Something to Be

By Ross von Metzke

Originally published on Advocate.com June 12 2009 12:00 AM ET

When Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins used the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony as a soapbox to speak out against Haitians being detained in Guantanamo Bay for having HIV, they got themselves barred from ever attending the Oscars again. Two years later, they attended together -- and Sarandon won for Dead Man Walking .

Years before that, Jane Fonda was labeled a traitor to her country for her vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. Now, though some still question her tactics, Fonda is considered a pioneer and a hero by liberal antiwar activists.

There's nothing new about celebrities going out on a limb to shine the light on inequality and injustice -- but it doesn't change the fact that when they do, rest assured, they get attacked.

Take Rob Thomas -- smart, talented, certainly good-looking. As front man for the band Matchbox Twenty, he racked up a slew of hits. Partnering with Carlos Santana for the smash hit "Smooth" paved the way for a successful solo career, which has so far yielded the hits "Lonely No More" and the current chart-topper "Her Diamonds."

Up until recently, you'd have been hard-pressed to find much of anyone who has anything particularly negative to say about Thomas. Then he called Pat Robertson the devil.

He did it on Twitter ("If I believed in the devil, Pat Robertson might be him," were his exact words), and the hate mail started to flood in.

But that was just the beginning. The reference to Robertson was part of a bigger "Twitter-versy," as Thomas calls it. Thomas's big issue of the hour? "Why two people of the same sex shouldn't be able to make the same lifelong commitment and (more importantly) under the same god as straight people."

He followed it up with an excellent column for The Huffington Post . Titled "The Big Gay Chip on My Shoulder," the article, which Thomas wrote days before the California supreme court's decision to uphold Prop. 8, references McCarthyism, questions the motives of a "misdirected" Christian right, and suggests that straight people have an obligation to stand with their gay brothers and sisters for basic civil rights.

It's one of the most passionate pleas written on behalf of marriage equality, and it's written by a straight man who simply recognizes the need for "acceptance."

As he prepares for the release of his new album Cradlesong (in stores June 30), Thomas talked to Advocate.com about his passion for equal rights, his night with George Michael, and those "fucking great" rumors that his wife caught him in bed with Tom Cruise.

Advocate.com:It's been four years since your last album, (2005's Something to Be) -- did you finally take a break between projects or were you working the entire time?Rob Thomas: Mostly working, because when we put out the last solo record -- [ laughs ] we… I have a problem with my pronouns, because I'm so used to being in a band. I put out the solo record and then, there was like a year of touring that record. And then, as soon as we were off the road, we took maybe a month or so and started with a Matchbox record -- recording that, promoting that, and touring that. Understand, I've had a real job -- this is better. [ Laughs ] But it just constantly keeps going. Because I chose to have the two jobs of Matchbox and the solo stuff -- this would normally be the break between Matchbox records.

So you're a workaholic, then?Well, you know -- when you love your job, it's easy to not look at it that way. But my wife has to remind me sometimes to take a break.

The album is getting comparisons to all sorts of artists -- INXS, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson. Do you consciously try to channel certain artists when you're writing?Sometimes you do that in the production stage. But for the songwriting I really try to have as little pretense about any of it as I possibly can. I just go into it with a melody in my mind and I follow that melody until it's a song. Then, later on, I worry about, sonically, how it's going to come along.

ROB THOMAS CONCERT X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

You snagged Alicia Silverstone for the "Her Diamonds" video -- it's very different from the stuff she used to do for Aerosmith.Well, and I'm sure that's what she wanted to do. Dave Meyers, who directed the video, and who is just one of the best video directors... he's friends with her. We got out the look books of all the people that people had in mind when we were casting, and it was all of these models, these kind of Maxim girls. Because this song is a metaphor for this girl who has been crying so long, she's literally frozen by her fear and her pain, and because it's an acting job that's all in the face, we needed to have someone who we felt, her face and her eyes could tell the story. Alicia just has one of the most interesting faces, and her eyes are kind of dark, but haunting at the same time. Her idea was the wig, it wasn't mine, but I love the way she came across -- I think she looked amazing.

Well, and congrats, the video looks great.Thank you -- I'm really proud of it.

Another thing you should be proud of, and this is not so much a question as a comment -- your Huffington Post article on marriage equality is truly superb and is getting so much attention.Thank you -- I'm so glad that it has had the resonance that it's had. The Huffington Post is amazing in the sense that they let you write about whatever you want to write about. I could have written about pancakes. But I have a lot of gay friends, and I have a lot of friends who are in long-term relationships. A lot of people, when we talk about these social issues and civil rights issues… because the economy is in such a bad place and we're worried about nuclear war, some people say, maybe this isn't the time to worry about these issues. But if we're not worried about the inner sanctum of our quality of life, then the other stuff doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense to save the earth if you're not saving it for some sort of a purpose. So the idea of how people are allowed to live the days of their lives is more important than ever.

Do you remember when you first became passionate about this topic… I know this isn't the first time you've talked about it. Is there a moment you can pinpoint?I think even in high school -- I was the kid in high school who a lot of the kids stopped hanging out with because they thought I was gay because I had gay friends. But I was never put off by it. If you need to put me down and you think that being gay is a put-down, then you're probably an asshole. I always had that thing where I thought, Really? You think I'm gay? OK, cool. Now, more than ever, with Prop. 8, it's a much more timely issue. And I wrote it a couple of days before the last verdict.

You have a lot of conflicting messages as well -- you have a vice president with a lesbian daughter who, the whole time he was in the White House didn't support gay marriage, but now, all of a sudden, he supports gay marriage. And you have a president who, obviously, I support… but I'm really disappointed in his lack of a stance on the issue as well. The best thing that he's done is try and push it off on the states, which I don't think is a great idea, but it's the only recourse that there is right now, the idea that maybe you can systematically get the states to do it and then it will fall into place. But that's not going to help people in some really red states. It's not going to help people in Tennessee.

One of the things people are accusing Obama of right now is that he's seeming very out of the times on this issue. What's your take on that?I think so. He's a politician. He won the lottery of being the main politician in the world. You can't expect a straight answer. I don't think that now, in this time, this is any more of a relevant issue than it was 10 years ago. I think this was a relevant issue 20 years ago too. I think now, luckily, it's just becoming an issue that more people are passionate about. And the more you see it, the more people realize this isn't an isolated issue, this is all over the world. This is my neighbor, this is my friend, this is my teacher.

ROB THOMAS MARISOL X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Something people seem to have a hard time grasping.Well, if you think about the absurdness and the arbitrariness of the argument... I have friends who are conservative and, when they started talking about the idea of teachers being able to say that they're gay… being able to be openly gay teachers, there was an uproar. They're scared of some sort of gay osmosis happening to them -- they don't want a gay teacher teaching their kids because their kids will be gay. But they don't realize that the teacher's already gay. They're just talking about being able to be openly gay. So it's not some sort of a gay osmosis. If your kid is gay, it's already happened -- it's done.

I always think, "don't ask, don't tell" doesn't just apply to the military -- it applies everywhere. And it's even in our language. We have this idea of tolerance in our community. That's the wrong message to teach. Tolerating something means that in spite of the fact that something is wrong, you'll tolerate it. I'll tolerate that you're gay. I'll tolerate that you're black. I'll tolerate that you're latino. I think we need to teach acceptance and the difference between loving someone for who they are and tolerating them. Even in our vernacular, we teach that. "I'm OK that you're gay." Well, "Fuck you. Of course you are. Why wouldn't you be?" "I'm OK that you're black." "Well good for you, you've validated me. I'm so happy for you." [ Laughs ] It's so embedded in our culture, unfortunately, we still have a lot further to go with people.

Like many celebrities, you've been the subject of gay rumors -- there was, of course, the Tom Cruise rumor. Were you shocked when you read that?Oh come on, that was fucking great.

It was pretty brilliant.Are you kidding me? It could have been me and Screech from Saved by the Bell . But Tom Cruise is a pretty big star. I ran into him a couple of years ago at some NASCAR event and, after everything, it was so surreal. I said, "Hey, hey, come here. You're my boyfriend."

So if the tabloids gave you the opportunity to hook yourself up with someone, who would it be?OK, hold on, let me think. It wouldn't be Tom Cruise -- no offense to him, but… Maybe Snatch -era Brad Pitt. My wife has a crazy crush on Michael Pitt, and I get that one -- he's a cute guy. My wife and I are pretty good at going back and forth on her girl crushes and my guy crushes.

Do you each have a list?Yeah, it's always when you're watching the movies. She's like, "Well, I think he's hot," and I'll say, "Well, I don't get it." We were actually talking about this, certain guys -- remember Val Kilmer during Top Gun . He was this gorgeous guy and then, something happened to him. Not just getting older, but completely becoming this different human being. Same thing happened with Jason Patric -- like in Lost Boys , who was better looking than Jason Patric? And then, boom -- this crazy switch over.

We're starting to notice it happening with Brad Pitt -- he's arguably one of the best-looking men on the face of the earth and, little by little he's starting to make this transformation.

Yeah, well, doesn't he have something like eight kids now? That'll do it to you.[ Laughs ] Yeah, you're right -- God, eight kids.

What do you make of the celebrities who seem to get deeply offended by the gay rumors?I think you definitely have resentment in your heart if those kinds of things bother you. It's telling of their point of view. It would mean when they meet a person who is gay, they think there's something wrong with it -- wrong enough that they don't want it to be them. I'd understand it if somebody said, "Hey, you're a child molester." But if you're Pat Robertson, you don't know the difference. Gay and bestiality and child molestation is all the same, which is why I think he's the devil. But I think it does say something about you, and I think it means you have a certain amount of intolerance, even if you keep it down low and you don't talk about it. You're definitely saying there's something wrong with being gay.

I'm half gay on my mother's side, Ross… I don't know if you know that about me.

Oh, are you?[ Laughs ]

So you've got to tell me the story about you smoking George Michael while you're talking about Pink Floyd's The Wall .Well it started with… I just couldn't believe how much he hated The Wall, and I find that a lot of guys of that age that are English can't stand The Wall because they liked Pink Floyd before and considered that the jumping-off point, whereas me, at 37, that's when I first was introduced to Pink Floyd and then I started listening to the earlier stuff later.

But the smoking -- I know George, he's a friend, we have the same manager, and we hang out when we get a chance… I do this thing where I pretend to smoke celebrities, like a bong. I know that it's the most childish thing you could ever do. That's the reason I do it. When you meet people, and you have a few drinks and talk to them, it's fun seeing who's up for it -- who has the sense of humor where they don't take themselves too seriously, they're up for it. George, of course, was up for it because George doesn't care. So I actually got a great pic of George where he was smoking a spliff and I was smoking his toe.

Not many people can say that.Yeah, George is a good guy. He is, in my opinion, a true gentleman. He even handles his misgivings in a great way. I've never seen someone so eloquently speak up for himself and own up.

So now that the solo album is done and you're ready to hit the road and start promoting it, what are the chances of getting another Matchbox Twenty album sometime soon?Hopefully. We're going to start doing some writing right around the time we start hitting the road for the solo, and then hopefully after I'm done touring, we'll have some stuff ready to get started on. We're so spread out now -- I'm in New York, Paul's in L.A., Kyle's in Nashville, and Pookie's in Florida. We're so spread out we have to be equally inconvenienced now when we make a record.