THE GOO GOO DOLLS -- Robbie, George and John -- have convened at the scene of their greatest career milestones, Trackmaster Studio in Allentown, to do three of the things they do best -- smoke cigarettes, drink beer and discourse at great length about all the strange stuff that happens to them.
At this moment, they have strong opinions about a recent show featuring West Coast hard-core rockers Suicidal Tendencies, where bouncers allegedly ejected slam-dancing youngsters by throwing them down a flight of stairs.
"Our shows are totally different," John asserts. "The guy who promoted that Suicidal Tendencies show didn't understand the mentality of it. Our manager, Artie (Kwitchoff), understands what the scene is all about. He knows the difference between a slam pit and a fight. It's a fine line, but he can distinguish between the two.
"Artie saved a nun at one of our shows. She got in the middle of the slam pit, trying to play Mother Theresa and stop it, and he picked her out of there."
Trackmaster is anything but a slam pit. The cathedral-ceilinged, wood-paneled main studio is where the trio recorded their two albums -- the first released last year by Mercenary Records, a now-defunct branch of independent Celluloid Records, and the second due out early next year on a bigger independent label, Metal Blade Records.
Trackmaster also is where the band set their signatures to a contract with Metal Blade when representatives of the Los Angeles-based label came to town three weekends ago.
The deal with Metal Blade is modest, but it's everything a fledgling band dreams of -- promotion, tour support, distribution through a major label (Capitol) and enough of a cash advance to buy equipment and start paying off debts, but not enough to let them lead a life of leisure.
"I sell hot dogs downtown two days a week and do whatever odd jobs I can get," John reports. Robbie works for a florist. George claims to shoot pool for a living, a talent that came in handy during the lean days of their cross-country tour last spring.
Signing with Metal Blade might mark the Goo Goo Dolls as a heavy metal band, since that's what the company specializes in, but they maintain that they don't fit in that category.
"I don't consider us a hard-core band or a punk-rock band or a thrash band," John contends, "but we reach out to all those people."
"A lot of people who read this won't be able to understand what we do," Robbie proposes, "but we have this little thing and, within that, we're real good at that little thing."
Two words that best sum up Goo Goo Dolls music are "aggressive" and "frenzied." They play loud, they play fast and, while they play, they dash around furiously. Furthermore, they're not at all reluctant to leap into the crowd or invite swarms of people to join them on stage.
"Once we hit the stage," guitarist John reports, "things start to happen in your brain and you talk to someone three days later and they talk about when you did this or how they can't believe you did that. And you go, 'I did that?' "
Robbie, the bassist, concurs: "And your head goes, 'Eh-eh, eh-eh,' and you're playing the ---- out of your guitar. It's madness. It's easier after 30 minutes than after the second song and the second set is out of control. One night at the Continental we went till after four in the morning and we had a pile of 40 people on stage singing 'Auld Lang Syne.' "
Nevertheless, their upcoming album shows a couple of other facets of their playing. Veteran R & B singer Lance Diamond, a friend of the group, takes the vocal lead on a lively remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner." And the set closes with, believe it or not, a ballad -- a ballad about a guy who thinks he wants to be like James Dean.
John suggests there's a gentle foundation to everything they play. He describes it as being akin to folk music -- guitar-based songs that could just as easily be sung around a campfire as screamed through a megawatt sound system.
It's the frenzied side of them, however, that's gotten them attention, for better or worse. Manager Artie Kwitchoff arrives with a fresh six-pack and reminds everyone that a year ago it was definitely worse.
At that point, they'd signed with Celluloid, taken the grand sum of $1,500 and made a raw, high-spirited debut album with it. But they weren't getting along with the folks at Celluloid. What's more, they weren't getting along very well around Buffalo either.
They'd been banned from the Continental for the third time. The police had shut down a dance they played at the Mount St. Mary Academy, where Artie rescued the nun and George almost got arrested.
"Seven hundred kids were screaming," Artie recalls, "and the nun running the show came up and said, 'You're filthy. You're disgusting.' And it was kind of scary, but you had to admit, there was something there. The kids were into the hyper-ness of it all."
But other people weren't. At Canisius College, they were stopped halfway through their set. At the former September's, the only gig they've ever had in a major local rock club, they'd been kicked off stage 20 minutes after they started.
"That was after Johnny broke his arm," Artie recalls. "He was playing with his hand in a cast and he broke a string. While he was fixing it, the band was trying to have fun and seeing how much they could incite. They played the 'Mr. Rogers' theme song on tape and said whoever guessed what it was would get a beer. Everybody was laughing, but the manager of the club came up and told us we were scaring the regulars away."
George, John and Robbie, all acquaintances through Buffalo State College and the local band scene, had gotten together over Memorial Day in 1986. George had rented practice space in a derelict building on Genesee Street near the end of Chippewa.
"My old band had crapped out and their old bands had crapped out," John says. "I showed them some riffs. George came up with words. And Robbie put everything together. The landlord even came over and hung out with us."
Originally they wanted to call their band Sexmaggot. Informed they'd never get a club booking under that name, they thumbed through a True Detective magazine and hit upon a mail order ad selling something called a Goo Goo Doll.
Proprietors of the deli where they bought beer staked them to a professional photo session. Armed with the photos, 1,000 promotional posters and demo tapes, they headed off to Manhattan to make the rounds of record companies.
"We walked in a rainstorm over to the office of Atlantic Records," Robbie relates, "and got physically thrown out. We got thrown out of nine record companies. We got a phone call from a guy at Elektra Records who said he hated our guts and told us we should take a couple years off and learn how to play our instruments.
"So we came back home. We were playing the Continental for $40 a pop and eating greasy chicken from the convenience store when we get a phone call from a guy in New York named Dean Brownrout, who's originally from Buffalo. He was starting this new record company for Celluloid and some mutual friends turned him on to us."
Though Brownrout couldn't advance the band much money, he promised they'd earn something from record sales and that they would get tour support. Robbie, who was working at Trackmaster then, booked the band to record enough songs to extend the demo tape to album length.
It wasn't long, however, before the relationship between Brownrout and the Goo Goo Dolls turned sour. A couple of weeks before Christmas, he told them he no longer wanted to talk to them directly. If they wanted to communicate with him, they'd have to do it via somebody else. He suggested that they contact a young band manager and all-ages teen show promoter named Artie Kwitchoff. Then 20, he was younger than they were.
"I was managing the Ramrods," Artie explains, "and I'd just lost my job because I'd done a show with them instead of going to work. I remember the date -- it was Dec. 15, 1986 -- and Dean Brownrout calls me and says, 'Hey, would you think about managing another band? Do you know who the Goo Goo Dolls are? They need a liaison between themselves and the real world.'
"So I talked to them on the phone and went over to the Goo Goo Dollhouse at West Ferry and Elmwood where John and Robbie lived. I sat there watching these three guys going, 'But, but, but Bud threw us out of the Continental and we never played all-ages shows.' After they bounced off the walls for three hours, they handed me this briefcase full of logos and newspaper notices.
"Until then, I was going to school and having fun and now all of a sudden things got real serious. I got friends to put up money. I'd tell them, 'Just trust me. This one is going to work.' "
It didn't work right away. Celluloid took six months to release the debut album, repeatedly postponing the delivery date. The band canceled so many record release parties that when the LP finally arrived, they figured nobody would believe it. Instead, they set up on their Elmwood Avenue porch one afternoon and played. After about 10 minutes, the police came and shut them down.
Things didn't brighten until they went back to Trackmaster last January to record their second album. It was supposed to go to Celluloid, but Artie, with the help of attorney William Scott Sr., father of one of the Ramrods, determined that their contract with the band was no longer valid.
As spring arrived, they were preparing for their first tour, 40 dates around the perimeter of the United States as an opener for a Boston heavy metal band called Gang Green. Celluloid was asked for tour support money, but none was forthcoming.
Determined to tour as cheaply as possibly (they were only paid about $100 a date), the band borrowed as many necessities as they could. A friend named Martha Gates loaned them money. Another friend named Danny Prabucki loaned them his van. Record Theater branch manager Marty Boratin chipped in his gasoline company credit card.
Beginning the tour in Boston, they boarded with Artie's brother at Boston College and ate with his meal ticket. As they worked their way south, they were living on bagels and peanut butter.
"I went down to 138 pounds," George says. "I swore I was going to die."
Eventually, their road manager, John Drenning, would follow their sets by climbing on stage and announcing: "If you like the band, buy a T-shirt. If you love them, we need a place to stay tonight. They won't break anything."
That was how they met their second roadie, Adam Dutka. An expatriate Buffalonian who had known them in high school, he came to see them in Houston and invited them home, stopping en route to treat them to dinner at a Buffalo-style pizza and chicken-wing place where he worked.
"We had a joke on the road," Robbie says. "What do you call a broke Goo Goo Doll? Charming."
Their cash was chronically low. Appeals to Celluloid went unanswered. George hustled well-paid Gang Green at pool. They sold free passes to their shows for $3. They haunted all-you-can-eat salad bars. They dipped into bulk food bins in supermarkets.
"We were in Victoria, B. C.," Artie recalls, "and I turned to them and said, 'Guys, I got $20 in my pocket. If we don't get paid, we can't get back to the mainland.' As it turned out, we hid three guys under the equipment on the ferry. We couldn't afford to pay the toll for them."
Artistically, it was just as difficult.
"The crowds were about 75-25 for us," John says. "With Gang Green, they were very metal crowds and our band doesn't appeal toward the total metal scene. We'd go out and just start playing. We had no sound check and we were playing on a stage no bigger than that equipment trunk over there. Half the set we spent unwinding our bodies from the drum set."
Their fortunes changed in Los Angeles. Playing a club called Fenders in Long Beach (the night before it burned), they were seen by the entire office staff of Metal Blade Records. Artie shopped the second album to other independent companies, but Metal Blade was persistent.
"I told their A & R man, William Howell, that we didn't want to sign with Metal Blade," Artie relates. "I told him we're not a metal band. But he kept in touch. In June he asked me if we'd found a label. I said we were getting offers and he said, 'OK, we're going to put in our offer.'
"Now we've got a record coming out in February. We're writing for a third album. We've got a future. And we got through a year of absolute hell."
"We're not bent on getting rich," John says. "We do what we do and that's all we're going to do.
"There's a duality in expectations. If you expect something and it doesn't happen, then you're disappointed. We don't expect anything and look where we are."