Pop Music: The Push They Needed

No one can get the rain to fall the way it's supposed to. It's after midnight as Rob Thomas, singer and main songwriter for Matchbox 20, stands in the courtyard of a Miracle Mile office building, but the hour feels appropriate: The band is shooting a video for its wee-hours lament, "3 A.M."

It's the follow-up to the Orlando, Fla., rock group's hit song "Push," which has spurred the album "Yourself or Someone Like You" into the Top 10 on the national sales chart nearly a year after its release by Atlantic Records.

At the command of director Gavin Bowden, who has created videos for Live and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, crew members spray water from hoses off a patio roof. But it is too hard, too soft, too fake-looking--not video-perfect winter rain. Looking bored and dismayed, Thomas sits on a soggy cushion waiting for the cue that never comes. He finally gets up and walks over to a group of assistants and stylists, where he melodramatically drops his head into his hands and wails good-naturedly, "I feel like an 80-year-old man!"

At the moment he might feel as if he's aging at warp speed, but the long wait probably seems luxurious compared to Thomas' past stopovers. The singer--who brings Matchbox 20 to the El Rey Theatre on Thursday and Friday--has seen his share of rough times and real-life hardship in his 25 years.

"Now people say, 'You're tenacious, you pulled through, everything's great,' but it's a fine line," he says. "For a while there, I was just a loser who wrote songs. I was just a guy without a job."

Thomas was raised in South Carolina by a single mother plagued with financial problems and a grandmother who sold illicit liquor out of her small market. When he was 12, his mother contracted cancer. "They gave her six months to live," he says. "I stayed home and took care of her. That aged me quickly."

By the time he was 17, his mother had regained her health and he was dying to escape. "I wanted to go, just go--and I did."

Thomas was homeless for the next three years--sleeping on park benches and at friends' houses, hitchhiking around Florida and South Carolina, and occasionally composing songs on a portable keyboard.

For the youngster with a taste for Elvis Costello, Al Green and Elton John, making music for a living seemed like an impossible dream, though he managed to join a band that specialized in songs by Bob Seger, Van Halen and Richard Marx. "We were not a good cover band," he says with a grin.

But his high school days as "the homeless kid" were character-building.

"There were times when it seemed rough," Thomas concedes, "but all these kids at school were like drunk jerks, date rapers and freaks with beer keggers. . . . Maybe if I hadn't been homeless , I wouldn't have started thinking clearly until I was out of college. In my head, I was older . . . older than everybody my age."

In Orlando, he met other underemployed guys. With drummer Paul Doucette, bassist Brian Yale and others, he formed a group called Tabitha's Secret, which drew a strong local following. One fan was Collective Soul producer Matt Serletic, who introduced them to Atlantic. Before they signed a contract, though, creative and personal conflicts caused the band's breakup.

Through Serletic, Doucette, Yale and Thomas met guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor and re-formed as Matchbox 20 with Serletic as producer.

It all came together after that, but Thomas says that he still has his everyday battles.

The single that broke the band, "Push," a tainted-love song about manipulation that sounds like a cross between Live and the Counting Crows, has spawned some unflattering publicity. One lyric--"I wanna push you around / I wanna push you down / I wanna take you for granted"--prompted a feminist group in New Hampshire to call for a ban on radio stations that played the song.

Then, while watching an "MTV News" broadcast, Thomas heard that an ex-girlfriend, claiming to be the inspiration for the song, was planning to sue him for royalties. He eventually learned that no suit had been filed. "It was just a flippant comment," he says with an amused grin.

Thomas claims that "Push" was, in fact, about a different girlfriend: a high school crush who announced their breakup by giving his possessions to the local Goodwill. "I had no clothes, nothing. All the local bands got together and gave me their band T-shirts. For months, that's all I wore."

Bitter in the aftermath and feeling out of sorts on his first trip to Manhattan two years ago, he wrote "Push" in a lonely, depressed mood. But he wants to make it clear that the song is no call to arms for batterers. In his less-than-perfect life, it's merely an observation about the emotional battles he's experienced in bumpy relationships, an honest expression that only came out with some prodding.

"I used to just write Lionel Richie-style piano love songs," he says. "All these grandiose ideas about love. 'Love is forever. . . .' But it never had anything to do with me or anything that I had ever been through. . . .

"To me, love's not really your Guenevere and your Lancelot. Love's more like 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'--your George and Martha."

- Sara Scribner