Scott Weiland died the other day. His ex-wife, Mary, wrote a much more personal (and bitter) piece than I ever could have (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/scott-weiland-s-family-dont-glorify-this-tragedy-20151207). Scott was, to quote one of his songs, a “junkie piece of shit,” in so, so many ways, but he was also brilliant. This isn’t really news to anyone, but the important thing about a person like him is to understand the full complexity of their character, that the human disaster could also be fantastically beautiful. When he was on, Scott Weiland could fucking sing, man, and he could write a song. He had a particular gift for making the incredibly personal relatable through the strength of his language, and his voice, of course, could range from crooner husky to pure rock bombast.
To me, Scott’s crowning achievement will always be Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, Stone Temple Pilots’ third album. In the same way that most opinions on art are formed, mine is intensely personal: it was my first favorite album. I remember being a little kid sitting in front of the stereo with the CD in the player and the liner notes with the lyrics in front of me. I loved the riffs of course, but what really grabbed me before I understood how they all interacted was the vocal; this guy saying crazy shit about weddings in shells and lemon yellow booze. Each song on that record has such a distinctive mood that is anchored in place by the lyrics and Scott’s voice, from the brash whining of “Pop’s Love Suicide” and “Tumble in the Rough” to the mellow, almost Beatles-esque whisper of “And so I Know” to the bi-polar freak-out of “Art School Girl.”
The thing that Scott could do maybe better than anyone else was write something completely off the wall that still resonated. “Your wedding present’s not so daisy picture perfect anymore/Lady funny face, it’s locked and bagged it’s just outside your bedroom door,” “Hold me closer, closer, let me go/Let me be, just let me be,” and “She wears the leather, I wear the makeup/Never break up; been together for a month” have never left my mind, ever since the first listen back in ’96 or ‘97. I think it is the impressionistic and often surreal nature of the lyrics that stuck with me. Scott’s song writing, particularly at that time, was focused on what he was feeling and thinking at the moment he was writing the song. He wasn’t telling a story so much as capturing a snapshot of a mood or emotion, and he was brilliant at that.
This style of songwriting let’s your audience supply their own stories, which is a different sort of connection than is achieved with a storytelling mode. Take “Poncho and Lefty,” Townes van Zandt’s most well-known song. It tells a story that, through the very specific details of the characters and plot evokes a strong emotional response and asks a listener to grapple with difficult questions of right and wrong. Contrast that to “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” which is essentially a word collage, lyrically. Scott claimed he wrote the song alluding to an especially bad acid trip, and I buy it. But it’s not a song that’s *about* an acid trip. I would be hard-pressed to concede that the song is “about” anything at all, but rather that “Trippin’ on a Hole…” dumps a listener into a manic mindset filled with paranoia, confusion, and a touch of hope and defiance (“I’m not dead and I’m not for sale”). Any story you put to that is entirely your own, but anyone that song connects with has some part of their own story that meets up with it. In some ways this is very post modern, but in more ways, I think, it is just music. The Moonlight Sonata is a deeply emotional piece of music with no words, and I don’t hear a lot of people criticizing Beethoven for not including a few verses to explain exactly what we’re supposed to be thinking and feeling when we hear it. Most of us just listen to it and feel it. It’s art, man. It has to make you feel. Scott made us feel.
There’s a song by Jim Carroll, called “People who Died,” that I like to listen to when I think of the people who I have known or who have impacted my life have died. I didn’t know Scott Weiland, but I’m gonna miss you, brother.