The making of the smash-hit alt-rock ballad, and why Rzeznik doesn’t listen to it anymore
It was 1995 when Goo Goo Dolls had their first big radio hit. They’d been working for it for a long time – this was the third single from their fifth studio album, nearly eight years since the band put out their debut record. To the group and those around them, it felt like a big break. But ‘Name’ was not the song that changed their careers.
“It felt like I’d bought a winning lottery ticket,” says John Rzeznik. “And I’d won the lottery. And everyone around me was like, ‘That’s amazing! Do it again!’”
Rzeznik doesn’t look back on the success of ‘Name’ as a particularly happy time in his life. Having just separated from his wife, he was living in a hotel in Los Angeles, trying to navigate writer’s block and, as he admits, “hiding out”.
“As nice as it was to have some success with that song,” he says, “there was some backlash from the fans who knew us when all we did was play punk rock. And then, you know, we were in a really bad record deal. So it was like, all these wonderful things are happening. But at the same time, the shadow was getting longer. Darker.
“I started to have a lot of apprehension about it. I got really nervous. I was second guessing myself a lot.”
And then everything changed. “My manager said, ‘hey, this guy Danny Bramson wants you to come and see this movie, and maybe you could write a song for it…’ I was like, ‘okay, sure.’”
City Of Angels – a loose Hollywood remake of Wim Wenders’ classic, Wings Of Desire – stars Nicholas Cage as an angel who gives up his immortality after falling in love with a heart surgeon (Meg Ryan). It’s a concept that struck Rzeznik for its seemingly backwards logic: in a world where so many people around him were trying to escape the pain of being human, this story of a man who wanted to throw himself headfirst into it all captured his interest.
“Something clicked in my head,” he says. “I went back to the hotel. I had a guitar – it had four strings on it, I broke two strings off the guitar, I sat down, and I wrote it.”
What leapt out was ‘Iris’, Goo Goo Doll’s enduring ballad about humanity, risk, and a yearning to feel. Did Rzeznik know exactly what he had on his hands when he’d finished? “No,” he admits, “but I did like the song.”
“I mean, you know, the first person you write for is you, and you just have to decide whether you like it or not. Then you go and play it for whoever, and hopefully they accept it. More times than not, you get rejected. And that’s something that I just had to get used to – that’s the way it is.
“It’s weird, because you’re wanting to tap into this very sensitive spot inside yourself, and then as soon as that’s done, you have to put on this sort of armour and take it out to the world. It got a little schizophrenic, in a way.”
As much as he liked the song, Rzeznik and the rest of the band still had their reservations. They’d already received backlash from punk rock purists over the stripped-back, alt-rock ‘Name’ – and the cinematic, sentimental ‘Iris’ was hardly going to appease them.
“Robby (Takac) and I were in the studio when we brought in the string section. They started playing, and we were like, ‘Okay, are we ready to turn this corner? Because there’s no going back from this’. But we were basically like, ‘You know what, this is good. F*ck everybody. We’re gonna do it’.”
‘Iris’ wasn’t an obvious standout on the film’s crowded soundtrack, and Goo Goo Dolls knew it. “I wanted to be on the soundtrack just because U2 were on it, Peter Gabriel, I think Alanis Morissette… huge acts like that. And I was like, well, you know, we’re still relatively nobody. So that would be good company to be with on a compilation or a soundtrack. I had no hopes of that song becoming a huge hit, especially because we figured we’d get in line behind the big acts. That song was very much a dark horse.”
What followed was an outpouring of national and international love for the track, critical acclaim, and three Grammy nominations, which Rzeznik approached with a characteristic mix of gratitude and irreverence.
“I knew we weren’t gonna win,” he laughs. “Honestly, the way the Grammys looked to me at that point in time was well, you get nominated and then it raises the value of what you do. So just getting the nomination was good enough. I just wanted to have a sense of humour about it.” So he made himself a t-shirt that read: ‘I was nominated for three Grammys, and all I got was this lousy t shirt…’
“They interview you after you lose, and they go ‘how’s it feel?’. Like, how do you think it feels to lose?!”
Since 1998, ‘Iris’ has become that rarest of things, a song that forges a cultural identity so concrete it exists almost independently from its creators and performers. You’ll still hear it on the radio, in bars, in shopping centres. Multiple publications have included it in their lists of the greatest ever pop songs. Billboard has ranked it number one. As of June last year, the song was certified septuple platinum in the US.
But Rzeznik doesn’t listen to ‘Iris’ anymore.
“I don’t listen to any of them,” he explains. “Because I’ve already been there. I’ve already been through the process. So it’s like, okay, you bring this thing into the world. And then you gotta let it go and keep going forward. That was great. What’s next?
“I think it’s part of the reason we were able to hang on. Robby and I decided we were going to have a long career. So you have to be able to get up, you have to prepare yourself for the ups and downs of that whole situation. There are times where a band is more popular – it’s crazy, because it still happens. One year we’ll be more popular than another year. You just have to adjust yourself to that.
“The antidote to all the bullsh*t that goes along with trying to make a living in this business is gratitude and hard work. As corny as that might sound, I don’t care. I try to stay in that lane of, listen, I get to do this. Do I get to do it at the O2 Arena? No, but I still get to do it.”
Asked if his relationship with the song is as complicated as it sounds, he considers for a long time.
“I mean, that song changed our lives. It changed everything. And it took us up to a level that I never expected. All my musical heroes were playing in clubs, and we came up in a very DIY underground alternative rock scene, you know. So to achieve something like that was pretty incredible. But it comes with some uncertainties, yeah, especially about how we’ll be perceived.”
For Rzeznik, though, detractors and critics won’t ever change his relationship with ‘Iris’. Nor will the song’s overwhelming, almost intimidating popularity.
“Sometimes I do think to myself, wow, it feels like that’s only song I’ve ever written that anyone cares about,” he says. “And then it’s sort of like, you know what, that’s one more than most people get. So be happy, be grateful. And do it. I love it. I love that I can go anyplace in the world and turn the microphone over to the audience, and they’ll sing it back to me. No matter where we are.”
Photo credit: Scott Legato / Getty