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Byline: Mark Brown Orange County Register

Sometimes you just can't win.

Goo Goo Dolls singer Johnny Rzeznik was thinking about getting out of the whole music rat race altogether.

``I was just thinking, `If I can't make a living playing music, I'd better do something with my life,''' Rzeznik said from his home in Buffalo, N.Y. He wasn't about to go back to college to become a social worker, as he'd been planning. On the other hand, ``I don't want to be playing in bars for 30 people when I'm 40.''

And for much of Rzeznik's life, that's just what he's done. Play in bars and clubs and release critically acclaimed albums such as ``Hold Me Up,'' ``Superstar Car Wash'' and ``A Boy Named Goo'' that sank without a trace.

But then ``A Boy Named Goo'' floated to the surface again. It's a well-known story by now and a somewhat frightening look at what luck and the tastes of one person can do to a band's career. KROQ-FM (106.7), the Los Angeles new-music station, started playing ``Name'' after program director Kevin Weatherly stumbled across the cut at home one weekend. Other stations followed, from alternative to adult to hit radio.

``He's called some pretty big hits before they were hits. The guy knows how to pick a hit,'' Rzeznik said. ``You'd be amazed how many people who work in the music industry don't know anything about music.''

And suddenly, the Goo Goo Dolls were the latest 10-years-in-the-making overnight sensation. They play the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday and tour through November, when they'll begin work on the next album.

Success has brought a few problems. It alienated some older fans. And it confused newer fans who heard the acoustic ballad ``Name'' and thought they might have found a harder-edged Hootie & the Blowfish. Imagine their surprise that the Goo Goo Dolls have always been a hard-edged punk-alternative band.

``We have a much harder sound, generally. We're a rock band. We're not America,'' said Rzeznik, referring to the soft-rock group of the '70s. ``We play a lot of really hard rock songs, a lot of really heavy songs.''

``You put a ballad on the record to give the record a chance to take a breather - a slow dance.''

And as for the fair-weather fans who left when the Dolls got big?

``Music elitists always, always heap disdain on anything that has commercial value,'' Rzeznik said. ``They consider themselves to be much more intelligent than the public at large. When people who shop at Kmart start buying your records, (you) must (stink).''

``Almost 2 million people bought my record. It's hard for me to believe they're all idiots with bad taste.''

Those elitists see having a major-label deal as a sellout; some fans abandoned the Goo Goo Dolls after they left the indie label Metal Blade.

Warner Bros. ``let me nurture my way through four records before they got a hit out of me,'' he said. ``They didn't drop me as soon as my first record didn't sell a million copies. Nobody at Warner Bros. has ever told me to write something. And they've never rejected a piece of music I sent them.

``This is the first time I've ever sold a lot of records for them. They believe in what I do, otherwise they wouldn't have kept me around for so long,'' he said. ``They're really an artist-driven label.''

``Back when we got signed, alternative bands weren't getting million-dollar deals. Now they do. We were happy to have any record deal that came our way,'' he said.

``We were an alternative band when there was something to be an alternative to,'' Rzeznik said. ``I'm not pointing fingers at anybody, but there are a lot of people who were playing (metal) three years ago who are suddenly alternative. I have a lot of acquaintances around the music scene in my hometown that were dorky metal guys. As soon as Nirvana hit big, they chopped their hair off and bought a new guitar. It's so funny.''

He shrugs off the imitators.

``The authenticity of a band shows through after a while. A band like Pearl Jam is huge for a reason. They're great,'' Rzeznik said. ``And they mean what they're singing about. That's all you can do.''

The critical backlash came as well. Before the success, there were glowing comparisons of the Goo Goo's work to that of ex-Replacements leader Paul Westerberg.

``Before I had any success, the critics loved me - loved me, loved me, loved me,'' Rzeznik said. ``As soon as you get a little success, they bag you. The majority of my press is great. I can't believe it. But the constant comparisons to the Replacements is a little old.

``I haven't forgotten who my influences are. Paul is five years older than me. We listened to the same music growing up. He was just making records before I was. He is one of my influences, definitely. But so is Cheap Trick, so is KISS, so is Aerosmith, Elvis Costello, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop. I could go on and on and on. But for someone to compare me to the Replacements is a compliment.

``The Replacements were supposed to be one of the most influential bands of the '80s. The second they actually influence someone, they bag them for sounding like the Replacements.''

That he shrugs off as well.

``There are a lot of people who are allowed to write about music simply because they have a journalism degree,'' Rzeznik said. ``They don't know anything about music. People who write about music should really know about music.''

THE FACTS Who: Goo Goo Dolls, Dishwalla.

Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: $16.50.



Photo: ``Music elitists always, always heap disdain on anyt hing that has commercial value,'' says Goo Goo Dolls singer Johnny Rzeznik, center, with Mike Malinin, left, and Robby Takac. ``They consider themselves to be much more intelligent than the public at large.''
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