From Boys to Men

Sometimes success ain't all it's cracked up to be.
That's what Johnny Rzeznik, the singer and primary songwriter for the Goo Goo Dolls found out when he tried to compose songs for the follow-up to the band's 1995 breakthrough album, A Boy Named Goo. After ten years of respectable record sales and playing in small, sweaty clubs, he now had expectations weighing on him. And when he sat down to write the tunes that would eventually end up on the band's sixth album, the recently released Dizzy Up the Girl, he was frozen by the prospect. So frozen that the band took a two-year break, just as it was finally enjoying mainstream success.

"I talked to a shrink and tried to find out why it was going on," Rzeznik recalls. "She told me that, 'You just gotta work through it. You just gotta sit there and write all kinds of crap that you hate until you find something that you like.'"

He worked through it, all right, literally burning those songs he didn't think met the standards set by the Dolls' No. 1 hit "Name," from A Boy Named Goo. "I was just scared," he says. "I was scared shitless because we had already had a hit. I was burned out and turned off to the music business, because it's a really filthy, disgusting business. The objectives sometimes get lost because of all the bullshit that you have to get through."

In addition to Rzeznik's writing block, the Goo Goo Dolls had to wrestle with their record label of ten years, Metal Blade. A lawsuit was filed, the money issues were settled, and the band is now earning a much more respectable royalty rate, but the bitterness remains. A Boy Named Goo, released in 1995 by Metal Blade, sold in excess of two million copies in the United States alone, but the band received next to nothing in terms of royalties. Even as "Name" climbed the charts, touring continued to be their primary source of income.

"When I sold over two million records and they said 'You owe us money' instead of, 'Here's the big check and the house on the hill,' I said, 'What the fuck did I do? What the fuck did we do?'" Rzeznik says incredulously.

He attributes the band's lack of business acumen to its relative innocence at the beginning of its career. As cliched as that sounds, the Goo Goo Dolls slow, steady rise to rock stardom has at least prohibited them from being spoiled by success. And in August 1997, their fortunes took a turn. The band terminated its contract with Metal Blade and signed one with Metal Blade's distributor, Warner Bros.

If nothing else, the Goo Goo Dolls are patient. They started out in 1985 in Buffalo, when they were just out of high school. (Rounding out the band are Robby Takac on bass and Mike Malinin, who replaced the band's original drummer in 1996.) Reared on the Replacements, Cheap Trick, and cheap beer, they put out two early records, a self-titled release and Jed, which were more punk than pop. But their 1990 release, Hold Me Up, began to turn the equation around. It showed that the boys could harness their energy and create solid songs that didn't fall apart when they slowed things down.

"Two Days in February," the last track on Hold Me Up, is a blueprint of sorts for the group's later success with light, acoustic-based rock songs. Otherwise the record combines near-punk velocity and metal-attack guitars with catchy melodies sung by either Rzeznik or Takac. The songs offer honest-to-goodness hooks, and the group began to win over critics with its thematically linked lyrics. One reviewer noted that Hold Me Up is the perfect record for the "recently jilted."

The next record, Superstar Car Wash, released in 1993, landed the band halfway between the alcohol-infused rambunctiousness of its early days and looming celebrity status. It was the Dolls' first album to receive major-label distribution (Warner Bros.), and instead of throwing in just a token acoustic track, the Dolls offered mostly midtempo songs with acoustic guitars and with the distortion turned down. They even got to work with their hero, cowriting "We Are the Normal" with ex-Replacements leader Paul Westerberg. But Superstar didn't quite jell. In making the album, the Goo Goo Dolls were struggling to find a voice and to feel comfortable with the idea of writing radio-friendly songs.

What Superstar lacked in confidence, A Boy Named Goo made up for in commercial success. Although the heartstrings-tugging single "Name" sent the album up the charts, Boy was actually harder-edged than Car Wash, making it perfect for alternative radio, which was then at its peak. The ten years it took the Dolls to attain mainstream success helped them stay balanced as their world changed. And two years on the road cemented their reputation as an energetic live group.

Rzeznik credits the band's less-than-meteoric rise with helping him keep his sanity. "[It] helped me mentally prepare for this," he says. "I really don't give a shit about being famous. I just feel really lucky that a lot of people want to listen to my music, and something that is a part of me, something I have been doing my whole life is getting recognized. That feels good."

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