Scott Weiland was a great shape-shifter, a reminder that theater and fashion contribute to the whole of rock music as much as anything purely musical does. He died Thursday night in the midst of his fourth decade as a rock front-man, starting with his proto–Stone Temple Pilots project, Mighty Joe Young, to his latest reinvention, leading the glam-rock troubadours the Wildabouts. With Stone Temple Pilots, he sold more than 14 million copies of five LPs between 1992 and 2001. Weiland spent the vast majority of that time in the throes of a deep heroin addiction — a mask he could never shake, and a disease that colors his biography as much as any performative persona. Heroin dragged Weiland in and out of court and through rehab several times, culminating in a brief 1999 prison sentence. After his parole and a brief STP reunion, Weiland was reborn with a vengeance as the front man of brood-rock supershredders Velvet Revolver, earning him a third platinum-selling album (2004’s Contraband*) and a second Grammy, for the 2005 single “Slither.”
Weiland earned his first Grammy a decade earlier for “Plush,” the track from STP’s 1992 debut Core that best mirrored the loud-quiet dynamic and brooding death drive omnipresent on early ‘90s rock radio, which is responsible for generations of karaokers screaming “When the dogs begin to smell her / Will she smell alone?” Weiland was as a different kind of rock front-man than his first peer group, though. He didn’t have Eddie Vedder’s politics, Kurt Cobain’s sensitivity, Layne Staley’s dark anguish, or Chris Cornell’s pipes. What he did have was a firm grasp of rock ‘n’ roll not as authenticity, but as skillfully deployed artifice. He was good-looking, but there was no punk anguish in Weiland’s performances, his poetry didn’t match Cobain’s, and he wasn’t anywhere near metal. He could only “play,” he couldn’t “be.”
Weiland’s career began during the last burp of Authentic Rock Culture, when punk was old enough to bear children with older partner classic rock, and it’s the perceived import of this moment — as Important 20 years on as the ‘60s are to baby-boomers — that complicates Weiland’s legacy. Stone Temple Pilots, remember, were voted “Worst New Band” of 1993 by Rolling Stone’s editors in the same poll that Rolling Stone’s readers voted them “Best New Band.” In the fog of late-1992 grunge hype, STP and Weiland were derided as label-created frauds pretending to 1990–91 standard-bearers Nevermind, Ten, Badmotorfinger, and Facelift. Core was released on the same day as Alice in Chains’ Dirt, and at the time felt like a low-stakes remake of Staley and Cantrell’s dirtbag junkie metal. Kurt Cobain once publicly derided Pearl Jam as hacky sellouts, but to rock fans, STP were the sellout’s sellout, third-tier schmucks who didn’t even have a “Jeremy.” By 1994, even Stephen fucking Malkmus was putting STP on blast.
This is sad because even at the time, and certainly with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that, crass commercial opportunism aside, Weiland’s band had more good songs, with more strong riffs and hooks — remember those? — than the majority of their mainstream rock contemporaries could muster. In part, this was because of the DeLeo brothers, who’d moved their Jersey bar band to Southern California, where legend has it they met Weiland at a Black Flag show in 1985. To the DeLeos’ Chevy big-block V8 of riffs, Weiland cut a figure more Kiedis and Farrell than any grunge growler. On sophomore album Purple, which debuted at No. 1 when rock albums regularly did so, the murderous bleakness of “Plush” and anthemic self-loathing of “Creep” gave way to glammy singles “Vasoline” and “Interstate Love Song,” the latter one of the top five radio-rock songs of the decade (not to mention a video that saw Weiland pioneer the curled-up cowboy hat as rock-star look). Critics savaged Purple, but it was a commercial blockbuster, thanks, no doubt, to secret fans who stashed their copies in the very back of their Case Logic binders.
By 1996, “alternative” radio had more or less become mainstream rock, hip-hop and “electronica” were on the verge of taking over, and the indie underground was splitting into countless factions. An odd time, or perhaps the perfect time, for STP to release its second- and third-best singles. First came “Big Bang Baby,” a shameless — and shamelessly catchy — Marc Bolan/Mick Jagger cop, followed by the chipper, New Wave–y “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” which Weiland wrote about a particularly adventurous acid trip. “I’m not dead and I’m not for sale,” he proclaims in the chorus, an echo of early 1990s authenticity and later, the title of his 2012 autobiography. Then, in 1998, on a weirdly appealing and very 1998-sounding solo album called 12 Bar Blues, Weiland seemed to set out to prove the “Trippin’” mantra correct, with music that sounds like he’d gotten very deep into the Eels’ Electro-Shock Blues.
After hitting bottom — 140 days in prison for a probation violation — and rejoining STP for 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da, Weiland sounded like a man slowly coming to terms with his demons. The chipper power-pop single “Days of the Week” was sold by the label as Weiland playing dress-up as a businessman, astronaut, and Bowie in front of a green screen, but the song’s lyrics reimagined a daily battle with heroin addiction as workaday rigor, and addressed the disease’s toll on his marriage. In a 2015 interview, Weiland claimed to have been clean since 2002, so perhaps the song was indeed meant as a good-bye to all that.
A few years later, Weiland’s stint leading Velvet Revolver felt like a parallel-universe career path; it was as if he formed a band with some guys he met on the Sunset Strip instead of a punk club in the mid-’80s. The gig only lasted until the next STP reunion, though, which led to another acrimonious falling out with his long-suffering bandmates. By 2011, Weiland was a crooner singing Christmas standards. Somehow, it turned even more surreal when, in 2013, Weiland would see his STP years — by then the stuff of classic-rock canonization — resurrected by Chester Bennington. If Velvet Revolver was a museum exhibit-as-supergroup and the Christmas album was another attempt at a Bowie impression, watching the Linkin Park guy do your songs must have been like living a Charlie Kaufman script.
Which brought him to the Wildabouts, the final reinvention in a career full of them, culminating in his final album, Blaster, released this past March (the day after the band’s guitarist’s own sudden death). Promoting the new album, Weiland sounded reenergized, claiming he’d not been as excited since recording Core more than 20 years earlier. The rock front-man whose best work sold tens of millions of copies but never got a fair shake in its time was again gigging glam-rock at ballrooms with a new band and modest expectations. On Thursday night, Scott Weiland died in his sleep in the midst of yet another rebirth.
* An earlier version of this story referred to Libertad as Velvet Revolver’s 2004 debut, when in fact that is the group’s 2007 LP.