and best-selling 2011 biography of Grohl, and Mick Wall’s 2015 band biography Learning to Fly. Many years of interviews and magazine profiles – accounting for hundreds of thousands of words – have never referenced it. A 5000-word profile of Grohl in Rolling Stone in 2017 refers to the “crazy” early years of the band, which included the 2001 overdose and subsequent coma of its drummer, Taylor Hawkins, but the band’s long and destructive support of HIV denialism is, typically, never mentioned.  

There’s a dark irony here, or perhaps just ghastly resonance: Grohl personally knows the harm of conspiracy theories. For decades, the suicide of Grohl’s bandmate Kurt Cobain has been loudly reinterpreted by twisted hyper-fans as a murder coordinated by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love – a baseless claim that has greatly compounded suffering.

“I’m absolutely confident that I’m doing the right thing,” Nate Mendel once said. “No, I wouldn’t feel responsible for possibly harming somebody. I [feel] I’m doing the opposite.”

Misinformation kills. It impairs health campaigns and incites fatal insurrections. It erodes public faith in its institutions and emboldens militancy and extremism. It encourages families to remove their grievously sick from hospital. The Foo Fighters’ amplification of fatal misinformation should be on the record, as should the band’s silent and cowardly retreat from it, a successful vanishing act that was enabled by a vapid and transactional music press that cherishes access – however qualified – above all else. Grohl loves talking about rock’s power of soulful confession, but on this there’s only silence.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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