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He grew up with an alcoholic dad, then became an orphan by the age of 16. Now, for the first time, Goo Goo Doll John Rzeznik shares his painful story.

By John Rzeznik, as told to Jennifer Graham

First off, I would like to apologize for the oversaturation of "Iris" last year. Although it wasn't the Goo Goo Dolls' first hit - "Name" was, in 1995 - it did bring us a giant slice of fame that we never imagined possible.

Recently, my band mates, Robby Takac and Mike Malinin, and I performed at the American Music Awards and found out that we're up for three Grammys. That's insane to me. When I think back on the first half of my 33 years on Earth, sometimes I can't believe that I've made it here intact.

I don't want to sound like I'm bitching about my upbringing. Now I understand it was brilliant in many ways. My sisters (Phyllis, 41; Fran, 39; Glad, 36; and Kate, 35) and I are so close today because of the tumult at home, in our tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Buffalo.

For as long as I can remember, my dad, Joe, divided his time between his clerk job at the post office and local bars like the Three Deuces. When he did come home, drunk and depressed, he'd pass out in his chair - or wouldn't even make it that far. Once, when I was about 12, my sister Kate and I had to drag him inside, take off his clothes and put him to bed. Anyone who doesn't realize that alcoholism is an actual illness - not just some character flaw - never met my father.

During my childhood, he had three heart attacks. A man in his fifties, he was overweight, diabetic and he smoked and drank whiskey. (To this day, if I smell whiskey on somebody, it sends shivers down my spine.) He just couldn't stop. I hated him for a long time.

But I loved my mom, Edith. She played the flute and got us well on our way to reading and writing before the first grade. She took a job as a teacher at my Catholic grade school, Corpus Christi, so we could go there tuition-free. When I was about seven years old, she turned me on to music - first, accordion lessons, then a few years later, the electric guitar.

My mom was hard on my dad, and there was a serious violent phase in their marriage. He would come home drunk when we were little kids, and they would start fighting. Once when I was 14, he hit her, and I punched him so hard in the face that he fell to the floor. But my mother turned on me, hitting me for not respecting my father. Like I said: It was insane.

I had more than my share to rebel against, so I became a troublemaker. I'd get back at my dad through vandalism (once, in my early teens, I smeared blacktop fluid all over a funeral parlor) and by stealing money from his wallet.

When I became a sophomore at Buffalo's McKinley High School, my already-shaky home life completely shattered. At 55, my dad got pneumonia, fell into a diabetic coma and died. My sisters were upset, but I was too angry to grieve. That emotion set in more than a year later, but then it wasn't for him. As my family was struggling to recover from my dad's death, my mom (who was also overweight and a smoker) died suddenly of a heart attack, at age 53.

It was the most horrifying experience. I remember thinking, "What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?" I had my sisters, but they were just kids, too. We had no other family.

My sister Phyllis became my legal guardian and found an apartment for me in the neighborhood around Buffalo State College. Glad kept the house; the other two moved in together elsewhere in town. So, at 17, I was on my own. With a small, monthly Social Security check from my deceased parents, I budgeted my rent, my grocery bills, my clothes. I was totally self-reliant, but I was also a total wreck - and it showed.

Throughout high school, I was a punk; I even showed up to gym period in combat boots so I wouldn't have to participate. I was always skipping school - who did I have to answer to? And three or four nights a week, I would drink beer until I blacked out. I was too young to have learned from my father's mistakes.

But this isn't a story of doom and gloom. What happened next is the basis for why I believe in God - or at least, a greater being than myself. Just as things started to get really dark, somebody was sent into my life to help me. In retrospect, I see there was a plan. You don't make it through a nightmare like mine and end up with this kind of success without figuring that out.

During my sophomore year, Joey O'Grady became my best friend and introduced me to people who were into the same kind of music that I was, punk bands like The Clash, The Damned, The Sex Pistols. I started playing with them in garage bands, and for the first time in my life, I had something I really cared about: songwriting and playing music.

After I graduated from high school, my girlfriend, Laurie Kwasnik, helped me apply to and get into Buffalo State College. Academia didn't stick - I dropped out after my freshman year - but that's when I met another student and musician Robby Takac (who's now 34). When we were about 19, we formed the Goo Goo Dolls (along with George Tutuska), taking our name from an advertisement in a magazine.

By the time I was 20, we had a deal with Celluloid, a small label. I wish I could tell young musicians that a record deal equals success, but I can't. The Goo Goo Dolls didn't have a hit for nine years (by then we were with Warner Brothers). We put out five records, went on brutal van tours and did everything we could to keep going. Not to say there weren't good times. In 1990, I met Laurie Farinacci; she became my wife in 1993.

With the double-platinum success of our fifth album, 1995's A Boy Named Goo, we quit our day jobs. After hearing our hit "Name," the music director for the movie City of Angels asked us to write a song, which became "Iris." Then, last September, we released our sixth album, Dizzy Up the Girl.

Every day I'm reminded of my dad and his alcoholism, and my struggle with his legacy. In every city we play, there's a party. Radio programmers, record executives, friends - everybody wants to buy you a beer. When I was in my teens, I could have drunk them under the table. But I'm ever-conscious of what happened to my dad. When you realize the amount of destruction it can cause to not only yourself but the people around you, it's like, why bother?

A few years ago, I visited my dad's sisters, Frances and Irene, in San Diego. They told me something I never knew about my father. They explained that their dad - the grandfather I never knew - died when mine was just nine. He'd owned a bar, and my dad had looked forward to taking over the business. But while my father was in the Navy, my grandmother sold the bar, robbing my dad of his dream. They said he was never quite the same after that.

The other night, I dreamed that my dad was sitting in his chair, and I whispered in his ear, "I got enough money to buy the bar back." He started laughing. When I woke up, I realized that it was the best closure I could ask for.
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