JOHNNY RZEZNIK doesn’t drink anymore.
Johnny says he doesn’t want to be like Elvis and die face down. You have to understand Johnny. He’s only 27, but has been on his own for nearly half his life. His parents died when he was 15.
“I brought myself up,” Johnny says. “I had good parents, and even though they weren’t around, they were always an influence on me.” Johnny endures the pitfalls of life by adhering to his personal philosophy: “Just stay cool.”
Johnny is part of rock ‘n’ roll’s lost generation, the one that grew up in the post-Beatles, post-Stones, post-Zeppelin, classic-hits-radio wasteland.
Johnny was 12 and living in South Buffalo when he decided to become a rock ‘n’roll star. He got turned on to music listening to the Sex Pistols. At McKinley High School and Buffalo State College, Johnny was punk personified. Seven years ago, when Johnny was 20 and playing lead guitar, he met Robby and George. And that’s how the band Sex Maggots was born. After a number of wild incidents got the band banned from local clubs, the three of them searched for a new name. They spotted a mail-order ad in True Detective magazine selling something called a Goo Goo Doll. And that’s how the Sex Maggots became the Goo Goo Dolls.
Everybody loves Robby Takac.
It’s his goofy smile, infectious humor and outgoing personality.
Robby percolates with frenetic energy. Music has always been his outlet. As a kid, he would grab a ukulele and sing “Running Bear” while sitting in the bathtub.
Robby graduated to playing bass in a speed metal band by the time he went to West Seneca East, and continued at Medaille College. Robby met George in college and formed a band with him. Then Robby’s cousin wanted him in a band and plotted with Robby to replace Johnny on guitar. “It was like the JFK conspiracy,” Robby says. Instead of enemies, Johnny and Robby — the two guitar rivals — became fast friends. Then George joined the posse.
“When the three of us got together, it was like a reckless regression into childhood,” Johnny says.
George is South Buffalo from his heart to his soul. “Nothing is worth anything unless you work your a– off,” says George, who prefers not to reveal his last name. George was supposed to be a fireman, like his father and grandfather. He grew up in a crowded flat with his four sisters and his parents. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but I never went hungry,” George says. “We were working-class, close-knit.” As a kid, George listened to Top 40 radio. Then, by the time he made it to Bishop Timon High School, George discovered punk. “I loved the Clash. I knew every song they made.” George lacks Robby’s outrageous stage presence and Johnny’s rock star persona. He’s content to sit in the background and play drums with neurotic intensity. His black hair is cropped short and there is a forbidding glare in his eyes when he pounds out the beat. “We’ve come a long way,” George says, “but we never sold out and we never gave up.”
Artie Kwitchoff knows the Goo Goo Dolls better than just about anyone else.
“They’re a really strange combination,” says Kwitchoff, the band’s former manager. “Any one of the three of them could have exploded and killed the whole thing. But they stuck together, and now this band has turned into something super.”
On Feb. 23, Warner Bros. Records will release the Goo Goo Dolls’ new album, “Superstar Car Wash.” Already there are signs the record will be a smash. The band has earned positive publicity in national publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New Yorker.
A video for the album’s first single, “We Are the Normal,” was shot in Los Angeles for MTV. One of the top producers of alternative music, Gavin MacKillop, worked on the album. The first single was co-written by Paul Westerberg of the pioneer alternative band the Replacements.
Next month the Dolls will start a national tour with Soul Asylum, one of the hottest alternative bands in the nation. After that tour ends, the Goo Goo Dolls are expected to headline their own national tour into major markets.
“Superstar Car Wash” is an alternative-pop masterpiece, layered with hooks and accessible rock ‘n’ roll. “We wanted it to be noisy,” said MacKillop. “This band writes melodic songs, but we wanted the record to have an edge. This album will give people an idea of what the Goo Goo Dolls are all about. This is not disposable pop; it’s music that says something and means something.”
“Superstar Car Wash” marks the band’s musical growth. The Dolls have long been a three-piece, power rock band in the tradition of Cream and Nirvana. Now the Goos have taken their heavy metal, punk and garage rock roots and combined them with a softer pop style. The goal was to make Goo Goo Dolls music presentable to the mainstream without compromising its integrity.
“We Are the Normal” is the most stirring example of the new Goo Goo Dolls. It features a viola solo by Mary Ramsey and an accordion riff in addition to the usual guitars and drums.
“The Goo Goo Dolls have a strong rock background, but give off a real pop feeling,” said Dennis Drew of 10,000 Maniacs. “I think the pop sound is going to help make them make the big breakthrough.”
The lyrics on the new album also reflect the band’s maturing. “We Are the Normal” is a song of alienation and misplaced social priorities. The video was shot in the skid row section of Los Angeles, and features film of homeless and poor people as Johnny sings: “We are the normal/We live and we die/No reason why.”
“Already There” is a wailing rocker about the loss of youth and dreams. Robby sings: “Just a boy who’s young atheart/His smile was a bit like yours today/Had a wife and kids whose strife never had to go astray/Happiness abounds, life is in full swing at 17, all the things he wanted were things he’d never seen/It don’t seem fair/’Cause I’m already there.”
At its core, “Superstar Car Wash” is an album about survival. It is a topic close to the Goo Goo Dolls because, after seven years of hunger, poverty, management turnover and tours from hell, survival is part of the act. “Just call us the band that wouldn’t die,” Johnny says, flashing that always mischievous grin. “They tried to kill us; we tried to kill us. But we wouldn’t go away.”
It’s a cold, snowy afternoon as a visitor stands in the narrow alleyway near the side door of the North Buffalo apartment two of the Goo Goo Dolls call home. The doorbell rings and suddenly a voice echoes from a window on the second floor.
“Yo,” the voice shouts. It’s Johnny Goo’s head sticking out from under the clouds. His hair is disheveled; an earring in the shape of a cross dangles from his ear. “I’ll be down in a minute. Wait’ll I get my pants on,” Johnny says. “I just got up.”
So it goes for the Goo Goo Dolls. Life resembles an episode from the old “Monkees” TV show: a million laughs. Beneath that comic veneer, however, is the story of three musicians who have dedicated their lives to rock ‘n’ roll. Now they are ready to make the leap into rock’s platinum zone.
“Yeah, well, we’ve heard that all before,” says Johnny Goo. “We try to keep our expectations real. We’re not worrying about having a hit record; we’ve been through too much just to get this far.”
Back when it all began, in 1986, they were three wild kids ready to live the hedonistic rock lifestyle to the hilt. Especially when it came to drinking.
“It got to the point where we’d get up in the morning and say, ‘OK, let’s go get a 12-pack and rehearse,’ ” Robby says. “It wasn’t that we were looking to get hammered, it was just a routine we slipped into.”
Johnny, who no longer drinks, retains dark and foggy memories of those alcoholic days. “One day I woke up and realized it was just booze, booze, booze all the time. A few times we were so drunk we had to be poured on stage.
“I don’t know why it happened. I think drinking is a way of bonding for a band. You know, you got three guys and you live and work together every day. You can’t kiss each other, so you get drunk together.”
Robby is philosophical about that time. “Alcohol offered an escape. It was all part of growing up. I think 90 percent of the kids who grew up in the ’80s went through what we went through. The difference with us is that we were allowed to indulge in that stuff longer than most people because we were living in this job. It’s all part of rock ‘n’ roll.”
So are poverty, hunger and bad record deals.
That about describes the first few years of the Goo Goo Dolls’ existence.
In 1987, the Dolls scraped together $750 to make their first record on an independent label. Soon they soured on a relationship with their first manager, and had been banned from the Continental for doing damage during shows.
“If you knew them then, it was total insanity,” Kwitchoff says.
That insane attitude created a loyal local following. During shows the Dolls would run back and forth, tossing into the crowd instruments, microphones, themselves and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. Buffalo had never seen a local band play and act with such abandon.
“We sounded horrible,” Johnny admits. “But we were louder, faster and crazier than anybody else.”
No money was coming in, but the Dolls became kings of downtown Buffalo’s new alternative scene. The Goos hit the road with Kwitchoff in a battered old van for a cross-country tour. The van had no windows, a mattress for sleeping, and the food money was $5 a day.
During the tour, a talent scout from Metal Blade Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., saw the Dolls play in Los Angeles. He signed the band to the metal label, even though the Goo Goo Dolls were not a metal band.
“We didn’t want to sign, but no one else wanted us,” Robby says.
The Dolls recorded an album called “Jed” that came out in early 1989 and sold about 15,000 copies. The band was touring, recording and selling records, but still not making any money.
In 1991 the Dolls’ second album, “Hold Me Up,” came out on Metal Blade and sold around 60,000 copies. Then, a year later, the band recorded a song for the soundtrack of the horror movie “Freddy’s Dead,” part of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. During this period, the Goo Goos also toured with the Replacements and began building a national reputation.
Despite the increased notoriety and record sales, money was still a problem. The band sensed it needed a national management firm, and Kwitchoff agreed.
“I knew they needed a big-time management firm to get to the next level,” Kwitchoff says. “In the record business you’ve got to have management that can pull strings to get the big labels and powerful people.”
The Dolls signed with Roven-Covallo, a Los Angeles agency that handles Prince and Paula Abdul, among other rock stars.
“We were their first alternative band,” Johnny says. “They were used to pushing these big stars and an alternative act was harder to work. But then a couple of years ago Nirvana hit it big, and everything changed.”
Pat Magnarella, part of the Goo Goo Dolls’ management team in Los Angeles, says: “This is a band that has been going up step by step. Now they’ve made a great record. Warner Bros. loves it. We’ve had a good response from radio stations. The band has done everything it can; it’s just a matter of waiting to see what happens. You just never know.”
The Goo Goo Dolls spent over a year working on “Superstar Car Wash” with producer Gavin MacKillop. He comes from Scotland and recently produced a hit record for Toad the Wet Sprocket.
MacKillop says: “The core of this band is the spirit of its live performance. That’s what makes them special, and that’s what we wanted to capture. Individually, they are three very different people. But collectively, when they come together, something special happens.”
Regardless of the album’s success, the Goo Goo Dolls have already changed. The wild young rockers have evolved into men, made wiser by the business of rock ‘n’ roll.
“In a way, it’s a good thing that things didn’t happen overnight for us,” Johnny says. “I mean, if we had come out of nowhere and became stars, it would have freaked us out. We made a lot of mistakes because we’d do anything to make music. We’ve changed. We took control of our careers. I mean, we’re getting in our late 20s, we’ve got one foot in the rock ‘n’ roll grave. We figured it was time to take control of our career.”
The band has realistic expectations for the future
“I never had any delusions of being a rock ‘n’ roll millionaire,” George says. “To me it’s a job, a way to make a living like my father makes a living. And if I can make a living playing rock ‘n’ roll, I’m happy.”
Johnny’s says: “There’s no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Bands are disposable. They come and they go.”
So what has kept the Goo Goo Dolls together?
“Stupidity,” says Marcel Thimot, a friend who has worked and toured with the band for about five years. “I mean, what else can the Goo Goo Dolls do besides rock ‘n’ roll?” Thimot laughs, pauses, and then turns unexpectedly serious. “The reason this band still exists is because they really love each other,” he says.
Artie Kwitchoff agrees. “I think their spirit and friendship comes through in their work. They fight a lot, but they need each other. They sing about life and real-life relationships. They’re crazy, but there’s something about them that touches people. “Believe me, they’ve been through total hell. This is a band that had to grow out of its own madness. Now their time has come.”