How the Buffalo band’s 1995 hit divided fans, provided therapy and saved its frontman from going back to school
November 11, 2020 Leena Tailor
It’s been 25 years since Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik walked into Studio B, a tiny 8-track studio at Track-master Audio in Buffalo, New York, to record a demo with producer Armand Petri.
On the verge of giving up a professional music career and returning to school, Rzeznik handed over the lyrics to what would become “Name,” its second chorus reflecting the challenges of achieving commercial success with the line, “A tired song keeps playing on a tired radio.”
“I threw that in as a jab at the way that radio was working at that time,” Rzeznik, 54, tells Rock and Roll Globe. “There was no room for ‘alternative rock.’ It was all classic rock radio.”
Yet, 25 years later, whether it’s in supermarkets, gas stations or in the car, that tired song keeps playing on the tired radio.
From their double-platinum fifth studio album, A Boy Named Goo, “Name” marked a turning point for the Buffalo group, comprised of Rzeznik, Robby Takac and at the time, drummer George Tutuska, who was ousted shortly before the record’s release and replaced by Mike Malinin.
The album’s pivotal moment followed the band’s 1987 self-titled debut, 1989’s Jed, 1990’s Hold Me Up and 1993’s Superstar Carwash.
“Hold Me Up was a huge leap of growth for the band, then we put our all into Superstar Carwash,” Petri says. “With Superstar Carwash, the expectations were so high that it was going to break, and it didn’t and that really affected them going into A Boy Named Goo. The band was wondering what would happen next – fame or breakup.”
Rzeznik was nearing 30, sick of living with roommates and convinced it was time to “grow up.”
“Every record we made did a little better than the previous one, so I expected it to do that,” he says. “But I was approaching 30 and thinking, ‘This is fun, but I need to do something with my life.’ I was tired of having two roommates and felt if I wasn’t making a living with music, it was time to move onto something else. I was going to go back to school. I would’ve always played in bands, but I had to make a decision about what to do for a living.”
Rzeznik contemplated pursuing a degree in political science, but meanwhile the gproup started working on A Boy Named Goo.
Petri recalls Rzeznik turning up to one session with two tracks – “Broadway” and a track they tentatively titled “Acoustic Song,” which would become “Name.” Since “Broadway” was largely unfinished (ending up on 1998’s Dizzy Up the Girl) they started on the latter. At that point, the track was four bars longer in each verse and more rock-influenced, which Petri attributes to Tutuska having handled the percussion.
“John started playing acoustic guitar for the demo then went, ‘The drum track’s screwed up. I can’t play to this,’” Petri recalls. “The drums just weren’t that good, but that led to the evolution of the song. I cut four or eight bars from each verse and that’s how the whole concept of the percussion happening during the verses came about.”
Rzeznik meanwhile worked on the lyrics, which flowed effortlessly. “Most of the time, writing songs is like pulling teeth, but that one came easily,” he says.
Over the years, the song’s inspiration has been attributed to Rzeznik’s painful youth (during which he lost both his parents as a teenager), relationships and regrets. Regardless of its meaning, Petri believes writing “Name” was a cathartic experience for Rzeznik.
“A Boy Named Goo was definitely a therapy record,” he says. “Superstar Carwash was too with songs like ‘On the Line.’ But on A Boy Named Goo, he really opened up about his childhood and started dealing with a lot of things.
“The day he did the demo for ‘Name,’ he went off to a quiet area to finish putting it together, but nothing needed changing. It’s like he’d been working on it in his brain for a while.”
Lou Giordano was brought in to produce the album and the bulk of “Name” was recorded at BearTracks Studios in Suffern, New York, with some overdubs and vocals completed back at Trackmaster Audio, where Giordano pulled Petri aside one evening.
“He said, ‘Can you tell me how you got ‘Name’ to sound so good on the demo?’” Petri says. “I told him I played percussion on it and he goes, ‘Tomorrow when everyone’s gone, will you come back and play?’ I did it in secret because no one wanted to upset George. He had a temper. I finally told the band last year. They were like, ‘What? How could you keep that quiet?’”
No one expected “Name” to take on the life it did. In fact, after completing the demo, Petri and Rzeznik set it aside, seeing it as A Boy Named Goo’s obligatory acoustic track.
“They always did one acoustic per record – Jed had ‘James Dean’ and Hold Me Up had ‘Two Days in February,’” Petri says. “We looked at it like, ‘We have to put an acoustic on the record.’”
The group meanwhile poured greater efforts into tracks like “Flat Top” and “Long Way Down,” which Petri felt was a surefire number one hit. “Long Way Down” featured on the Twister soundtrack, but it was “Name” that ascended up the charts, after KROQ’s then program director, Kevin Weatherly, started spinning the track.
“I was driving home listening to the CD, came across ‘Name’ and listened on repeat,” Weatherly recalls. “I knew in my gut that it was a special song. The next day, I played it for my music director and we put it in rotation. We believed in the song and put all our support behind it.”
Stations across the country followed suit and the song exploded. Rzeznik was stunned – and eventually, unnerved.
“Things blew up and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I won’t go back to school yet,’” he laughs. “I remember sitting in the back of a car and Robby was showing me Billboard magazines, going, ‘Look, this song is on this chart and it’s here and there.’ I got really nervous and went, ‘Wow. What do we do now?’ Then I put the magazines back in the seat pocket, and said, ‘Let’s just keep working.’”
“All musicians wish for that kind of success and it appears as though it happened overnight, but we had been together for eight/nine years playing in clubs and being these indie rock darlings,” Rzeznik adds about why he felt uneasy. “Then this song explodes and very quickly, we were no longer the darlings of the indie rock press. It felt weird – like growing out of one situation and trying to grow into another. It’s amazing when you reach people on that scale, but then some of the people who were with you from the beginning feel resentful.”
Indeed, as “Name” reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100, it carried the group over to pop and adult contemporary radio, attracting a whole new fanbase – at the expense of some of their earliest followers.
“A lot of their old fans said, ‘The band’s a sellout,’” Petri recalls. “But it was a great progression for them.”
While some frazzled fans may have declared the group a sellout, it could be argued that A Boy Named Goo and “Name” were in fact the opposite, with Petri reiterating how much the music served as “therapy” for Rzeznik, who dug deeper and more authentically with his songwriting than ever before.
“It was scary because people had come to expect a certain thing from us and that song’s way out-of-the-box,” Rzeznik says. “But it was like, ‘This is where I’m at and this is what I’m writing.’ And it worked out, which is why we’re sitting here 25 years later speaking about it.”
Despite drama surrounding Tutuska’s exit and a legal battle between the band and Metal Blade Records over A Boy Named Goo royalties, “Name” ultimately marked a new chapter. The group have now sold more than 12 million records worldwide, had 19 top 10 singles, including 1998 smash, “Iris,” and been nominated for three Grammys.
Rzeznik and Takac released Miracle Pill in 2019 and if the pandemic allows, will go ahead with their rescheduled Miracle Pill Tour in 2021 – where fans can bet on hearing “Name.” “I get really turned off when I hear about [artists] who have a massive song and won’t play it because they’re sick of it,” Rzeznik says. “That song bought you a house – get up and play it!”
Until they can return to perform such tracks on tour, Rzeznik and Takac are spreading joy in the direness of 2020 by getting the festive season started early – having just dropped their first Christmas album, It’s Christmas All Over via Warner Records.
The project started pre-pandemic as a one-off Christmas track, but quickly snowballed. “I was having so much fun that I was like, ‘Let’s just do a whole record. Let’s make it sound trashy and baubled and just have fun with it,’” Rzeznik says. “It’s not super-polished, but it’s cool.”
Produced with band members Brad Fernquist and Jimmy McGorman, the record features two original tracks, including the first single “This Is Christmas,” which features in Hallmark’s new holiday movie campaign. The group also put their spin on Christmas favorites like “Let It Snow.”
In a powerfully poignant mid-record moment, McGorman’s seven-year-old daughter, Sydney, beautifully performs “Better Days” from the band’s 2006 record, Let Love In.
“She’s so great,” Rzeznik says. “Jimmy said, ‘Listen to it, then I can work on it with her some more,’ but I said, ‘Leave it just the way it is.’ She has such purity in her voice. If it was too polished, it wouldn’t sound so sincere.”
The album ends with a bubbly five-minute instrumental medley of Christmas favorites. “Jimmy, Brad and I sat there throwing out Christmas songs and Jimmy put together this crazy medley,” Rzeznik says. “It was a great high note to end the record on. This is the weirdest, shittiest year ever and I just want to do something to make people happy and smile a little.”