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Stone Temple Pilots: They're actually good! (Really!)

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There ought to be some things all rock 'n' roll fans–no matter what subgenre or trend you're currently aligned with–can agree on: Mixing Black Sabbath with The Beatles and glam-era Bowie is good. Big, dumb drums are good. Bombast, if it's catchy and melodic, is good. If we can agree on these things, can we all finally agree that Stone Temple Pilots are awesome?

I didn't think so. In spite of making two of the most durable albums of the grunge era (and one of the most ridiculously named), 1994's Purple and 1996's Tiny Music…Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, Stone Temple Pilots are not yet recognized as one of the best mainstream rock bands of their era. Which is wrong, and somewhat surprising. STP's B-level status in '90s rock history has practically nothing to do with the music and almost everything to do with the misfortune of coming out during one of the most annoyingly cred-conscious periods in the history of mainstream rock. Back in the early '90s, natural born arena rock band Pearl Jam was praised for making its music less melodic and more boring, because this meant they cared more about the fans than being famous or something. STP, on the other hand, made no apologies for swinging the hammer of the gods for shirtless men and dirty girls at the Enormodome in your town, and were condemned as lame ass poseurs because of it.

But times have changed. Hardly anybody cares about credibility in underground rock anymore, much less mainstream rock. Yes, Nickelback gets ripped for being a tired Pearl Jam/Creed retread, but only by people who would never like them anyway. Nickelback's "integrity" is not something Nickelback fans worry about. It's more about "Do I like this song?" as opposed to "Should I like this song?" for the average, maintream radio-listening rock fan. And while I hate, hate, hate Nickelback, I much prefer that standard, especially when I think back to the way it was when I was in high school.

Back then, I hated Stone Temple Pilots. Why? Because STP ripped off Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Only they didn't, which is pretty obvious if you actually listen to the records. On the band's debut Core Scott Weiland sounded like Eddie Vedder at times, but by STP's sophomore release Purple he pretty much dropped Ed's grumble mumble growl and sang in a more expressive, almost Lennonesque vocal style. But even friends of mine who liked Stone Temple Pilots ranked them below Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (but probably above Silverchair), in large part because of the conventional wisdom that they were a rip-off and somehow less legit than the "good" grunge bands. I only came around to STP later on, after the early-'90s cred obsession evaporated, when I could finally pay attention to how well crafted its best albums are. But the old stigma still lingers.

STP managed to sell millions of albums even while Rolling Stone chided its own readers for naming Purple one of the year's best albums in its '94 readers poll. (The following year the magazine picked Live as its artist of the year, which tells you how fast mainstream rock changed after Kurt Cobain killed himself.) That's because STP were pros. They made good pop-rock records, and that's all they cared about. (As opposed to abortion rights or rocking the vote or whatever issue Vedder was writing about on his forearm with a Sharpie.) But if they had come out five years earlier or five year later, STP would have been even bigger. The music would have been glammier if Core came out in 1987, and they would have added a DJ to the line-up had they come out in 1997, but STP's attention to songcraft would have served it better in pretty much any other period except the early '90s. STP's bad luck was being a polished, immediately accessible, larger-than-life cock rock band at one of the few times in rock history when cock rock bands weren't automatically cool. Instead, STP lived in a time when snarky, willfully amateurish bands reigned supreme. For those bands STP was a joke, a bunch of "elegant bachelors," as described by Stephen Malkmus in Pavement's catty "let's dis bands more popular than us" song "Range Life." Today, Arcade Fire could mock Nickelback for an entire album and not make an impression on a single Nickelback fan. But Pavement's (and Rolling Stone's and everybody else's) barbs undeniably hurt STP, professionally as well as creatively.

I have a (not terribly well-developed) theory that Scott Weiland's heroin addiction was a horribly misguided attempt to finally earn some respect from the credibility gate keepers of his day, who were busy lionizing no-name, no-pulse horse addicts like Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, a legendary precursor to Pearl Jam with so much cred that nobody noticed how much they sucked. I always thought it was strange that Weiland started shooting smack in 1993, the year between Core and Purple, just when STP was really taking off and starting to catch serious shit in the rock press. In many ways the anti-STP template was set by the video for "Sex Type Thing." Admittedly, the song is pretty muddled, and also pretty terrible. Lyrically, it's an ironic anti-rape song, sung from the perspective of a meathead forcing himself on a woman. Musically, the martial beat and hectoring vocal forcibly remove all the irony. And the video, with all its shirtless, macho leering, presents STP as the antithesis of Nirvana's pro-loser aesthetic. If Kurt Cobain was the sensitive outcast, Weiland was the shithead bully who wanted to give him swirlies during study hall.

That was the accepted narrative, anyway. In reality, Weiland is something of a tragic figure, forever getting slammed for not being somebody else, whether it's Cobain, Vedder or (later on in Velvet Revolver) Axl Rose. He strikes me as a guy so insecure and desperate that a heroin addiction might seem like a fair price for some coolness points. That heroin failed to make Weiland cool, and also wrecked his band, makes him all the more tragic.

I don't expect the STP reunion to produce anything particularly worthwhile, musically or otherwise. But I don't begrudge them the chance to finally shore up their legacy. There are signs that revisionists finally are reconsidering STP's place in the pantheon. Who knows? Maybe we'll get around to finally agreeing on the awesomeness of this band.