By Tim O’Shei
WESTFIELD, N.J. – John Rzeznik lives in a spacious, two-story home with manicured landscaping and a wrap-around porch supported by white columns. There’s a minivan in the driveway, and a Tesla, too. When the doorbell clangs, a chocolate lab named Roscoe greets visitors. Rzeznik is inside on a rainy late-summer day, brewing coffee that he’ll drink only after cooling it with water, lest he burn the vocal chords that got him here, and keep him here.
Rzeznik’s daughter Liliana, who turns 2 in December, is in the kitchen. “Dad-DEEE!” she says, giggling as she toddles to her father. Lili, as Rzeznik and his wife, Melina, call their daughter, has her father’s alabaster skin and reddish-brown hair. He’s smitten with the way she talks, using words like “Corr-ECT!” and “Dad-DEEE!” “It’s always about the second syllable,” said Rzeznik, his voice tender.
His voice is a famous voice. This is the voice of “Iris,” the mournful pop ballad he wrote that is one of the most-played songs on radio in the last 20 years. That Rzeznik voice is the one lodged in the pop-culture zeitgeist. We all can have it. We can hear it, emulate it and see it when Rzeznik’s Goo Goo Dolls play live, which they will do Oct. 19-21 in their hometown of Buffalo with a trio of sold-out shows.
But these tender tones are just for him and her, for the daddy he never knew he would become, and the daughter he never thought he would have. “I’m paraphrasing someone else,” said Rzeznik, seated at his dining-room table, “but kids turn you into the person that you should have been the whole time.”
Rzeznik, who is 52, wasn’t on a path to this place. He grew up in a broken family on the East Side, was orphaned as a teenager and gained fame as a rock star.
But nearly four years earlier, in a hotel room just 26 miles from his family and his porch and his minivan and his dining room table, he teetered on the edge of losing it all.
Some of the best songwriters possess the ability to be doubly poetic and honest, to capture life’s rawness and buff it with a sense of hope, even retroactively. Rzeznik recounts his life through that same lens. His mother, Edith, was a teacher. She was a talented, creative and smart woman who dabbled in music and art. She taught her four daughters – Phyllis, Fran, Glad and Kate – and her youngest child, John, to read before kindergarten.
His father, Joseph, was a mailman who woke up before dawn every day to go to work. Joseph grew up in the same area where he raised his family.
“His family owned a bar,” said John Rzeznik, who can’t recall the name of the East Side establishment, but knows it was on Detroit Street. “That was sort of a step up from the average person in that neighborhood at that time.” Rzeznik then brought up the book “The Last Fine Time,” a 1991 novel by Verlyn Klinkenborg about a corner bar on Buffalo’s East Side.
“Have you read it?” he asked. “It’s a great book.”
Rzeznik, whose 1998 hit “Broadway” is named after the East Side thoroughfare and tells the story of “young man sitting in the old man’s bar, waiting for his turn to die,” is heading in a euphemistic direction with this one.
“I like to romanticize about it being something different than it was when I was growing up,” he admitted. “It was a hard-ass neighborhood.”
And a hard life. John recalls his mother as a demanding woman who took after her mother — a “German disciplinarian,” Rzeznik said. “Smack you when you got out of line.”
Edith was his second-grade teacher at Corpus Christi Grammar School.
“It went really badly,” Rzeznik said, almost laughing. “She couldn’t help me. I had to get help with my homework from my sisters. She was hard. She would definitely let you know when you were wrong.
“She would take decisive action.”
This time he is laughing, but not because memories of his childhood home are funny. He’s laughing because what else can he do? The Rzeznik home was a tough and distant place, where corporal punishment was parenting and love was elusive. Edith and Joseph had a bad relationship, and John thinks his mother encouraged her children to have a chilly relationship with their father. Joseph was “a pretty serious drinker,” his son said. “I have no idea how he survived as long as he did.”
John wonders still how his father managed to drink as he did, but still get up at 4:30 a.m.
“They don’t build people like that anymore. But, you know, he was a little distant. That’s the …”
He was searching for the words.
“That’s the mark of an alcoholic — the distance,” he continued. “It’s a very lonely disease. It’s a disease of loneliness.”
On Sunday mornings, Joseph would wake up his son early and take him for a ride in the car. “Just me and him,” John said. It was a guys’ getaway, of sorts; the Rzeznik household was otherwise all women, so those Sunday drives were among the few purely father-son moments they shared.
Did Joseph Rzeznik love his children? John still ponders that question today. He thinks his dad loved him, and loved his sisters, too.
“I’m only speculating, but I feel like he had something in his heart that couldn’t be filled by having a bunch of kids or having a wife or anything like that,” Rzeznik said. “I think he took to drinking because it filled that space. Or it gave the illusion of filling the space. It never truly does.
“So that’s that.”
It was November 2014 in midtown Manhattan. Rzeznik was in New York City on a writing trip.
Rzeznik was nearly two decades into his life as an international rock star. He looked the part, with a sharp jaw and high cheekbones and shagged hair that covers his blue eyes. He lived like one, too, with a bungalow in the lower Hollywood Hills, a string of hit songs dating to 1995, when “Name” made the Goo Goo Dolls famous, and a fashionable chip on his shoulder that suggested his work, celebrated as it is, is still underappreciated.
(Case in point: Rzeznik’s landmark hit “Iris,” which was written for the soundtrack of the 1998 Nicolas Cage film “City of Angels,” topped every chart and ranks among the most-played songs on radio over the last 20 years. But it failed to land a spot in the Academy Awards. “ ‘Iris’ should have been nominated for an Oscar, hands down,” said Tom Calderone, a SUNY Buffalo State graduate and longtime MTV and VH1 executive who has worked closely with the Goo Goo Dolls since the late ’80s.)
From the outside, Rzeznik’s life even in middle age seemed glamorous. The Goo Goo Dolls were still packing venues. After splitting with his first wife in the late ’90s, he found love and got married again in 2013. His Malibu wedding to the former Melina Gallo, whom he had dated since 2005, was intimate and classy — and captured in detail by People magazine.
Rzeznik seemed steady, strong, stable and successful.
But demons lurked beneath.
As a young boy in a Polish neighborhood, Rzeznik’s first instrument was, not surprisingly, the accordion. Also not surprisingly, it wasn’t the most socially acceptable instrument. “It brought a lot of ridicule and hazing,” said Rzeznik, who talked his mother into letting him trade the accordion for the drums – “which lasted a week,” he said, because of the noise.
Edith Rzeznik ultimately bought her son an electric guitar with an amplifier, and gave him money for lessons. After a few sessions, John, who was around 13, started skipping the lessons and using the money for beer. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood taught him to play a bit. “I just knew enough to get by,” Rzeznik said. “I just knew enough to fool my mom.”
In those early- to mid-teen years, John had what seemed to be a solid group of friends. They hung out, they drank, and he continued playing the guitar. But those pieces of his life began to topple. First, his friends left him. He’s not sure why; he didn’t know then, and he doesn’t get it now, either. But he still thinks about it, and he’s considered tracking down those guys simply to ask where he went wrong.
Then came a “1-2 punch,” as Rzeznik calls it, that crushed his world. In February 1981, when John was 15, Joseph Rzeznik had a heart attack, then caught pneumonia in the hospital, and died. Just over a year later, his mother suffered a heart attack and died, leaving John without parents at age 16.
Those days remain vivid in his memory, and these ones, he doesn’t romanticize.
“I didn’t have any friends at the time and my father had died,” said Rzeznik, who found solace in playing guitar. He sat with his instrument, day and night, playing a repetitious, free-form series of chords. He twisted the strings on his guitar to unorthodox tunings, trying to get the instrument to play what he was hearing his head. “(It was) almost hypnotic, in a way,” Rzeznik said. “I would just play that stuff and realize hours had gone by.”
Rzeznik had no way of knowing this yet, but those dark moments in the days following his father’s death, when he channeled his emotions by playing the guitar in a way that bucked the standard, were the roots of some of his most famous songs. “Name,” “Iris,” and several other Goo Goo Dolls hits are known for their alternate guitar tunings that create a shimmering effect.
“I had no idea what was going on inside my head,” he said. “I didn’t understand it, that what I was feeling was depression, and it was very, very hard.”
Rzeznik was rescued by a classmate at McKinley Vocational High School. Joey O’Grady, who took a shop class with Rzeznik, asked John to hang out with him and his brother Kevin.
“I didn’t realize what I was feeling was depression until Joey O’Grady asked me to come hang out with him,” Rzeznik said, “and I felt like I’d been lifted from the inside.”
Rzeznik and the O’Grady brothers formed a bond, partying and listening to music. “We laughed a lot,” Rzeznik said. “They were just really interesting and cool people.”
He’s lost touch with Joey O’Grady, too, but wants to track him down. “I just want to thank him for that,” said Rzeznik, who graduated from McKinley in 1983 and soon after met another young guy who became a close friend, and something more. Something more like a brother; someone who would stand by him to build something big, and someone who would stick by him in the darkest moments. Someone who wouldn’t leave even when they wouldn’t talk.
His name was Robby Takac, his partner of three decades in the pop-culture music machine called the Goo Goo Dolls.
It’s Nov. 16, 2014, at the London NYC, the midtown Manhattan hotel where Rzeznik was staying on his writing trip. Rzeznik was in his room, deciding whether to take a drink. He wrestled with his thoughts:
What if he did it and lived? He didn’t care.
What if he died? He didn’t care.
Rzeznik thought to himself, “You might be better off dead.” And that scared him, but not enough. He took a drink.
Rzeznik and Takac formed a yin-and-yang match that blossomed. Whereas Rzeznik grew up in a broken home in a poor section of the city, Takac grew up with a loving mother and father in suburban West Seneca. While Rzeznik was, and remains, shy in small-group conversations, he was – and is – comfortable performing onstage. Takac, conversely, is a sociable guy offstage who was, and is, comfortable playing a secondary role to Rzeznik, who is the Goo Goo Dolls’ frontman.
While the band included a third member for long periods (drummer George Tutuska from 1985 to 1994, and drummer Mike Malinin from 1998 to 2013), Rzeznik and Takac have always been the core.
“I think both of us were pretty lucky to have each other around when we were that age, when we had first met,” Takac said. “I think we both brought some pretty serious realities to each other’s lives from polar opposite ends of the spectrum. I think maybe that’s still a little bit of what we do right now for each other.”
The Goo Goo Dolls’ stature exploded in the ’90s, first with 1995’s “Name,” and then with the 1998 “Dizzy Up the Girl” album, which included hits “Black Balloon” and “Slide,” along with “Broadway” and “Iris.” (The band’s current tour is a celebration of the 20th anniversary of “Dizzy.”)
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the band was playing arena-size shows and partying just as big. Calderone, who was then in charge of music programming at MTV, booked the Goo Goo Dolls to play the network’s turn-of-the-millennium New Year’s Eve show in Times Square. He gave Rzeznik his office as a dressing room, and remembers the lead singer looking out the window, through the lights and at the crowd below.
Rzeznik turned to Calderone, whom he first met in the mid-’80s at Buffalo State’s radio station, WBNY, and asked, “Do you believe this?”
Calderone recalls answering, “If you had told me when we were hanging at BNY that one day I’d be at MTV, and you guys would be huge, worldwide rock stars, and we’re going to actually do a production together on Dec. 31, 1999, no, I would have never believed that.”
As his fame rose, Rzeznik may never have lost his sense of wonder, but he also never quite captured his sense of self. Like his father, he drank hard, often, and to oblivion. His alcoholism plunged so deep that Rzeznik and Takac, who quit drinking around 2004, stopped talking, even as they lived and traveled on the same tour bus and performed shows together.
“Our heads were in such different places at that moment,” Takac said. “It’s not that we weren’t trying to communicate; it’s just that it was difficult to communicate for a plethora of reasons.
“I think part of that was a bit of a defense mechanism, because we knew we were doing this, we knew we were going to do it, we knew we were making it happen, and sometimes it was just best for us not to talk. … Sometimes it was just best for us to let things be what they were at that moment.”
At the London NYC on Nov. 16, 2014, Rzeznik drank until he blacked out. He woke up, his clothes still on, shards of glass around him.
Something pushed him to make a decision. He didn’t want this to happen again. He knew he was close to the edge. Did he want to take his last breath, or his last drink?
Rzeznik picked up the phone, called his manager, and as he recalls it, told him, “I’m not doing anything for the next three months. I’ve got to take care of this, because I’m going to die.”
Rzeznik had dabbled in forms of rehabilitation before: pills, psychiatry, therapy, steam baths, walking with horses. None worked. His drinking got worse, and he got into pills, too.
This time was different. “I went to a very serious place, where they don’t do yoga and massage,” Rzeznik said. “They concentrate on triangulating treatment, where it’s like therapy and 12 Step and some spiritual work.”
He stayed in rehab for three months. “I wish I could have stayed for six months,” he said. But when he got out, he felt ready to move forward, repair relationships, deal with issues from his past, make more music, and even start a family.
Today, Rzeznik attends AA meetings and keeps a sobriety calculator app on his phone. On Sept. 10 of this year, he opened it to show his stats: 3.81 years; 45.79 months; 1,395 days; 33,467 hours.
He’s honest about his struggles, and what it takes now to stay sober. He and Melina keep no alcohol in their house, though if they’re hosting a party, they’ll buy some (one hour before) and John will even serve it to guests (then walk away). When the party is over, the alcohol goes home with the guests.
When they’re among others who are drinking, they have code words that John can use to alert Melina if he’s feeling uncomfortable and needs to gracefully exit.
He manages the issue but won’t avoid the scenarios. “When I’m afraid of something, I’m going at it twice as hard,” Rzeznik said. “I don’t believe any fear can be conquered by avoiding it.”
It’s an early October evening at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Lili Rzeznik is in her dad’s dressing room, pointing to a pair of black and brown high-tops perched next to a Sephora bag in a wardrobe case. She’s hears Daddy’s voice emanating from the stage below.
Rzeznik, Takac and their traveling band were running through soundcheck before a sold-out show here at the Ryman. Melina Rzeznik was upstairs with Lili, sitting in her husband’s dressing room, talking about his newfound life as a father.
“He’s a pushover!” said Melina, who is 41. “She knows how to get what she wants – from both of us, actually. John is very sensitive, emotional, loving, caring, unbelievably supportive. He wears his heart on his sleeve, especially for her. He just gets overwhelmed with love and happiness anytime he talks about her.”
Though she didn’t tell her husband this until after he got sober, John’s alcoholism had gotten so bad that Melina was ready to leave him. But after rehab worked and he stayed clean for a year, they made a different choice — one they hadn’t suspected would be an option. They decided to have a family, and move to New Jersey, where Melina’s mother now lives with them.
Lili was born in December 2016. Melina has a photo of her husband and then one-week-old daughter snuggling in bed, Lili swaddled, John sleeping. “He says to me all the time, ‘I never, ever knew what it felt like just to have somebody love me on their own,’ ” Melina said. “He is amazed at how much love he feels.”
Her voice cracks. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It just makes me happy for him to feel that, finally.”
About an hour earlier, just before taking the stage for soundcheck, John acknowledged that being a father keeps him making the right choices. “I think about my daughter when I’m doing stuff, and I want to see it through her eyes, and I want her to be proud of me, for what I do,” he said.
He reached for a tissue, dabbed a tear, and allowed a small smile.