Regardless of how common the narrative has been throughout its history, rock ‘n’ roll’s inextricable relationship with the untimely deaths of its artists remains no less cruelly frustrating. Eliciting an unsurprised collective sigh from social media, the news of Scott Weiland’s death yesterday from what early reports indicate was cardiac arrest felt like an almost merciful end to the singer’s public battle with substance abuse. Weiland joins a long line of grunge-era musicians in what’s now a sort of tragic redundancy.
In recent years, Weiland’s struggles with addiction had all but fully eclipsed his reputation as the vocalist for one of the most successful rock acts of the ‘90s, the Stone Temple Pilots. Weiland’s issues were present from the beginning, though. While his reputation as a badass toed the rock ‘n’ roll persona party line, that behavior eventually made him nearly impossible to work with in any professional setting—from STP to his brief stint in the supergroup Velvet Revolver at the beginning of the aughts.
But addiction, like any unchecked disease, continually returned at inopportune moments, eating away at all that was recognizable in what had been one of grunge’s most iconic figures. As we continue to process his death, we’ll find a deserving number of tributes to Weiland’s undeniable talent. We’ll also read the somber reflections of yet another musician who lost this all-too familiar battle. But what’s likely to take a backseat these worthy forms of remembrance is the critical inquiry of why such a demise has to be a given when it comes to music’s most public figures.
Just as Weiland’s celebrity didn’t make him any less susceptible to addiction, his death doesn’t absolve him of its cruel reality. When we as fans talk about him and contemporaries like Cobain, Staley, Hoon, and Wood, we tend to trade fact for fiction, embellishing their stories of excess and indulging in the dark romanticism. Weiland’s successes were great, and his impact is felt even now with modern vocalists adopting his graveled voice and on-stage swagger. None of these things are debatable, yet, neither is the tragedy of his untimely death.
As the industry continues to evolve and the tastes of music fans shift with the seasons, one thing unfortunately remains the same. Our response as an audience left in the wake of tragedy is either to send up or send out our musicians before they’re even cold. For example, When a video surfaced several months ago of Weiland sounding and looking doped out of his mind, the Twitterverse erupted with an immediate flood of posts poking fun at the man who became a caricature of himself (albeit one who’d painted himself into that corner of public ridicule). I took to Twitter myself to make a few smart-ass jokes that, in retrospect, I regret. Within social media, empathy tends to blur into the same realm as overwrought sentimentality. You either care too much, or you care too little.
The excruciatingly public disintegration of our musical heroes, and even more sadly, our resignation to their fates has become par for the course. For all we go to bat for in the public realm of avoiding offense on the grandest scale possible, we are bafflingly adept at shooting our wounded.
Substance abuse is a disease no less deadly than any other kind of pandemic. There’s no quick fix for either. But because people like Weiland are public figures who can influence millions of impressionable minds through music, our conversation can’t simply be limited to sentimentality or sarcasm. If those are our only opinions, then Scott Weiland isn’t just the latest, he’s just the most recent placeholder for an inevitability that doesn’t have to be.