By Ed Masley, Arizona Republic
The Goo Goo Dolls kicked off a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of their biggest-selling album, “Dizzy Up the Girl,” last year at the Van Buren, playing the entire album with the cover art projected on the screen behind them.
John Rzeznik clearly enjoyed sharing that moment with a sold-out crowd that sang along enthusiastically to every song from their quadruple-platinum triumph.
And when the tour was over?
“I was sitting backstage,” Rzeznik says. “And I felt this tremendous sense of relief. Like, ‘Wow, OK, let’s kind of close the book on that chapter. Let’s get to work on what the next thing is gonna be.’ Because it had been 20 years. And it was like, ‘You gotta do something different.'”
Not that Rzeznik had ever set out to repeat himself.
“People have said to me, ‘How come you never tried to write “Iris” again?,’” he says, referring to the quadruple-platinum ballad he wrote for the soundtrack to “City of Angels,” which put the Goo Goo Dolls at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100 Pop Songs 1992–2012 chart.
“Because I already wrote it,” Rzeznik says. “And if I did try to write it again, it would be a cheap imitation of what came naturally. And it would fail, you know? I mean, that’s just as true as I can get about it.”
To be clear, he’s not suggesting that you won’t hear “Iris,” “Slide” or “Black Balloon” when the Goo Goo Dolls play Tempe’s Marquee Theatre Dec. 5.
“I still play songs off ‘Dizzy Up the Girl’ because I have to,” Rzeznik says. “That was our most commercially successful record. And if a guy and his wife or his girlfriend are plunking down a couple hundred bucks to come and see a show, you’d better play the songs they want to hear, along with the new stuff and everything. But it’s no time to be completely self-indulgent.”
All he’s saying is that after giving “Dizzy Up the Girl” a proper victory lap at 20, he felt freer to explore new sonic possibilities on their new album, “Miracle Pill.”
It’s a striking stylistic departure with lyrics that find him responding to current events without engaging in the tribalism that’s come to define the conversation on current events in American culture.
“It’s too dangerous,” he says, “to be explicitly political.”
And then he gets political.
“I’m not enamored with either political party in this country,” Rzeznik says.
“And it’s become glaringly obvious that the system is broken on both sides. The whole thing’s for sale. If you’re a congressman, you’re constantly begging for money to get reelected. So who you gonna go to? Are you gonna keep going to your constituents or are you gonna get some big donors? I believe that corporate interests are the only thing that’s represented in Washington anymore.”
Neither party cares about the common man, he says.
“I think Jeff Bezos is gonna be the first trillionaire and there’s something wrong with that, man. There’s dignity in work. It gives a lot of people’s lives purpose, because it allows you to raise a family and have a bit of security. And that security is missing in greater and greater numbers in this society. When the president of the United States says, ‘I don’t pay taxes because I’m smart …'”
He laughs, then says, “It’s like, ‘Well, no. Taxes are the dues you have to pay for being able to become a billionaire.’ But the tax code was written by a bunch of people who are getting paid off, so forget it. Anyway, we’re not supposed to talk about politics.”
Rzeznik would rather bring people together.
“I was looking at the audience a couple weeks ago,” he says. “And I’m like, theoretically, in a vacuum, half of this audience voted for Trump and half of this audience voted for Hillary Clinton. Roughly. But we’re having a good time together. And then, you step outside that room and the divide becomes huge. It’s a chasm.”
Part of the problem, Rzeznik says, is the sense of hopelessness our political climate can foster in people on both sides of the aisle.
“I truly believe we all have to start trying to find similarities. Look for the similarities instead of the differences between us because there’s days where I’m like, ‘Oh my god, there’s gonna be a civil war.'”
So where does Rzeznik find hope in that environment?
“In my kid,” he says. “In my music. In the conversations I have with people every single day and the letters people give me every day when I’m on tour. I find hope and meaning and I feel like I want my mission to be connection. Even if that connection is nothing more than a distraction for that four minutes that the song is playing. If that four minutes can change someone’s mood or attitude or help them get through something, that helps add to the purpose.”
Rzeznik knows there are no easy fixes. He sings as much in this new album’s title track, although he has been known to consume a few miracle pills in his own quest for easy fixes.
“For me, it was booze, drugs, food, women, spending, everything,” he says. “Those were the shortcuts because there’s a certain kind of fallout when you get a little bit of success in the music business. All the sudden, you start to question yourself. Is this real? Does this person just want to hang out with me because of something they think I am, not who I am? So I started to isolate myself really badly. And I wound up with a lot of problems. But every quick fix that I’ve ever tried just screwed me up and left me in a worse position than I was before.”
As much as he’d like to help bridge the divide in American culture with “Miracle Pill,” he doesn’t see that happening.
“‘Cause I’m sure lots of people hate it,” he says, with a laugh. “I mean, there’s records I don’t like, that I don’t relate to. If somebody doesn’t relate to what I’m doing, I hope that they just pass me by and go on to something that they love. That’s a big problem with the way that social media has changed the world is that everybody’s a critic.”
It’s not that Rzeznik thinks the internet gave rise to people who would rather focus on the records they despise.
“When I was in college, hanging out with the art students with the berets and clove cigarettes listening to Sisters of Mercy, all they ever talked about was how everything sucked,” he says. “You had to have the most obscure record collection. We all want to be part of an exclusive club that we can exclude other people from and feel superior. Which I think is (expletive).”
Rzeznik’s views on that culture of not liking anything popular got personal around the time Goo Goo Dolls made the leap from touring America’s trashiest dives to No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with their breakthrough single, “Name,” before following through with “Dizzy Up the Girl.”
“Listen, once you get put on a pedestal, it’s just easier to throw rocks at you,” he says. “I was pretty shocked by some of the hate and backlash that came our way. But what am I gonna do? It’s these people’s opinions. It’s like being bothered by lint in your pocket. Just pull it out of your pocket and throw it away. Don’t think about it.”
All he can do, Rzeznik says, is his best.
“I’m doing it in earnest. I don’t have some scumbag record executive with a gun pointed to my head going, ‘You gotta do this.’ Most of the time, the people who have been at our record company stand there scratching their head, going, ‘Well, I don’t know, but great.’ I mean, nobody knows what a hit is. Nobody can tell you what a hit is. And most people wind up chasing a hit after something created a paradigm shift.”
He was part of a paradigm shift in the ’90s.
“I’m not saying we caused the paradigm shift, because we didn’t,” he says. “But after alternative rock became the mainstream music, we sort of were able to walk through that door. And guys like Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg — the original college rock bands, I’m gonna call them — laid the groundwork for turning alternative rock into a mainstream entity.”
Those earlier artists who didn’t enjoy the success the Goo Goo Dolls enjoyed were ahead of their time, he says.
“And they influenced all of us as kids. It’s like, I’m watching that Bill Wyman documentary, ‘The Quiet One,’ and it’s funny because he’s talking about when he met the rest of the Stones and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we play Chuck Berry.’ They were straight-up ripping people off. And it’s all right. That’s cool. You borrow. And it gets run through the filters of your own mind. And it comes out the other end something different.”
He’s heard bits and pieces of the Goo Goo Dolls in other people’s music, Rzeznik says.
“I hear it more now than I have in the past,” he says, “because we’ve got that 20-ish years thing going, where everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we can appropriate this now because it’s been 20 years.’ But yeah, it made me proud. It made me happy. It made me feel like, ‘Wow, somebody actually listened enough to what I did to go and nick a piece of it.’ And that’s good. That’s the way we move forward.”
The one constant in his journey forward from his punk-rock youth in Buffalo through the paradigm shift and out the other side with the music on “Miracle Pill” has been his partnership with bassist Robby Takac.
“I think the reason we’re able to stick together is because he and I obviously know how to push each other’s buttons, but it’s knowing not to,” Rzeznik says. “We had to learn to respect each other’s boundaries. I’m sure he has a very different perspective on this band than I do. And I’m sure he keeps a lot of it to himself, what his feelings are about it. But we decided we were gonna keep this together. And that’s the way it is.”
Along the way, he’s had to learn to let things go.
“There’s times,” he says, “where I sit down and I go, ‘OK, is this worth fighting over? Do you believe in this enough to fight over? Or do you just need to be right? And furthermore, do you need to see him be wrong? And what’s that gonna satisfy?’ When you take five steps back and go, ‘Why do I need to see Robbie be wrong?’ ‘Well, because I’m an egomaniac.’ OK, well, then maybe you need to check yourself. And then I started to realize he was right sometimes.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.