Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Foo Fighters: Learning to Fly'

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Mick Wall's 'Foo Fighters: Learning to Fly'
Mick Wall's 'Foo Fighters: Learning to Fly' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

The story of the Foo Fighters (like, some might uncharitably say, the band's music) isn't all that fascinating. Dave Grohl: frontman. Talented musician. Charismatic, generous, has his head on straight. Members of the band have come and gone, and there's been some drama. A near-death drug scare for drummer Taylor Hawkins.

Compared to other rock-band stories, though — take it from a guy who reads a rock book a week — the Foo Fighters' biography is pretty run-of-the-mill. The most intriguing part of the story, of course, comes before the Foos play a note. In addition to being in what's now one of the world's most popular bands, Grohl also happened to be in one of the most revered groups of the rock era. Nirvana's signature album Nevermind, according to The Current's listeners, is the single most essential record of all time.

That's a lot of baggage to bring to a solo career, but by universal agreement, Grohl played his cards exactly right. He recorded Foo Fighters' 1995 debut album on his own, and released it with a deliberately understated campaign that allowed his fans to feel like they were discovering him for the first time — even though he'd already been on the cover of Rolling Stone. For years, he deflected interview questions about Nirvana by asking reporters to respect the pain he felt at the loss of his former bandmate Kurt Cobain.

Soon, of course, Foo Fighters got so big that reporters had plenty to talk about besides how Grohl got that exact drum sound on "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Then, and only then, did he go ahead and make a documentary about the studio where that song was recorded (2013's Sound City).

The advent of Foo Fighters as a band comes about halfway through Mick Wall's new book Foo Fighters: Learning to Fly. Wall quotes Anton Brookes, a former Nirvana publicist, on the musical differences between Grohl's first and second big bands.

To an extent the Foo Fighters are Nirvana-lite, aren't they? It's not as intense. It's not as dark...Foo Fighters songs are not ugly-beautiful. But they have passion. It's just that the Foo Fighters [music] is sleek and it's well drilled and it's got diversity and everything. But the Foos' songs are completely different [to Nirvana's]. I think, to an extent, a lot of Nirvana's songs can be a little too heavy, mentally, for people to digest. It's like listening to Joy Division or something. Where the Foo Fighters is...and I'm not dumbing down here or anything...but you can put the Foo Fighters on and it's more enjoyable. It's more of a good time. Nirvana was never a good time.

After a few chapters on his early bands (a high school outfit cleverly named Dain Bramage, and a more experienced band called Scream), Grohl almost disappears from Learning to Fly for a long stretch as Wall outlines the arc of Nirvana's career. Inevitably, that describes the arc of Cobain's anguish, which only grew worse as Nirvana's fan base grew larger. Grohl and Krist Novoselic are described as being sad and troubled. Is there anything more to say?

Sure, and Novoselic said some of it in the 2015 documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Grohl wasn't able to be interviewed in time to make the cut for that film, and he didn't talk to Wall for the new book, so we may have to wait for the inevitable Dave Grohl memoir to learn more about what he was actually thinking and feeling during his two-and-a-half years in Nirvana.

The second half of Learning to Fly ambles through the succeeding two-plus decades, as Grohl largely goes from triumph to triumph. Some Foo Fighters albums were huge (The Colour and the Shape) and others were merely very popular (Wasting Light). There's a bit of elation and some hurt feelings as Grohl shuffles through various band members including past partners from Nirvana (Pat Smear) and Scream (Franz Stahl). Drummers struggle with being the drummer in a band whose frontman is one of rock's best-known drummers (William Goldsmith left the band after Grohl re-recorded his parts on The Colour). Tours just keep getting bigger and bigger.

Whether out of principle, professionalism, or simply a lack of dirt, Wall doesn't delve very deeply into Grohl's personal life, including his two marriages. The post-Nirvana legal wrangling, with Courtney Love battling the Grohl-Novoselic axis for control of the band's unreleased recordings, is dealt with fairly cursorily. Wall brings up the dismissive nickname some music fans had for Grohl — "the Grunge Ringo" — a couple of times, but if Grohl ever took exception to that kind of attitude, we don't learn about it. After all, why would Grohl complain? He and the former Beatle are among the three wealthiest drummers in the world. (The other is Phil Collins.)

Wall did dig up a few tasty tidbits for Minnesota music fans. He recounts Foo Fighters' bemusement at Prince covering their song "Best of You" during his Super Bowl halftime show, despite having previously denied the band permission to release a cover of "Darling Nikki." (He and Grohl later jammed privately on a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love.") Wall also quotes Bob Mould, touched at being asked to play on Wasting Light. Best of all, though, is the anecdote about the first time Love met Cobain: she teased him because, she said, he looked like Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner.

Learning to Fly isn't a revelatory book, but it's an informative quick read for fans seeking a Foo 101. Did you know, for example, where Grohl got the band's name from? It's the term used by WWII fighter pilots to describe inexplicable aerial phenomena. An ironic name indeed for one of the most familiar, accessible bands of their time.

The Current's Learning to Fly giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Learning to Fly giveaway between 8 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, August 16, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, August 22, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Foo Fighters: Learning to Fly. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $26.99

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, August 24, 2017.

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This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2017 Official Giveaway Rules.


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