LOS ANGELES - "I failed chorus class and I failed keyboard class, so it's weird that I became a piano-playing singer," says Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20.
His academic washout in high school apparently had little bearing on his musical career. Yourself Or Someone Like You, Matchbox 20's debut album, has sold 4 million copies and is No. 9 in Billboard. The Florida-based alt-rock group, which has drawn comparisons to Live and Counting Crows, was dubbed best new rock act by Performance magazine and beat Prodigy and the Wallflowers to be anointed best new band in the Rolling Stone readers poll. Breakthrough hit Push is up for a rock performance Grammy, and current single 3 AM peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's modern and mainstream rock charts.
Matchbox 20's success culminates years of extracurricular homework. Thomas obsessively studied a broad range of singer/songwriters, especially Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Jim Croce and Paul Simon. To belong to the '90s generation of Musicians That Matter is the only "A" Thomas ever desired.
Though soured on formal education, Thomas fondly recalls a guidance counselor in Florida who deviated from standard procedure to help him drop out. He gave Thomas $69 for a bus ticket after he threatened to hitchhike to South Carolina. Thomas repaid the debt last year.
"He wrote me a nice letter saying that I'd restored his faith in people," says Thomas, 25. "He thought I was a lost cause that he'd never see again."
The counselor saw potential in Thomas that he sensed would never flower in school, the singer theorizes.
"Individuality and cleverness are frowned upon in the public school system," says Thomas, ducking under a canopy as El Nino clouds grumble over the rooftop pool at his hotel. "I think there is a wealth of possibility in a kid that is 15, clever, a little sarcastic and a real individual. I had great teachers but they had to follow a strict curriculum."
Thomas' home life wasn't strictly traditional either. His parents divorced when he was 2, and he lived in rural Lake City, S.C., with his grandmother, who peddled marijuana and bootleg liquor. He rejoined his mother in Columbia, S.C., and they later settled in Orlando, Fla.
Despite his father's absence (they're slowly reconciling), Thomas says he had a healthy upbringing.
"There's something good to be said about being raised entirely by Southern women," he says.
"A lot of the guys I respect, guys you introduce to your girlfriend's friends, don't have a strong male influence in their lives, yet they're strong and sensitive. People think you need a father to give you backbone. Southern women have backbone for days."
On Yourself, lives unravel as characters struggle to cope with difficult relationships and circumstances, themes inspired by a rocky youth that included a homeless period in his teens.
"But the album is not depressing," he says. "It was meant to be a celebration of getting through, surviving and being on the upswing. For me, these are happy songs."
And for him, homelessness did not equal hopelessness.
"The record company wants me to work the homeless angle," he confides, "but it was just a character-building time. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. Girls could come up to me in a Burger King and say, 'Do you want to go to the beach for a week?' and I'd say yeah, without even thinking about it. I wasn't sleeping on the street every night thinking about my horrible situation."
Thomas downplays his years as a street urchin but not the plight of other homeless teens. He and his bandmates - guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette - are asking fans to bring jackets, sleeping bags, socks and sneakers to concerts on their tour. Goods will be distributed to homeless kids by Children of the Night.
"When I see a homeless person, I think, that could have been me but that will never be me," Thomas says. "The homelessness I went through was so much less desperate. I had friends who looked after me. I had avenues, even if they weren't traditional avenues. True homelessness is a life crisis and an epidemic, and it minimizes what I went through."
Throughout his troubled teens, Thomas pursued rock 'n' roll, a passion his mother supported.
"There was a period when she was really worried," he says. "There's a fine line between someone who's really tenacious and determined and a loser who doesn't have a job. I know it was hard for her to be fully behind me. It's reasonable to want to be a policeman, but when you say you want to be a rock star, it's like saying you want to be a princess or a goat or a firetruck. It's not realistic."
By Edna Gunderson, USA TODAY