Confessions of an Unapologetic Pop Star
How did Rob Thomas survive a violent redneck childhood to become one of the top songwriters of his generation?
Because he isn’t allowed to smoke inside his house, Rob Thomas, 37, shuffles out back to a covered patio, his dogs fumbling around under-foot, where he lights up an American Spirit, smokes it almost down to the filter, wrestles with a few things that are on his mind and says, finally, “This is the road I’m on, and there is no other road.”
By that, he could mean the same road he’s been on for the past 16 years, both with his band, Matchbox Twenty, and on his own, creating sparkly pop music that actually strikes a chord with people at a time when the world is very short on bona fide pop stars. His six-album total has yielded a ridiculous number of Top 10 singles ”“ 19 in all, including ”˜Long Day’ (the first, in 1996), ”˜Bent’ (the first to go gold, in 2000), ”˜Lonely No More’ (his first as a solo performer) and, of course, ”˜Smooth,’ his monster Latin-tinged 1999 collaboration with Carlos Santana, which earned him three Grammys, spent 12 big weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and eventually began to wear on even its most hardcore fans. As a performer, his approach has always been the same. He writes the songs, records the songs, goes on tour behind the songs, says a few words to the press, and other than that, you don’t hear much from him. “I’m married, I’m not fucking anybody else, I’m not hitting anybody, I’m not out there,” Thomas says. “My songs are more famous than I am, and I’m OK with that.”
Along the way, however, he has picked up his share of detractors, who constantly carp about how syrupy his lyrics can be. To them, his music is “corporate-radio fluff” and not worth further consideration. At the same time, they also tend to write off Thomas himself, as if he too is fluff. Plus, he’s been called “the rock star next door,” which about says it all. Feh.
But here’s the thing. For the most part, Thomas has kept his personal life and his past to himself. He’s coughed up a few things about an alcoholic grandmother, stealing cars, dropping out of high school, a fondness for coke, cigs, pot, acid and booze. But it’s been a hodgepodge of facts. It’s almost like he doesn’t want people to get too close a look. “I’ve always believed, and still believe, that it’s nobody’s business,” he says.
On the other hand, with the release of Cradlesong, his latest and most personal album, he would like to start opening up a little more. For one thing, he thinks the conventional wisdom about him is superficial at best. “Like, I’ve got this thing that I’m the nicest guy in rock,” he says. “Well, because I’m Southern, I am polite. But I also have a switch, and the second that switch goes, I completely go to ”˜Fuck you.’ If I’m angry with you, I’ll go for the first thing I know about you that will hurt you. In a heartbeat. If you want to be a dick, I can be a dick, and I will go dick to dick.”
He pauses, thinking this over.
“I guess I’m tired of being one-dimensional,” he goes on. “I mean, there are these pockets in my life where I spend all day talking about myself, but it’s like a Nick Hornby Top Five list ”“ you’re just giving facts ”“ and it sometimes makes it seem like the music I make must be fake in some way or disingenuous. You’re still representing yourself, but you’re not really searching inside yourself. Over the past few years, ever since my mom died, I’ve been getting these panic attacks. The first time, I thought it was a heart attack. So I’ve got these weird, unresolved things within myself, and I sometimes think that it would be a helpful thing for me to unload completely.”
Thomas lives about an hour north of Manhattan, in Bedford, New York, having moved there from overcrowded Soho. It’s horse country: rolling hills, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, lots of snooty women and their wretched once-billionaire husbands. “These people fucking hate me,” Thomas says. “They hate that I do well and did it just by smoking pot, drinking beer and playing music. It makes me feel pretty good.” He lives in a big, airy, French-country place with his wife of 10 years, Marisol, a former fashion model. When Thomas first met Keith Richards, he hoped that the legend might say something nice about his music; instead, Richards said leeringly, “Oh, you’re the one with the wife.”
She’s a huge part of Thomas’ existence. “We’re really co-dependent ”“ in the best way,” he says. Right now, he is standing in his kitchen, texting her to see how she is. She’s just upstairs, but she suffers from a lupus-like autoimmune disease and sometimes, like now, the pain is such that she prefers not to mix. It’s been a lot to deal with ”“ doctors, drugs, hair loss, terrible uncertainty, the putting off of having a child ”“ but they’ve dealt with it, and the disease’s influence has weighed heavily on both of Thomas’ solo albums, first ”¦Something to Be and now Cradlesong, bringing an honest intensity to them that maybe hadn’t been in evidence so much before.
As it happens, when they met, Thomas was a big sport drinker (mainly Jack and tequila) and a sizable coke buff who nonetheless was 50 pounds overweight. He didn’t shower, didn’t brush his teeth, didn’t tweeze his unibrow, did sleep with lots of women, including one who gave Thomas his only child so far, a boy, Maison, 11. “It just happens,” he says. “There was no road not travelled. So, I travelled it and had a good time, and then, around the time it began to seem ridiculous, I met my wife.” He proposed a month after their first date and since then has curtailed most of his habits, including, he says, his long-standing and fabled fondness for pot, such was Marisol’s stabilising influence.
“He was occupying himself,” Marisol says later of her husband’s excesses. “Digging deeper away from anything that was bothering him.”
Thomas doesn’t disagree, though he prefers to put it in terms of his songwriting. “There are certain things about my life that I’ve never touched on, and I’m not quite sure why,” he says. “I’m completely fuelled by what I think my limitations are, in terms of sincerity and honesty. Everything that seems good comes from some sort of self-doubt. I’d probably be better served sometimes by looking at what I’ve accomplished and seeing it as that. I had this sense for a long time that we’re making music for the masses and that there’s something wrong with that. But one day, I woke up and said, ”˜Shit, I am the masses, and I’m fine with this.’ But then, inevitably, you go, ”˜Fuck, I’m not Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin rocks!’ ”
He pauses. And then says, “What the fuck do I want? Who the fuck am I?”
Thomas is downstairs now, in his home studio, surrounded by recording gear. This is where he smokes his pot and writes his music. Lately it’s all been for his solo efforts, but he plans on working with the rest of the Matchbox Twenty guys in the near future. It’s not like they’ve broken up or anything. They just needed a breather.
Thomas rummages around, finds a DVD, and starts wandering toward a big flatscreen TV hanging on one wall. He puts the DVD on. “This isn’t for shock value,” he says. “It’s just to give you an understanding.” He stands back. “I don’t think I’ve ever shared this, because it is fucking shocking.”
Black-and-white images flicker to life, showing a country store and filling station that used to be on Highway 301 out to Myrtle Beach from Lake City, South Carolina, a flea-bitten tobacco-farm town. This is where Thomas lived as a child, and these are some old family home movies, circa 1977.
You see men wearing skinny ties and leisure suits, women wearing old bag dresses, Thomas’ alcoholic grandmother, Maddie, who owned the store, his alcoholic mom, Mamie, who divorced his dad when Thomas was two, and then there’s towheaded Rob in his pyjamas, around age five, clutching a doll. Then rich Uncle Jack, who showed up in a new Cadillac and Uncle Julius, who drove a big rig; and everyone is smoking cigarettes, regardless of that baby in their lap. Then Grandma is scratching up a pot of chicken and rice from the stove. There’s no sign of the pint-bottle liquor Rob’s grandma sold illegally, no sign of the dope she also sold, no sign either of Aunt Monkey (as she was called), who in 1975 hired Pee Wee Gaskins, one of the most prolific and perverted serial killers in US history, to kill her ex-boyfriend and then became Gaskins’ lover and went to prison for the next 30 years. But then there’s Rob’s mom again working the Texaco pumps, and his daddy stopping by, in a nifty pantsuit, wanting his boy to say a few words into the mike, and his boy saying, “Daddy, what are you smoking?” and his dad saying, “A Kool.”
Watching this, Thomas adds commentary. “Everybody sounds like Elvis, even my grandmother,” he says. “And all of them look like serial killers. They were all racist. You ever see Deliverance? Only when I moved to Florida did it start to dawn on me that this wasn’t the norm and that, oh, shit, we actually were fucking poor.”
Then it’s over and Thomas jumps to his feet, like he’s got to get out of here quick.
In a sense, the movie hints a little at why Thomas’ music is so appealing to so many; it’s light on the surface, sailing along on snappy, fun-filled melodies; at the same time, it seems to be driven by darker forces percolating underneath: serial killers, doll babies and the like.
Outside near his pool, smoking, he says, “I guarantee you that anything about me that’s fucked up, that’s the impetus for it all, what you just saw. The first time I watched it, I began to cry. I’m living about as far removed from that as I can imagine.”
For the most part, however, Thomas is an upbeat guy and great fun to hang around. He’s easygoing, amusing in a self-deprecating way, a big lover of dogs, a chatterbox. He’s lost his Southern accent, but, like he says, he’s still Southern at heart: Enter his world and you’ll never be lacking. He’ll offer you a beer or maybe a snack. Then, beers in hand, he’ll take you down to his studio again and fire up some bud in a THC-vaporising Volcano machine. And all along the way, you’ll find yourself treated to a kaleidoscope of opinions, thoughts, self-assessments and random witticisms.
Take the word “cunt.” It’s one of Thomas’ favourites. “I say it only around men, but I love it,” he says. “ ”˜Cunt’ is in Chaucer! In Shakespeare! I say, let’s bring it back!”
Or his thoughts about Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind: “I don’t hate him, I just don’t like him. He has no soul. He’s really just a cock.”
Or what he thinks about the rumour that Marisol once caught him in bed with Tom Cruise: “It could have been worse, right? It could have been Fred Savage.”
Or his recollections about something similar that happened to him in high school, which he dropped out of his senior year: “I had a gay friend, and we hung out, and a rumour went around that I was gay. That was kind of it for me at school. I’d become the gay kid. I mean, I’ve always been more sensitive and more effeminate than manly guys, so it wasn’t a stretch for somebody to pull that one out. But I didn’t leave school because of that. It was more because my regular life was in such disarray that going seemed ridiculous.”
What he means by “regular life” is his life with his mom, or as he sometimes calls her, “my crazy mom, my drunk mom.”
He was born on a US Army base in Germany, the son of a sergeant, but within a few years, his parents had divorced, his mom had gone with his sister to live in Columbia, South Carolina, and Thomas had been shuttled off to Lake City, to hang out with his grandma and do what kids do in a town like that.
“We’d go and get dirt clods, and at night bomb the house of this neighbour we didn’t like,” recalls Ricky Osborne, one of Thomas’ childhood pals. “We’d throw fireworks at cars. When I’d spend the night with him, we’d steal alcohol from the store and get drunk. We were around 11. Then his grandma Maddie would bring us weed. We didn’t know what it was, but we’d have to pick the stems and seeds out, and then she’d give us a roll of quarters to play Frogger with. And then Maddie would go on drinking binges. Once, this guy was out front honking at her for service, so she came out and sprayed gasoline all inside his car. Another time, this guy stole from the store, and she shot him in the ass.”
Though he’d come back often to visit Lake City, Thomas moved to Sarasota, Florida, with his mother and sister when he was 10. His mom was a big drinker. She hung out with bikers, and sometimes the bikers beat her up, and sometimes she would beat up on Rob, then suffer extreme guilt. Parties raged at the house, with Rob often acting as barkeep. Sometimes he’d wake up with 10 strangers sleeping off last night’s booze-a-thon in the living room; he’d pick his way around the bodies, make his own breakfast, and get himself to school. His older sister, Melissa, ran away when she was 17. His mom got cancer, and Rob had to take care of her. She continued to drink, continued to smoke.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. He lost his virginity when he was 14, to “a big girl ”“ but God bless her!” He started writing and playing music around the same time, also with girls in mind: “At parties, all the football players would be drunk and passed out, and I’d be in the living room with all their girlfriends around me, playing the piano, every song like a bad version of a Lionel Richie solo album.”
For the most part, though, Thomas was one great big nerd ”“ at least according to Melissa. “If you could look up ”˜nerdy little boy’ in the dictionary, it would be him,” she says. For one thing, he carried a Vicks inhaler with him everywhere. “He’d pat it all the time, and as long as it was in his pocket, he was good,” says Melissa. He got his first musical instrument when he was around 10 ”“ a big Casio keyboard ”“ and soon he was playing songs he heard on the radio and writing his own material.
He and his mom continued to battle, and then, at 17, he decided he’d had enough. He split, and began a two-year homeless odyssey, sleeping on friends’ couches, crashing in their cars for weeks on end, hitchhiking up and down the coastline, fending off weirdos who said stuff like, “Do you mind if we pull over up here and I suck you?” stealing cars with his friends (“I was more a follower than a leader”), doing two months in the county jail (“Everything about me said I was heading down Loser Row”), playing in various bands and working at a biker bar called BT Bones, where he became known as the Singing Busboy.
Thomas was taking a lot of acid in those days, and during one trip he decided it would be a good idea to play around with dry ice. He burned his hands so badly that doctors thought he might have to get them chopped off. He was sitting in a clinic with his sister when he got the news. He started crying. “Missy,” he said, “how am I going to get these songs in my head out if I can’t play them?” Recalls Melissa, “I was worried about him having no hands, and all he was worried about was the music.”
In 1993, Thomas joined a Gainesville, Florida, band called Tabitha’s Secret. “We were the big local band, and we thought we were the shit,” he says. Shortly thereafter, that band morphed into Matchbox Twenty, got signed by Atlantic and released Yourself or Someone Like You. The group toured relentlessly behind the album, and by 2000, it had gone platinum 10 times, and, in so doing, positioned Matchbox Twenty as the big breakout band of the late Nineties.
“It was a slow climb ”“ we had every chance to fuck up, but nobody was watching and nobody cared,” Thomas says. “We could be as debauched as we wanted to be. Later, I’d run into these girls: ”˜You don’t remember me? My girlfriend and I lived on your bus for a week.’ And I’m like, ”˜Sorry. If it happened in the first three or four years, it’s gone.’ ”
Along the way, Thomas patched things up with his mom, but she continued to wreak havoc on his life. She’d show up drunk at his concerts, and he’d have to boot her out. She’d find ways to terrify Marisol, who is a Puerto Rican from Queens, New York, and he would find ways to excuse it. He refused to speak truthfully about his mother in public, for fear of hurting her feelings.
“He had a strange relationship with his mother,” says Matt Serletic, Thomas’ longtime producer. “He’d run from her but also want her approval. She was half-crazy and very loving and yet very vindictive. A lot of it had to do with his marriage. It’s one of those things that was never quite approved of.” And then when she died three years ago, he simply fell apart.
“I went on a nasty drinking binge and couldn’t stop,” Thomas says. “I was mad she had left and I could no longer be angry at her. And then I started to get this feeling that right around the corner, something horrible was waiting. After that, I completely lost my coping skills.” He goes on, “Look, I readily admit to being totally fucked up, and I don’t need people to always know, ”˜Hey, I’m in pain here, look at me, I’m in fucking pain.’ But this feels like the most adult burden I’ve ever had to carry, and I think it’s necessary to talk about it, because it’s a huge part of who I am and the reason I am the way I am.”
And Marisol, for one, is glad that he’s finally opening up.
“You know what bothers me?” she says finally. “I truly believe that Rob is one of the most gifted songwriters of our time, but people like to pass over him like he’s this really blandified, middle-class guy, and you have these pseudo-punker kids playing as if they’re from the street and they’re hardcore. They grew up with money in the suburbs. Well, my husband had the worst fucking upbringing. So when people try to paint him as this guy who is full of shit, it really upsets me. He’s overcome a lot. If only he’d been able to express his feelings early on. But he came from a family of ”˜deny, deny, deny, and don’t talk about shit.’ ”
Thomas doesn’t say anything immediately. He just sits there. At last, he says, “Everything’s going to surface.” And the way he says it, it’s almost like a promise.