Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Why my interview with Scott Weiland might be my saddest one ever

In my many years as a journalist, I've interviewed several performers who are no longer with us, including Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Barry White.

One late ex-interviewee, Material Issue singer Jim Ellison, committed suicide in 1996 at age 32. Coming four years after I interviewed him for Musician magazine, his truly untimely death was as shocking as it was devastating. His band's sprightly power pop didn't offer as much as a clue to how tortured he must have been. I haven't been able to listen to it in nearly 20 years for fear that I might notice the chilling specter of doom, despair, and agony that I spent years missing entirely.

But since the passing of Tammy Wynette in 1998, the death of no other ex-interviewee has affected me quite as deeply as that of Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, who died in his sleep of cardiac arrest on December 3.

It's been more than 15 years since I interviewed him for the October 2000 issue of Teen People, but after I read about his death, memories I hadn't recalled in years came rushing back.

Our interview was in a rehearsal space in Burbank, and while I have no recollection of what I wore that day, I can see Scott as clearly as if he was standing in front of me right now in all of his post-grunge rock-star glory.

He was thin, but ripped, and barefoot, wearing jeans and a light blue shirt completely unbuttoned to reveal his smooth, toned upper torso. As he talked, my eyes kept darting down to the treasure trail between his hips and his belly button. I hoped he wouldn't notice me sneaking furtive peeks.

Ten  months sober at the time, his longest period of sobriety since being introduced to heroin six years earlier, Scott spent hours detailing his battle back from the brink -- the drug binges, the arrests, the overdoses. His story sounded like a Less Than Zero outtake, but with a happier ending than the one Robert Downey Jr.'s character had.

Scott was still there, alive, kicking, and excited about living. Clearly the demons remained, but he insisted he had them under control. STP was about to go on tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he talked about bringing a counselor on the road to help keep him on the right path.

He'd just gotten married, and there was a baby on the way. Yes, Scott had been to hell and back, but from where I was sitting, with such a clear view of the grunge god I'd adored from afar since the mid-'90s, it didn't seem too bad to be him.

As I listened to him talk about his past, I wondered about his future. I'd dated addicts, one of whom I broke up with because of his dependency. He ended up in rehab after we split, so I'd had a close-up glimpse of addiction. I wasn't deluded by any illusions: It's not a fight that anyone ever wins. You just have to learn to live with it.

Scott talked about how he gave up one addiction for another, and I left with the cigarette stench to prove it. But better smokes than heroin, I figured. I didn't mind smelling like an ashtray if it meant Scott got to live.

And for one and a half decades he did. I'd kind of lost track of Scott in recent years, but I knew his life since our interview hadn't always been easy. When a rocker dies under 50, your mind immediately thinks the worst, especially when the rock star has waged a well-documented war with substance abuse.

Here's what we know for sure: Scott died in his sleep of cardiac arrest. Some sources claim he'd relapsed in recent weeks, but his widow insists he was clean and sober at the time of his death. (Scott had divorced Mary Forsberg, his wife at the time of our interview, and married his third wife, Jamie Wachtel, in 2013.)

If he was indeed clean and sober (and Mary's post-mortem Rolling Stone essay suggests that definitely was not the case), maybe his body belatedly reached its breaking point, having been previously abused for so many years. If Scott at 48 thought anything like how he thought when I interviewed him at 33, he didn't want to go.

Toward the end of our chat, I offered my theory that creative people are driven by a profound sadness, and he nodded in agreement.

"I think that early insecurity led to my pursuit of fame," he said. "Any person with a desire to be validated and loved by millions of people doesn't really feel comfortable in his own skin. I definitely fall into that category. I searched for validation through a lot of other ways, latching onto anything -- pot, alcohol, women -- trying to fill that void, and all it seemed to do was breed a lot of loneliness."

He ended our chat with what might have been his most telling and revealing words of the entire interview.

"I think a lot of successful artists had feelings similar to mine while growing up. when they came across a seemingly cure-all chemical, they latched onto it just as I did. A lot of those people were ultimately destroyed. Look at Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. For whatever reason, God wants me here for some purpose. Living is really an amazing experience. I feel pretty lucky."

My favorite STP song that isn't "Interstate Love Song"

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