The Goo Goo Dolls Were Never the Cool Kids, but They’re Still Standing

By Rob Harvilla
  One uncool thing about the Goo Goo Dolls is that they survived. No caustic breakups, no indefinite hiatuses, no onstage brawls, no spectacular flameouts. No dramatic makeovers, neither: no embarrassing synth-pop reinventions, no prestige TV-derived critical reappraisals. Just a stubborn consistency that is not, by their own admission, a particularly rock ‘n’ roll approach to making it (and keeping it) in rock ‘n’ roll. But the romantically grizzled Buffalo alt-rockers have still suffered for their art, if evidence of suffering is what you require.

“I don’t know too many musicians who are on their first marriage,” is how singer-guitarist Johnny Rzeznik explains it to me. “I don’t think I know any.”

The deal is that the Goo Goo Dolls, anchored by Rzeznik and singer-bassist Robby Takac, formed in the mid-’80s and quickly put out five albums on, incredibly, Metal Blade Records, the label that also put out Slayer’s first album. The Goos’ own 1987 self-titled debut sounds like the Replacements at their forgot-to-take-out-the-trashiest, includes rowdy covers of both “Sunshine of Your Love” and “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and ends with a slower but somehow rowdier original called “Don’t Beat My Ass (With a Baseball Bat).”

Then their sixth album, 1998’s blockbuster Dizzy Up the Girl, turned them into post-grunge prom kings, anchored by the growly power ballad “Iris,” which is forever synonymous with maudlin Meg Ryan rom-coms, forever synonymous with thousands of way more maudlin homemade mixtapes in the twilight of the actual-cassette mixtape era, forever synonymous with legit American greatness. In July, while in town to play the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Lindsey Jordan, who leads the young, rad indie-rock band Snail Mail and was born the year after Dizzy Up the Girl came out, closed out a late-night club gig with an achingly sincere cover of “Iris,” joined by Sophie Allison, the equally rad young indie-rocker known as Soccer Mommy. The capacity crowd ate it up with aching sincerity; listen to the way everyone present bellows out the line, “When everything feels like the movies / Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive.”

The Goo Goo Dolls have made six more albums post-“Iris,” including Friday’s spunky and sensitive Miracle Pill; they have mastered, as few alt-rock sensations of their era have mastered, the art of indulging nostalgia for their commercial peak without looking backward for so long that they turn into pillars of flannel or whatever. Last year, the band did a full tour to celebrate Dizzy Up the Girl’s 20th anniversary, but that only got them looking forward again. “Songs like ‘Slide,’ ‘Iris,’ ‘Broadway,’ they’re such a big part of who we are,” Rzeznik says. “I mean, I still feel very close to them. But it was kind of nice at the end of the tour to sort of pack that record up and put it away.”

Another uncool thing about the Goo Goo Dolls is they were never terribly cool even at their moment of greatest radio saturation. (“Name,” from 1995’s A Boy Named Goo, was their first massive growly power ballad.) “Everybody was too fucking cool for their own good,” is how Rzeznik remembers the ’90s. “There were certain musicians, you were out in L.A., and you’re rehearsing in a rehearsal room, and then there’s a common area. But if somebody from the wrong band was there, ‘Oh no, don’t talk to them. They’re not fucking cool.’”

Rzeznik longs for the camaraderie he sees in hip-hop and pop nowadays, a gentle collaborative spirit he gets in his own genre only via documentaries like 2019’s Echo in the Canyon, which celebrates the ’60s Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene and prominently features, as a celebrity interviewer, fellow ’90s hitmaker Jakob Dylan. The Goo Goo Dolls were not edgy when they broke through (the post-Nirvana power-pop jam “Naked” still rules, though) and remain out of step with whatever constitutes the rock vanguard now. Miracle Pill flirts with Imagine Dragons–style mechasaur bombast (“Fearless”) and the sort of scuffed-up synth pop prevalent on modern rock radio (“Money, Fame & Fortune” is skeptical about all three), but the record as a whole still sounds unmistakably like good old Johnny and Robby, both in their don’t-beat-my-ass Buffalo punk days and their late-Clinton-administration heartthrob days.

All the no-first-marriage talk aside, these guys committed to each other. “We’re all fascinated by young, shiny, beautiful things, you know?” Rzeznik says. “But being in a band is like being married. Are you going to do the work? Or are you going to complain to the fucking press about how unsatisfied you are? The relationship takes work. The band has always been me and Robby: We’ve had various drummers over the last 30 years, but none that did any writing of any consequence. You just have to do the work. We made an agreement: ‘All right, I’m sticking with you, you’re sticking with me. Pretty much fuck everybody else.’”

Of course the fuck everybody else mind-set is more prevalent, sonically, in the early years, when Rzeznick was writing the band’s first minor hit, 1993’s dead-ender salvo “We Are the Normal,” via snail mail with none other than the Replacements’ own Paul Westerberg, and Takac’s handful of tunes on each new Goos record pulled things in a noisier, raspier direction. (The boys first got into rock ‘n’ roll as surly teenagers via Ramones records, which Takac now lovingly describes to me as “like training wheels for guys in a band.”) On Miracle Pill’s would-be arena-pop anthem “Step in Line,” Takac mostly just sounds raspier. But there’s still a legit band dynamic at play here, steeped in three decades of resilience that has kept the Goo Goo Dolls alive even when their very genre appeared to be dead.

They have outlasted nearly everyone, fellow breakout bands and industry stooges alike. Rzeznik is still salty about the frigid reception his label gave the band’s 2010 album, Something for the Rest of Us, which is indeed a later-period highlight and a more cynical spin on U2-style stadium-rock grandiosity. “They had expectations of what we were supposed to be,” Rzeznik says of his Warner Bros. masters at the time. “I’m supposed to be the ‘big love ballad’ guy. But I came in and delivered an album that was pretty fucking heavy and dark.” (“They loved it when we dropped it off,” Takac observes.)

“We’ve been at Warner Bros. since 1990,” Rzeznik says. “We’ve been through 27 presidents, 5,000 staff members. It’s like, we’ve been there longer than anybody. I mean, had we actually had a job at that record company, we could retire and have a pension. We outlasted all of them.”

What’s cool about the Goo Goo Dolls is that if you catch them on tour this fall, you will for sure get the pure nostalgia jolt that probably lured you into the theater: Dizzy Up the Girl’s “Broadway,” in retrospect, feels like the more hopeful sequel to the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” as delivered by the earnest and skillful Replacements disciples who fashioned the most sustainable and thus non-Replacements-like career out of their devotion. But the Goos can also play both very old and very new songs that are far less familiar but still feel familiar without feeling stagnant. And they can also play “Iris,” a world-conquering signature tune so indelible that back in 2011, when Taylor Swift played Madison Square Garden, she welcomed Rzeznik to the stage to sing it with her.

“What shocked the hell out of me was that, I mean, I’m on stage with arguably the biggest star in the world, and she was very, very nice to me,” Rzeznik says now. “She said my name to that audience. They applauded. I was blown away. Might have just been everyone’s moms.”

Probably not just them, though.

Modify message

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.