By Susan Hansen
In writing a song for the film ‘City Of Angels’, the frontman created one of the 90s’ biggest crossover hits
Rising to prominence while earning a widespread, international audience, the Goo Goo Dolls were one of the most popular rock bands of the 1990s. Mixing catchy and jangling guitar-led songs with the ease of pop balladry, the three members of the Buffalo, New York band first came together in 1985.
With an initial focus on cover versions, guitarist John(ny) Rzeznik, bassist Robby Takac and drummer George Tutuska soon began to write their own material. At first, their sound was raw but catchy, bringing to mind bands such as The Replacements. The release of their self-titled debut in 1987 and its follow-up Jed from 1989 found the band delivering music in a similar vein.
But, subsequently leaning far more towards the vibe of power pop, the release of Hold Me Up from 1990 broke with that sound, signifying the start of a new pop chapter in the trio’s career. And during the 1990s their singles would frequently reach the upper echelons of the singles charts, pushing them to mainstream levels of success and selling millions of records.
At the centre of that success is the song Iris. Written by Rzeznik for the film City Of Angels, it crossed the boundaries between alternative rock and popular music, going on to top the charts in the United States (the Adult Top 40 and Alternative Airway charts), Canada, Australia and several European countries.
Here, Rzeznik tells us the story behind one of the most enduring tracks of the 90s.
“The inspiration came from a guy called Danny Bramson, who was a music supervisor at Warner Music. He called my manager, and he said, ‘I think Johnny can write a good song for this movie called City Of Angels.’ I found out that it was a remake of Wings Of Desire, so I went back to watch that film.
“I was going through a divorce at the time, and I was living in a hotel in Los Angeles. It was just a really intense and emotional time. I asked myself about what I would have said to this girl, had I been this guy. How would I have explained what I was feeling?
“I was thinking to myself, this guy will give up his immortality, just to feel all the horrible things that human beings feel, just to feel human. I actually know a ton of people, who would do the opposite, so they didn’t have to feel. That was the moment I knew what I would say to this person.
“It was in the afternoon, I went out and I got a VHS copy of Wings Of Desire and I just sat there watching it. I was writing ideas down, and I had a guitar that had four strings on it, I had no spare ones. I had a four-string guitar and I was trying to write something good.
“You keep your mind and your heart open to get what’s going on. That’s the thing that becomes more difficult the older you get, to keep those two open. I just feel as human beings, we get a little bit more brutal as we get older. We don’t bounce as well. I was in the room writing the song myself. Generally, the music always comes first and before the lyrics, so I jotted down a few lines that came to me and just sort of built it from there.
“Then later Rob Cavallo, who produced it, would take it to a whole different level. He had suggested using strings in the music. But Robby (Takac) and I come from a garage band tradition, that was our roots and also indie rock. But then you’re sitting in this lavish recording studio in Los Angeles, and suddenly this orchestra comes in and starts playing. Robby and I literally looked at each other and I was like, ‘You know what dude, we can’t go back,’ and then we were just like, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it’. It was exciting.
“We came from the underground music scene in Buffalo, and it really was very DIY. You make the posters, you put them on the telephone poles, you go and rent a hall and the PA. And you just pack the room full of kids, you have a punk-rock show, that’s where we came from. This was very different.
“When our band got some mainstream success, I was happy, but part of me also felt ashamed as if I had done something wrong. I know that sounds insane, but because I did get a weird reaction from some people in our scene, it was like, ‘You guys have sold out, you just write pop songs. You’re on a major label.’
“That really brought up some feelings of guilt and shame. But then I thought ‘What did I do wrong other than being honest with myself, write a good song?’ In retrospect, it was silly to feel that way, but it was just weird. Robby and I lost a couple of friends during that time. Once again, looking back on it, it was a time of really raw emotion.
“Here’s another thing about Iris. I wanted the opportunity to be on a soundtrack album with U2, Peter Gabriel and Alanis Morrisette – you look at all the artists on that album we were the dark horse, nobody expected us to have the big hit song. I wanted my name next to those names, that’s pretty much what I expected that we would get out of it, but it became much bigger.
“I did a demo with a little drum machine, a little keyboard with some guitar on it, but Rob Cavallo is one of those guys, there are no other producers out there now that are still like that, where they really hear the reach of a song, there aren’t many music supervisors that hear the potential, but Rob took it from the demo to what it became, and that’s quite something.
“To this day I do not have much of an idea of the musical influences for the song. It was at an interesting point in our careers, we were starting to develop as a band, and I was starting to develop as a songwriter. I don’t think it was necessarily a specific musical influence, it really was the idea of the two films that influenced me. It was very much about what I was gonna say to support the film, my subject matter was placed right in front of me, so it wasn’t as though I was trying to pull something out of thin air.
“To a degree, I think that I got really lucky, it is just one of those things. It came across well, it was a really emotional song, as you know that time in my life was pretty emotionally charged.
“I don’t go back and listen to it, but I’m grateful for that song. I’m very grateful that that song came into my life. I love playing it every time we play live. It’s one of those songs that are essential for us to play for our audiences. You’ve got to give people what they want. We did pretty well with it. Iris is a really great one.”