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POP MUSIC

The Goo Goos' Stick-to-Itiveness

Though the alternative rock genre has faded, the band from Buffalo is enduring after a case of creative burnout.

September 20, 1998|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

As media choices proliferate and attention spans shrink, the shelf life of pop musicians grows increasingly shorter. Some careers seem to last about as long as a flash-cut in a music video.

All of which makes the success of the Goo Goo Dolls that much more remarkable. After years of slogging it out on the Northeastern club circuit, the three Buffalo, N.Y., natives broke through big time in 1996 with their fifth album, "A Boy Named Goo," and its plaintive Top 10 single "Name."

But the pop landscape has changed radically since then. Alternative rock, a genre with which the band was closely associated, faded away, leaving guitar-centric rock bands like the Goo Goo Dolls with no marketing angle or radio format to work with.

"People were pushing alternative rock at radio and the record labels without caring about developing artists," says the band's singer and songwriter John Rzeznik, 32. "They were going for a quick burn and signing artists on the basis of one song. That's why it died."

Alt-rock may have died, but Rzeznik and the Goo Goos have endured. "Iris," a Rzeznik composition that was featured on the soundtrack for the film "City of Angels," was one of the summer's biggest radio hits. That's no small achievement from a band that could have easily been sucked up in the commercial black hole that has consigned countless alternative artists to the cutout bins.

"I think a lot of times, people want to take big steps and top what they did before," says bassist Robby Takac, 33, lounging with Rzeznik and drummer Mike Malinin, 31, backstage at the House of Blues a few hours before performing at a benefit for the Joni Abbott Music Foundation. "But if you take too big a step, you lose your fans. The idea is to go from record to record, and if their head is where your head's at, hopefully it will happen again."

Certainly, "Iris' " success has alleviated some of the band's pre-release jitters for its new album, "Dizzy Up the Girl," which comes out Tuesday. "Monetarily, [soundtracks are] not the greatest thing in the world, but it helps to set your next record up," Takac says.

The Goo Goos' career moves may have panned out with perfect symmetry, but the path that has brought them to this point has not exactly been straight and narrow. Although "A Boy Named Goo" sold more than 2 million copies, the band's contract with their label Metal Blade--which they had signed before their debut album in 1987--left their compensation far short of what they considered fair. After nine months of litigation, the band was allowed to break the contract and sign a deal with Metal Blade's distributor, Warner Bros.

"It was our fault," says Rzeznik of the band's legal troubles. "I don't blame anyone but myself for the stupid things I did when I was a kid. We didn't give a damn about any of that stuff at the time. We just wanted to make records. I mean, record companies sell you a dream, but sometimes that dream can be pretty expensive."

Financially, the band wound up relatively unscathed from the Metal Blade lawsuit. It was the kind of arduous legwork that had made its success possible that finally took its toll. An 18-month tour in support of "A Boy Named Goo" sapped the band's strength and spirit and resulted in what Rzeznik calls "massive burnout" and a case of writer's block that lasted for months.

"Being out on the road that long screws your head," Rzeznik says. "It's like living on a land submarine. You wake up and it's Thanksgiving morning, and you go, 'Where the hell am I?' For a long time after the tour, I just felt stupid."

Rzeznik struggled to come up with songs for "Dizzy Up the Girl," but he found that the burden of high expectations left him creatively paralyzed.

"For me, being blocked had to do with a lack of acceptance, and not being able to control the ultimate outcome of what I was doing," he says. "It really sucked. It's sorta like working on a car when you don't know what a transmission is. It bled into all aspects of my life and was making me really ornery."

Eager to break his block, Rzeznik enlisted the help of "Dizzy" producer Rob Cavallo ("he's a great coach") and Jill Cooper, a journalist who has written extensively about the relationship between music and psychology.

"She just told me that I had to just keep going and have faith that it would all work itself out," Rzeznik says. "I learned to have the patience to just write through it. I basically realized that if I had done it before, why couldn't I do it again?"

When Rzeznik was commissioned to write "Iris," he found it was just the thing he needed to move forward: "I wrote that song in a hotel room in an hour. From then on, the other songs came pretty fast."

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