johnny rzeznik’s life wasn’t working out the way he had planned. The band he fronted, the Goo Goo Dolls, seemed to have peaked with their 1995 hit name. His confidence as a songwriter was in tatters. worst of all, the collapse of his marriage had left him living out of a suitcase in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
“It was 1997 and I was feeling a bit schizophrenic,” rzeznik recalls. “My wife and I had just broken up and I met another girl that I really liked. i moved from my house in buffalo new york and lived in this hotel. so it was a really manic moment in my life. she was looking for something to hold on to. ”
as always, rzeznik chose the music. On the morning of the day Iris wrote, the singer had attended an advance screening of City of Angels, a film whose premise was about an angel [played by Nicolas Cage] who gives up his immortality to be with the woman he loves. meg ryan] . Rzeznik hadn’t particularly enjoyed the film, but he had his reasons for agreeing to contribute to the soundtrack.
“I didn’t really think it was very good,” he explains. “I just thought it was a sanitized version of [Wim Wenders’ 1987 film] Wings of Desire. but one of the reasons i wanted to do a song was because the soundtrack had u2 and peter gabriel, and i wanted to be in the same piece of plastic as them. It made me feel like I was rubbing shoulders with musical royalty. I thought that one day I could show it to my children, tell them that his father was once on a record with Bono and Peter Gabriel.”
back in his hotel room, rzeznik was surprised at how quickly his song took shape: “most of the time, for me, writing involves procrastination, fear, doubt, criticism… most of the songs i write I have to torture myself; be a prima donna for about an hour. but the iris came so easy. I broke two strings on my guitar, so I started winding all the strings up and down in these weird configurations, and that song came out. it was like a gift, like: “oh, thank god!”
by the time rzeznik had ironed out some of the “ugly chord sequences”, he had a fainting future classic on his hands. only the name was required. “I’m horrible at naming songs,” he says, “so that’s the last thing I do. she was flipping through a magazine called laweekly and i saw that a great singer-songwriter named iris dement was playing in town. I was like: ‘wow! what a beautiful name.’
rzeznik credited iris as one of his greatest achievements to date, even though the title lacks personal meaning. but it wasn’t until he recorded it that he realized just how far the song had taken the band from their punk roots.
“That was the first time we were in the studio with strings,” he recalls. “i remember kneeling in front of the control room window, looking at this 15-piece string set, then looking at robby [takac, bass] and saying, ‘i really think we’re taking a turn here, and no’ i don’t know if I want’.
“but it’s part of your personal evolution,” he continues. “When he was 18 years old he played three power chords and wanted to be Paul Westerberg. but as you grow up you change, you want different things, and your art has to be in tune with your emotional state. so I guess iris is part of the sound of my growing up.”
It was undoubtedly Rzeznik’s ballad that propelled the City of Angels soundtrack to the top of the US charts in June 1998 and bolstered the band’s own album, Dizzy Up The Girl, while the The song itself began a five-week run at No. 9 in the US. commercially, goo goo dolls had arrived.
“It didn’t change us,” says Rzeznik, “but the people around us changed. we started getting more attention, we made a little bit of money… and it was actually very, very awkward. It never made me wish I hadn’t written it, because now I’ll be able to send my kids to college, but obviously there are byproducts of that kind of success that you need to avoid. the number of options you have grows exponentially, like, I can have this, I can have that, I can date her, I can inhale this, and I can afford it.’”
ultimately, rzeznik chose to embrace his masterpiece and its meaning. in 2007 it remains the centerpiece of the goo goo dolls set list, the ultimate alternative rock ballad and the singer’s best shot at immortality.
“I’m proud of it,” he admits. “Because he gave me some self-confidence at a time when it was lacking. Every night when we play it and I put the microphone on the audience and they all sing along, it’s an amazing feeling. it’s like at least one of the songs I’ve written will be remembered.”