How Johnny Rezeznik overcame writer's block to pen the Goo Goo Dolls' smash hit Iris

The Goo Goo Dolls performing onstage
(Image credit: Joseph Okpako/Getty Images)

After five albums with the band he founded, the Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik was facing dark times in 1996. It’s easy to think he should have been riding high on his band’s hard-earned success: 1995’s A Boy Named Goo had been a two-million selling breakthrough hit. But all the band had received for their efforts was trouble.

Their label, Metal Blade, handed them a bill for $115,000 in recoupable expenses incurred on their behalf, which they were able to do due to a contract the band had willingly signed in the late '80s. The Goo Goo Dolls were successful and broke.

Later in 1996, the band filed a writ against Metal Blade accusing them of signing ‘naïve musicians in their early twenties, who had no knowledge of or experience in the music business to a grossly unfair, one-sided and unenforceable contract’. 

I’m not a songwriter and a hot dog vendor… I'm a songwriter and it scared the hell out of me.

The band set out on a four-month tour to finance their legal battle and then, after half a year’s negotiation, reached an out-of-court settlement. The Dolls ended up switching to Warner Bros, and John and bassist/co-vocalist Robbie Takac moved East from their home of Buffalo to New York towards the end of the year. Their plan was to re-focus on the music and write their sixth album, which would become Dizzy Up The Girl. But their troubles had only just begun.

Rzeznik had another problem to overcome: a career-threatening case of writer’s block. “It was the first time in my life after I’d had a hit where it was just like: I’m a songwriter and nothing else,” Rzeznik explained to VH1’s Behind The Music. “I’m not a songwriter and a hot dog vendor… I'm a songwriter and it scared the hell out of me.”

I was determined to finish a thought. And that’s what Iris was about: a goal. And if it sucks, I don’t care

Feeling under pressure, he shut himself away. “The one thing I was good at was being taken away from me when I was having trouble writing,” Rzeznik continued. “That felt really bad… But the ironic thing about writer’s block, see, is that you write the whole time – you just think everything sucks.”

The duo moved back to their base of Buffalo to try to get things back on track. The block continued. Then, in January 1998, a request for Rzeznik to contribute to a Hollywood film soundtrack turned everything around. The film was a love story starring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage called City Of Angels. “I was determined to finish a thought,” Rzeznik explained to VH1. “And that’s what Iris was about: a goal. And if it sucks, I don’t care.”

It didn’t suck, far from it. And it didn’t take him long to write what would be a career-defining moment either.

“It probably took me an hour or two,” he revealed to UltimateGuitar. Guitarists might be surprised that the song came together with such an unusual altered tuning being used – the original is played in BDDDDD. While that may seem strange for a melodic rock band even now, it certainly wasn't a first for Rzeznik.

Other Goo Goo Dolls songs show how he likes to create a rich 12-string effect with the octaves employed in his tunings: A Boy Named Goo’s big US hit, Name, is in DAEAEE, while Dizzy Up The Girl’s Black Balloon is tuned DbAbDbAbDbDb (tuned up a half semitone for live performance).

But where the band did significantly deviate from the norm on Iris was in the use of a melancholic mandolin line, which brings an added dimension to the song. This wasn’t played by Rzeznik, but by the band’s long-time LA-based session cohort and now YouTube guitar star, Tim Pearce (who also recorded all the guitars on the Bon Jovi single Runaway and Michael Jackson’s Black And White – Slash only plays the intro in the video).

In addition there was the addition of a Hollywood-scale 30-piece orchestra and the story of that session and Pearce's work with the band alongside producer Rob Cavallo is told in the video above. Such a granduose production was a landmark for a band who started out in Buffalo sounding like their punk rock idols, The Replacements.

The version used in the film isn’t actually the one most people have heard, though. “[Johnny] went home after he saw this screening and wrote a song,” explained Robbie Takac to Pandomag. “Then he called up the soundtrack coordinator, went down to his office and played it for him. They decided right away that they were going to [use it in the film], before even hearing our version, just by him going in and playing acoustically. When we actually turned it into the film, they thought that the version we did… was too grandiose. So they replaced it [for the film] with John doing Iris by himself - an acoustic version.”

The reception to the end result helped take the City Of Angels soundtrack to the No. 1 spot on the billboard chart in 2008, but left the Goo Goo Dolls with the challenge of escaping the stigma of being ‘the band that made Iris.’

That song comes along once in a lifetime

“That song casts such a huge shadow over everything that we’ve done,” Rzeznik admitted to Virtualfestivals in 2008. “It’s always difficult, but it’s not like I have to beat it. I think you just have to write from where you’re at, at any particular time, and give it your best shot.

"That song comes along once in a lifetime. I’m grateful for it, but sometimes I wish people would pay attention to our other material.”

Many have, though: the band have had 14 top 10 singles in the US and sold nearly nine million albums there, three million of them accounted for by the album Iris helped them finish."

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.