January 05, 2012


This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl. By Paul Brannigan. Da Capo. $26.99.

PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao—the Greatest Pound-for-Pound Fighter in the World. By Gary Andrew Poole. Da Capo. $15.

     Some books start out with limitations. They are not intended to reach a wide audience or to attract people unfamiliar with their subject matter. Pretty much all books on minor celebrities fit this category – they are strictly for readers who already know and care about the people being profiled, and are looking for some sort of “behind-the-scenes story” on people the readers will never meet, and know about only through their performances and public personas. So Paul Brannigan’s This Is a Call will be of no interest whatsoever to readers uninterested in the punk scene where Grohl has had his career. Brannigan – former editor of a magazine called Kerrang! – preaches to the converted throughout, assuming that anyone picking up the book will not only know about and be fascinated by Grohl’s stint as drummer for the band Nirvana and singer/songwriter for the Foo Fighters, but also want to know all the ins and outs of Grohl’s personal life. As it happens, some of Grohl’s ups and downs would be interesting, or at least a cautionary tale, even to those not fully immersed in the punk scene: his troubles keeping a band together, the difficulties of his personal life, and his eventual descent into homelessness have resonance far beyond his music. But they are not the focus of the book. Brannigan knows what his audience wants: “It was Metallica who altered the playing field. Formed in Los Angeles in 1981 by vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, and influenced by Motörhead, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the Misfits and nihilistic West Coast punk, the quartet began life as front-runner of the violent, chaotic Thrash Metal scene.” And, of course, “When Dave Grohl talks about Kurt Cobain’s last days his body language and speech patterns change. The bounce disappears from his voice, and his recollections are delivered haltingly. …‘It’s hard for me to even talk about it,’ he said finally. ‘It was just so nuts, I don’t even know how to explain it.’” Fans of Grohl’s work, up to and including his appearances with Them Crooked Vultures, will get plenty of name-dropping and behind-the-scenes insights from a writer who has known Grohl since 1997 and does a good job of pulling together many sorts of musical and personal minutiae. But Brannigan never digs too deeply into Grohl’s mind or heart, which is a shame, since there are fascinating tidbits there. For example, Grohl’s freshman and sophomore years in high school were at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a highly selective school generally considered the best high school in the United States; his family then pulled him out because his marijuana use was affecting his grades. But getting into the school in the first place – which requires taking a difficult entrance exam – indicates that Grohl had considerable aptitude in fields with which one would scarcely associate him. Where did that come from, and where did it go? There are no answers here to questions of that sort; indeed, there are no questions of that sort at all. Brannigan delivers a nicely written biographical sketch of Grohl that will interest Grohl’s existing fan base and readers of Kerrang! and similar magazines. That is all. For the target audience, it will be enough.

     Similarly, the primary target readership of Gary Andrew Poole’s PacMan is boxing fans – although this book may reach a bit beyond the core, simply because Manny Pacquiao sometimes shows up in general-news headlines as well as boxing stories. For example, the third fight between Pacquaio and Juan Manuel Marquez, which Pacquaio won by a controversial majority decision last November 12, provoked commentary even beyond the boxing world. But that fight is not included in PacMan, and cannot be – it takes too much time to produce a book for it to include up-to-the-minute information, and besides, PacMan originally came out in 2010; the new paperback edition is updated only with an afterword by Poole. The focus of the book is not the boxing ring, although of course that is a prominent venue, but the background from which Pacquaio rose to pugilistic prominence. A Philippine Congressman using his political position to fight the sort of poverty into which he himself was born, Pacquaio is a fascinating character in many ways, not the least of which is financial: “Pacquaio sends his children to an international school outside of Manila. He sponsors nine-ball billiard games in which the Philippines’ best players compete, which has [sic] a pot of one million pesos. …Pacquaio spends hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money for tickets. He has to maintain a fleet of vehicles, a handful of condos, apartments, and houses, and pay the freeloaders, and give his money to the poor. Pacquaio’s spending habits, it is argued, have been good for [boxing promotion company] Top Rank because Pacquaio must continue boxing to earn even more money.” Readers not especially enamored of Pacquaio or of boxing may wonder why the fighter “has to” maintain so many vehicles, “pay the freeloaders” and so on, and Poole does not explain – this biography is interesting in many ways but is short on analysis, much less criticism, of its subject. Poole’s style is often wanting, too: “Training in the Philippines was obviously a mistake because there were like 2 billion distractions there.” Or: “[Oscar] De La Hoya didn’t punch back. His left eye was closed. He hit De La Hoya with fifty power punches.” Yet the book’s underlying theme – actually stated by De La Hoya, once known as the Golden Boy but no match for Pacquaio when the two welterweights fought in 2008 – comes through clearly: “‘The word I get is that Pacquaio means so much not just because of the excitement of his boxing but what he is as a man.’” Those looking for confirmation that Pacquaio is an important man as well as an important boxer will find it in PacMan. Those who disdain boxing and might have preferred a more objective and more carefully assembled book (this one does not even have an index) will likely avoid Poole’s work altogether.

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