Thoughts on Scott Weiland
“The Grunge Monkees.” That’s what I called Stone Temple Pilots back when I wrote about music full time. Here was a band derided by critics—and many other musicians—who nevertheless managed to move units and lord over the airwaves right up to our very present. In retrospect, my pithy description seems unfair. STP had something going on, but it certainly wasn’t hip. And at the end of the day, who cares?
The band started off awful, but following their alternative-by-numbers debut, they delivered a pair of records that I begrudgingly admit weren’t the worst thing ever. In fact, STP’s growth was pretty remarkable. Some of this can be credited to singer Scott Weiland, the oddly endearing, perennially troubled numbskull who was found dead on his tour bus last night.
I woke up this morning as I often do — with my wife putting a cup of coffee in front of my face and saying nice things. Today was a little different, though. “Um, I just want to tell you before you see it elsewhere: Scott Weiland is dead,” she said in a tone at odds with the silliness and snark that his name usually elicits.
Everyone knows Weiland was a total joke, right? So why did I feel bad upon hearing the news? Is it because he’s only six years older than me? I mean, here’s someone I’d ridiculed since he arrived on the scene, whose lyrics are nonsensical twaddle that can’t even qualify as pretentious, because that would require some degree of self-awareness on behalf of their author. His death was certainly no surprise — Weiland openly struggled with substance abuse, and odds were even whether he was strung out or halfway cogent at any given moment. Recent solo performances are all over the map, and he even managed to piss off his most loyal fans by failing to deliver promised rewards from the Pledgemusic campaign for his final album. Weiland was an subject of enduring ridicule and occasional scorn, yet it’s hard to picture anyone—myself included—celebrating his demise.
As an artist, Weiland’s faults were part of his difficult-to-reconcile charm. You’d be hard pressed to find a worse lyricist: “Where ya going for tomorrow / Where ya going with the mask I found / And I feel, and I feel when the dogs begin to smell her / Will she smell alone?” he sings on “Plush,” from STP’s debut. And there are many, many more examples. You can probably dial a few up in your mind right now. I suppose that’s a legacy of some kind.
Weiland endured harsh criticism right out of the gate. His annoying yarl — at best inauthentic, at worst plagiaristic — was easy to mock; a limited vocal range and persistent air of befuddlement made him an even bigger target. Oddly, as drugs and cigarettes weakened his voice, he became more interesting, perhaps even original. The singer whose reedy caw colors Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop is miles away from the counterfeit baritone of the band’s debut. Grading on the curve, or due credit? With Weiland, it’s always been a tough call.
Stone Temple Pilots and their ne’er-do-well frontman scored numerous radio hits, some of which have become classics of the era. Now, I’ve always thought that a good pop song is a good pop song. And they’re not easy to write. “Interstate Love Song,” with its pilfered Zeppelinisms and subtle twang, is a fine example. And what an incredible trick to get millions of people — many of whom have perfectly good taste — to sing along to lines like “Feelin’ like a hand in rusted shame / So do you laugh or does it cry? / Reply?”
Weiland brought an air of unpredictability to mainstream music at a time when it was in short supply. Both Purple and Tiny Music came out after Kurt Cobain’s death in March 1994. Other edgy artists of the era had already begun to wane — Perry Farrell was mid-transition from visionary psychopomp to anodyne imposter; Trent Reznor fumbled and flaked until he reemerged as a steroidal company man in the new millennium; Axl Rose — whose spot Weiland kinda-sorta took in the post-Guns N’ Roses frat party Velvet Revolver — spent more than a decade playing dollhouse with his own tribute act. By the late ’90s, Weiland was just about the only rock ’n’ roll frontman left in America. Which is fairly ridiculous when you think about it.
In many ways, he got extremely lucky. Weiland’s STP bandmates Dean and Robert DeLeo are legitimately talented musicians who weren’t afraid to get weirder as the years wore on. They matched Weiland’s borrowed Bowie-isms with scuzzy garage rock and muscular psychedelia, rarely losing sight of the hook. Where the formula worked, it worked well. And where it didn’t, well, there were Weiland’s terrible lyrics and batshit boasting to keep us entertained.
Weiland’s two solo albums aren’t awful, but they’re not great, either. 12 Bar Blues, from 1998, was ambitious but unfocused, with occasional glimpses of what might have blossomed into credible songwriting under different circumstances. Less can be said for his latest record, released in 2015 and featuring ho-hum hired guns The Wildabouts. The biggest problem is the band, which sounds like Weiland’s former act Xeroxed one too many times. The singer listlessly rasps his way through an album’s worth of retrogressive guitar rock, never committing to any one of his borrowed identities. Creative exhaustion is rarely appealing, except in a rubbernecking kind-of-way. But this is Scott Weiland we’re talking about — a guy who scored 16 top ten hits without ever making any real statement. Dissipation was kind of his bag.
It’s easy to understand why Weiland sounded tired on his final record — lawsuits against his former bandmates, emotional fallout from his brother’s fatal drug overdose and uncertain professional status no doubt contributed. It’s not like I was keeping close tabs on his day-to-day, but a relapse seems more than likely. Which is both sad and sadly obvious. The remarkable thing, really, is that he made it this long after his heyday, given that there wasn’t all that much for him to do, say, sing or contribute.
I guess it is possible to burn out and fade away. R.I.P. Scott Weiland.