‘Write what you know’ is a standard songwriting mantra. In his recent appearance for American Songwriter’s Behind The Mic series, Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik went deep on several of his favorite songs, including the dark, autobiographical “Broadway,” the fifth and last single from the band’s multi-platinum 1998 breakthrough Dizzy Up The Girl.
Though it may not seem obvious at first glance given his massive commercial pop appeal, it’s not too far-fetched to draw a parallel between Rzeznik’s working-class lyrical approach and the detailed, ordinary observations of hallowed singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and the recently departed John Prine.
Raised in a tough, working-class section of Buffalo, New York, Rzeznik has previously compared his upbringing to both Prine’s lyrics and the deeply moving late ‘70s Vietnam movie The Deer Hunter. “Watch that movie and put on a John Prine record and this is my life,” he told me in an interview for Guitar World Acoustic magazine at the release of Dizzy Up The Girl.
“Prine has this hole inside of him that nothing will ever fill, no matter how much Budweiser he drinks. What he writes is so beautiful, and everything he writes is so real. It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror after you’ve been up for three days under a fluorescent light.”
“Broadway” explicates the cycle of destruction Rzeznik witnessed as a child, growing up in a part of Buffalo that he has referred to as ‘Palookaville’. “I wrote a song about the neighborhood I grew up, which is a very lower class, working class neighborhood,” he explained during Behind The Mic. “There was a strange darkness to the place but also a lot of good. I didn’t write it until I had some time away from the people I grew up with. It was a tough place to grow up. It was a neighborhood full of tough guys and I was not a tough guy.”
The lyrics paint a picture of the difficult relationship he had with his father and those around him.
You choke down all your anger/ Forget your only son
You pray to statues when you sober up for fun
Your anger don’t impress me/ The world slapped in your face
It always rains like hell on the loser’s day parade
“It was a very ethnic, Polish working-class neighborhood, with a bar and a church on every corner. Every family had five or six kids, and an alcoholic in every house. And everyone would go get drunk on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday morning.”
“My parents died when I was fifteen, so I left that neighborhood and moved uptown to the college area. That got me away from the environment that killed my father. He could never rise above it, never see beyond it. He got drunk every day.”
Rzeznik revealed the emotional heart of the song’s genesis in a previous 1998 interview with me. “When I was young, my dad used to take me down to the local bar, prop me up on the barstool, order a drink for himself, and a soda and chips for me. He’d give me a quarter for the pinball machine and sit there and drink. I’d look around and see all these kids who just turned 18, and they were hanging out there, sitting in the same chairs as their fathers. When they were old enough to drink with their dads, they took his place at the bar, carrying on the tradition. I decided I didn’t want to be like that.”
Broadway’s dark tonight
A little bit weaker than you used to be
Broadway’s dark tonight
See the young man sittin’ in the old man’s bar
Waitin’ for his turn to die
The song’s title refers to a specific section of Buffalo, and given its common name, it’s a lyrical earworm that captures the listener’s interest as a relatable location for their own hometown. It can also be argued that, metaphorically and subconsciously, the song touches on the dreams of overcoming a rough upbringing and conquering one of the enduring symbols of artistic success-the famed Great White Way of Broadway in New York City.
For the guitar playing crowd, Rzeznik always provides a surprise twist in how he plays “Broadway.” Nearly every one of his massive hits, from “Name” to “Slide” to “Iris” features a unique, unusual tuning. “I never said I was a great guitar player, but I enjoy doing it,” he said during Behind The Mic. “I never studied guitar. I made up my own tunings to play it, using capos. When people come see us play, there’s always like 35 guitars on the side of the stage because I need to change guitars a lot to get the tuning correct.”
“Broadway” follows in that lineage, though it’s almost a little more conventional. For those playing along to the Behind The Mic video and watching live performances on YouTube, Rzeznik has his Taylor guitar tuned down one whole step. He then raises the B string up one half-step. The notes are (from low to high) D-G-C-F-Bb-D. (On the recorded version that appears on Dizzy Up The Girl, the tuning for his main rhythm track is essentially the same, but only one half-step down with the B string raised.)
This unique tuning allows for the top two strings to ring out when they are played open, giving the song a nice, melodic droning accompaniment. It also frees the player up to hit power barre chords on the lower strings during the chorus, creating a nice juxtaposition of sounds and creating different moods in a solo guitar performance.
Rzeznik, who’s catalog of anthemic hits has placed him in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, has come a long way from his blue-collar days in Buffalo, including five years of sobriety. The Goo Goo Dolls continue to release new material, most recently Miracle Pill in 2019. The band remains a vital live touring act, and once the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic subsides, you can be sure to catch them at your favorite amphitheater.
We’ll dissect several more of the band’s hits from Rzeznik’s Behind The Mic series in the coming weeks. You can also read more about his songwriting process in this 2016 interview when the band was on tour for their release Boxes.