When a jam band launches an album that was released at number one on the Billboard Charts, knocking off the 16-week chart reign of the “Titanic Soundtrack”, you know something special is going on (Before These Crowded Streets). When the first single on that album, gets to the number four spot on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and it’s one of the darker songs on the album, you have to listen to it (Don’t Drink The Water). “Don’t Drink the Water” by the Dave Matthews Band was the first single off of their 3rd studio album Before These Crowded Streets and it is a monster of a song.
This song, in its most basic context, is about the ousting of native people from their rightful land by an outsider. In this case it’s about Europeans coming to America and ousting and killing the Native Americans. Dave Matthews explained his story during VH1’s Storytellers: "… if you sit and look at the Grand Canyon… and just imagine the quiet that must have been there and the people that enjoyed it before we came, and I just get awed because it's sort of an overwhelming feeling looking at those things just going, ‘man does that suck, does it suck (Don’t Drink The Water by The Dave Matthews Band).’” He felt remorse about the people who were killed and unlawfully moved when they lived peacefully and in such tranquil areas. Of course, like all great songs this is not the only interpretation a person can have. It can be about a disease that unforgivingly wipes out a group or people. It can also mean a person who is selfish in his or her decisions and those decisions negatively affect other people. The beauty of lyrics is that anyone can have their own interpertation of the lyrics, this song is no different.
Dave Matthews never says “natives” or “killing” in this song. He writes these lyrics from the persepctive of the invader. His mind set is heartless and guiltless. The verses are a call to the natives saying “leave”. In the second part of the Chorus he threatens the natives with death. The invader thinks the land is rightfully his in the lyrics, “There's no place here/What were you expecting/Not room for both/Just room for me.” In the Bridge the invader talks about how he is happy with the work he has done and how he will live with these emotions the rest of his life (Dmbalmanac). “Don’t Drink the Water/There’s Blood in the Water”, represents the natives saying don’t live on this land this land is tainted and was taken at a bloody price. It is a bold and a dark message. Dave Matthews is an immigrant from South Africa so he himself has an outsider’s view of America.
This song was composed in Drop D tuning, which means the Low E string on the guitar is tuned down to a D. This gives a song a much fuller and darker sound. The verse arrangement is just a droning D chord with variation by the banjo and sax. The second part of the Chorus and the first part of the Bridge have the exact same chords but sound completely different thanks to violin and dynamic differences (Dmbtabs). The use of the Banjo in this song gives a very story-telling feeling. It also gives the song a little country flavor, which you don’t hear in many dark songs. Tim Reynolds’ electric guitar adds tension in the second half of the song. Boyd Tinsley’s string work layers the song beautifully and gives the song a real mad feeling towards the ending. The rhythm section works perfectly together and doesn’t conflict with each other at all. The Dave Matthews Band is a group of world class musicians and this song and album showcase that talent perfectly.
Dave Matthews sings this song like he is a story teller. Up until the “Don’t Drink The Water” portion of the song his voice soars partially due to the echo that is added to his voice. His natural scatting sounds very Indian-like. In the build up to the “Don’t Drink The Water” portion his voice steadily grows in intensity. When the climax of “Don’t Drink The Water” finally comes he sounds like a twisted angry person and the backing instruments echo that feeling. Alanis Morissette’s vocals are very haunting in this recording. Her vocals, in the bridge, are more like yells and they add a lot of emotion to the song. It sounds like the yells of the Indians with the words of the Europeans. They are also in the background which sounds like torture and entrapment.
The band was going through some dark times when they wrote and recorded this record. This really comes out on songs like “The Last Stop”, “Halloween”, “The Stone”, and of course “Don’t Drink The Water”. They didn’t want to record “Don’t Drink the Water”. Carter Beauford , the drummer for Dave Matthews Band, referred to it as a nagging toothache. When they were finished recording it, they were really pissed off with everything and left the studio angry at each other. Steve Lilywhite, the producer, made them listen to it the next day and they really loved the raw emotion they put into it (DMB in studio 1998-BTCS). That emotion really comes out when you listen to the final product.
“Don’t Drink the Water” is an amazing song. It’s arrangement is beautifully crafted with skilled musicians guesting and starring. Matthews’ lyrics are poetically written and sung with such intensity that it shakes your heart. The bridge of the song is heavy and demands attention. The whole song has a dark feel to it, but it’s not stero-typical or middle-eastern sounding. It is the 20th most beloved Dave Matthews song as voted by fans (Top 50). It got on the first volume of “The Best of What’s Around,” which is a DMB greatest hits album. It’s a frequent Dave Matthews Band show opener and it brings a lot of energy live. The story of the song is most closely related to Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” which is currently on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs list (Top 500). “Don’t Drink the Water” is a powerful song with a masterful arrangement and it conveys a message that is still relevent today. Much like “Cortez the Killer”, “Don’t Drink the Water” belongs in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Song List.