Burlington Free Press columnist Steve Lemcke meets up with the Matchbox 20 guys at Club Toast and gives them the Burlington tour. They drink profusely, run from screaming fans, and Lemcke tells them their music sucks.
A couple of months ago, I took my usual walk downtown to check on the local club scene. It was a Tuesday night and it was about 9 o’clock and I was bored. In a town whose nightlife rarely gets a head of steam going before 11, I knew that I was too early for anything fun to happen, but just as glad of it.
I had recently started drinking alcohol again after a three year hiatus, so I thought that that night might be a good test for me. Go downtown early, have a few social drinks, and leave before I got too loaded. No such luck.
Walking into Club Toast I immediately turned left to go to the office when I saw the three or so people in the club. Nothing happening yet, I thought to myself. I might as well go shoot the shit with Dennis, the owner.
I walk into the office and Dennis tells me that a couple of the guys from Matchbox 20 are in the club having a few drinks. I think “Oh boy, rock stars,” and lame ones at that! Matchbox 20 are in town the night before their show at Memorial Auditorium and are trying to be just like regular folks. It’s probably in their contract. Dennis tells me they’re really nice guys. Sure.
So being Critic Boy, I walk out and get myself a Guinness and spy out the scene. Yep. There two of them are, chatting with each other and having a beer. So I ask the one I recognize from the videos (Rob, the lead singer) if he wants to shoot some pool. Being practically the only ones in the bar at that time of night, he acquiesces and we proceed to play.
They introduce themsleves as Rob and Paul. I say I recognize them as who they are and they accept that without too much attitude. Paul turns out to be the drummer. I didn’t know that, because Matchbox 20 is not a band I care to listen to. In fact for a time I was incensced at them for the brand of moderate, bland, romantic and crappy rock they play and I blamed them for the state of rock ‘n’ roll being as shitty as it is.
But that was soon to change.
The three of us end up having a few. I bought a round of drinks, which I think surprised them a bit; they must be used to playing the big shots and paying for everything. We talked and gave each other our backgrounds (where we were from, how long we’ve lived wherever, what we do, it was obvious to me what they did. You guys play bad rock music for lots of money, right?)
Then people started to show up. I was just hanging out with these guys and all of a sudden once the crowd arrived, there were eyes on us. Occassionally someone would come up and talk to our table. While they couldn’t recognize me, they tried to, considering the company I was keeping.
Before we left, however, one amazing thing happened: As I was playing pool against some random guy, he turns to me and asks me what instrument I play in the band. Granted, I had some cool rock stubble on my face and I was wearing a stylishly retro-collared shirt, but I faltered and told him that I was not in Matchbox 20. Why would I say I was in a band I didn’t like? No, I’m the drummer for Fugazi.
I told this to my new rock star buddies and they laughed and suggested that next time I should say I played keyboards and/or I was the publicity guy.
So after a few more rounds, it was time to leave. We all needed a change of pace. The obscure hits of the 80’s earlier in the night had started to be superceded by the mega hits of that decade and that wasn’t much fun for three guys who had grown up during that era. It was time for change of scenery. Besides Rob was getting a little freaked out by this adoring teenage girl who was staring at him all evening and acting like an idiot. I had fun goofing on her, but they gave me looks like “Oh no, not again.”
So off we go to The Metronome to listen to some house/techno music and there is a good crowd that night. And by this time we are all feeling pretty good with all the drinks in us. Me, I’m still trying to maintain some semblence of tact before finally I had to bring up the fact that I wasn’t too impressed with their music.
So we keep talking and laughing at The Metronome. I got a chance to introduce them to some of my friends and co-workers who looked at me with strange eyes of “How do you know these guys?” and I am laughing hysterically to myself because I am partying with Top 40 rock stars, and I come to the realization that their world is all bullshit anyways, and the distance that the rock world sets up between fans and bands is absolutely ridiculous.
People started circling around our table. They would sit near us and then slyly strike up a conversation. All I got was “Are you in the band?” “Yes, I play keyboards” And then my conscience got the better of me and when I was honest and say “no, not really” they were quickly disinterested.
So the night wears on and the partying continues. We go back to Toast, but have to quickly duck into RJ’s in order to throw off the same underage girl/fan who has camped in front of Nectar’s waiting for Rob to come back out. Rob tells me that while he appreciated it all as a sign of approval, he’s getting a little tired of it.
Strange, because fame is what Americans crave, and here they were — deep within the star factory and they were unimpressed — thankful, but unimpressed.
I was impressed by these guys as people, if not as a band. Here they were, they have three songs in the Top 20, they are being bashed on all sides by critics and making a ton of dough doing what all kids in bands wish they could do. Rob Thomas has been described by VH1’s “Pop Up Video” as “The Death of Rock N Roll”. Any band that can manage to inspire that much hostility from over-cool elitists is starting to be okay with me.
And they are nice guys. Down to earth. Pleasant. They didn’t take themselves too seriously at any point during the night. They were up front about the super-popularity of their music, and knew that it could all end overnight. They seemed to think it was rather silly, but could only do what they could, play what they could play, and the money they were making was worth putting up with the shit they had to.
While certainly having a good time with their newfound wealth, they told me they were stashing it away for the future, because they figured that their time in the sun could soon be displaced by the next biggest thing.
By this time I had told them I was a critic of sorts. With the beers in me, I have a tendency to be brutally honest, and I was pretty up front about why I didn’t dig their tunes and the best part was…. they didn’t mind!!! They took it in stride. They even kept buying me beers. Hell, I catch more ego flack from the local bands I review. Rob understood why people might not like their music, and was totally cool with it. When I expressed my less than positve opinion, he could have been a dick and pulled some sort of prima donna shit, but he didn’t. That impressed me.
What’s more, they never sought out the spotlight during the night. In fact they seemed to be more content just going with the flow. They were friendly enough to people who just wanted to say hi, and to those excited fans they were pleasant and cheerful and not aloof. They didn’t try to work the crowd or pose. They seemed pretty content to sit in the corner and watch the night progress, do some drinking with some random guy they met in a bar in Burlington.
And it was strange, because they kept telling me how nice it was to visit a town where the people were so cool and mellow and they gave me props for being a nice guy and all, but they seemed super-appreciative for the chance to hang out and chill in a mellower scene than they were used to, without all the hype of their Top Forty world.
By this time Paul had left to go get some rest at the hotel, but Rob and I eneded up staying till last call, and then visiting a few more late night houses to continue the bender until the early morn. Business as usual for him, but I was all sorts of out of shape.
And in the late night hours the talk started to get more personal. And while I can’t divulge any of the tawdry specifics of the conversation, it became clear to me that here before me was an isolated man.
He had become a victim of his own success. He was lonely and all he was looking for was the chance to talk to regular people, because in his newfound world of rock stardom, they’re weren’t too many people that gave a shit about him…. only the money his songs could make them. And I felt good that I was able to be a stranger that he could just hang out with and not have to worry about the pressures of it all for a short while.
And that made me kind of sad. So after giving an abrupt and fucked up “I gotta get out of here” I stumbled home with the vague notion that I had partied like a rock star…with rock stars.
Not willing to let this bender die quietly, I called up a friend and she and I went driving around the Vermont countryside that morning, found a swimming hole and I soaked my hangover in it. While in the Vermont wilds, I was glad I wasn’t a rock star, because it wouldn’t be too healthy, and when do they have the chance to go find a swimming hole and just hang out? No wonder, Rob will end up in The Betty Ford Clinic someday.
When we got back into town I finally got the rest I needed. But I was soon awakened, because it was nearing showtime the next evening and having been promised tickets to the night’s show, I was more interested in just saying goodbye to my new rock star buddies than hearing the screams from their teenage fans. Or the songs.
Because Dennis was right. They were nice guys and while I still don’t like their music, it was cool to know that even the crappiest music can be made by the nicest people. And vise versa.
And as I watched Rob onstage, I wondered how the hell he managed to make it through the day, because I was feeling horrible. And it was easy to see that Rob might not have been at the top of his game, either. I could tell he wasn’t feeling all that great by the look in his eyes. The same one I had. That look of over-partying. Which proved once again that rock stars are just like you and me. They get hungover, too.
I never got a chance to say goodbye and/or lie and say “nice show, dude” to my new rock star buddies. The after show gathering was cancelled, probably because Rob wanted to sleep. I know I wanted to.
The whole experience really didn’t teach me anything except that young rock bands should be careful what they wish for. Success brings it its own set of problems. And really successful bands are rarely the good ones. And I also learned a lesson I continue to learn: I am not a good drinker, especially when drinking with rock stars.
Steve Lemcke wishes that the real world would stop bothering him. When he plays Critic Boy, he plays it for the Burlington Free Press. Read his column every Thursday in their Weekend section.