STONE TEMPLE PILOTS
UIC PAVILION, AUGUST 12
With the exception of Michael Bolton, Stone Temple Pilots are perhaps the most commercially successful critically reviled pop act of the new decade. Despite the reality--that STP's sound combines grunge, acoustic guitars, heavy percussion, a punkish lead singer, and the kind of moody lyrics that sound like a pot smoker's crank calls--the band has been dissed from day one for one reason: it sounds too much like commercially successful, critically acceptable Pearl Jam.
From the beginning--which for STP was a big hit called "Plush"--the group has been called "the poor man's Pearl Jam." Indeed, on "Plush" that famous grunge sound was evident: guitars that echoed Alice in Chains, the soft verse/hard chorus/soft verse method made famous by Nirvana, the emotional but rather senseless Vedder-esque lyrics, and, more than anything else, STP vocalist Scott Weiland's soulful, heavy voice, almost indistinguishable from Eddie's. "Plush" was the song Pearl Jam would have written if they'd been able to. But rather than get credit for this perfect song, STP was charged with plagiarizing a movement. Nevermind that Pearl Jam had only been known to the mainstream for a short time when STP released its first album, Core.
Although "Plush" obviously got the most attention, the album itself is a brilliant mesh of sounds and styles, ranging from the hard-core, punk-influenced, date-rape-in-the-first-person shocker of "Sex Type Thing" to the mystic "Where the River Flows" to the wounded ballad "Creep." The latest disc, Purple, could be Core II: just substitute "Vasoline" for "Creep," "Big Empty" for "Plush," and "Interstate Love Song" for "Crackerman." They aren't exact copies of the songs, mind you, but updates of the sound and theme and general flow.
Even so, the labels "poseurs" and "'copycats" have followed STP through both their albums and their live shows. It's an injustice not only to the band but to the fans, who see STP as a viable, creative, wonderful band. But what's been overlooked more than anything else, what makes this band powerful enough to sell some four million albums and enthrall thousands in concert, is a simple concept: When they say "I," they mean "we."
It may be a simple concept, but it's one few bands achieve. Kurt Cobain was probably best at it: no one knew what the hell he was really singing about, but when you heard it you could relate. Even if it was just a chorus of "yeah-ah-ah," you'd find yourself singing along with it with all the conviction in the world. He seemed to be thinking exactly what you were thinking; garbled as his lyrics came out, their meaning was perfectly clear, and they were backed up with this perfect, pissed-off music that punctuated the emotion.
Metallica do it, too--and they were even better at it before they became superstars. Each of their songs, no matter what its intended meaning, is interpreted by each listener differently; it becomes the song you write with James Hetfield in your head. To one person "The Unforgiven" is the story of an abused child; to another it's about the battle between Generation X and the baby-boomers. Is "Fade to Black" about succumbing to suicide or triumphing over it? It all depends on your state of mind.
Like Metallica does, like Nirvana did, Stone Temple Pilots write ambiguous lyrics about obscure topics--and the songs become whatever you want them to be. What is it they were trying to say in "Plush"? "Where ya going to tomorrow? / Where ya going with the mask I found? / And I feel, and I feel / When the dogs begin to smell her / Will she smell alone?" Literally, it makes no sense. But when 10,000 people sang along at the UIC Pavilion--every single word, not just the chorus--you knew it meant something to them.
When I hear "Plush," I'm convinced it's the story of a serial killer. That's the movie I see in my head. Maybe other people don't hear that, but they have their own version. Just like they have their own versions of "Crackerman," "Creep," "Interstate Love Song," and "Big Empty"--among the best received tunes at the pavilion show. I think "Vasoline" is about an addiction to lip balm, the guy next to me thinks it's about the struggles of life--we're all flies in the Vasoline, man. Not surprisingly Metallica, Nirvana, and STP have all done mainly nonstory videos, relying instead on concert clips or abstract images to advertise their songs.
When I first heard those few seconds of "Big Empty" on commercials for The Crow, I knew instantly that it was STP. I knew that feeling from the chorus too: "Time to wait to long, to wait to long, these conversations kill." For weeks all I heard was that one 15-second snippet, and it stuck in my head.
In a nutshell, that's what makes STP one of the best bands around. I expect them to be around for some time, because they transcend the verse-chorus-verse format and catchy rhythms and really get inside your soul. Whether Pearl Jam continues to exist doesn't make any difference at all. STP will still come out (as they sing in "Dead & Bloated") "smellin' like the rose that somebody gave me on my birthday deathbed." Whatever the hell that means to you.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.