Dave Grohl made music history with Nirvana and reinvented himself with Foo Fighters. Now fans can get the skinny on the rocker’s life story for less than the cost of one of his CDs. Now available in paperback, This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl (Da Capo, 416 pages) is the definitive biography of the most prolific—and popular—drummer of his generation.
Author Paul Branningan (Kerrang! Magazine) takes readers back in time some 35 years to Grohl’s formative years, backtracking from a 2009 ceremony honoring the drummer in his native Warren, Ohio. The child of divorced parents living in Springfield, Virginia (his father was a government reporter), the bright but hyperactive Grohl bounced from one high school to another, spinning classic rock albums on morning P.A. announcements and sneaking joints between classes. He was introduced to punk rock while visiting his cousin in Illinois. Witnessing Naked Raygun live in concert and getting caught in the bedlam at the “Rock Against Reagan” festival were epiphanies that set the course for future.
Brannigan discusses Grohl’s introduction to guitar and drums, chronicling the musician’s tenure with early bands like Freak Baby and Mission Impossible. Influenced by the burgeoning punk scene around the nation’s capitol, Grohl formed Dain Bramage with friends in late 1985 ad cut a demo in their own Laundry Room Studio (they also shared a 7” EP with a band called Lunch Meat). By 1986 he’d gotten a call to replace stickman Kent Stax in Scream, and even his mother encouraged him to drop out of school to follow his muse.
We’re taken on the road with Grohl and his Scream mentors (Pete Stahl, Franz Stahl, and Skeeter Thompson) and cringe at their bare-bones living conditions. A fortuitous trip to the West Coast brought Grohl to the attention of Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne, who passed along phone numbers for his pals Krist Noveselic and Kurt Cobain in Seattle. After almost four years of nomad life with Scream, Grohl agreed to drive to Jet City and audition for Nirvana, whose album Bleach made them the darlings of the upstart Sub Pop record label.
Brannigan provides an exhaustive—but crucial—summary of the musical landscape in D.C. and how the punk movement there influenced the hardcore scene in California, and later the sea change of grunge in the Pacific Northwest. Some readers may plow through this ephemera to rejoin Grohl’s narrative thread, but the details surrounding the people and places who jumpstarted Nirvana’s ascent are crucial—and rather fascinating. Brannigan explains how Minor Threat singer Ian McKaye formed his own label, Dischord, and allowed like-minded musicians to rehearse and camp out in his D.C. home. McKaye’s friends and touring bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains carried their communal aesthetic and DIY marketing strategies with them to Orange County and Aberdeen, Washington, planting the seeds for up-and-comers like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees.
We learn how Grohl, Cobain, and Noveselic recorded a demo for Nevermind with Garbage drummer / producer Butch Vig in Madison, Wisconsin. Earmarked for Sub Pop, the tracks generated so much positive word of mouth that Nirvana decided to shop the record amongst the majors (David Geffen’s DGC label ultimately issued the now-legendary disc). Brannigan takes us inside the writing and recording of classic tracks like “In Bloom,” “Polly, “Lithium,” and yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which was initially thought of as little more than another good jam. Recorded with Vig at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Nevermind was the disc that broke Nirvana, made Dave Grohl a household name, and inspired a flood tide of imitators.
Brannigan deftly threads several subplots into the chapters on Nirvana’s “sudden” rise and fall. Of particular note are his reports on Cobain’s faltering mental health, substance abuse, and toxic relationship with Courtney Love. Behind the scenes, however, Grohl continued exploring his own creativity, committing song sketches onto home porta-studios. His 1992 demo Pocketwatch (released under an alias) contained the roots of what would become Foo Fighters in the months following Cobain’s suicide.
We listen in as Grohl works through his grief during sessions at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle—and turns down an offer to join Tom Petty’s band after appearing with The Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live. With a little studio magic (courtesy mixer Rob Schnapt and Tom Rothrock), the majority of run-throughs on Grohl’s first major stand-alone project wind up on the actual Foo Fighters album. Realizing he couldn’t run from one instrument to another onstage as he had in studio, Grohl decided to recruit players for an all-new band.
Brannigan tiptoes through the writing and recording of every Foo Fighters release—from the eponymous debut and chart-busting follow up The Colour and The Shape through 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2011’s Wasting Light was still in a work in progress at time of publication). We discover the impetus and meanings behind Foo hits like “Big Me,” “Monkey Wrench,” “Everlong,” and “My Hero” and accompany Grohl’s ragtag outfit on the road. Brannigan delicately dissects the tenuous ties between the drummer-turned front man and his backup team, profiling key players like guitarist Pat Smear (ex The Germs), drummer William Goldsmith, and bassist Nate Mendel (ex Sunny Day Real Estate). We learn how Grohl unwittingly nudged Goldsmith from the club by resuming drum duties, and how an abdicating Smear was replaced first by old chum Franz Stahl, then Chris Shiflett.
The book provides insight on Grohl’s emotional maturation and creative arc, touching on his post-Nirvana therapy and failed first marriage. We sympathize with the young, idealistic drummer as he braves homelessness and hunger to travel with his hell-raising colleagues in unreliable vans and crowded tour buses. Grohl’s business savvy is impressive—but no more so than his willingness to shelve work to attend a friend in need (as was the case with Hawkins in the mid-2000s). The trouble-maker from a broken home eventually comes full circle, finding happiness in with Jordyn Bloom and their daughters, Valet May and Harper Willow. He even mends fences with Smear, jamming with his co-guitarist again at Wembley with members of Led Zeppelin.
Readers get the inside scoop on the brotherhood between Grohl and his spiritual twin, drummer Taylor Hawkins, who threw his lot in with the Foos after a stint with Canadian alternative rocker Alanis Morissette. We rejoice with the rockers as they find success with discs like Nothing Left to Lose, In Your Honor—even the “rushed” One by One—and watch from the sidelines as the guys dazzle tens of thousands of people at a time in arenas and stadia around the globe. This Is a Call also sheds light on Grohl’s many one-offs (Probot), experiments (Tenacious D, the Backbeat soundtrack), and side gigs (Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures).
Brannigan’s knowledge draws mostly from his own longstanding friendship with Grohl—but he also scoured articles and interviews from countless other sources, all of which are meticulously documented in his index / appendix. The journalist also includes a comprehensive Dave Grohl discography.
This Is a Call is mandatory reading material for any self-respecting rock aficionado; one need not be a Grohl disciple to appreciate the fruits of Brannigan’s tireless research or elegiac prose. Thorough, thoughtful, brisk, riveting, and revelatory, This Is a Call is not only the tale of one man’s transformation from monster drummer to the bearded front man regarded as “the nicest guy in rock,” but also a crucial capsule summary of the peripheral persons and events that would impact all facets of rock, metal, punk, and hardcore today.