By: Chris Thompson
The sudden passing of former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland stirs up memories of nostalgia and remorse for a gifted performer lost too soon….
Last week, former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland died of a heart attack on his tour bus while asleep before a show. He was in Minnesota, on tour with his latest band, the Wildabouts, and thousands of miles – and thousands of days – away from where everything for him all began, the bars and nightclubs of southern California in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Weiland was just 48 years old, and since those formative years of his youth back in Cali, he had found success, and controversy, numerous times over, from his years with STP, to his time with the rock supergroup Velvet Revolver, and all manner of bands and reunions and solo projects in between. But no matter what form his creative expression took, at the end of the day Weiland was a gifted performer. A talented vocalist and songwriter who seemed to ooze originality. Unfortunately, aspects of this gift were what served to ultimately be his downfall. For me, the news of his passing was mixed with shades of nostalgia for my youth spent adrift in the mystery and intrigue that was Weiland’s delivery on songs like “Plush,” and “Creep,” accompanied by a deep sense of remorse for his struggles, and eventually his death, at the hands of his drug addiction.
When Stone Temple Pilots first came on the scene with their album Core in 1992, I was fifteen years old. I can still remember hanging out upstairs in my friend’s attic bedroom where we’d spend hours after school listening to whatever was popping on the charts at the time. Our hair and clothes were too “different” for our parents’ liking. Our walls were covered in psychedelic posters of our favorite rock legends like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison and legends-to-be like Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain. And our musical tastes were a blend of the old and the new. We’d play CDs for each other after school – Beck just as much as the Grateful Dead or Pavement – and hang out on the floor, our backs against the bed, letting the music we’d discovered wash over us in waves. We’d talk about the songs, the bands, the latest music videos we’d seen on MTV and why we liked the music and how it’d make us feel. Sometimes we got high. Sometimes the music was enough for us. It was the early days of my musical education – a lifelong journey for me – and I can remember how excited I was to finally get my hands on a copy of Core, and spend those afternoons after school immersed in the sea of hard-hitting yet poignant alternative hard rock that STP had created.
It was a fascinating time to be discovering music. Up until those years I had only my parents collection of classic rock and folk albums, plus a healthy dose of “oldies” music blaring out of the old FM radio above the kitchen sink my mother liked to play to guide my musical education. But with the arrival of the nineties, and the popularity and success of acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains, there was suddenly a national focus and a musical appetite for a genre called grunge. It was something that I gravitated toward easily, and Stone Temple Pilots and their dark, hard-hitting, sometimes psychedelic sound led by their mysterious frontman Scott Weiland, while not fully grunge-centric, was just the sort of music my teenage inquisitive and rebellious mind was in the mood for.
To his detractors and critics, Scott Weiland and STP were just another grunge clone existing at the fringes of other bands’ successes. At a time when grunge acts were being snatched up by record labels en masse and thrust onto the public in droves, STP had an uphill battle in proving themselves. But as their popularity grew and their sound evolved, evidenced in Weiland and guitarist Dean DeLeo’s acoustic performance of “Plush” on the MTV show “Headbanger’s Ball,” a lot of the negativity towards their existence began to fade. To this day, Weiland’s vocal performance of that song is considered to be one of the high points of his long career, and to many it was the moment that redefined the band in their eyes. For me it felt like a more relaxed version of their hit song, far more poignant and calm than its hard-rocking counterpart on Core, and it lingered with me, showing up on mixes I’d create for long road trips or mix CDs I’d share with friends.
In November of 1993, STP taped an episode of MTV Unplugged, and offered up a new song for their fans, “Big Empty,” a song that later went on to be included on the soundtrack for the cult-classic film The Crow starring Brandon Lee. This song, and specifically Weiland’s performance, became ingrained in my mind as a teen. It was a defining moment for me musically as I watched Weiland’s rendition of the song unfold on MTV. I recorded it on a VHS tape and watched it repeatedly, closing my eyes and nodding my head in rhythm to the song as its power ebbed and flowed. Weiland’s vocals, DeLeo’s classic slide guitar, the softly droning snare drum, and the low, vibrating hum of the bass all came together to create such a lush and intoxicating wall of sound. The song went on to gain heavy video rotation on MTV in support of The Crow, and has been described by Allmusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine as a “perfect encapsulation of mainstream alienation.” Scott Weiland’s career is littered with these vocal performances. These gifted acts of creativity that belie his vocal versatility – and none more than those he created in the early days of Stone Temple Pilots better define his originality and talents. He was as calm and collected musically as he was abrasive and over the top loud in real life and in his music. He had a depth and a range that swayed from slow and soft as in his acoustic performances with STP to flamboyant and chaotic – as when he would perform live on stage with STP or Velvet Revolver.
To say that Scott Weiland was the frontman of Stone Temple Pilots is an obvious understatement that undercuts his outsized personality. He fit the mold of a heavy metal rocker in every sense of the word, even serving to redefine its appeal and elevate the role. He was Bowie and Morrison and Steven Tyler in his vocal stylings and his dress. He was a vocal chameleon capable of changing his voice – and his sound – as his interests and that of STP drifted from the Beatles to the glam rock of Bowie and beyond. STP was one of the most commercially successful bands to come out of the ‘90s grunge era, but never really a part of the scene except only in coincidence or forced comparison to their contemporaries. As they evolved through the nineties so did their sound, with their follow up to core, Purple, further cementing their success, and their music taking on elements of classic rock, bossa nova, and psychedelic rock. And during that time they never repeated their musical styles from album to album. But that period of success was also littered with highs and lows for the band, due in large part to Weiland’s struggle with drug addiction, which ultimately led to his death last week.
Weiland sings in a characteristic gravelly voice on STP’s hit “Creep,” that he’s “half the man he used to be,” and I can’t help but imagine a world in which Scott Weiland never died. Never struggled with drug addiction and battled his other half for the supremacy of his soul. It’s a world where STP continued to refine their sound, and continued to put out album after album of kick ass, hard rocking music full of layered, distorted guitar and loungy, ragtime bass, flush with the dynamic and musical prowess of Weiland’s gifted vocals. It’s a world where I can revisit that young kid of fifteen, discovering Weiland and STP for the first time up in my friend’s attic bedroom and getting lost in the power of their sound, again and again, and I’m saddened that with Weiland’s passing, there’s a finality to that world never coming about.