It was August 1990 when I first saw the Goo Goo Dolls perform at the old Continental.
I’d started hearing about the band while I was still a student at Fredonia State College. Its album “Jed” was being played at house parties and back porch bacchanals when I first got to town. So there was a certain amount of “Let’s see what the big deal is” in my attitude on my way to the club that night.
I walked in shortly after the band had taken the stage. John Rzeznik’s hair was dyed red, and looked very rock ’n’ roll; the group sounded like the Replacements; bassist/singer Robby Takac was a whirling dervish on stage; and based on the wonderful sloppiness of the performance and the high spirits apparent among the band members, it seemed that the guys were maybe a little drunk.
Needless to say, I liked them immediately.
Also needless to say, as the years and album sales and concert crowds would prove, I was far from alone in that assessment.
What I didn’t know – what no one could have known back then – was that the band with the funny name led by a pair of guys who grew up and went to school here would come to be regarded as the biggest rock music act to ever emerge from Buffalo.
The Grammy-nominated local-band-made-good, touring this summer in support of its 10th album and stopping at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Saturday evening, does not bear much resemblance to the roughshod pop-punk trio of those early ’90s nights. The Goos sell out arenas and regularly appear on network television shows. Billboard magazine ranked its song “Iris” No. 1 on its “Top 100 Pop Songs 1992-2012” chart, which also featured “Slide” (No. 9) and “Name” (No. 24). The band’s 2005 song “Better Days” has become an anthem for everything from the Buffalo Sabres’ 2007 playoff run to political campaigns. They have gone from a band that played the Continental to one that tours continents. The scruffy, affable punk-pop of the early days has evolved into sophisticated adult rock music.
And yet, the Goos remain a Buffalo institution. Takac is heavily invested in the local arts scene, through his Music is Art Foundation, his yearly Music is Art Festival, and various offshoots that include music education initiatives, camps for young musicians and instrument drives for area schools. Takac and Rzeznik also teamed to create GCR Recording Studios, a world-class recording facility located in downtown Buffalo. (Rzeznik is no longer a partner in the endeavor). GCR employs a staff of local music professionals. The bassist also runs his own indie label, Good Charamel Records, here in Buffalo. The Goos might seem more like a Los Angeles band these days, but their roots are deep in Buffalo, and as ever, their roots are showing.
When the Goos first exploded onto the national radar, anyone involved in the local music scene had to feel a bit of excitement. This was one of our own making good, after all. A sense of “If they can do it, so can we!” was in the air, and it was contagious.
This was the early 1990s, not too long after grunge took off in a major way and put Seattle on the map as a music town. The Internet was still being referred to as “an information superhighway.” MTV was still playing music videos. We were waiting for the record label execs to swoop down on our city to discover the next Goo Goo Dolls.
We’re still waiting.
The Goos, in fact, are one of the final success stories of an era that no longer exists. The band built a regional fan base, expanded that fan base by touring, signed a deal with indie Metal Blade Records, and sold enough albums to attract the attention of Warner Bros., Metal Blade’s distributor.
Then, almost overnight, Rzeznik underwent a transformation as a songwriter. The Goos released “Superstar Carwash” in 1993, and Rzeznik found himself collaborating with his hero, Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, on the (minor) hit “We Are the Normal.” But it was the next album, “A Boy Named Goo,” that booted the band into the stratosphere. “Name,” the first in what would prove to be a lengthy string of Rzeznik-penned alt-rock ballad hits, made the Goos a mainstream concern. Nothing would ever be the same.
That “old school” model of music business success – band earns regional buzz, tours incessantly, signs with indie label, attracts major label attention, delivers hits songs that translate into millions of album sales – doesn’t really exist any more.
For members of the Buffalo-area music scene who were working on their own careers while watching the Goos break through to the big time, there was no way of knowing that this model was about to become meaningless. So most of them toiled on, hoping that some of the Goo glitter would fall on them. Meanwhile, Napster was lurking and would forge a digital path that iTunes, Spotify and others would follow, making their hard work redundant.
People sometimes ask who will be “the next Goo Goo Dolls,” the band that will emerge from our region onto the world’s stage. I don’t think there will be one. The music business has changed so radically in the days since the Goos broke through and the apparatus that aided in their ascent no longer exists. There will be bands and artists emerging from Buffalo and achieving a certain measure of success through constant touring, of course. But a mainstream act that sells millions of “discs”? How could this happen now? The Goos, as it turns out, sneaked through the window right before it slammed shut.
“Name’s” success led to an altering of the band’s image in its hometown. Some fans who watched the Goos develop from the beginning – who had attended many of these fabled Continental shows, and felt a sense of kinship with the group’s scruffy alternative punk-pop – were less than pleased with the band’s embrace of a more mainstream pop ethic. This led to accusations of “selling out,” as if mainstream success could not be attained by a Buffalo band without an attendant sacrificing of integrity. The fact that orignal drummer George Tutuska had left the band under contentious circumstances by this point was sometimes bandied about as proof that the band had lost touch with where it came from.
If that rattled Rzeznik and Takac, platinum record sales made dissent within the fan base a little bit easier to swallow. Let’s face it: Whenever a band becomes massively popular, it loses credibility with some in its fan ranks. In Buffalo, some looked down on their success. Somehow, it felt like betrayal, like your significant other ditched you, and is now engaged to a supermodel, drinking champagne and downing caviar while you swill warm PBR from the can to chase down a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Of course, the facts don’t really support that narrative. The band started in the garage. Gradually, it got tighter, fine-tuned its vision. Rzeznik began to carve out his own niche as a songwriter. His songs ended up being heard, and connected with a broad cross-section of the record-buying public. There is a certain amount of random chance and luck in this equation, but a lot of it comes down to hard work, a refusal to give up, and a disciplined approach to craftsmanship. Those are skills that Rzeznik and Takac learned and honed here in Buffalo.
I recently heard from a friend who lives and works in San Diego. He told me his wife loves the Goos, and that he’d taken her to see them and had been impressed. “Great songs, man,” he said. “And they put on a great live show.”
My friend has never been to Buffalo, but he said he got a “vibe” about our city from the band. He told me that, after the first song, Rzeznik stepped to the microphone and said “We’re the Goo Goo Dolls, from Buffalo, New York.” With pride in his voice.
Clearly, the Goo Goo Dolls remember those nights at the Continental, too.