Johnny Shook the Wrong Hand: The Goo Goo Dolls at the Fillmore
“I’d say that’s really pretty, Brad,” says John, who’s high on cold meds. “It’s like a bee floating around in a glass of champagne.”
He’s referring to the warm guitar solo Brad Fernquist just laid over the top of Acoustic #3. It is indeed very pretty.
From dad bods to mom bods. I’m back at the Fillmore. It’s Thursday night. I just came here from a late shift at work. I’m in my boots and work clothes. I look terrible and probably smell terrible. I’m in the same spot I was in for Clutch — direct center, about fifty feet back, up three levels from the stage while still on the main floor. I’m in a grumpy mood and can’t stop noticing a girl in the section below me. She looks like the girl from the Marvelous Miss Maisel only with blonde hair.
The Goo’s come out an hour and a half after doors. They open with Dizzy and Slide, playing through the entirety of their pinnacle album Dizzy Up the Girl, the one with the song you probably know — Iris. I don’t want the world to see me. That one. The one from the movie where Nicolas Cage plays an angel in love with Meg Ryan. The one with the music video where John’s scooting around on an office chair looking through a bunch of telescopes for some reason while the band plays in a tunnel.
This show was supposed to be on Tuesday. They canceled it, citing illness. John claims he must’ve shook the wrong hand the night prior. He apologizes, and then they play the song Broadway, which is named after the Broadway street in Buffalo, not the one in New York City. (It’s the same Broadway where I saw This Day & Age last year).
John says he’s high as fuck on the stuff the doctor gave him.
“I could be at home sleeping right now for all I know,” he tells us. It’s subtle, but his tone hints that‘s where he’d rather be right now.
The Goo Goo Dolls, unlike Clutch, seem like they’ve been done with this touring shit for decades. They want to retire but must need more money or something. I remember seeing them in 2006 and writing the exact same thing.
John’s live voice is never as good as it is on the recordings, and tonight it’s especially weak given his cold. He never goes for big notes. On record, his voice is rich and clear, like when you open a car window on the highway. On record, his high notes are sudden and beautiful and strong. In concert you get aural glimpses of that unique strength and beauty, but for the most part he struggles or doesn’t try at all. He used to be a smoker. Maybe that’s why.
Bassist Robby Takac, whose voice is usually raspier and even more beat-up than John’s (almost like a high-pitched Tom Waits if Tom Waits was into The Replacements), sounds pretty damn good tonight.
“At least Robby’s here to save the show,” John says dejectedly after Robby’s first song.
The backdrop looks like a massive bed sheet. Very comfy lavender lights splashed on it. Lipstick red spotlights. The Dizzy Up the Girl album cover is displayed in a large centered portrait. The theater is warm but not hot like it was for Clutch.
“We’re okay in here,” says Johnny halfway through the show, after the album is played in its entirety. The band has left and it’s just him. “We’re all together…”
He seems to be saying it to himself more than us.
He does a few songs alone with an acoustic. He talks for a bit on the pipe bomb threats that have been in the news lately.
“Who sends a pipe bomb to Robert DeNiro?” he asks. He improvs an impression of the actor. “I’m gonna shove that thing so far up your ass…”
He plays Better Days and swaps out “boxes wrapped in strings” for “pipe bombs wrapped in strings.”
He talks about a borderline personality disorder-having ex girlfriend who inspired the deep cut Can't Let It Go off Let Love In, their album from way back in 2006. He plays Sympathy and has the audience do multiple takes singing the “Oooh yea,” parts towards the end. He says it’s cause he likes hearing us sing. I think he’s tired.
The rest of the band comes back out and they play Fallin’ Down, the opening track off Superstar Car Wash, their fourth album and the first one to have any semblance of commercial success.
The song proves prophetic, because during Lucky Star, the next song, a woman passes out and the show grinds to a halt.
“Yo,” says John, noticing something happening in the front row. “What’s going on?”
The music dies off.
Probably erroneously assuming there is a fight or a mosh pit gone wrong, John sarcastically intones, “What the fuck? This is a Goo Goo Dolls show, not fuckin’ Korn.”
It’s determined an audience member has passed out. The place is quiet. I notice Blonde Miss Maisel has a boyfriend with her now — bearded dude, looks like he rides ATVs and smokes Camels. I’m glad I didn’t go down and try to talk to her.
“Well, call an ambulance or do what you gotta do,” John snaps at the security guards all bunched up at stage left. “Don’t fuckin’ stare at her…”
His tone is prime irritation, like, ‘Why is this incident inconveniencing me right now?’ He and the rest of the band set down their guitars a little too hard and sulk off the stage until the woman is escorted to safety. (Upon leaving the show, I’ll see her getting loaded into an ambulance with a neck brace. She looks way older than anyone I’d expect at a Goo Goo Dolls show, at least in her late 60’s. I hope she made it home all right.)
“Everybody okay?” John says when the band has re-gathered.
“From the top,” says Robby, and two bars into the song it’s like the incident never happened.
During the next song break, a kid in the front row asks John to pay The Pin, which is a song off their latest album, 2016’s Boxes.
John banters with the kid for a little while, entertaining himself.
“Youngest person here,” he says. “Of course you want us to play the new stuff and of course we can’t.”
The kid requests So Alive, the lead single off Boxes.
“I don’t make the setlist, bud. Sorry. Don’t worry, you know this next one, though. I promise.”
They do Name, their first big hit. Everyone’s happy.
The kid in the front row still wants to hear So Alive when Name is over.
“Look, I know you’re from Detroit, tough guy, whatever,” says John. He’s trying to sound playful but comes off as pissy. “I’ll see you in the alley, pal.”
He stalks to the edge of the stage, points at the kid.
“Hey,” he says, letting the moment hang. “…I couldn’t even hurt your feelings.”
People laugh. The kid still wants to hear So Alive.
The keyboardist Dave Schulz starts playing the intro riff to So Alive.
“I’m not playing it,” says John as the keys twinkle behind him. “I’m not playing it…”
The drums pick up.
“Happy birthday, motherfucker,” says John. “Feeling like a hero but I can’t fly…”
During a very long jam session in the middle of So Alive, John asks us to help him sing since, “My voice sounds fucking shitty tonight…”
He does a Freddie Mercury-esque call and response, at one point even going for a “Skee-bee-dee-bee-bop-oh-whoa” type thing that he immediately berates us for repeating.
“That was fucked up,” he says, pacing the stage like a restless tiger in a circus cage.
I’m sorry to say this cause the guy is one of my oldest and most favorite singer-songwriters, but he really comes off as a blowdried asshole. Seeing a person in real life gives you a vibe you can’t get through a camera. John is obviously a punk orphan whose adolescence was marred by the deaths of his parents. This is a guy who’s known the world owes him nothing for decades, and in return he owes the world absolutely nothing. His former naturally gorgeous male model looks have now been smothered with plastic surgery, making him look like he got a caucasianplasty. It’s a goddamn shame, cause he was an Adonis prior to 2010. He would’ve easily aged gracefully into silver fox territory.
They do NotBroken off 2010's Something for the Rest of Us. A few people cheer.
“That’s about how many people bought (the album),” chuckles John. Robby hasn’t said anything since before his first song way back during the first set.
The show is not bad, it’s a solid effort, but something just doesn’t feel right. It’s not just John’s cold. I’ve seen them four times total now, and every show I’ve been to feels like this. It’s like any other office building where the people are collecting a paycheck and don’t care about what they’re actually doing. At one point during the So Alive jam, John asks, “What would Freddie Mercury do?” when he can’t think of another vocal line to pitch to us cretins.
Contrast these guys to Clutch, who seem to revel in and appreciate and be thankful for what they get to do for a living. If you’re a millionaire and you’re still working a job you hate, I can’t fathom why you wouldn’t just quit. It’s not like you can’t afford to live.
Maybe it’s because they had to sell out.
Watch some mid-90’s Goo Goo Dolls, or even early 2000’s. They kick ass. Power trio. Full guitar, wall of sound, crunchy bass, M80 drums. Then came Name. Acoustic ballad. Instant hit, got played so much you heard it in grocery stores. John was sick of being a bartender. They’d been shafted with an exploitative deal from Metal Blade, their first label. Here was their meal ticket, at long last.
Then came Iris. The biggest rock hit of the late 90’s, played at every wedding and prom since. It was obvious that this was the type of music they’d have to make if they wanted to truly break out of the blue collar. So be it. But after another two decades, that adult contemporary “…or the moment of truth in your lies” shit is completely worn out. Its thin, hollow veneer was never going to hold up.
Now they’re just a bunch of greying middle-aged dudes running out the clock til retirement. They reek of obligation, of “I’m fucking bored and I hate this now but I’ll stick it out for you people cause that’s what you paid for.”
Robby gives us some formalities as a goodbye. I leave my spot. I need a goddamn drink. I’m parched.
I sip my cup of tap water as they finish out with Big Machine off 2002’s Gutterflower. 30 year career, summed up nicely. The setlist was good. If only they had the capacity to play at a 10 instead of a 4.5.
They get the hell out of there and so do I.