By Chris Payne
This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, Billboard talks to ’98 alt-rock mainstays the Goo Goo Dolls about their blockbuster Dizzy Up the Girl album, their memories of their late-developing stardom, and their feelings about revisiting the LP on their upcoming anniversary tour.
In 1986, the Goo Goo Dolls formed in Buffalo, NY, and Jim Kelly became the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback. By the start of 1998 — nine months before the September release of sixth album Dizzy Up the Girl — Kelly was already retired, Hall of Fame résumé intact, having guided Buffalo to four consecutive Super Bowls; the Goo Goo Dolls were on the heels of their very first crossover hit, in a pop-rock era littered with one-hit wonders. Much younger one-hit wonders.
Long before breaking through with “Name,” the Goos began with a self-titled debut album in 1987, one which bears no practical similarity to the platinum-certified band the public would come to know. It’s a crude, gnarly punk record that features bassist Robby Takac snarling out lead vocals on every song, including a two-minute cover of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” just because. Two subsequent LPs — 1989’s Jed and 1990’s Hold Me Up — dropped on Metal Blade Records (alongside releases from Anvil and Lizzy Borden) and refined the Goo Goo formula, with guitarist John Rzeznik assuming the majority of lead vocals and Warner Bros. Records eventually taking notice of their spit-shined, workmanlike choruses. But by their early 30s, Rzeznik and Takac (as well as now ex-drummer Mike Malinin) were tired of living in a Buffalo attic.
“Warner put us on what I call rock and roll welfare,” Rzeznik, now 52, reflects to Billboard on a recent phone call. “They would send us a check for a couple hundred bucks each month, so we could pay our rent and dedicate ourselves to music full time. Lenny Waronker, who was running Warner, came to a gig in Los Angeles after we made [1993 Warner debut] Superstar Car Wash: ‘Just keep going and we’re going to break you — it’s just a matter of time.’ Those words will never be uttered by a record executive in 2018.”
But if the band had a song like “Name,” they’d at least have their ear. The aching acoustic ballad off 1995’s A Boy Named Goo, their second album for Warner, was a radio mainstay, topping Billboard’s Alternative Songs and Mainstream Rock charts, and breaking the Hot 100’s top five. While the Goos plotted their next move, the producers behind the blockbuster City of Angels soundtrack came calling, looking for Mega Ballad Number Two. With the immortal “Iris,” the Goo Doo Dolls and their reluctant heartthrob frontman could nix the car washes and focus on the superstardom.
The trip there was paved with dive bars and Our Band Could Be Your Life; their path since, adult contemporary airplay and all the “mom rock” sneers that come with it. Dizzy Up the Girl is the sweet spot in between. The Rob Cavallo-produced album sold over 4.2 million copies (according to Nielsen Music) and produced five singles, of which there are two legitimate contenders for the song: “Iris,” the orchestral magnum opus, and “Slide,” the luminous jangle-rocker with Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the motherfuckin’ Heartbreakers guiding its bridge home with a sublime keyboard masterstroke.
Dizzy Up the Girl’s 11 other tracks generally follow one of these two models, with four offerings from Takac — the decidedly less-dreamboaty songwriter — keeping the Pleased to Meet Me embers burning, if only faintly. Lyrically, the songs are achingly earnest, painting love in melodramatic, direct strokes and reflecting their down-on-its-luck hometown after the factory jobs fled. (Tellingly, when the British film The Full Monty was Americanized for Broadway around the same time, the unemployed Sheffield steelworkers-turned-chippendales were made to be from Buffalo.)
But as their careers soared, the Goo Goo Dolls had to come to terms with some realities. Critically respected for the Replacements-inspired rock of their earlier years, they now had to grapple with petulant “SELLOUT!” accusations and negative album reviews. Pitchfork once nailed Dizzy Up The Girl with a scathing (since scrubbed from the site) 3.2 review in which he’s lambasted as John “Bon Jovi” Rzeznik.
Living on a prayer or living in Buffalo, it’s hard to imagine Rzeznik (currently a Jersey resident) taking that as an insult. The Goos got their fill of punk’s romanticized grit and reinvented themselves through one of the longest of long games the music biz has seen. The payoff was Dizzy Up the Girl — a critically underrated, commercially properly-rated, box office smash of a career milestone.
Just last year, the Bills made the playoffs for the first time since the Dizzy Up the Girl tour wrapped. Everything’s made to be broken.
See our conversation below.
You’d toughed it out for so long before “Name” became a hit. For the follow-up album, was there a sense of urgency?
John Rzeznik: There was definitely a sense of urgency about it; of course you don’t want to go back to bartending. But everything moved so quickly. There were a couple of years between those albums. We did a lot of touring and the writing just started to flow. That was one of the peaks of my writing. But there was no pressure from the label, nothing like, “Oh you gotta write another hit.” But I wanted to.
Robby Takac: For Dizzy Up the Girl, John and I spent some time in Buffalo, then came out to L.A. to record, and to live. I don’t know if we were nervous; I was just kind of amazed it was actually happening.
Rzeznik: Our manager [Pat Magnarella] was very much a taskmaster: “Keep your head down. Keep working. Keep writing. Just keep going. Forget about all the bullshit.” But we only forgot about half of the bullshit. We got to have some fun…. It’s funny because Warner Bros., at the time, they didn’t even want to work “Iris.”
Takac: It came out on Reprise, actually, at first.
Rzeznik: Yeah, the song was released on the City of Angels soundtrack — which came out on Reprise — and that’s how the song became a hit. I didn’t think it was ever going to be a hit because we were on the album with U2, Peter Gabriel, Alanis Morissette — the big ones. It’s crazy.
Take me through the writing process of “Iris.”
Rzeznik: I was definitely trying to match the storyline of City of Angels: “If I were this guy, what would I say to this girl?” Then I thought to myself, “What an incredible thing. This guy is willing to give up his own mortality just to feel something.” It’s a really beautiful allegory about the uncertainty of being human, but all the excitement that goes along with it.
Takac: The movie actually declined the version of the song that we turned in — the version that is on the soundtrack and on the album. But the version they used in the movie was just an acoustic version.
Rzeznik: That moment when that song was given to me was a gift. Times like that just fall out of the sky. We were really uncertain. All the critics loved us until we wrote “Name.” We had a pretty loyal fanbase of like 400 people in every city in America. Then we finally got a hit and instead of rooting for us, they were like, “Fuck you, man, you guys suck now. You sold out.”
Are there any reviews you remember that just really turned you off?
Rzeznik: Anthony DeCurtis wrote one that was particularly nasty. But whatever, it doesn’t matter.
Was it a review of Dizzy Up the Girl?
Rzeznik: I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember feeling like, “Wow. That was a little personal” [Laughs].
Robby [pointed out], “Look, if nobody knows who you are, the only people that write about you are people that like you.” But then when the boss comes in and says “Hey you gotta review this record,” then you start getting some negativity thrown at you. Sometimes it hurts, but you learn to develop a thick skin.
Editor’s note: Rzeznik is likely referring to this Rolling Stone review of 2002’s Gutterflower.
“Name” and “Iris” were ballads that really didn’t sound like most of what the band had done before. Do you think they reshaped what came after?
Rzeznik: I was just growing and developing as a writer. I didn’t want to write punk rock songs anymore. I felt like, “Well I played that out; It was fun.” Why do I have to be a 50-year old punk rock guy? I think that’s kind of silly.
Robby, your Dizzy songs like “January Friend” and “Full Forever” are a bit more punk-ish than what’s on the rest of the album. Did you feel like you were keeping some of the spirit of the earlier years alive?
Takac: I don’t know if I was necessarily keeping it alive. I think people progress at different paces, different things influence them. I think I was a little slower to leave that vibe behind.
The Replacements were such an influence on the earlier albums; when you started to leave the punk world behind, who were the artists you looked up to?
Rzeznik: We had started looking backwards. A band that nobody ever mentions as far are as our influences go was Hüsker Dü. If you listen back to our early records, they’re more akin to Hüsker Dü: the tempo of the songs and the really sordid guitars. I thought Bob Mould was really brilliant — lyrically and his guitar playing. And I love all those early Soul Asylum records. Minneapolis was my Seattle.
But everybody for 20 years just called it up, “Oh you guys love The Replacements.” I was into a million bands, you know? All I know is [Paul] Westerberg wasn’t the first guy that wrote a lot of those songs. We all borrow.
What are some other misconceptions people have of where the Goo Goo Dolls came from?
Rzeznik: We shoved it down everyone’s throats that we were from Buffalo. We were living in an industrial ghost town at the time and for some reason, we were incredibly proud of that. We found a building that was condemned and set up our rehearsal room in it. You get this sense of, “You better play the fuck out of that guitar because that’s about the only way you’re getting out of here.” And that’s what we did.
In “Broadway,” the “young man sitting in the old man’s bar”– that has a lot to do with the people of Buffalo, right?
Rzeznik: That’s where I grew up, on the east side of Buffalo. The main artery was Broadway and it was dying as soon as all the factories closed. The demographics were changing and that whole part of town — the people I grew up with, the generation before me, there were some really great people but there were also some unbelievably ignorant… It was a blue collar, immigrant community so everybody’s fighting for a scrap of bread. That was my take on what I saw growing up: very Catholic, very blue collar, lots of poverty, lots of drugs and alcoholism, lots of domestic violence. It was built into the fabric of what that community was all about.
The other big hits on the album, “Slide” and “Black Balloon,” also deal with really heavy subject matter.
Rzeznik: I was thinking a lot about the neighborhood I grew up in. “Slide” is about a teenage boy and girl. They’re trying to figure out if they’re going to keep the baby or if she’s going to get an abortion or if they’re just going to run away. They’re dealing with these heavy life choices at a very early age. Everybody grew up way too fast.
All of a sudden, I bet you guys had a lot more money than you’d ever seen before.
Rzeznik: I didn’t have a checkbook or a credit card until I was 30 years old. I didn’t have any money. Robby and I literally lived within the cracks of society. I was a hot dog vendor and a bartender. We lived in an attic in Buffalo and paid our rent in cash. I rode a bike to work…. Then we went out to Los Angeles.
Once Dizzy Up the Girl settled in and you had one, two, three hit singles, how did your lives change the most?
Rzeznik: Well, people were showing up at our shows [Laughs]. Robby and I looked at each other and said, “We better play as many shows as possible because you don’t know how long this is going to last.”
What changed most about our lives? Honestly, I’m not trying to be a bummer, but at the end of the Dizzy Up the Girl tour, I called a real estate agent and asked if he could find me a house that had a bomb shelter. I wanted to have an underground bomb shelter to write songs in because I just felt so overexposed.
At that point in my life, I circled my close friends around me and started doing a lot of drinking and writing… I felt like, my god, I’ve been doing this for so long, and now we have this success, and people treat you differently. And you’re not a different person; you’re the same person.
The one thing that kind of freaked me out after Dizzy Up the Girl was I didn’t get any better looking, but for some reason, the girls that wanted to talk to me got better looking [Laughs]. That comes with a little bit of success. I think women are like, “Oh he’s a rock star.” But I pretty much shunned all that stuff, except for when I was dating the actress. That just got too weird because I wanted our private life to be private, you know? That didn’t work.
Which actress was that?
Rzeznik: She was a soap opera actress, a very nice person but I didn’t want to be a “celebrity.” She wanted those things and I just wasn’t equipped for it. Like, I got to go to the opening of every envelope in Los Angeles? It’s like “Forget it, I’m staying home.”
Editor’s note: Rzeznik is likely referring to actress and musician Adrienne Frantz.
John, you came out and performed with the EDM group Cash Cash at Coachella this year. What was that like?
Rzeznik: What a freaky scene. It was just interesting to me. It was so much fun playing with them, but I was like, “Wow, things have changed.” When we were their age, it was all mosh pits and people stage-diving. Now it’s all very much like a massive light show and 30,000 people jumping up and down in time.
What did you think of the Coachella crowd?
Rzeznik: I felt like a dirty old man [Laughs]. But I got to say this: We were in this tent and there were about 20,000 people in it. I came out there and we sang “Slide” and that place went nuts. The only thing I could think of was, “Yeah, those kids grew up listening to their parents’ record.” Robby said that they were strapped in the car seats and couldn’t get away from their parents playing Dizzy Up the Girl.
What’s some newer stuff you two are listening to right now?
Rzeznik: Atlas Genius, Arctic Monkeys, I love the Arctic Monkeys. The Bird and the Bee, Fitz and the Tantrums, Flaming Lips. I love Grace VanderWaal’s voice. And I love that Harry Styles record. The new James Bay record is really good. And Polyphonic Spree, oh my god man. I like listening to them because it makes me feel like I’m on drugs without actually having to take any, you know?
Takac: A band called Superorganism. Cornelius has a new album out called Mellow Waves, which is pretty cool. Kero Kero Bonito, they’re pretty cool: two guys and a girl singer who sings half in Japanese.
Later this year, you’re touring behind Dizzy Up the Girl, playing it in its entirety. What’s it like dusting the whole thing off?
Rzeznik: This tour is really something for more hardcore fans. We’re digging back to Superstar Car Wash and there’s got to be a song off Hold Me Up we can do. Gutterflower too, there’s some cool songs on that record.
Takac: There’s one song [from Dizzy] we’ve never played, one that we played just a little bit back in the day. And a couple of John’s we probably haven’t played in 15 years.
Rzeznik: That’s going to be interesting, but we’ll work it out. People who were really into that record will get to hear it live from start to finish, the way they listened to it on their CD player.
Takac: That was one of the last true eras of album rock.