"I don't know, I guess I'm just missing my girlfriend today," says Johnny Rzeznik. Talking by telephone from a tour stop in Cleveland, the guitarist and singer for Goo Goo Dolls sounds wrung out and depressed. "All three of us are in a weird mood today. We all miss our girlfriends."

Miss their girlfriends? Are these the same sneering punks who've shattered eardrums and spat on adoring fans from Tonawanda to Topanga and back?

What in the name of Husker Du is going on? Has one of America's finest power trios lost its guts? Or is it the creeping influence of that most-feared mental fungi in all of music--maturity?

Something's happening to the Goo Goo Dolls. These purple-haired, speaker-blowing earthmovers are going soft. These days, the band that used to stalk eardrums like big game wants to write songs. The trio that once took pride in inflicting the kind of tinnitus that makes eyes water and grown folks lose their balance is now concentrating on meaningful lyrics.

"There were two years between our latest record Hold Me Up and our last one, Jed," says Rzeznik. "In that time we grew up, sobered up and lost a few friends.

"The most important lesson I learned was to think before you speak or act. Maybe it comes out of having too many semi-fucked-up relationships in a short period of time, I don't know, but that kind of caution is what's in the lyrics of these songs."

Relationships, good and bad, are a constant theme with the Goos these days. The lyrics on Hold Me Up are full of laments for departed or absent lovers.

Besides taking relationships seriously, the Gooboys have also followed the Replacements' lead and gone on the wagon. Their newfound sobriety and newly responsible personal lives have focused the band. These factors have also provided the group with the heartfelt stimulus to write edgy but still mainstream pop tunes like "There You Are." A jilted lover's stream-of-consciousness rant, "There You Are" is built around the most hummable melody line the Goos have ever written.

But the most telling proof of the band's new aspirations lies in its ballsy attempt at covering a Prince tune. Assisted by the tuxedo-and- patent-leather-clad Buffalo, New York, lounge singer Lance Diamond, the Goos' unlikely version of "Never Take the Place of Your Man" shines. For a band that once could sum up its entire moral and theological base as, "Everything's fucked up, so let's turn up the volume and party," these are big steps. Usually when a rock 'n' roll record is labeled a "mature" work, it's a thinly veiled dig, a hint that success has turned a band's hunger into creative obesity. But that's not the case here. With Hold Me Up, the Goo Goos have made a leap few punk bands even attempt. Still angry and loud enough for fans of its slash 'n' mash past, Hold Me Up is the band's first bona fide pop record. And this new stance, standing somewhere between pop and punk, is paying off. The new record has sold more than the Goo Goo Dolls' previous two albums combined. Even alternative music fans who used to dismiss the group's work as hard-core kid stuff are beginning to listen. In the space of two albums, the band has become the most interesting act on the entire Metal Blade Records roster. In the past year, the band has successfully headlined two national tours. Two cuts from Hold Me Up have even received commercial radio airplay. Scared of the word "mellow," the band prefers to characterize its new direction in more philosophical terms.

"Our perspective has changed. Musically, we got tired of pounding our brains out," says Rzeznik. "I mean, how long can you do that? You can only beat your head against the wall for so long before it hurts. It may come as a shock to some people, but I really like pretty songs."

The music on Hold Me Up was a group project. Trios have a way of producing either an odd man out or of becoming an indestructible threesome. With the Goo Goo Dolls, it's the latter. Rzeznik writes most of the band's music, drummer George Tutuska writes the lyrics and bassist Robby Takac is the band's arranger, and all three end up contributing to each tune. "We are really lucky to have Robby. He's the one who knows songwriting logistics," says Rzeznik. "He tells us how long a song should be, where the guitar solo should go. Things like that. We throw him a piece of meat and he cooks it."

The band's soft-core direction is not that unexpected when you consider what its members have been listening to since childhood. Raised in Buffalo on Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Yes, and the Beatles, these hometown pals went on to become fans of Seventies bands like Devo, Kiss, and the Sex Pistols. By the time they got serious about music, other first-generation punk bands--the Clash and the Ramones--held their ears. The tunes on Hold Me Up show traces of all these influences. The trio's eclectic listening has continued to this day. It's what separates the Goos from the rest of the punks in the jungle. It's also what's assuring them more than a footnote in the puke-stained history of thrash. At this point, the former headbashers listen to everything. Bizarre as it sounds, these decibel fiends have even discovered that music soothes the savage breast.

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