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Are Creed fans' arms still open?

November 29, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Scott Stapp, the former lead singer of Creed, is back from career exile with an album titled "The Great Divide." It's a fitting name -- there may be no more polarizing figure in recent rock history, and the gulf between his fans and his detractors is wide and ugly.

Stapp may have been the most mocked man in rock in the 1990s, but Creed also sold a staggering 25 million albums in the United States alone. The problem now, though, is that pop audiences' infatuations fade fast, while rock purists know how to hold a grudge.

None of this is lost on Stapp.

"I don't know what to expect, I really don't," Stapp said in a hushed voice during a visit to Los Angeles to promote the solo CD that hit stores last week. "Do I pick up where I left off? Or do I have to start all over again, playing to five people in a room? Do I have to work my way back up?"

Stapp reached great commercial heights with Creed, a band that presented a radio-friendly sound that was part simplified Pearl Jam and part arena-rock spiritual anthem. Stapp's childhood as the disaffected son of a Pentecostal minister in Florida may have left him privately conflicted, but on stage he was an evangelist in leather pants belting out hits such as "My Sacrifice," "Higher" and "My Own Prison."

As the band propelled itself to the very top of rock, Stapp became something akin to the Vanilla Ice of modern rock -- ridiculed as derivative, vainglorious and undeserving. And though Bono has long laced rock with Christian imagery, Stapp's messianic music videos made him a laughingstock with music critics and even some peers. Dexter Holland of the Offspring, for instance, used to wear an "Even Jesus Hates Creed" T-shirt on stage.

In the end, Creed didn't even like Creed. The band officially broke up last year, but the first death rattle was in December 2002 on stage in Rosemont, Ill. Stapp's account of the night is that increasing tension within the band inspired him to turn and call out his mates while performing the aptly titled "Who's Got My Back."

Seeing something in their eyes that was less than supportive, Stapp says, he plopped down on stage on his back and sang to the rafters. Some fans at the show had a different interpretation; they filed a lawsuit later claiming that Stapp was drunk or loaded and that the band owed a refund to all 15,000 fans on hand.

Months after the Rosemont fiasco, Stapp and Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti, the musical forces behind the band, came together in the studio to begin work on the band's fourth studio album. It went nowhere. After that, Stapp, for the first time, found himself running away from the spotlight.

"It was killing me, so I ran off to Maui and spent a lot of time with my son," he said. "I was internalizing everything. You can't have a me-against-the-world attitude, and I know that now. This is a business where you have to let a lot of stuff go."

Stapp may want to let things go, but what about his skeptics? Fred Jacobs, of Jacobs Media, a Michigan-based radio consultant company that works with rock stations, compared Stapp's fall from grace to the waning interest in Oasis in America.

"Scott has a lot of baggage to overcome," he said. "This is a lightning rod guy for a lot of radio programmers and frankly that hurts. There's not a lot of excitement right now to embrace his new music. This is a guy that made people angry. Like Oasis, there was a growing perception that his behavior hurt him."

Take WNOR-FM in Norfolk, Va., a 35-year-old rock station that made Creed part of its bread-and-butter sound in the 1990s. The station still plays "Arms Wide Open" and other Creed anthems every day. Harvey Kojan, the program director, said the new music is getting a tepid tryout with the station but that the past is hard to forget.

"As time went on, everything this guy did on stage exuded ego and people got sick of it, even the true fans," Kojan said. "When they came to town, we would get the calls after the show, the complaints. But we will give this some consideration."

It doesn't help that Tremonti and his new band, Alter Bridge (which includes former Creed members Scott Phillips and Brian Marshall), have been making the radio rounds promoting their new release, which is also from Wind-Up Records, Stapp's current label.

"They're talking about the breakup with Scott and exactly how it all went down.... I don't know if that helps Stapp very much," Kojan said.

For a guy steeped in Christian experience, Stapp sounds pretty Zen these days. He won't talk about Tremonti and company, nor will he discuss any animus toward rock radio, although he does let it slip that some of the current airplay stars in modern rock sound "like Creed tribute bands." Then it's back to the basics of humility.

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