When Under the Table and Dreaming first appeared in 1994, it garnered mostly positive reviews: People hailed it as sporting "a beguiling sound all its own," while the New York Post dubbed it "hypnotic." But within a matter of months, all that changed. In the years since, People called Matthews's work "too precious and ephemeral," the New York Times repudiated it for being "scattered and unmemorable," and the Boston Herald described Matthews's once-lauded voice as a Sting knockoff.
What caused this switch? Westword posted that question in various Dave Matthews Band chat rooms accessible via the Internet and received more than a hundred responses. "Dave Matthews doesn't fit into traditional pop-music genres," wrote one Matthews defender. "Critics have their own idea of what the family tree of pop music should look like. They helped determine a lot of the early roots and branches. They are still desperately trying to connect and categorize every band to that tree. The Dave Matthews Band doesn't fit in, so how can he be important, or great, if it doesn't fit into their system?" Another correspondent argued that Matthews's way with a hook leads scribes to underrate him: "Why do critics lump them with bands who don't [have talent]? I believe it is because many of their songs have a catchy effect that draws in the average listener, just like Hootie & the Blowfish. This effect is created by patterns in chord progressions that are pleasing to the ear of the average listener. What sets Dave Matthews and his band apart is the fact that those chord progressions are accompanied by very different instruments and harmonies, and they all flow together very nicely due to the talent of the members."
Other Matthews aficionados charged that journalists began jumping on the Get-Dave bandwagon after the appearance of a single influential review: a slam from the pen of Jim DeRogatis, then a senior editor at Rolling Stone, that dismissed Crash as "typically banal" and charged the Dave Matthews Band with "vying to continue the ideals of [the Grateful Dead]." DeRogatis allowed that Matthews had "a slight edge over his peers" but noted, "That's sort of like saying you prefer vanilla ice cream to vanilla frozen yogurt."
In conversation, DeRogatis, now a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to Westword's sister paper, the Los Angeles New Times, has even more nasty things to say about Matthews. "Dave Matthews's music is weak, boogie shit. It's characterless, bogus nostalgia for a time that was never that great to begin with--just Sixties bullshit." As for Matthews's place in music history, he notes, "I have this theory that it all has to do with lame-ass white people who couldn't dance--who were doing that Grateful Dead wriggle dance. It's like pseudo-hippie, but it's really people who are fucking stockbrokers putting on tie-dyed shirts and going to this concert and drinking Bud Light and thinking it's a psychedelic experience."
If DeRogatis sounds bitter about Matthews, he has a right to be: The circumstances surrounding the Crash review eventually cost both him and his editor, Keith Moerer, their jobs at Rolling Stone. He now refers to the event as "the great Hootiegate incident of '96."
As DeRogatis tells, Moerer (who also writes for the L.A. New Times) originally assigned him to write a joint review of new releases by Matthews, the Spin Doctors and the aforementioned Hootie & the Blowfish intended to "get to the root of why all this stuff sucked." Then, shortly before the issue containing the piece was scheduled to go to print, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner "blew a gasket," DeRogatis reveals. "Originally, what Keith thought was that he didn't want to put Hootie in with these other two bands because it was too big a record. So I retooled the review and took Hootie out, and I said separately that Hootie sucks and kept Matthews and the Spin Doctors together and said they sucked, too."
To put it mildly, Wenner was not placated. He screamed at DeRogatis that he couldn't say such awful things about Hootie, a band that, after all, had sold thirteen million copies of its debut recording. (DeRogatis notes that Wenner didn't mention Matthews in his tirade because by comparison with the Blowfish, "he didn't sell any records.") Wenner subsequently assigned another critic to write a more positive review of Fairweather Johnson, the Hootie album in question, and showed DeRogatis and Moerer the door.
As a result of this power play, DeRogatis's review of Crash was his last for Rolling Stone. But plenty of people still recall it--including Matthews. "Yeah, he gave us two stars, I remember that," he confesses. He's conciliatory about reviewers in general: "It's a difficult thing--to be a critic and to have your own voice. Who's to say what makes a good critic? It's a job I'm happy to leave up to you all." But, he adds, "when you get a vicious critic, well, maybe he didn't get laid the night before." As for DeRogatis's opinions about Crash, Matthews says, "The first possibility is that he just generally thought we were bullshit, which is more unfortunate for him than it is for me, because I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. My advice to someone who is so embittered--because he seemed angry--would be to make his own record so he can do it right."
"Oh, that's silly," DeRogatis replies. "Only somebody who's completely self-obsessed--like a rock star--can think, 'How on earth can somebody think my music sucks?' Wake up, Dave: There's lots of people in the world who think you suck! I enjoyed writing that review. I think I write better reviews than he writes music. I'm rarely boring, and he is. What's with those sixteen-minute jams, anyway? Genesis did it better on 'Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.'"
Nonetheless, DeRogatis saves his choicest words for Wenner, whom he calls "the anti-Christ as far as rock and roll goes. He's a starfucker, and he's the reason Rolling Stone has sucked since 1968, the year after they started. It's all about stardom and celebrity, and it always has been. Keith and I were just kind of duped, because they said, 'Rolling Stone needs to change or die. We want you to come in here; we need what you do.' So we thought that maybe that was a mandate to try something. But the minute we got there we had fucking Jenny McCarthy and Jennifer Aniston on the cover, so we were losing from the day we arrived. As a matter of fact, the first cover we worked on was Garcia being dead, so it was an omen of things to come."
The real victims of this mentality, DeRogatis believes, are music lovers. "I firmly believe that one of the problems in rock criticism today is that it's gotten too damn polite. You listen to sports-talk radio and some columnist can say that Michael Jordan's an overpaid hack, and then for a whole week, everybody's going to fight about it at the bar. And you know what? It's a lot of fun.
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"Now here we are in a day and age when Rolling Stone, supposedly the world's greatest rock-and-roll magazine, is too fucking chickenshit to run a negative review of Hootie & the Blowfish because it thinks its readers are too stupid--even if they like Hootie or Dave Matthews--to even tolerate a negative opinion. If you're a Dave Matthews fan and you passionately believe that this is a great band, maybe you read my review and said, 'This guy is full of shit. He's wrong because...' And you know what? I've stimulated you to think."
The chat room assaults on DeRogatis indicate that Matthews's devotees didn't appreciate his efforts, but the writer isn't about to back down. "King Sunny Ade could kick Dave Matthews's ass any day of the week," he contends. "I think the only thing Jim DeRogatis and Dave Matthews would agree upon is that Rolling Stone sucks royally."
He's right. According to Matthews, "Rolling Stone always has both thumbs packed firmly in their asses."