I was never a Stone Temple Pilots fan. Until I was.
Like most people, my introduction to STP and their charismatic lead singer, Scott Weiland, came in 1993 via "Plush," the breakthrough hit from their debut album, Core. At the time, based on that one song, it was easy to dismiss the San Diego quartet as grunge carpet-baggers. Weiland's sonorous voice and phrasing were just a little too close to Eddie Vedder's; his band's plodding, not-quite-metal riffs a little too heavily indebted to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. They weren't as shamelessly derivative as, say, Silverchair, but I just wasn't feeling it. Neither were most critics of the day, who dismissed them with phrases like "a testosteronefest" and "second-rate Pearl Jam."
Over the next decade, because I owned a radio, I was exposed to other STP singles: "Sex Type Thing," "Creep," "Vasoline." Except for "Interstate Love Song," with its undeniably slinky, Jimmy Page-esque guitar hook, none of them really resonated with me. But then, neither did most of so-called "alt-rock" radio. The whole post-grunge era of rock & roll left me cold, and Stone Temple Pilots were the quintessential post-grunge band, all grinding guitars and clenched-jaw machismo. It just wasn't for me.
And yet ... fast-forward to 2010, when I decided to see a reunited STP play Austin Music Hall, a (by their standards) intimate venue, as part of the South by Southwest music conference.
Over the course of a relatively brief set, they were incandescent.
Because SXSW is a giant FOMO-fest, with 10 of your favorite bands playing all over town at any given moment, I kept trying to tear myself away, only to be lured back by yet another hit song that had, unbeknownst to me, winnowed its way into my DNA: "Big Empty," "Wicked Garden," "Lady Picture Show." How had I failed to notice before what a riff-rock juggernaut STP was? Or what a dynamic, mesmerizing frontman Scott Weiland was?
Here's my theory: Stone Temple Pilots emerged at the height of the corporate-rock gold rush, when the music industry, flush with compact disc cash, fucked up pretty much everything new under the sun by smothering it under a big pile of money. In this era, a lot of otherwise good bands had nearly every trace of originality and character bleached out of their recorded output. The Pilots were no exception.
Before they were STP, Weiland, the DeLeo brothers and Eric Kretz were Mighty Joe Young, a funk-rock band whose members met, according to legend, at a Black Flag concert. That unique mix of influences gradually revealed itself over the course of the band's career — especially on their best album, 1996's Cheap Trick-on-acid Tiny Music ... Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop — but during their early '90s commercial peak, Atlantic Records and producer Brendan O'Brien rarely let them paint outside the lines of grunge and torn-jeans bro-rock. So for casual listeners like me, they were easy to write off.
But in the end, Stone Temple Pilots transcended the grunge era, and proved their critics wrong. I'm grateful that I got to see them when I did, with Weiland seemingly sober and at the height of his snake-hipped powers. At that SXSW show, he was a nattily attired force of nature, slinking all over the stage, belting into a bullhorn, slipping in and out of vocal styles with a voice so resonant he sometimes seemed to be harmonizing with himself. He wasn't quite the Morrison-esque golden god of that iconic Velvet Revolver "Slither" video, but he still had the old magic at his command.
That supple, chameleon-like vocal quality was both Weiland's greatest strength and, in a way, his greatest weakness. Throughout his career, there were times when he seemed not fully in control of his talent, allowing his endlessly pliable timbre to lead him into mimicry: a little Vedder here, a little Cobain there, more than a smidgen of Axl on that first Velvet Revolver album.
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How much his addictions played a role in this inconsistency — or, ultimately, in his death (at least as I write this) — is unclear. But if his performance that night in Austin is any indication, we only caught glimpses of the full extent of his abilities.
I was never a fan of Scott Weiland. Until I was. And though his music never touched me as deeply as it did millions of others, I mourn his death. I was lucky enough to see how great he was capable of being — and how much potential his demons ultimately robbed us of. Every rock fan, whether you own any of his catalog or not, should feel the weight of his loss.