Monday, March 10, 2014

In Defense Of: Goo Goo Dolls

Goo Goo Dolls, not yet looking like someone spilled the worst parts
of the nineties all over them, 1987.
I used to work at a coffee shop that had a trivia board out front where customers could win a discount on their purchase if they answered the question correctly.  My manager took that as an opportunity one day to ask the seemingly innocuous question: "What is the first line of 'Iris' by the Goo Goo Dolls?"

His point wasn't to stump people, or even to bank on them being too embarrassed to answer; his point was to trick people into telling him "I would give up forever to touch you."

It's cringingly straightforward sentiments like this - culled from their enormous, thrice-Grammy-nominated 1998 megahit - that cast a long shadow over the Goo Goo Dolls' reputation.  It doesn't help that in our collective mind's eye their unmistakably raspy singer-guitarist Johnny Rzeznik continues to look like someone spilled the worst parts of the nineties all over him.  I'm a Goo Goo Dolls apologist, and I'll admit that it didn't help their cred to see them perform on a Thanksgiving Day Parade float in 2013. 

What all of this makes it very easy to forget or makes a casual listener unlikely to uncover is the occasionally brilliant first decade of the Goo Goo Dolls' career.

The ubiquity of "Iris" (Eighteen weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts.  Eighteen.  Over a third of a calendar year.) makes it very easy to forget that the original knock on the Goo Goo Dolls wasn't that they wrote schlocky ballads, but that they sounded too much like The Replacements.  Their mainstream years cranking out hits for Warner Brothers make it very easy to forget their dues-paying years in Buffalo, NY, kicking out the jams for Los Angeles's Metal Blade Records.

When you look at their production over those years, there's certainly an argument to be made that they loosely parallel The Replacements in their trajectory.  I mean, who would come to mind if I said, "You know, that gritty, sarcastic punk band that mixed catchy, earnest songs with dumb but fun ones, then ultimately followed the direction of their principle songwriter away from loud, fast rock toward a cleaner, softer sound"?  Fine: the Lemonheads, but you get my point.  You wanna argue that yes, on a superficial level, the comparison holds, but The Replacements are better at every step?  Yes, of course, the Goo Goo Dolls themselves would agree to that but it's not a ridiculous comparison.  If it was, Paul Westerberg wouldn't have signed on to co-write and perform "We Are the Normal" on the Goo Goo Dolls' 1993 release Superstar Car Wash.

And sure, many of the Goo Goo Dolls' best songs have that Replacements imprint on them.  If you'd like to look at that as being a negative, I'd respond that there's not a damn thing wrong with having good taste.  The record that really broke the Goo Goo Dolls, 1996's A Boy Named Goo, contains several songs that shine with Westerbergian charm.  "Name" is a considerably less offensive precursor to "Iris," and 'Mats fans will rip me for this, but "Eyes Wide Open" which confronts Rzeznik's misspent adolescence in a rough neighborhood in Buffalo and his resentment of rich kids coming around to "slum it" would be one of the better songs on Don't Tell a Soul.  Beyond that, "Long Way Down" is and always has been a total ripper, and it's never sounded like anything to me but a rad Goo Goo Dolls song.

From another angle, this question of good taste brings me to one of my favorite things about these guys early on: their impeccably and often hilariously chosen covers.  1990's Hold Me Up contains both an uproarious cover of Prince's "Never Take the Place of Your Man" (complete with guest vocals by local Buffalo recording and radio legend Lance Diamond) and a careening punk version of "A Million Miles Away" by powerpop stalwarts The Plimsouls.  Likewise, you can imagine my appreciation when, digging around for a live version of Tommy Keene's "Nothing Can Change You" on YouTube, I discovered that the Goo Goo Dolls covered the Nashville singer/songwriter as the B-side to the single for "Slide" off 1998's Dizzy Up the Girl.  Yes, that is all we will say about "Slide."

But let me ask you something to put this in perspective, because I recognize that I've been doing something that's not entirely fair.  I've been favorably (if measuredly) comparing the Goo Goo Dolls to a number of admittedly better bands that I know you love.  This isn't entirely fair, because I clearly don't hold the Goo Goo Dolls in the same esteem as Prince.  That said, when you currently bring up the Goo Goo Dolls on Spotify, the top five related artists are listed as follows:

Nine Days
The Calling
Rob Thomas
Vertical Horizon

Not The Replacements or Tommy Keene.  Not The Ramones, whose iconic t-shirt Rzenik wears in early promotional photos, or Samiam, whose t-shirt bassist Robby Takac rocks and whose mid-nineties production might be a legitimate, albeit heavier and stripped-down ballpark comparison.

Instead, we have "Closing Time," the dudes who ruined our lives with "The Story of a Girl," and the man who brought us Matchbox Twenty, then somehow got worse.  Now: go put on "Long Way Down," and tell me what's fair.

I mean, you own the Twister soundtrack, right?

 — JM

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Josh Inman, In Defense Of: Stay (I Missed You) by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories 
Duane Gibson, In Defense Of: Rammstein 

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