Sadly, the news of former Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Revolver frontman Scott Weiland’s death last Thursday night at age 48, did not surprise me. No official cause of death beyond cardiac arrest has yet been reported as the reason Weiland was discovered dead inside his band’s tour bus in Bloomington, Minnesota. But given Weiland’s well-publicized struggles with addiction over the years (which contributed to not one, but two separate dismissals from STP, the band he co-founded, as well as repeated arrests, rehab stints, and even jail time), many of us suspected that a tragic, too-early end was probably going to happen sooner rather than later.
Whenever I saw Weiland perform, often in starkly different states of health, I got the same sinking feeling that an awful, ingrained truth brings: that, like British retro-soul singer Amy Winehouse, Weiland wouldn’t be long for this world. He was clearly aware of the fears and expectations of his fans, as well as detractors. In 2011, he released his autobiographical memoir, co-written with author David Ritz. It was pugnaciously titled Not Dead & Not For Sale, andnamed after a lyric in the STP song, “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart.” That track appeared on the band’s most texturally expansive and underrated album, 1996’s Tiny Music … Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop. At the time, both the album’s fate and band’s fortunes were almost immediately derailed due to Weiland’s fast-building drug dependency. STP had no choice but to cancel a planned world tour in support of the record before it had even cooled off on the shelves. Instead, the band went on hiatus and waited on Weiland — a soon-to-be-familiar cycle.
Thinking about the singer’s passing got me thinking about something else, too, which I had not pondered in a very long while. While not its most serious or significant vocalist, among all the musicians who defined the ’90s era of American “grunge” — and by grunge, I mean the clunky marketing term for that murky hybrid of densely dark hard rock dosed with a measure of punk nihilism — Weiland was certainly the music’s most stylish, sexy (or “foxy,” as Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus once called him in the song “Range Life”) and glamorous entertainer.
Twenty years after his suicide, Kurt Cobain has taken his place in the pantheon of rock’s most iconic figures — and the raw, serrated, and self-scorching soul he brought to his band’s music remains the standard by which grunge’s authenticity and aesthetic is measured. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell were the music’s leonine, baritone-bellowing alpha males. And both singers, especially Vedder, have carved out long-running and lucrative careers as new-era classic rockers. Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley, who also met an early death from an overdose, was tragically similar to Weiland in his appetites and addictions.
But as an eye-catching showman and magnetic rock star of the old-school, the ultra-charismatic Weiland beat them all. At the time, many critics tended to dismiss Stone Temple Pilots and their hook-heavy, video-ready tunes as slickly commercial grunge-lite; too flashy and fun to be genuinely dark and despairing. Of course, we all found out soon enough that Scott Weiland’s life had its fair share of personal, actual drama, and more than likely a pretty heavy helping of some drug-induced despair as well.
In contrast to so many of grunge’s deadly earnest frontmen whose act consisted of hanging stiffly on a microphone stand in masculine misery while looking constipated with the pain and torment of their lives, this shock-topped peacock knew how to move, dance, conjure and inhabit a personae and project outward. He understood that attitude is everything when it comes to owning a voice (in every sense of the word). His look was even more chameleon-like than his voice. There’s a reason that, when it came to style, presentation, and affect, the David Bowie comparisons persisted over the years; to those I would add T. Rex’s Marc Bolan — check out the track “Big Bang Baby” from Tiny Music to see what I mean — Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter; the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler; and, depending on what he was into at the time, various members of the Sex Pistols.
Weiland could sneer, he could growl, he could go low or reach high. And whether it was a case of misguided hubris or a genuine belief in his abilities (or a little of both), Weiland wasn’t afraid to try detours — into blues, into Doors covers, even into Christmas carols. To top it off, the guy also understood the importance of wardrobe and dressing for dinner — as opposed to merely pulling on a pair of baggy cargo shorts and beach flip-flops and just showing up for the gig. I was always ambivalent about the so-called grunge sound, and certainly its most overbearing practitioners. But I absolutely hated that uninspired by-product of the music: with precious few exceptions, the drab-flannel dudes in the grey grunge scene had no sense of style whatsoever.
I also wasn’t sold on STP, but they were a tight, muscular band, and Weiland, as its focal point and visual signature, resonated with fans — lots of them. STP won a Grammy for its hit single “Plush,” from the group’s 1992 debut, Core (with Velvet Revolver, a hard rock supergroup that also included Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, G N’ R bassist Duff McKagan, G N’ R/Cult drummer Matt Sorum, and Wasted Youth guitarist Dave Kushner, Weiland would win another statue a decade later for the song “Slither”). The band’s second album, Purple, released in 1994, sold a whopping six million copies and spawned the hits “Big Empty,” “Vasoline,” and “Interstate Love Song,” among others.
When the inevitable STP backlash was in full swing, I remember telling sneering naysayers and grunge purists (whatever that was) that, when it came to my rock stars, I would trade a thousand boring, ham-fisted Eddie Vedders for one slinking, snake-hipped Scott Weiland. And truth be told, being more of an indie-rock fan and something of an Anglophile when it came to the ’90s crop of rock and pop bands, I wasn’t really even an STP fan.
What I was — and always will be — a fan of was rock ‘n’ roll spirit. And Scott Weiland effortlessly brought that spirit with him whenever he strutted onto a stage with his feather boas and orange spiked hair and glittering glam eyeliner. In doing so, he enabled those of us watching and listening to lose ourselves in those huge, buzzing guitar riffs swarming around his voice; to become something other than what we were in the daily grind and mundane circumstances of our lives. Both on stage and record, Weiland enacted a decadent, different kind of reality of unfettered hedonism, risk, and living on the edge, that implicitly invited us to become vicarious participants for one or two hours.
In ways that went beyond the music, Weiland’s troubled, yet unrepentant public personae was his most compelling creation, and his stark physical bearing an ever-evolving/devolving creative installation. It is debatable, of course, whether sudden, massive rock stardom and the personae he picked for it enabled and encouraged Weiland’s addictions, or whether going on stage to play allowed him a temporary respite from his demons. Who knows? Perhaps that rock ‘n’ roll spirit allowed him too, for a little while, to become who and what he wanted to be, rather than who and what he was.
This is the review I wrote in The Boston Globe the last (and, it turns out, final) time I saw and heard Scott Weiland, back in December 2008. I was covering his headlining appearance at a radio station-sponsored, Christmas-themed concert, of all things. (Which wasn’t as odd a scenario as one might think: a few years later, Weiland would release an album of Christmas music entitled The Most Wonderful Time of the Year). At that show seven years ago, he seemed to be channeling a prickly, post-grunge version of a Bad Santa lounge lizard –or a sourly toxic Roxy Music-era Bryan Ferry irritated with the constant demands of a greedy group of children clamoring for ye olde hits. In retrospect, the spectacle was anything but cheerful. It was testy, confrontational, uncomfortable, and a little sad. And in some ways it was vintage Weiland.
WBCN XMAS RAVE
With: Scott Weiland, TAB The Band, The Deal
FOXBOROUGH – Ahh, nothing says Christmas like Scott Weiland. The perennially embattled singer for Stone Temple Pilots and, until he was dismissed last April, Velvet Revolver has been known to enjoy an egg nog or two – and other “naughty things,” as he so succinctly put it at Showcase Live Wednesday, during the second installment of WBCN’s annual “Xmas Rave.”
Yes, he’s been a cartoon caricature of drug-induced self-destruction over the years. But when the guy’s on his game – and with Weiland that can be a mixed proposition involving the proportions of chemical intake versus creative output – he’s been among the most stylishly magnetic frontmen working a stage; a true rock star with that intangible aura of self-possessed panache that separates the singers from the ringers.
And like a rock star, he made us wait – more than an hour after second-slotters TAB the Band (led by the sons of Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry) had employed their Humble Pie-meets-Bloodwyn Pig boogie and left both the stage and the crowd hungry for some old-school (well, ‘90s anyway) rock and roll, STP style. Everybody, it seemed, but the headliner and his four-piece backing band, whom he did not bother introducing.
“For those of you that expect Velvet Revolver or STP, that’s not what you’re gonna get,” Weiland announced flatly, a mere two songs into a mostly muted 70-minute set that delved deeply into his latest solo venture, “Happy in Galoshes,” and featured exactly one Stone Temple Pilots tune (he eventually acquiesced to perform “Interstate Love Song,” which easily and deservedly got the night’s heartiest response). “What you’re gonna get is a taste of everything that has inspired me over the last 20 years.”
Was it selfish and self-indulgent? A little. Risky and interesting? Sometimes. But one of those “tastes,” a cover of “Mockingbird Girl,” from Weiland’s onetime side project the Magnificent Bastards, was quite sweet indeed; a glam-dusted slice of alt-rock replete with a rippling, arena-rock guitar solo in the Peter Frampton mode. A graceful, keyboard-dappled cover of (onetime tour mates) the Flaming Lips’s “Waitin’ For A Superman” followed, and then came the new “Big Black Monster,” a spare little funk-and-falsetto number that Weiland described as the baby of Prince and PJ Harvey.
Through the highs (the sharply sculpted rocker, “Blind Confusion”), lows (a melodically monochromatic encore closer, “Missing Cleveland”), and everything in between (the bossa nova curio, “Killing Me Sweetly”), all eyes were watching Weiland, who alternated between strutting like a bantam rooster, stepping nimbly like an alley cat, and slinking like a spooky shadow (of himself, it seemed, at times). Wearing a vested white shirt and tie, his visage topped off by wide-brimmed black hat, omnipresent sunglasses and smoldering cigarette, he resembled a Hunter S. Thompson with dance moves. As with the late, notoriously toxic Thompson, you couldn’t help but wonder what lurked behind those shades.