It’s something of a tasteless remark, but not untrue, that the biggest surprise in Scott Weiland’s death was how late in his life it happened. The singer of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver has spent more than twenty years fighting his demons, including his diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, in the public eye. The cycle was always the same: Weiland’s on drugs, goes to rehab, goes back on drugs, gets arrested, goes to rehab, puts out new music, goes back on drugs, gets kicked out of his own band, goes to rehab. Repeat as unnecessary. His addiction to drugs, most notably heroin, came to be the defining aspect of his life just as it will likely be revealed to be the defining aspect of his death.
And that’s a shame. Scott Weiland was also a remarkably good rock singer, capable of a sweet croon, a sultry Morrison-esque baritone, and a raging rasp. He had a finely tuned sense of melody, far superior to Kurt Cobain (who usually gets the credit for putting melody into alternative rock). Stone Temple Pilots’s songs could be crushing hard rock, but they were almost always very catchy. His idols were David Bowie and the Beatles, and he displayed the former’s chameleonic, mercurial showmanship with the sturdy melodic lines of the latter, all set to an alt-rock attack that carried more than a few hints of glam and psychedelia.
When STP released their first album, Core, they were dismissed by critics as Pearl Jam clones, and there was more than a hint of Eddie Vedder’s “Jeremy” mannerisms in STP’s “Plush” video, but the comparison of the two bands was always lazy. Aside from both Weiland and Vedder having deeper voices than was common in rock at the time, and aside from them being guitar-based bands, there was very little overlap between them. Pearl Jam worshiped at the shrine of Pete Townshend and the Who; STP sped up Bowie and combined it with Black Sabbath-style riffing. Core was a huge hit, spawning no fewer than four successful singles (“Sex Type Thing”, “Plush”, “Wicked Garden”, and “Creep”) but the dirty secret of such a successful album was that it really wasn’t very good. Yes, the singles were excellent, and the album tracks “Dead and Bloated” and “Crackerman” were equally good, but the rest of the album was mediocre at best. I bought it on the strength of “Plush”, but didn’t anticipate ever buying another album from them.
Then Purple came out, heralded by the song “Big Empty” from the soundtrack of the movie The Crow. I bought Purple based on hearing “Interstate Love Song”, the best song the band ever did and one of the best songs of the entire decade. The album was almost breathtakingly heavy, its relentless pace softened only by “Pretty Penny”, “Big Empty” and the closing “Kitchenware and Candybars”, but it never seemed that way because of Weiland’s melodic gifts.
Other albums followed, and the band explored their roots, mixing heavy and trippy, pummeling riffs and acoustic ballads. It’s somewhat ironic that their first, best-selling album is also their worst, the sound of a young band finding their way.
The guiding light of the band was always Scott Weiland, but his troubles were so deep he was repeatedly fired from the band he led, only to be brought back when his bandmates recognized how important he was to their success. In the downtimes, he released solo albums that suffered from a lack of constraints on his excesses, and teamed up with former Guns ‘n’ Roses players to form the short-lived Velvet Revolver, who eventually fired him for being so unreliable. Despite his problems, his gifts remained undiminished.
Whether Weiland died from a drug overdose or because his body simply gave out after years of abuse is irrelevant. A gifted singer and melodist, a strong songwriter (with admittedly weak lyrics), and an electrifying performer is now gone at the age of 48. His band was possibly the best singles band of the 1990s, with their only real competition for that title being Smashing Pumpkins. Scott Weiland wasn’t a musician; he was a rock star. One of the last we’ll ever see. RIP.