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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."
It should. Released in September, Dizzy Up the Girl is approaching 200,000 in sales, and the first single, "Slide," is currently in the Top 30. Even when the band was on hiatus, it wasn't out of sight. Goo Goo Dolls songs were included on the soundtracks for Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Tommy Boy, Twister, Son in Law and Batman & Robin. They scored really big with "Iris" from last summer's City of Angels soundtrack. "Iris" became the group's second No. 1 song, on MTV and radio.
Dizzy Up the Girl finds the Dolls more relaxed and confident than ever in their roles as pop songwriters who still harbor a bit of angst, to which both teens and twentysomethings can relate. On "All Eyes on Me," for example, Rzeznik alludes to his own problems with the lyrics "Everything you're chasing, it seems to leave you empty." But they can just as well be read by moody adolescents as lyrics of the "nobody understands me" sort. Musically the band still plays edgy guitars, but the instrumentation has been sweetened with strings.
The Dolls will finish their current tour in Pompano Beach. They've taken some of their favorite bands on the road with them, relative unknowns such as Buffalo Tom, Athenaeum, and Frogpond. "That's one of the cool things about having a quote-unquote hit, is that you're selling enough tickets yourself so that you can take whoever the hell you want with you," Rzeznik says.
Still, he's realistic about the Goo Goo Dolls' now-radio-friendly image. "I wanted to ask [the independent pop-punk band] Superchunk to go out with us," he says, "but I don't think they would because we're on a major label."
Rzeznik is well aware that the Dolls are seen by some as a band that gave up its ethics for radio exposure. But he doesn't sweat it. "Once you start selling records, people automatically assume that you did something to sell out," he says. "So it's, like, 'Whatever.'"
One band with which the Dolls debated sharing a stage is the Rolling Stones, who asked the trio to accompany them on the No Security tour this coming spring. Remembering the band the Stones used to be, Rzeznik lobbied the Dolls to do it. "I was like, 'Hell yeah, we should do this. It's gonna be hilarious. We're gonna get to shoot pool with Keith Richards,'" he says, laughing.
Ticket prices for the best seats are expected to go for $300, meaning that older, wealthier audiences than the Dolls are accustomed to will be in attendance. Still, Rzeznik says, playing with the Stones is an opportunity to show respect for rock's elders, for those who set the standards for rock 'n' roll excess.
"It's going to be exciting," enthuses Rzeznik. "Mick Jagger, he's the real deal. The first person you think of when you think 'rock star' is Mick Jagger. He's a cultural icon. Playing with those guys is going to be like visiting Mount Rushmore; they're like a historic landmark or some shit. How many people are able to say, 'I opened for the Stones?'"
After all he and his bandmates have been through, Rzeznik is prepared to savor such moments, even though he knows the Stones are simply throwing a bone to a lesser-known opening act. Says Rzeznik, "I can guarantee you this: Nobody is paying 300 bucks to see my ass."
The Goo Goo Dolls perform Monday, December 21, at Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1801 NE Sixth St. 954-946-2402. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $21.