/ Articles / Interview
by Chris Heath

Thirteen years ago they were three scruffy punks from Buffalo bent on drinking themselves into oblivion. Then they turned down their amps and dizzied up the girls.

Today, Johnny Rzeznik will kiss about three hundred young women. Six hundred cheeks.

Here in Italy, thirteen years after they started out as unkempt Buffalo punks, the Goo Goo Dolls are experiencing their very own small teen-pop inferno, principally as a result of the City of Angels ballad "Iris." At a Milan record signing, where the in-store DJ is playing "Iris" over and over, a mass of panting girls, spilling out into the street, quivers and stares at Rzeznik. When they finally reach him, they demand their two kisses, and only afterward do some of them politely request that the other two Goo Goo Dolls, Robby Takac and Mike Malinin, complete the set.

The band piles back into a minivan surrounded by girls. "Please go," grunts Rzeznik, edgily. "This is really uncomfortable." Last night their tour manager dealt with a similar hormonal mob by yelling, in a friendly way, "Get back, you filthy animals." Today they simply drive off. For a moment no one speaks. Then Takac breaks the silence.

"Weird," he says.

"Weird," Malinin says.

"Weird," says Rzeznik.

At the hotel there are more girls. Rzeznik shakes his head.

"Weird," he repeats. I like being in America, where I'm ugly."

They were ugly for a long, long time. In most successful pop-music lives, the glory and explosions come early, and the subsequent long haul is spent trying to extend, mutate or regain that original excitement. The Goo Goo Dolls are different. Success has come slowly and incrementally. It's taken thirteen years, six albums, one breakup and countless fights and reconciliations to turn the Goo Goo Dolls into what they are today: a rock band that steadily scores Top Forty hits and steadily sells millions of records, in an age when rock bands hardly ever do either and many of pop's biggest sellers come from artists on a few years older than the Goo Goo Doll's career.

Thirteen years ago, they were a very different group. Robby Takac grew up among the steel mills of south Buffalo, living on the third floor of his aunt's house with his Irish-Catholic schoolteacher mother and his Hungarian-Irish artist-turned-banker father. (Buffalo was a town where the old ways were letting everyone down and the new ways had yet to arrive. "Everything that Chicago became, Buffalo was supposed to be," Rzenik says. "The talent in Buffalo is amazing, but everyone always fucks up. It's a good bunch of people, they just got some bad breaks.") Takac wanted to be a radio DJ - as a kid he had a pretend radio station under the stairs of his house, and he would broadcast to the other kids outside through a walkie-talkie - but he also played bass in as many bands as he could find. He had seen this Polish kid with a big white mohawk, John Rzeznik, walking around. Bought pot off him one time. Then, one day, they met and spent the day getting drunk. "Beer, beer, beer, until they closed," Takac says. Rzeznik remembers that Takac kept playing Booker T. and the MG's' "Green Onions" on the jukebox, over and over. "I didn't really know anything about him," Takac reflects. "I knew that his parents had died when he was a kid. I knew he had been living on his own for a really long time."

Rzeznik played in a group, the Beaumonts, with Takac's cousin; Takac later joined them. After the Beaumonts fell apart, Takac and Rzeznik formed their own group with a drummer friend of Takac', George Tutuska. They called themselves Sex Maggott. "Which is," Takac comments reasonably, "the only name I can think of more ridiculous than our current name."

Though Rzeznik wrote most of the music, in those days Takac wrote most of the words and was the singer. "I sang by default," he argues. "John wouldn't walk up to a microphone. He was afraid to talk without covering his mouth."

"I was just really nervous and jerky, kind of ill at ease around most people," Rzeznik says. "I felt like a really skinny, ugly kid who nobody would really like. Robby's a really contagious individual. People are immediately drawn to him. Sometimes that made me really jealous, because I wanted people to like me, too."

On their way to Sex Maggott rehearsals, they would buy sixteen-ounce bottles of Genesee beer from a local bodega for fifty cents, and the owner started helping them out, positioning himself as their manager. It was he who told them that the name would have to change since the local paper refused to print the words Sex Maggott. They had four hours to think of a new one. Rzeznik and Tutuska were at Tutuska's house; Rzeznik spotted an ad in an early Sixties copy of True Detective magazine for a toy head that made a noise when you turned it upside down. A Goo Goo Doll. "If we had had fifteen more minutes..." Takac says with a sigh.

All cultural exchanges have their hitches. In Rome, the translator at the Goo Goo Dolls press conference refers to them as the Go Go Girls.

Some misunderstandings can hurt. "Somebody was saying you are replacing Bon Jovi," a local radio DJ tells them.

"Somebody was wrong," replies Rzeznik darkly. "They are wrong, man."

They hear this Bon Jovi comparison often over here, and it doesn't help that Rzeznik is blessed with a slight resemblance to Jon Bon Jovi. At moments he can also - as several Italian reporters are more than happy to point out - look like Simon Le Bon. Takac finds this far funnier than Rzeznik does: One night, Takac was bought drink after drink simply because he was thought to be out with Duran Duran's singer.

This morning, Rzeznik was told that he has been receiving disturbing fan mail at home in Buffalo. The most recent was a five-page letter that just said, "Boo!" ("Thank you, Internet," Takac gently sings, borrowing Alanis Morissette's eternal melody, on hearing this news.) One rather strange girl has been hanging around their Milan hotel since they arrived, and she is there again when they return this evening. Within the tour party she is known, when out of earshot, as "the door-lingering psycho."

"Her favorite song," Takac says, rolling his eyes, "is 'Living in a Hut.'" "Living in a Hut" is the third song on their first album, a fairly primitive punk-pop rant. "That means she relates to the psychosis that was going on back then," he says. The Goo Goo Dolls are not ashamed of these early records - 1987's Goo Goo Dolls and 1989's Jed - but they are a different group now, and fetishizing their early work is not the smartest way to impress them. One of the early, semi-serious titles for their latest album, Dizzy Up the Girl, was Play Something off "Jed."

Another, incidentally, was Foreigner 4.

During the recording of the Goo Goo Dolls' first album, Takac tried to persuade Rzeznik to sing backing vocals. "I don't think he had any idea he could sing," Takac says. "We literally had to turn all the lights off in the studio. He lacked the basic self-confidence to think that he could do anything, really." On Jed, Rzeznik sang two songs. On their third album, 1991's Hold Me Up he sang plenty. "I kind of started feeling like I had something to say," Rzeznik says. "I got these ideas in my head."

Their success grew modestly with a fourth album, Superstar Car Wash. Then, just as they finished recording 1995's A Boy Named Goo, they split up. To Rzeznik, Tutuska didn't seem committed enough, and there was a dispute over money. Rzeznik called Takac and told him it was over.

"I reacted as you might imagine," Takac says. "I took a bunch of Valium, drank until I couldn't see and slept for two days."

When he woke up, he called Rzeznik. "This is honest to God the way I feel," Takac told him. "Since we were kids, we've had the same dream. Why are you stopping? It doesn't seem to make sense. We want the same things."

I ask Takac whether Rzeznik would have made the call if he hadn't.

"In my heart, I like to think so," he says.

Later, I ask Rzeznik the same question.

"Nope," Rzeznik says quietly. "No. I wouldn't have."

They agreed to re-form without Tutuska and resolved to do anything they were asked to do over the next two years and give it one last chance. A Boy Named Goo took off slowly until radio stations began to play Rzeznik's uncharacteristic ballad "Name." (Though Takac still contributed plenty of songs, by now the singles were always Rzeznik's.) In the wake of the success of "Name," A Boy Named Goo sold 3 million copies.

And Rzeznik found it paralyzing. he knew how to write songs in the face of public indifference, but this new scenario scared him. "I just got the feeling after the last record," he says, "that everyone's just waiting to see you fall on your face." he saw a therapist in new York for two months: too much psychological probing, not enough practical advice. He went to see a writer and psychologist, Jill Cooper, who told him to shut out the outside world a bit more. He met producer Dan Was in a recording studio hallway, and Was explained that when he got blocked, he would watch a movie and then pretend he had to write the music for it. He went to see a man named Bob Rotella, who taught him about kanji. On the inside of Rzeznik's right arm, he had six Japanese symbols tattooed. In the center is the character for love and around it are dreams, discipline, faith, truth and greatness. (Spookily, those in the know keep telling him this faith icon looks more like the one for manipulation, so he needs to get it adjusted.) And this, too, helped. "You know how neurotic I am?" Rzeznik says, laughing. "I am the only guy in the world who has a self-help tattoo."

Ironically, throughout this period in which he was convinced his talents had deserted him, he had been bringing songs to Takac, telling him they were rubbish. Among them were "Slide," "Broadway" and "Black Balloon," which would become the heart of their next record. (Takac says that "Black Balloon" is their best song ever. Though they say they haven't discussed it - "We don't talk about that stuff, never, ever, ever" says Takac - they both know that the song, about a woman drifting away into hopelessness, is about Takac's ex-wife. "Fucked-up shit happens to good people sometimes," is all Takac will say.)

While they were working on songs for Dizzy Up the Girl in Buffalo, Rzeznik was invited to Los Angeles to see an upcoming film, City of Angels - produced by the film wing of his management company - with a view to his writing something for the soundtrack. That evening he wrote a song. "I loved the idea of him being willing to give up everything to be with her," he says. "Mostly it was a writing assignment." The irony was that, freed up by thinking he was writing about a movie character, he wrote a song which perfectly distilled the ideas and emotions that splish-splosh around many of his songs: the near impossibility of love in a difficult universe where people try to discourage your best impulses; the elusiveness of hope and freedom in a land of despair and rules; wanting to be understood in a world that always lets you down.

The "Iris" you hear in that movie is not the version that would for one week become the most-played song in American history. For the movie, Rzeznik was reluctantly persuaded to fly back to Los Angeles to record a solo acoustic version, and he was so annoyed about having to do it that it took him sixteen hours in a recording studio to get it right. (The breakthrough came after he realized they were on the film company's bill and ordered a rack of ribs and a bottle of Cristal champagne.) "I was told not to call the director of the movie a wuss, man. He said that it was too aggressive. And I said to him, 'This is the most sissy song I have ever written in my life! And it's too aggressive?'"

A bar or a church on every corner." That's how Rzeznik remembers the Polish working-class neighborhood of Buffalo where he grew up. He lived eight houses from the corner of Clark and kent. "Superman's corner," his father would call it. Rzeznik's mother, a teacher, was German-Scottish, but his father's parents had come over from Poland and his father would speak Polish all the time to Rzeznik's grandmother. She, in turn, would kindly curse at his father in Polish, then cap it off with some kind of mangled mis-American like "you son of a biscuit." Johnny was the youngest of five, and the only boy.

His father worked in the post office. His life had taken its unhappy turn before Johnny was born. His father's dream had been to take over his mother's tavern - "On the east side of Buffalo, when you owned a tavern, you were like royalty," says Rzeznik - but while he was away in the Navy, his mother sold it because she couldn't run it anymore. "She didn't bother to tell him, which is what I think freaked him out," says Rzeznik. "He didn't get to live his dreams."

John's parents didn't seem to get along. "He would kick the crap out of my mom, and my mom would kick the crap out of him," Rzeznik says. He was not the husband she had hoped for, and she made no secret of how little she respected him. Joseph Rzeznik - who would share with his son strange piecemeal bits of advice, like "Parking lots are dangerous" - got loaded every night on whiskey, smoked and was overweight. In his mid-fifties, when Johnny was fifteen, he had a couple of heart attacks, went into a diabetic coma and then caught pneumonia. One day in the spring, when Johnny got home, his mother told him his father was dead and that he had to go and see the body in the hospital. He didn't want to, but he went. "I felt nothing," he recalls. "I was a pretty pissed-off kid at him. Kids don't understand what sort of burdens their parents have. All they know is what they want."

That October, Rzeznik was having a nap on the living room sofa after school before going out to see his girlfriend. He woke up to find his mother clenching her hands against her chest in the chair opposite, having a heart attack. She fell on the floor and was dead before the ambulance arrived. "She died because she didn't have anyone to pick on," he says. "She had always been the really strong one, but after he died it became really apparent how fragile she was. They were just people who didn't get their dreams and didn't know how to cope with the fact that most people don't get their dreams."

He was an orphan at sixteen. To get up for school, he would place two speakers on either side of his head and set his stereo on a timer so that he'd be woken up at 7:30 a.m. by Joe Jackson's second album, I'm the Man, playing at full blast. He went to a vocational high school to study plumbing. (These talents and interests linger. He has fixed toilets for friends and rebuilt one of his sisters' bathrooms after A Boy Named Goo came out.)

Until 1990, he says, he would only go out with the girls who would talk to him first, but then he spotted his wife-to-be in Buffalo's Continental club. For the last year they've been separated, but not in the way that necessarily leads to divorce. She's studying to be a teacher. "I don't know what's going to happen - we still talk to each other," he says quietly. "I needed to do this and nothing else. I didn't need the distraction. She wants to be with me and I want to be with her, but I don't want to do it half-assed, and right now I would."

In one of the Goo Goo Dolls' new songs, "Broadway," Rzeznik explicitly addresses for the first time the world from which he came. "It was cool to finally say it," he says. "Because it was a neighborhood full of narrow-minded, fucked-up people who could never see the forest because the trees keept getting in the way. When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to the bar and set me up on the bar stool and get me a little pop and a bag of potato chips, and I would sit there and watch all these guys get shit-faced." "See the young man sitting in the old man's bar," the chorus goes, "waiting for his turn to die."

On "Dizzy up the Girl," any real pretense of creative equality has been abandoned. Takac wrote and sang four songs (all charming, energetic romps) and contributed some lyrics to one other. Rzeznik sang nine and wrote eight alone. Even in their album artwork, his face is the largest.

I ask Rzeznik: How easy do you think it has been for Robby as your role in the band has gotten bigger?

"I feel guilty a lot of the time about it," he says. "But I also fee like he's got a good life, I think we still coexist pretty well together, and I really care about guy. And we talk about it. I tell him, 'Look, man, if the situation was reversed, I'd be, "Fuck you, I'm not doing this."' Maybe I have more ego than he does. He's, 'I'm fine with everything.'"

That's not entirely true. Takac says that last year, when he discovered that the first large Goo Goo Dolls feature in Rolling Stone would involve just Rzeznik, he sat in a "very, very dark, quiet room for a couple of days." But since then, he has rationalized his role. For one thing, he says, "My songs are in millions and millions and millions of households, whether they're the songs on the radio or not. To me that's a brilliant victory." And it's probable that none of this would be happening without him: "John quits every six or seven days, and he has since 1990. John always says, 'Something kept drawing me back.' Well, eighty percent of the time it was me.

In his own time, Rzeznik acknowledges this: "My life didn't really start stabilizing until I met Robby - someone who understood what I wanted to do and actually saw some of the potential. We would sit down and get drunk and share our dream of all this. And we're doing it. I mean, we fucking hate each other four days out of the week, but we're sharing our dream. I'm not going to take that from him, and he's not going to take it from me..."

"Dude, we fight sometimes like you would never believe," Takac says. "We've chased each other down the block. I thew him down a staircase when his arm was broken." Once, in 1995, they argued for fourteen hours in a Paris stairwell, drinking cheap red wine. When Takac adjourned to buy a new bottle, he drank it, immmediately threw it up, walked back into the shop and bought another bottle.

They are different. Far from home, Rzeznik loves the silence of an empty hotel room. Takac has to have the TV on. Rzeznik bares his insecurities constantly; Takac offers the strange comment, "I'm much like a cockroach - nothing affects me whatsoever." Takac becomes the dominant male only at the barbecue and on the go-cart track. Rzeznik's song-publishing company is named out of childhood nostalgia: Corner of Clark and Kent. Takac's simply alludes to how he felt the day he had to think up a name: Six Aspirin A.M.

"But I know he loves me, man, and I love him," says Takac.

"He's my brother," says Rzeznik. "I never had a brother. And I'm his brother. He never had one. We always joke about it: 'You're the brother I never wanted.'"

Malinin, meanwhile, exists on the edge of the group. When the door swings shut so that important things may be discussed, he is often on the outside. Takac says Malinin is "the most content person I know - and he talks about it."

"Ad nauseam," adds Rzeznik, merrily, who talks about Malinin's fatal combination of a photographic memory and a subscription to Harper's. Mike will often say something like, "Beavis is the most important character in American humor in the last fifteen years," or "Mandarin Chinese has no homonyms, so you can't pun - what do they do for kicks?" And then Takac will say something like, "Mike? What's that noise that comes out of your face?"

In Milan, the "Door-lingering psycho" takes to calling Rzeznik's room and telling him she needs to see him. "Dude, that's scary," he says. On the morning of the Goo Goo Dolls' concert, she can be found gently sobbing in the hotel foyer because she has been encouraged to stop bugging him. Face to face, Rzeznik is a soft touch, and when he appears, he sits down next to her like a friendly older brother and she bursts into tears again. "Are you all right?" he ask. "I made you cry? I did?" She cheers up as he looks through her file of Goo Goo Dolls clippings. "I put your picture in everywhere," she tells him. She gives him a red and black top she has bought. (She also has clothing for Takac and Malinin.) He agrees to wear her bracelet onstage. Meanwhile, the man from the Italian record company tells me that he has run ito this girl before. She did exactly these same things when the punky Irish pop group Ash came to town. "And," he says, "a bit with Sepultura, too."

That night, when Rzeznik and I return to the hotel to talk, she is waiting. He gives her back the bracelet and wishes her a warm farewell. We go inside to talk. "I think there's people that think we're prety lightweight, and I don't give a fuck anymore," he says. "It's cool. People can take the piss out of you if they want to. At the end of the day, I know I did exactly what I wanted to do. And when I finally got my head together and shut the outside world out, I put together some pretty fucking good songs. I may not be as cool as some people, but I don't give a fuck, because what I write about is important to me. I'm really defensive about my scene, because it's mine and I'm proud of what I've done and I meant everthing I did. A lot of people want to give us shit for it. I'm ready to go toe-to-toe with the best of them."

After we have been talking for a while, I look up. The Italian girl is standing about ten yards away, about two feet inside the door. She is simply staring at Rzeznik. For five minutes, she doesn't move. "Weeeird," he says. "Help me." I suggest he wave goodbye once more and then she'll be forced to go. "Bye!" he hollers, waving. "Ciao!" She waves back but does not move. She stands there for another twenty minutes, staring, waiting, before she finally leaves.

As already noted, Rzeznik walks out of the Goo Goo Dolls every week or so - at least he did until recently. It's not particularly that he feels less insecure or more settled, it's that he's been too busy. On his last night in Italy, Rzeznik has a dream. In this dream, he has forgotten to sign an autograph for some girl, and she is all mad at him.
Previous article
Goo Goo Dolls happy about band's success
Next article
The Goos Come Home