In 1996, MTV was running a short making-of documentary on Tiny Music... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, the upcoming third album by Stone Temple Pilots. The show gave more or less equal time to all four members, but the standout was the lead singer. With bright orange hair that almost didn't look dyed, a stylish goatee and sunken but alert eyes, he effortlessly drew the camera to him even when soon-to-be-standard hard rock riffs performed by his bandmates next to him. He danced like no one I had ever seen. He had an ongoing history of drug abuse (he's troubled!) and being dismissed by mainstream media critics (he's misunderstood!). And for a generation of kids reaching the age where they understood why adults liked Han Solo more than Luke Skywalker, Scott Weiland looked like the coolest man in the world.
Timing had something to do with it, and Weiland wouldn't be getting the respects he's getting this week if the media weren't being taken over by people who reached adolescence in the '90s. But timing was also Weiland's curse. STP's debut arrived right on the coattails of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and critics were quick to bash them as copycats, even though they'd been playing grunge for years before Core in 1992. Yet they also arrived too soon, before anyone had any idea how bland and numerous the neo-grunge also-rans would get--it took countless Collective Souls and Seven Mary Threes for tastemakers to realize, whether or not they'd admit it, that maybe STP weren't so bad after all. Five years earlier or later, Stone Temple Pilots would have been hailed as rock saviors. Instead, they received the brunt of critics trying to prove how cool they were by pretending someone else wasn't.
A lot of the blame was thrown on Weiland, too handsome and ripped to portray the outsider he claimed to be. He sounded like a bully and a rapist in "Sex Type Thing", one of the most chilling portrayals of sexual assault in rock music. His baritone warble echoed Eddie Vedder's and Kurt Cobain's. Elitists turned up their noses for the same reasons they dismissed Led Zeppelin in the 70s--a bunch of cock-rock yahoos, ripping off better artists, with grudgingly infectious hooks. But the records kept selling, the hits stayed on the radio, and most amazingly, STP followed Weiland's lead into weirdness, getting trickier and lovelier with every step. The lush tones and arrangements of Tiny Music reflected the dream-pop of Weiland's lifelong hero, David Bowie, and the underrated No. 4 and Shangri-La Dee Da branched out into artsy cabaret and lounge-rock, amidst some of the band's heaviest songs. Weiland's solo 12 Bar Blues would be on Pitchfork best-of lists if it had Wayne Coyne's name and face on the cover. But of course, what he did best was rock, and did he ever do that--"Vasoline," "Wicked Garden," "Big Bang Baby", "Lady Picture Show," "Sour Girl", "Creep", "Big Empty", "Unglued", both versions of "Plush" and of course the perfect "Interstate Love Song" will dominate the airwaves for as long as there's radio and streaming. They deserve to.
Weiland was no genius. His lyrics were average, and his stint in Velvet Revolver underscored the differences between great rock stars and transcendent ones. But in that humanity lies much of his appeal. STP didn't need a superhuman, they needed a guy, and as far as rock frontmen go, Scott Weiland was one of the best.
Last weekend, I sang "Interstate Love Song" at karaoke, to a bar full of Gen Xers. It didn't surprise me that the song connected--anyone born between 1975 and 1985 knows all the words, and loves it enough to overlook the vocal limitations of whomever's delivering. But I remembered, as anyone who sings STP karaoke does, how much room Scott Weiland carved out with a few octaves. His vocals soar and roar in the melodies, but never get too far out of anyone's range. Scott Weiland looked great and sang better, but his real talent was making everyone who sang along feel, for at least three and a half minutes, that we too, could be Stone Temple Pilots.