NASHVILLE — I’m backstage at a hallowed music hall, sitting across from a rock star, and he’s lifting his tattooed arm to grab a tissue.
How did I get here? And more vitally, why is John Rzeznik here, laying bare some of his most personal moments?
Our journey to this moment began two years earlier, when I was writing a profile on Rzeznik’s Goo Goo Dolls bandmate, Robby Takac. I spoke with Rzeznik by phone, and his candor struck me. On his relationship with Takac, with whom he founded the Goo Goo Dolls in Buffalo in the mid-’80s, Rzeznik volunteered, “Our lines of communication were pretty much cut until I got sober a couple years ago. I didn’t want to deal with him. He didn’t want to deal with me.”
Rzeznik, whose wife Melina was due with their first child a few months later, was candid, too, about his impending fatherhood. “For me,” said Rzeznik, who lost both his parents as a teenager, “the two things I keep thinking about are ‘Don’t screw this up’ and ‘I have to work a lot harder.’ ”
Rzeznik seemed to be in a place where he was embracing honesty, owning his failures, and acknowledging his fears. Maybe, I thought, he’d be willing to talk about his own life, one that took him from a broken East Side home to the top of the rock business to the depths of alcoholism to the joys and challenges of fatherhood.
Two years later, the timing seemed right: Liliana Rzeznik was a toddler, the Goos were planning a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their landmark “Dizzy Up the Girl” album, and by all accounts, John had remained sober. I made the request through their manager, and word came back: “John is in for this.”
That brought me in September to the Rzezniks' suburban New Jersey home. Rzeznik told me he agreed to the all-access interview because it was for his hometown newspaper. He thinks often of Buffalo, and even has an app that pings him when certain residential properties in the city hit his price range. But for the moment he is staying in Jersey, where his wife's family lives.
In any in-depth interview, just like any conversation, it's vital to find and build a connection with your subject. I'm not a musician, and I haven't faced the struggles that Rzeznik has. But I am a dad, and he's a dad, and we spoke often that day of fatherhood. Being a dad, he said, has made him feel “a little more compassion” for his own father, who was distant and battled alcoholism and mental illness, and his mother, who was a tough and unflinching disciplinarian.
“But by the same token,” he said, “they taught me what not to do in a lot of ways.”
He won’t, for instance, use corporal punishment as a parenting tool on Lili. (As obvious as it may seem to many that corporal punishment is a bad idea, it’s not as obvious to someone who grew up with it.)
“I just don’t see it,” Rzeznik said of using corporal punishment. “But I do believe there’s got to be a way to get through to her when she’s not doing the right things.”
A thought popped in my mind, and I voiced it to him: Rzeznik’s own words, through his music, have affected fans for decades. Does he feel like he can find a way to use words to have an impact on his daughter?
“I hope so; I’m still looking for it,” he said. Then asked me a rhetorical question as a fellow father: “Have you found it? Please share.”
Later, as we drove in Rzeznik’s Tesla from New Jersey to midtown Manhattan, where he hosts a show on SiriusXM, he asked me how closely I keep track of my 12-year-old daughter’s whereabouts.
“OK, here’s the question: If you could chip your daughter, would you? Without her knowing.”
I murmured a hesitant yes, and asked, “Would you?”
“Definitely,” Rzeznik said. He’s determined to ensure Lili grows up smart, protected and empowered.
“As soon as she’s potty-trained, she’s going to jiu jitsu school,” he said.
I laughed, but he’s serious. Rzeznik knows someone who did this with his daughter, and that girl became a black belt by middle school.
“I don’t want her to feel like she’s got some sort of advantage over other kids,” Rzeznik said as he steered into a tunnel connecting Jersey to Manhattan. “I do want her to feel safe and happy with herself. But I want her to feel compassion for other people.”
That evening, Rzeznik was interviewing KISS rocker Gene Simmons on his Sirius show. We parted ways outside Sirius’ 6th Avenue headquarters and reconnected a month later here at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, also known as the former site of country music’s Grand Ole Opry. The Goo Goo Dolls are at the front end of their fall tour, where they’re playing mostly sold-out shows in smaller venues like the Ryman, which seats just over 2,300, and Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Oct. 19-21 in Buffalo.
This tour is different than most for Rzeznik, who has spent the majority of his adulthood on buses and stages. The Goos are playing their “Dizzy” album in full for the first half, then mixing a series of hits with deep cuts for back end. It’s also different, though, in that both Rzeznik and Takac have children. Hana Takac, who is 6, is on the road with her dad for a week, and Lili Rzeznik is running around backstage, carrying her bunny, sticking close to her mom Melina’s side, and stealing a kiss from her Daddy before soundcheck.
“I laugh sometimes,” Takac tells me, “and I just elbow John: ‘Dude, look at us, this is crazy. We’re out here with our kids. What’s going on?’”
To follow up on our conversation from a month earlier, Rzeznik and I sit backstage in the catering room, with photos of rock and country greats lining the hallway outside. He has a tearful moment when he talks about how he wants Lili to be proud of him, and how he tries to see his own choices through her eyes.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” he says to me.
He's talking as a dad again.