Oh my, did I have a serious crush on Johnny Rzeznik when I was thirteen . . .
Once my pubes started to pop, I started to differentiate my musical tastes from those of my parents and found I was intensely attracted to distorted guitars and edgy male voices. The hunger for those sounds led to my discovery of The Goo Goo Dolls, Oasis (and another crush on Liam Gallagher), and Nirvana (who were more popular than ever after Cobain blew his brains out). In a couple of years I would shift further towards the rough side of rock and completely immerse myself in the punk scene, but in those early teen years when zit anxiety had a chilling effect on my libido, I got my rocks off to Definitely Maybe, Nevermind and A Boy Named Goo in the privacy of my not-very-spacious bedroom.
My affair with Johnny proved to be more of a casual fling than a long-term commitment, as The Goo Goo Dolls started lose me with their enormously popular follow-up album, Dizzy Up the Girl and its equally popular hit single, “Iris.” When I wrote my review of The B-52’s Cosmic Thing and expressed enthusiasm for “Love Shack,” some wrote me to complain that they couldn’t listen to that song anymore because it had been played to death on the radio rotation of the era. That may have been true for music lovers in the 80’s, but for those of us who grew up in the 90’s, “Iris” would win the most-overplayed award by a landslide.
Worse still, “Iris” was the feature song in a movie featuring Nicolas Cage. If there’s one face that can forcibly eject me from my seat in a movie theater, it’s Nicolas Cage. The guy has two facial expressions: blank and blanker. The blank look is with mouth closed. The blanker look is with mouth agog in a lopsided circle.
I do love one Goo Goo Dolls song on Gutterflower, one that almost made my list of Desert Island Disks—“Sympathy.” The rest of the album was so-so, and Gutterflower turned out to be my final rendezvous with Johnny Rzeznik.
[Sob] [Choke] (“It was great while it lasted.”) [Sniff.] (“I’ll always have a special place for you in my hypersensitive clitoris.”) [Gulp.] [Goodbye, Johnny.]
Anyway, I was scrolling through iTunes looking to fill my iPod with interesting stuff to get me through another transatlantic journey when I happened upon A Boy Named Goo. I skipped right past it, then scrolled back up and looked at the song list. “Huh. I used to love some of these songs. I wonder how they’ll sound to me now?”
Let’s find out!
Opening an album with a song in a minor key is unusual but not unheard of, and “Long Way Down” meets the essential requirement of any opener by grabbing your attention with a power-packed introduction. The choice to let Robby Takac’s bass drive the first and third lines of the verses allows us to delight in Johnny’s crusty and still fucking-sexy-after-all-these-years voice. What I love about his voice is that the sexiness is effortless and hardly ever supported by lyrics full of ooh-baby-baby crap. John Rzeznik writes primarily of social and interpersonal displacement, and sings his songs with the sincerity of a guy who found himself displaced—an orphan at the age of sixteen. Here and on other songs in their catalog, he displays his darker, introverted voice in the verses before soaring to belt-out mode in bridge and chorus—a mix that works well here with lyrics mingling embarrassed self-consciousness with deep frustration about the inability to connect with another human being:
Oh here you are, there’s nothing left to say.
You’re not supposed to be that way
Did they push you out, did they throw you away?
Touch me now and I don’t care.
When you take me I’m not there.
Almost human, but I’ll never be the same.
Goo Goo Dolls albums are divided into Johnny songs and Robby songs, and even though Robby Takac is a good bass player and seems like a nice guy, his songs have never appealed to me in the least, and I usually skip them when they come up on shuffle play. At this point in their careers, both guys shared songwriting credit; on Dizzy Up the Girl, the songs are split between them. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the songs Robby sings on A Boy Named Goo are largely his compositions, and the difference is quite noticeable in terms of lyrical and vocal quality. “Burning Up” is a good example; the story (such as it is) is about a girl with a bad attitude. He wastes a few lines dissing this nasty bitch then wraps it up with the contradictory couplet, “Come and take my hand tonight, I’ll show you where to start/’Cuz every word that left your lips, like a needle through my heart.” WTF? Robby’s also a pretty weak singer, and though weak voices can be rescued through the use of vocal harmony, The Goo Goo Dolls are one of the least harmonic bands on the planet.
We switch back to Johnny for the rather bleak confessional, “Naked.” This is a song about youthful trauma and the regrets resulting from stupid choices made during our formative years. Trauma is intensified when there’s no one to talk to, and Johnny describes the impact of both a toxic environment and the inability to share his experience with a sympathetic ear:
Yeah I’m hiding in the fallout
Now I’m wasted
They don’t need me, don’t want me, don’t hear a word I say
Say it now
You’re naked inside your fear
Can’t take back all those years
Shots in the dark from empty guns
Never heard by anyone
Never heard by anyone
Much deeper and more perceptive than your cliché teenage angst song, “Naked” also serves to remind the old farts in the listening audience that not all young people are drama queens and can really use a bit of empathy to help them deal with genuinely-felt trauma.
Johnny moves from confession to social commentary in “Flat Top,” a fascinating piece in many respects. At first I read the lines “A television war between the cynics and the saints/Flip the dial and that’s whose side you’re on” through the modern reality of universally biased news reporting in the United States. I don’t know about you, but if someone played a word association game with me, my first response to biased news would be “Fox!” and my second would be “MSNBC!” In my last few years in the States I simply gave up trying to follow any news via the popular channels, as television journalism had de-evolved into little more than sensationalism—the horrifying manifestation of the future depicted in the movie Network. However, a little research informed me that both Fox News and MSNBC didn’t begin broadcasting until the year after A Boy Named Goo was released, indicating that news reporting had followed politics down the path of ugliness spawned by the right-wing assault on the Clintons back in 1993. Hats off to Johnny for picking up on a trend that most of the sheep probably missed.
The primary target of Johnny’s commentary focuses on the power of television to exploit victims for entertainment purposes, nurse our darkest fears and fantasies, and shape our identities:
And my dirty dreams all come alive
On my TV screen
And assassination plots
Show me what I haven’t got
Show me what I love,
Who I’m supposed to be
Show me everything I need
Show it all to me
Show it all to me
Like living through a nuclear winter, the bullshit is “falling all around us,” making withdrawal (“I turned my head off for a while”) a rational coping mechanism. From a musical perspective, “Flat Top” is one of the stronger songs on the record, with a memorable riffs, luscious guitar tones and rhythmic flips from double-time rock in the verses to the slower, majestic choruses. Johnny’s voice is absolutely superb on this song, and his tone of indignation never slides into righteousness, staying firmly attached to the underlying question, “What the fuck, people?”
Robby’s “Impersonality” comes next, leaving me cold and not a little bit irritated. The irritation has little to do with the song and more to do with a couple of patterns that have emerged in the first half of the album. First, George Tutuska’s drumming is boring in the extreme, constantly stuck on emphasizing the backbeats on the snare. His few attempts at what charitable ears might call a drum roll never get rolling, and it was certainly no surprise to me that his employment ended immediately after the album was complete. Second, every frigging song up to this point has been dominated by waves and waves of guitar power chords. Generally my sentiments generally side with the axiom, “the more power the better,” but straight banging bores me in music as much as it does when I’m in heat. Guys! For fuck’s sake! Can’t you mix it up a little so the power has more impact?
Well, it took one of those fortunate accidents that happen every now and then when you’re fucking around on your guitar, but I’ll take it. There are competing interpretations of “Name,” one claiming it’s John Rzeznik singing to the sisters who helped raise him after both his parents died, while another claims the song arose from a relationship Johnny had with then-MTV VJ Lisa Montgomery Kennedy (known to the viewing audience as just plain Kennedy). The lyrics fit better with the latter interpretation, but since Johnny’s legitimate orphan status influenced other songs on A Boy Named Goo, we’ll give the second translation credit as a leitmotif. What forged the bonds between Johnny and Kennedy was shared experience involving a flexible translation of what it means to be an orphan—in Johnny’s case, literal; in Kennedy’s case, voluntary (the line “And I won’t tell no one your name” refers to her desire to keep her full name a secret). The core of the song deals with both the stigma attached to “orphans” (whether the result of the loss of parents or a voluntary separation from the past) but also the double-sided freedom that comes from being an outcast:
And scars are souvenirs you never lose
The past is never far
Did you lose yourself somewhere out there
Did you get to be a star
And don’t it make you sad to know that life
Is more than who we are
That last couplet is a beauty, as we can all fall into the trap of believing that our unique reality is the true center of the universe.
The D-A-E-A-E-E open tuning accounts for the unusual guitar sound, merging a steady drone with counterpoint patterns as the fingers dance easily over the adjusted guitar strings. The quiet/LOUD pattern is doubled in impact by the corresponding rhythmic shift to double time, and when combined with Johnny’s never-too-sweet vocal, makes “Name” an especially engaging listening experience.
Okay, boys, you can flip the power switch back on now!
Johnny has repeatedly cited Paul Westerberg as a major influence, and while I can hear some echoes of The Replacements in their work every now and then, I think the connection is more superficial than substantial. Westerberg’s lyrical playing field is much wider than Johnny’s, interspersing vivid stories of daily life and cultural commentary along with a few songs of self-reflection. Johnny’s music is primarily about relationships and his own experience working his way through trauma and self-doubt. This is the topic of “Only One,” and the reason I mention it in the context of the comparison with Paul Westerberg is that the music bears some similarity to The Replacements’ style, especially when the rather heavy power chords disappear and the soundscape shifts to sleazy closing-time bar, complete with finger snaps (see “Nightclub Jitters” on Pleased to Meet Me). This passage also contains the best lines of the song, a couplet that sounds so Paul Westerberg: “This fuckin’ up takes practice/I feel I’m well-rehearsed.” I wouldn’t qualify “Only One” as a great song, but that little shift of perspective demonstrates the ability to laugh at oneself, a feature that is too-often missing from Johnny’s self-exploration songs.
Robby’s “Somethin’ Bad” comes next, and that’s about all the time I want to spend on it. “Ain’t That Unusual” is definitely more interesting, with some of the best guitar work on the album, but it doesn’t differ that much from the other songs centered around Johnny’s internal dialogue. I’ll spend even less time on Robby’s “So Long” and move to what should have been the album closer, “Eyes Wide Open.” Despite the relentless procession of power chord songs that dominate the album, my ears always perk up when this song comes on—it just kicks motherlovin’ ass! The combination of syncopated power chords in the verses and the breathing spaces after each line of the chorus make for an absolutely thrilling experience that I feel from head to hips. I also love the way they dial it down in the bridge to create a temporary dreamscape and end it with booming drums (finally!) that cue the absolutely ripping guitar solo. And the lyrics are so . . . satisfying. When you’re having those moments when it seems the world is trying to fuck you up at every turn, it’s deeply satisfying to sing along with Johnny as he tells the world to go fuck itself:
I wanna’ own the world, I wanna’ swallow it whole
At least I could kick it all down
I wanna’ kick it all down
Getting it out is the first step in getting over it, and “Eyes Wide Open” has all the right stuff to help you move the fuck on.
The true end of the album is a bloody mess. After they canned Tutuska, they removed the one song he had written from the album because Johnny didn’t want to take advantage of poor George. Nice guy! Unfortunately they gave us two cover songs, “Disconnected” via The Enemies and “Slave Girl” from The Lime Spiders. “Disconnected” isn’t bad, “Slave Girl” is just bloody awful, but the real problem is that they have no connection to either the sound or the themes on the rest of album—two of the greatest examples of album filler in music history. Trust me: pick up the needle after “Eyes Wide Open” and you’ll have a happy-clappy day.
I can fully understand how thirteen-year-old me would have fallen in love with A Boy Named Goo. It’s loud, powerful and expresses the anguish and frustration that accompanies the awkward transition we call puberty. The thirty-six-year-old me loves it when they’re really on fire on Johnny’s songs, but feels somewhat impatient with the lack of diversity and constant self-analysis. I also find it curious that I never really noticed how little they harmonize, as harmony was the first feature of music to really grab me when I was little. Maybe the combination of blood, pimples and expanding tits turned off my harmonic ear for a while . . . what I remember most about being thirteen was wave after wave of inexplicable emotion, and listening to Johnny, Liam and Mr. Cobain helped soothe the savage bitch.
And for that, my parents will be forever grateful.
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