The Goo Goo Dolls
By Al Weisel
US, April 1999
After 12 years of turmoil, the Goo Goo Dolls have quit their punkish ways and moved into the Top 40
It's moments before the Goo Goo Dolls are set to perform on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and lead singer and guitarist John Rzeznik has just thrown everyone out of his backstage dressing room. Behind the closed door he starts making low, gurgling sounds, followed by a succession of screeching growls. Has the band's sudden success driven Rzeznik, well, goo-goo?
Not exactly. Back at his hotel room after the show, Rzeznik (pronounced Rez-nik), 33, explains: "I have a cyst on my vocal cords from singing wrong. A vocal coach who works with everyone from Björk to Pavarotti gave me a tape of exercises to warm up my voice. I get so embarrassed by it, but it really does help." Of course, this is just a minor obstacle compared with the torturous 12-year climb his band has taken to the top, complete with bad record deals, internal band battles and troubled marriages. Now, with a Grammy-nominated single ("Iris," from the City of Angels soundtrack), the platinum album Dizzy Up The Girl and a current tour with the Rolling Stones, Rzeznik and his bandmates - bassist Robby Takac, 34, and drummer Mike Malinin, 31 - can't help wondering how they got here.
"It sounds cliché: The poor kid from the wrong side of town does good," Rzeznik says. "I was talking to a friend of mine about the ridiculous twisted path that leads to right now, and for the first time I was able to see myself growing up and all I went through, and it made sense. If I had my ass powdered and pampered, I probably wouldn't be here right now."
Rzeznik's mother and father divorced when he was 11 but continued living together in their modest Buffalo, N.Y., home. "My mom was like, 'He's a drunk - we get into fistfights,' " Rzeznik recalls. "So they get divorced, and then my father moves into the back apartment," Rzeznik adds, still amazed. "It's like, who are you kidding?" When he was 15, his father, Joseph, a postal worker, died of complications from alcoholism. Not much later, his mother, Edith, a second-grade teacher, died of a massive heart attack. "After the old man went, I started to notice a fragile quality in my mom I had never seen before," he recalls. "She died right there with me in our living room." Rzeznik was left in the care of four older sisters, who lived nearby. "My older sister, Phyllis, became my legal guardian," he says. "She helped me get an apartment. My sisters didn't have anything for themselves, but they were there for me."
After graduating from McKinley Vocational High School in 1983 at age 18, Rzeznik says, his life began to stabilize. It was around that time that he met Takac in a bar. "Robby's mom makes Beaver Cleaver look like a latchkey kid," Rzeznik says. "The first time I saw how his family interacted, I walked outside and cried. How come I didn't have a family like this? There was so much love." That same year, Rzeznik started playing in a punk band called the Beaumonts with Takac's cousin Paul Takac. But when Paul left the group, the Beaumonts fizzled out, and Rzeznik and Robby Takac decided to form their own band. They made Takac's friend George Tutuska their drummer and formed the first incarnation of the Goo Goo Dolls. At the time, they played hard, fast punk music and called themselves the Sex Maggots - until a promoter made them change their name. They found their new moniker in the back of True Detective magazine, in an ad for a doll with a movable rubber head.
In 1985, the Goo Goo Dolls signed with the French company called Celluloid Records, which agreed to pay them a measly $1500 for six albums. "We were 20 years old," says Takac. "The record company told us we had to sign the deal by midnight or it was void." The band broke the deal in 1987 by "ignoring it," says Takac, and signed a contract with the Warner Bros. subsidiary Metal Blade Records. It turned out that the new deal wasn't much better. When their fifth album, 1995's A Boy Named Goo, went platinum, the band members felt they weren't fairly compensated. After a nine-month legal battle, they left Metal Blade and negotiated a new deal with Warner that gave them better royalty rates.
It was during this time that relations between Rzeznik and Tutuska broke down. "It was an accumulation of nine years of miscommunication," says Rzeznik. Takac simply couldn't navigate the differences between his two friends anymore. "I spent many years being the Henry Kissinger of the group," he says. "The last couple of years we were together, I don't think they said more that a couple of words to each other." In 1995, Rzeznik and Takac fired Tutuska. A few weeks later, they hired Malinin, who had played with a friend of theirs in the L.A. group Careless. "I was a wide-eyed kid when I joined," says Malinin, laughing. "And these guys were all bitter and s---."
Once considered too hard rocking for mainstream success. The Goo Goo Dolls have turned into a pop sensation with such pretty ballads as 1995's "Name" and last year's "Iris." " 'Name' was a big song, but nobody knew who played it," says Malinin. " 'Iris' put a face to the song and got us noticed." Rob Cavallo, the producer of Dizzy Up the Girl adds: "Even thought there has been a change in the sound, they did it gracefully. It was a natural development."
But while the band members' professional lives were finally sorting themselves out, their personal lives were falling apart. In 1997, after three years of marriage, Rzeznik separated from his wife, Laurie, a one-time catalog model he had met in 1988 at a punk bar in Buffalo. "She is the coolest, sweetest woman I ever met," he says. "There are no bad feelings." That same year, Takac and his wife, Tammy, a registered nurse he met through mutual friends in 1991, also split. "I got engaged, married and divorced on out last tour," he says.
After struggling for so long, Rzeznik - who, along with Takac, still lives in Buffalo - is conflicted about his success. "The disparity between being a 10-year-old boy playing air guitar, wishing I was a rock star, and the reality of the whole thing is insane," he says. "A girl will throw her bra onstage, and I say to myself, if I was the guy that pumped your gas today, would you throw your bra at me?"