How David Bowie's authoritarian Thin White Duke persona inspired Scott Weiland

Scot Weiland and David Bowie onstage
(Image credit: Scott Weiland: Ethan Miller | David Bowie: Icon and Image)

Back in June 2005, Classic Rock asked Velvet Revolver if they'd be guest editors for that month's issue. One of the things they did was give readers a little insight into their influences. 

Slash told us why he loved Aerosmith. And the much-missed Scott Weiland waxed lyrical about his own hero, David Bowie


When did you first become aware of David Bowie? 

I was introduced to him by my natural father. My mum and dad split when I was a kid, and I’d spend the summers with my real dad. He was pretty hip. He had a great record collection. I used to listen to his copy of Hunky Dory when I was about 11. I remember really connecting with that record. 

Then years later when I was a freshman in high school, I rediscovered Bowie. I’d moved out to Southern California. I was about 15 at this point. This was at the height of punk rock, early 80s. There was a real hardcore scene in Southern California. But I was listening to Ziggy Stardust

What was the attraction initially? 

I loved his lyrics. What I think is amazing about Bowie is that his lyrics sound poetic but not too intentionally so. The words make sense. It’s not overly stream-of-consciousness. And his melodies… you can hear the influence of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. You don’t hear that a lot in rock’n’roll. That’s one of the things that attracted me to him. I tried to pull a bit of that out when I made my solo record. 

What’s your favourite era of Bowie? 

Actually my favourite is the Thin White Duke period; post-Ziggy Stardust. There was that famous show in Hammersmith, the final show of the Spiders From Mars tour, where he announced that it was all over. Then he moved to LA. That was around the time I believe John Lennon had separated from Yoko and had moved there as well. I think some of the Stones were there also. There was a real drug thing happening in LA at that time. 

Most people would probably have you down as a Ziggy Stardust kind of guy.

I do love that album. But what fascinates me the most is the ‘plastic soul’ period, after the raunch’n’roll of Ziggy. That was a real cool period for me. Young Americans is one of my favourite records.

There was such a mythology surrounding Bowie at that time

Exactly. He went through that period of living on cocaine and milk, and being so paranoid that he wouldn’t fly on airplanes; he would travel in the back of a limousine, strung out on coke. He evolved into that authoritarian character, the Thin White Duke. Almost like a fascist icon in a sense. I can really relate to that. You know, you’re playing in front of all these people, and your mind’s getting twisted by the paranoia from the cocaine. 

Is that why you often wear Nazi headgear on stage – to allude to the fascistic nature of rock stardom? 

I guess I allude to it. It’s interesting to play with ideas. To young people, in a positive way and a negative way, you become an icon. You can put across positive notions, but you can also misuse that power. Is it a good thing to become a hero? I’m not totally sure. Sometimes I think that our culture has become so obsessed with celebrity that that’s all young people aspire to. It’s just hero worship, like lambs being led to the slaughter. They’ll do anything they’re told. 

Human beings are becoming like army ants – they’ll follow their icons into oblivion. I guess that’s why I started wearing that hat. It’s interesting to see what gets a rise out of people. There’s sincerity in what I do, but you can have fun too. You can get points across without having your heart on your sleeve all the time. 

With the megaphone and the military gear, you’re obviously trying to create an on-stage persona, a character distinct from your private self. Is that something you got from Bowie? 

Completely. I really don’t like to let anyone into my private world. That’s why I really don’t like to do interviews. I don’t go out into the public all that often. I’m not a night clubber. The idea of playing with characters… though I should say that what I do is not on the level of Marilyn Manson. Or Alice Cooper, or GG Allin. That’s something different.

So it’s not about shock value? 

No. But I am interested in shock. The shock is what’s great about rock’n’roll. But is there such a thing any more? There are brief moments of it. Can you continuously come up with things to shock people? And should that be what your musical mission is about? If so, you’ve lost your way completely. What made Elvis Presley great was that he shocked, but he was also musically fantastic. Same with The Beatles, the Stones, Chuck Berry. If your sole purpose is to shock then you’re fucked. 

Bowie used to worry that he’d lose himself in the characters he created. He found himself doing interviews as Ziggy, for example. 

Well, that’s the danger. When I was in the depths of my narcotic misadventures I really didn’t know who I was. It’s really easy to get confused about a lot of things. Later on, when I came out of this two-year-long acid trip – which is what it seemed like – after this very very long binge, I looked back and read some of the things I’d said and I thought: “How the hell did I ever get on that path? What was motivating me at that time?” Some of the things I look back on and they’re pretty marvellous, but there are others that I can’t figure out what was making me tick. 

Did being a Bowie fan make hard drugs appealing to you in some way? Was there an allure to addiction, because you knew that he’d been through it? 

No, that wasn’t it. My reason for getting into drugs was that it quietened something in me that I couldn’t figure out any other way to quieten. Ever since I was a young boy I always had problems with Attention Deficit Disorder. As I grew older it morphed into something else. In high school I started getting very depressed and very manic. My mood swings went up and down constantly. I found that if I took certain chemicals I could modulate how I felt. At first it was alcohol, but I couldn’t really get a handle on it. It didn’t work very well, and it wasn’t something that really interested me all that much.

But heroin did the trick? 

Heroin was the great equaliser for me. I always refer to it as a medicine. Once I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Therapist after therapist put me on anti-depressants and this, that and the other. But when I’d get off the dope it’d be right back to the mood swings. Because trying to find the right balance of psychiatric meds is like closing your eyes and throwing a dart at a dart board. It takes a long time.

Certainly, I was intrigued by drugs because of my musical heroes. But they weren’t the real reason. I did them because they made me feel normal. Once I decided to bite the hook it was just: “Woah, this works for me.” After that I was smitten. 

How about now? Have you found a way to medicate yourself without heroin? 

Yes. Now my life is the way I always wanted it to be. I look back at the time before as a whole other life. It was cool to have lived that life. I wouldn’t trade it for any other. 

Would you say you’re lucky to be alive? 

I guess I have a pretty staunch constitution. I believe that what probably should have, could have, would have killed me just didn’t. I’m built from strong stock, I guess. Unfortunately there were others along the way who weren’t so lucky. But I learned everything I know now from that experience. 

So you’re totally clean now? 

I’m not a saint. I don’t try to put on Mother Theresa’s head-dress. I still have one foot dangling over the precipice.

Ten years after this interview, on December 3, 2015, Scott Weiland was found dead on his tour bus. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner in Minneapolis determined his death to be the result of an accidental overdose of cocaine, alcohol, and methylenedioxyamphetamine. He was 48.