Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

By Mark Jordan

APRIL 20, 1998:  In music, solo careers are almost always a disappointment.

Sure, a lot of artists find their biggest commercial successes after leaving their original bands (Tom Petty, Natalie Merchant, Paul Simon). But once an artist has been part of a greater whole, artistically everything seems to pale in comparison. It would, after all, be very hard to argue that Sting is better than the Police, Stevie Nicks better than Fleetwood Mac, or Robert Plant better than Led Zeppelin.

The most recent example of a good band deteriorating into an inferior solo career involves Scott Weiland, the former lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots. Though lumped in with the grunge bands of the early ’90s, in reality STP was a smart pop/rock outfit with a serious dark side and direct roots to the arena rock of the ’70s. Think of them as an updated Blue Oyster Cult. In a four-year recording career, STP produced three albums of tight, tuneful songs like “Plush,” “Vasoline,” and “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart.”

But following the release of Tiny Music … Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop in 1996, Weiland relapsed into a heroin problem he had developed. He entered rehab, and the group couldn’t tour in support of the record. Following his return, Weiland suffered another relapse and the other members of the group voted to fire him.

You can blame the breakup on Weiland’s inability to get a handle on his addiction, or you could fault the rest of the band for not supporting him. Regardless, what fans of STP are now left with are two parts that are clearly much less that the sum.

The remaining members of STP were the first to pick up the pieces. Last year, they recruited a new singer and redubbed themselves Talk Show for a tepid, largely soulless outing.

And now it’s Weiland’s turn. For the record, I’m not sure the keys to a recording studio should ever be turned over to someone who just got out of rehab. And Weiland’s solo debut, 12 Bar Blues, just proves my point. A hodgepodge of styles and moods, 12 Bar Blues finds Weiland looking like John Cusack and trying (desperately, it seems) to sound like David Bowie. It’s definitely not a good record, probably a bad one, but certainly a weird one. It’s clear that when Weiland and the other Pilots split, they lost his voice and charisma, and he lost their focus and musical ability.

On his solo debut, former Stone Temple Pilot vocalist Scott Weiland tries desperately to sound like David Bowie.
But if STP’s problem was not sticking it out, there are a few groups who have the opposite problem, who, out of loyalty, fear, or financial concern, extend their band way past the point of being artistic viable.

Van Halen, the premier hard-rock outfit of the late ’70s and ’80s, recently released Van Halen III, which is actually their 12th studio album and comes 19 years after Van Halen II. Perhaps the “III” refers to the fact that this release marks the debut of the group’s third vocalist, Gary Cherone, the talented but bland former lead singer of Extreme. Cherone follows in the steps of original lead singer David Lee Roth and his successor, Sammy Hagar, both of whom lost their gig because of conflicts with Eddie Van Halen, the musical heart of the group. Eddie is one of the most gifted pop instrumentalists of the last 20 years, a player and composer whose influence has reached way beyond hard rock. But, as his recent flightiness with lead singers seems to attest, he is also an artist in conflict with his own ambition.

Often accused in the past of being formulaic, on Van Halen III Eddie tries admirably to put some new twists in his old sound. But ultimately, one can tell that he’s being hampered – by his rhythm section, by his new vocalist, and, more than anything else, by the onus of having to be Van Halen. Sure, the group already bears his name and plays his music, but what Eddie really seems to need is a complete break from his own band.

What the cases of Van Halen and Stone Temple Pilots make clear is that the real trick is knowing when to break a band up. Predictably, it’s the Beatles who have probably gotten closer than anyone to getting this timing right. Perhaps they sensed a change in the zeitgeist; certainly they noticed the deteriorating relationships within the band. Whatever the tip-off, the Fab Four managed to call it quits before they became hackneyed or, even worse, irrelevant. It’s certain that John, Paul, George, and Ringo didn’t plan it that way. They just didn’t force the issue. They tried to make it work as long as possible, and, when it was clear all was lost, they let go. And that’s what is so hard to strike, that balance between wearing out your welcome and leaving before the party’s begun. In the end, it is a surprisingly fine line between burning out and fading away.

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