Quick Review: LEARNING TO FLY: LEARNING TO FLY (Orion)

WallM-FooFightersA quick biography of Nirvana Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters…

The definitive, no-holds-barred biography of one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the world, the Foo Fighters.

Everyone from Sir Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page to Queens of the Stone Age now relishes the chance to share a stage with Dave Grohl and his legendary Foo Fighters. The question is: why? Musical depth? Not really. Major success? Well, yes. Despite no longer shifting albums in the same quantity as they did twenty years ago, this band can still fill stadiums the world over (when Dave’s not breaking his leg, of course).

Long before Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, Dave Grohl was planning for a life after Nirvana. The unflinching bright sunlight to Cobain’s permanent midnight darkness, Grohl had come from a similar broken home to his erstwhile band leader, but came out of the experience differently – brimming with positivity and a shrewd grasp of opportunities in the music industry.

Did Grohl merely take the sonic blueprint of Nirvana and embellish it with a more life-affirming pop sheen? Of course he did. Every band in America that sold over a million records in the post-grunge 90s did the same. The difference was that Grohl had real credibility. And he knew it.

With exclusive testimony from true insiders (including Krist Novoselic, Grohl’s bass-playing partner in Nirvana, ex-girlfirends, record company executives, tour photographers and confidantes), this book is an exploration of the real story behind Grohl and the Foo Fighters — the only serious literary biography of the group and its leader, one of the most famous and critically bulletproof rock figures of the 21st century.

I waited a long time to pick up this book. I sadly cannot say that it was worth the wait. This is, at best, a mediocre re-hash of information you’ll find elsewhere from more-informed and better writers. Yes, it covers everything important in Dave Grohl’s musical career. But it’s not particularly enlightening, nor is it gripping. It is not definitive. It is by no means “literary”, either — the interpretation and analysis is simplistic and not particularly deep. At least, not that provided by Wall. He does interview some people who know what they’re talking about.

I won’t write too much about this book. Mainly because I don’t want to. If you’ve read any magazine article that has in any way covered the history of the Foo Fighters, or have followed media coverage of the band, then there’s probably nothing in here that you aren’t familiar with. If you know nothing about the band, then you’ll find this to be a quick, career-spanning account of Dave Grohl’s various bands. Of course, Nirvana features prominently (far more than it should — see below).

There are many ways in which this biography either didn’t work for me, or just outright annoyed me. Aside from the rather mediocre prose, here’s what irked me most. It starts with Wall’s mission statement:

“They wanted this book to be about the Foo Fighters. But the Foo Fighters as a band is only a notional idea… There is only one real Foo Fighter and his name is Dave Grohl… So this is not going to be a book about the Foo Fighters the band. Because that would make this is a fairy tale for idiots. This is instead a book about the Foo Fighters the man. Cos that’s what it is, millions of Foos fans. Don’t pretend you would want it any other way, either.”

Seems like a clear statement of intent, no? After all, he is correct — the Foo Fighters is absolutely Grohl’s baby and little kingdom. Well, after a couple of chapters setting the scene, Wall proceeds to spend about a third of the book recounting the Nirvana story, from the perspective of Kurt Cobain. With a few token mentions of Grohl’s presence and input. Why make such a big deal about the fact that you’re writing the “Book of Dave”, and proceed to effectively ignore him for 1/3 of your book? If we wanted a biography of Kurt Cobain, we’d pick up Charles Cross’s books — Heavier than Heaven and Here We Are Now: they are in-depth, and mostly very good. (Cross and his work are frequently referenced in Wall’s book for a reason.)

Ultimately, I don’t feel like I learned anything new from this biography. Pretty much everything Foo Fighters-related also featured in the Back and Forth documentary (which is excellent, and surprisingly honest). I feel like I learned more from the Sonic Highways series and Sound City documentary than I did from Learning to Fly, and they aren’t really about Dave/the band’s history. Paul Brannigan’s This is a Call likewise features the majority of what’s covered in Learning to Fly. And is better-written (if not quite as tightly-written).

This book felt like a rather lazy, quickly-bashed-out synthesis of other works already available. In my humble opinion, the few personal reminiscence and bits of original reporting included in the book do not add enough to make this worth your money. You can find much better accounts of the Foo’s history elsewhere, and I would recommend you do.

Disappointing.

*

Foo Fighters: Learning to Fly is published by Orion Books.

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