Back in 1991, if you wanted to know the full names of the guys in the Goo Goo Dolls, you had to ask — because the credits on their records wouldn’t tell you.
On “Hold Me Up,” the band’s third album, the liner notes stated simply, “The Goo Goo Dolls Are: George, Drums, Vocal; Johnny, Guitar, Vocals; Robby, Bass Vocals.” So when I got Johnny on the phone in May 1991 for an American-Statesman preview of the band’s show at Cannibal Club, a then-thriving Sixth Street alt-rock hub, I asked what the deal was.
“Our last names are just really long, not very rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, but he confessed that they’d recently become open to revealing them. “Are you gonna make me spell ’em?” he groaned, before graciously complying: “My last name is R-z-e-z-n-i-k. Robby’s is T-a-k-a-c. George’s is T-u-t-u-s-k-a.”
Rzeznik — who now goes by John rather than Johnny — and Takac remain from those early days; they’ve gone through a couple of drummers since then. When I reminded Rzeznik of our conversation last week in what amounted to a 25-years-later follow-up interview, it sparked some intriguing insight into his background.
“I think when we started working on [1993’s] ‘Superstar Car Wash’ was probably when I started to use my last name,” he said. “Because I was like, you know what, I’m proud of what I’m doing, I want people to know my last name. I’m proud of where I came from. I’m proud of being from Buffalo, and I’m proud of being Polish, you know?
“It was interesting, because when we were growing up, that was always something to be slightly ashamed of, and something that you tried to avoid being. I grew up in a really heavily ethnic community, and my mother, who was not Polish, just jammed it down our throats: ‘You don’t speak Polish. I don’t want you speaking Polish with your grandmother and your father.’ It was to be something that you shook off, you know? But I sort of outgrew that.”
There’s more of our fresh interview with Rzeznik, which previews the band’s Sunday concert at the Statesman Skyline Theater, in Friday’s American-Statesman and on mystatesman.com:Goo Goo Dolls recall the long journey from small clubs to big venues
In the meantime, we’ve unearthed the 1991 preview of that Cannibal Club show from our archives. The May 24 appearance included opening acts the Junk Monkeys (from Detroit) and Flowerhead (from Austin) and cost $7. Let’s begin with the official video from the “Hold Me Up” single “There You Are”:
By Peter Blackstock
Considering the name of his band is the Goo Goo Dolls, it comes as no surprise when guitarist Johnny Rzeznik describes the group’s early days in Buffalo, N.Y., by saying, “We were like the joke band in town for a while. People would come and see us just to see what the hell we’d pull. Needless to say, we used to drink a lot of booze, and just go nuts, you know. It was a real party.”
But somewhere along the line, somebody in the music business decided that the Goo Goo Dolls were good. Next thing Rzeznik and his bandmates knew, they were going out to Los Angeles and playing showcases, then recording albums for a major independent label, then touring the country for months on end.
So where’s the party, dude?
“Well, it’s work now,” Rzeznik deadpanned.
He’s quick to add, though, that work doesn’t have to be a drag. “I’m not saying it’s a bad job; it ain’t a bad job at all,” he says. And while the Goo Goo Dolls are learning to take their job more seriously these days, a quick listen to the trio’s latest album “Hold Me Up” is all one needs to be convinced that they’re still not taking themselves too seriously.
After all, any rock band that brings in a hometown R&B lounge singer named The Incredible Lance Diamond to sing on a cover of Prince’s “Never Take the Place of Your Man” obviously still has a sense of humor.
And then there’s Rzeznik’s song “22 Seconds,” an accurately timed and titled snippet in which drummer George Tutuska shows off his vocal ineptness as he sings, “I feel so important today, and I wish I didn’t.”
Rzeznik explains he wrote that lyric in February 1990 upon returning from California “after having my ego stroked for a few days. … That was when the band first started to do something. We went to California and did a couple of real important showcases, and that’s when we hooked up with some important people. And it suddenly struck me that I got a little big-headed and thought I was a rock star for five minutes. So I sort of tried to keep myself in check.”
Yet while Rzeznik seems determined to keep a low-key attitude, the memorable songs and triumphantly brash sound of “Hold Me Up” suggest that the Goo Goo Dolls have the musical muscle it takes to hit the big time.
Alternating between bassist Robby Takac’s manic, fast-paced numbers and Rzeznik’s more pop-oriented tunes, the band and producer Armand John Petri crafted a masterful balance between power and melody on the album. The band’s brand of rock ‘n’ roll is exhilarating, accessible and also versatile: The group is capable of more than just rocking out, as evidenced by the album-closing acoustic song “Two Days in February.”
That versatility carries over to lyrical perspectives as well. While at times the Goo Goo Dolls live up to the goofy reputation of their early days, such as on Takac’s raving-lunatic chants in “Out of the Red,” just as often they’re writing about relationships and other more personal themes.
“You write about whatever you’re thinking about, whatever you’re feeling,” Rzeznik says. “If you feel like making up something funny, you make up something funny. If you feel like something hurt you or touched you or had some kind of impact on you, I guess you should write about it, shouldn’t you?”
Rzeznik’s frank conversational style brings to mind Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, a group to which the Goo Goo Dolls often are compared. There’s no denying the similar sound of the two bands; songs such as Rzeznik’s anthemic “There You Are” would sound at home on mid-’80s Replacements albums.
Comparisons often are a touchy issue with musicians, but Rzeznik doesn’t seem to mind being associated with the Replacements. “They’re my favorite band. Of course I rip ’em off!” he jokes. “After all, theft in the music business is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Like the Replacements in their early days, the Goo Goo Dolls sometimes find themselves “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” as Rzeznik puts it, when trying to get their music played on the radio. Metal Blade, the band’s record company, is known primarily as a heavy metal label, and that often leads to confusion at radio stations.
“A lot of college alternative DJs see Metal Blade written on a record and they go, ‘Oh, I’m not going to play this,’ and then they dump it in the metal bin. And then the metal guy listens to the record because it says Metal Blade on it, and he’ll say, ‘This isn’t metal,’ and he won’t play it. So it’s kind of hard to find our niche.”
That situation seems to be improving, though. Metal Blade recently secured a distribution deal with industry heavyweight Warner Bros. (The Goo Goo Dolls’ previous album, “Jed,” was distributed by Enigma.) Furthermore, Metal Blade’s reputation as a metal label is bound to change as it broadens its horizons. Among the other acts now on the label are Detroit alternative band the Junk Monkeys (opening for the Goo Goo Dolls Friday at Cannibal Club) and straightforward Austin rockers Johnny Law.
Perhaps the only image problem that remains for the Goo Goo Dolls is their name, which suggests a novelty act more than a powerful rock ‘n’ roll band. Then again, other bands have succeeded with unlikely names.
The tag doesn’t seem to bother Rzeznik. “It’s just a name,” he concludes. “It is what it is.”