Scott Weiland: An Appreciation

jamie_weiland_1

“STP last night was one of those rare shows where you strain in hindsight to think of ways it could’ve been much better and come up with air, outside of ‘oh, they didn’t play obscure song A…’ Who cares, when you notice at a particularly heightened moment that 4000 people are singing the lyrics to ‘Plush’ in unison? So good to have them back, happy, energetic, rocking, in full bloom. Great night with Nick and D.”   -Personal Facebook entry, 8/18/10.

Late Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland was just one of those guys, a soul so historically troubled by issues with drug abuse that his end, when it eventually came, would inevitably be heralded online in a procession of shared news links, more often than not containing personal notes to the effect of, “Sad, but not surprising.” Yet, the news of his passing, received ignominiously in just that sort of sober outpouring via my Facebook newsfeed at, like, 2:30 this morning, nevertheless hit me like a punch to the gut. I knew next to nothing about Scott Weiland, really, except that he made a great many people happy, maddened or disappointed a more or less proportional number, including and especially his own bandmates, broke scores of promises and probably more than his share of hearts, and that, in his lyrics and performances, displayed a breadth and depth of feeling far more substantial than critics who rode or discounted him, and the band that made him famous, would’ve thought possible. I only know what I’ve read in the “trades” or fanzines, or seen on TV, or, crucially, what I’ve heard and internalized on album, but that’s enough. I know that, no matter what they say, Scott Weiland’s talent outdistanced his accumulated demons by a fair sight, even though it couldn’t quite outpace them. Even if it turns out that his passing overnight, apparently in his sleep on his tour bus in Minnesota, had nothing explicitly to do with drugs, he still effectively died of complications of drug abuse, which is a heartbreaking thing to have to process. I saw Scott Weiland perform live four times over the years, and have no earthly idea whether he was on the wagon or not, because, happily, it was completely immaterial to the positive experience I had those nights as a fan. I know that he could sing just about anything. The proof, indeed, is everywhere, recorded, immortal, settled for all time. I know that when he tried, he was a truly exceptional figure on stage.

The woods are thick with counterbalancing testimonials, of course, tales that run the gamut between simple, rank unprofessionalism and intervention-worthy acts of personal failure. He seemed to clean up, he seemed to stand tall, then he seemed to relapse again, and the cycle started anew. Now, here we are. All things considered, Weiland’s spotty solo career was at least as long as his tenure as the crooning, sinewy, magnetic focal point of one of the most popular rock bands of the past twenty years. That latter was simultaneously one of the great rock & roll success stories and a stunted, sporadic, entirely messy enterprise that could have, and perhaps should have, become so much more. We might well have gotten exactly as much from Stone Temple Pilots as we should’ve ever expected, but the intermittent tastes, always more sweet than bitter, served not to satiate fans but, rather, made them hungry for more.* On two public occasions, Stone Temple Pilots even attempted to replace him – the first at the very height of their fame, as ostensible side project Talk Show, and the last at its ebb, after an acrimonious split that saw them fire him from the very band he for so many personified. STP’s attempt to continue on in Weiland’s absence with Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington as a mercenary substitute ended after the release of a single EP when Bennington recused himself. What had seemed odd and off-putting in theory proved patently unmoving in practice. It seems especially cruel to criticize a band for the grievous sins of being levelheaded and wanting to continue its lucrative career, but that’s what disgruntled STP fans, myself included, did by the thousands. Bennington never had a prayer. Their coordinated statements attributed his amicable departure to intense time pressures and a desire to dedicate himself “100%” to Linkin Park (ye gods, what a choice), but after multiple years sizzling in the spot-lit crosshairs, Bennington must’ve come to the same uneasy realization his crestfallen band likely did in the late ‘90s: that Stone Temple Pilots without Scott Weiland is purely and simply wrong, at worst a high profile cover band, and, at best, Talk Show reborn, just this time with a non-anonymous singer.

*To wit, I remember thinking the band’s self-titled 2010 reunion album, derided by many as hammy and inconsequential upon its release, was, instead, fairly marvelous, and slotted well onto the mantle containing STP’s best work. I had the honor of singing its rocking, purposeful lead single, “Between the Lines”, with the house band at a friend’s wedding.

The very thought seems amazing when one considers how polarizing the band was in its earliest days. I was a college freshman in 1992, when STP’s debut Core dropped as a simultaneous hard rocking antidote to the overly arty, creeping, ever-expanding reach of grunge rock and, funnily enough, a spectacular amalgamation/distillation of that genre’s central principles. Polished, powerful, and set well apart from anything else I was listening to, Core immediately owned my life and that of my small but tight group of friends on campus, with a pre-eminence as the provider of the tune in my head that became a self-fulfilling prophecy that autumn, when I saw them as part of MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball” tour. Here was a band that was, on the basis of its vocals, routinely and reflexively panned as a Pearl Jam clone, serving as the opening act, on the basis of its music, for thrash metal titan Megadeth, who was then at the zenith of its popularity. Somehow, neither piece of shorthand told close to the entire story. STP’s robust sound and mature, inclusive songwriting would’ve, with minimal tweaking, made it a success in multiple eras, but in the early nineties, as a sort of Californian adjunct to the established “Big Four” of grunge, superstardom was immediately within its grasp. The conceptual genius of STP, little noticed or remarked on at the time, was to create an organic sound comprised, more or less equally, of all the most notable aspects of those four standard bearers – from Pearl Jam, soulful hard rock; from Soundgarden, art-metal tendencies with muscular singing; from Alice in Chains, a certain sludgy tonal quality with an emphasis on tasty riffing and melody; from Nirvana, beguiling songcraft, and an informing, abiding love of both The Beatles and ‘70s classic rock, if never (really) punk. To my perhaps unseasoned but wildly receptive ears, Core was a one-of-a-kind album**, nestled comfortably at the Four Corners intersection of grunge, yet, in a tangible sense, still set apart from it. It was a bracing taste of actual nirvana, from which the band would immediately graduate to the even more varied and interesting sonic frontiers of sophomore effort Purple, superstardom, and all the pitfalls that come with it.

**”Core” made a far more immediate impact on me, strangely enough, than did another album that shared its September 29, 1992 release date and would eventually rocket past it to become one of my top five albums of all time – “Dirt” by Alice in Chains. That’s how rare the air STP breathed was to me, from the very beginning.

In the process, Weiland went from being a sore thumb to armchair critics who lacked basic listening comprehension skills, to a frontman par excellence, to a throwback, capital-R Rock Star, with all its positive and negative connotations, while his bandmates became the underappreciated secret weapons both pushing matters forward and keeping everything together. Neither half of Stone Temple Pilots was ever sufficient without the other, though each would find ample opportunity to press and prove that issue definitively. I never paid much attention to STP’s internal drama at the time, because metal was increasingly on my mind, and because the bit of it most directly connected to the release or withholding of either new music or live music, the only matters of real concern to me, occurred before the full flowering and eventual omnipresence of social media. Instead, the toll that Weiland’s drug abuse was surely taking on himself and/or the band I loved was an understood but still comparatively obscure matter. The rise of Talk Show coincided with the release of Weiland’s debut solo album, the moody, unexpected 12 Bar Blues, and both bombed. The two factions, sufficiently humbled by/for the moment, reconvened for a monster comeback, 1999’s No. 4, followed by an acrimonious, underwhelming exit from the stage with 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da, an album whose incongruity and general flippancy were clearly reflected in its title. From 1996’s spunky li’l clunker Tiny Music right up to the band’s pleasant, self-titled, 2010 curtain call, STP albums were generally cut from one of two sets of cloth, either reproducing the hard-charging formula of Core or following the more esoteric path of Purple, though each subsequent longplayer contained strong hints of/references to both of STP’s lasting successes. During this post-stardom, pre-implosion period (leaving out the eponymous reunion LP), Weiland, forever in the act of trying on new personas, burnishing his personal sense of style or swagger, or expanding his already impressive vocal range, became the most consistently interesting thing about the band, which began to largely go through the motions the further removed it found itself from those galvanizing initial bursts of creativity.

Bands are like marriages, goes the old axiom – they endure or they deteriorate – but successful bands often also have the feel, if not necessarily the look, of shooting stars, particularly when an untimely death is involved. Nirvana, whose dramatic demise in 1994 would likely break the internet today, was one of those bands legitimately, as was its Seattle grunge forebear Mother Love Bone. Alice in Chains, by comparison, took a long time to finally come to rest (only to rise again years later), but the demise of Layne Staley, a brooding, talented, and similarly chemically demonized singer who, even more than Weiland, both existed and was taken ahead of his time, still felt like the sudden loss of something substantial, likely because of the years of intervening radio silence. That speaks in part to why the news of Scott Weiland’s passing hit me so hard this morning. I obviously have substantial personal capital invested in the music of Stone Temple Pilots. That can’t and absolutely does not go away overnight, or because, for whatever reason, you just haven’t heard those old songs in a long time. Now it’ll never go away. As I lay awake in bed at 3:00 this morning, I turned for solace, as I so often do on far less melancholy occasions, to my ridiculously stocked Windows Media Player. Six albums worth of STP, once pressed into service, wouldn’t fail me. Here was “Glide” from No. 4, with its soaring chorus, followed by that album’s insinuating, enveloping closer, “Atlanta”, in which Weiland’s vocals practically ache audibly with the supreme effort of leaving the past behind. I found myself instinctively drawn to Weiland’s more intimate recorded moments over his brash rock songs. There were many to choose from. Here was the gorgeous “Still Remains” from Purple, followed by the plaintive, acoustic “Pretty Penny”, followed, as almost certainly must be the case, by the minor key grandeur of “Big Empty”. His voice – bold and resonant yet vulnerable, effortlessly chameleonic, simultaneously warm and smoky – was a terrific thing, though hardly inimitable. I do a somewhat credible version of “Interstate Love Song” at karaoke from time to time. Ooh, that reminded me. I sang along under my breath, wondering if I’d ever sing it for someone else again. The desk clock read 3:30AM. I had work (later) in the morning. I couldn’t stay up all night. “Time to take her home,” came the echoes, this time without the song, sang subconsciously under my breath. “Her dizzy head is conscience-laden.” I closed my eyes and sighed. By and by, I laid my own dizzy head to sleep.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about rock stars lately, mostly voluntary, inspired by recent crosstalk remembrances of my favorite ever of that vintage, Queen’s legendary Freddie Mercury, on the 24th anniversary of his own untimely death. I dug hard into the archives. It was a form of personal prayer, no fooling, or just about as close as I ever get. I closed my eyes and listened to “Somebody to Love” and “I Want to Break Free”. I watched Queen’s full 20-minute performance at 1985’s Live Aid, in which he held 70,000 people in the palm of his hand and played them like an orchestra conductor. I wanted to cry all over again. The continuum, consisting of all the voices of whom we as music fans had been robbed, stretches from Scott Weiland to Staley to Cobain to Mercury, to Gaye to Lennon to Presley, to Hendrix to Joplin to Morrison, to Holiday to Holly to Domino, and literally dozens upon dozens more, back to Robert Johnson and his deal with the devil down at the crossroads. We don’t get them back, ever, and perhaps Scott Weiland, the slinky, accomplished, rail thin blues diva who looked so eerily like the late Sid Vicious’ shirtless doppelganger in the video to Velvet Revolver’s “Slither”, doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in company of this caliber, but he shares one thing in common with them. Besides being a disarming vocal talent, he was a bona fide rock star, a strutting peacock of the Jagger mold cross-pollenated with much of the mystery and intangible danger of an Axl Rose, and easily among the greatest pure rock stars my generation produced. For as many people as his music made inordinately happy, they all feel his loss today, whether they thought of him last the other night or a decade ago. We don’t get them back, but nor do we lose them altogether. Today I find myself missing Scott Weiland’s voice most of all. Lucky thing I won’t have to for long.

Because I can’t help myself, here’s a hastily-assembled personal STP greatest hits countdown:

  1. “Big Empty” from Purple (1994)
  2. “Dead & Bloated” from Core (1992)
  3. “Down” from No. 4 (1999)
  4. “Interstate Love Song” from Purple (1994)
  5. “Where the River Goes” from Core (1992)
  6. “Vasoline” from Purple (1994)
  7. “Atlanta” from No. 4 (1999)
  8. “Wicked Garden” from Core (1992)
  9. “Still Remains” from Purple (1994)
  10. “Glide” from No. 4 (1999)
  11. “Crackerman” from Core (1992)
  12. “First Kiss on Mars” from Stone Temple Pilots (2010)
  13. “Meatplow” from Purple (1994)
  14. “Coma” from Shangri-La Dee Da (2001)
  15. “Sex Type Thing” from Core (1992)
  16. “Between the Lines” from Stone Temple Pilots (2010)
  17. “Kitchenware & Candybars” from Purple (1994)
  18. “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart” from Tiny Music (1996)
  19. “Creep” from Core (1992)
  20. “Art School Girl” from Tiny Music (1996)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s