The Prodigal Son

Kurt Cobain’s head is split in two, and that’s the way Pat Scantlin likes it.

“Our son Scott painted that,” she says, pointing to a portrait. “He made it in two pieces, so we split it up.”

Pat is referring to an oversized image of Cobain hanging in the dining room of a three-story A-frame overlooking Lake Waukomis. The Nirvana martyr’s face has been halved to fit on the wall.

“It’s almost too ironic that we have this painting of Kurt Cobain,” she says before adding, “Wes doesn’t really sound like Kurt Cobain.”

Actually, he does. But it’s a comparison that’s difficult for many purists to stomach. It doesn’t simplify matters any that her son’s band makes a good living playing darkly polished music derivative of Nirvana and the other plaid-shirt poster boys. It’s near-heresy for music snobs to utter any comparison of the two, but it’s hardly the only source of discontent for critics of the band.

A lot of people hate Wesley Reid Scantlin, including many in his hometown. They hate his voice. Hate his band, Puddle of Mudd. Hate his music. Hate his image. They hate his friends. They hate his success. They hate how he became a star. They hate that he is a star. And they really hate that a lot of people also love him.

“The problem isn’t with Kansas City, and it’s not with the fans,” Pat says. “It’s the people in the music world who feel it’s necessary to tear Wes down. They say he deserted his friends, and, well, that’s not true.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

Scantlin and two former bandmates spoke with the Pitch to clarify how one Puddle of Mudd fell and another rose, the circumstances of which have cast a shadow over Scantlin’s past, his present, and, perhaps, his future.

What is clear is that Come Clean, released in 2001, sold more than 5 million copies. Last year, the group notched four Billboard Music Awards, and ASCAP named “Blurry” its Song of the Year. The band has been featured in magazines and newspapers, on radio and television and on headlining tours across the globe. All in little more than two years.

But even as Puddle of Mudd launches Round Two with its new album, Life on Display, the band’s lead singer is still struggling to shake a reputation that has made one of the world’s biggest rock stars a pariah in his own backyard.

I. Desertion

Why can’t you see that I’m drowning in a pool of Missouri — “Away From Me”

“The light was going out,” Pat says. “Wesley was ready to give up the dream when the phone call came.”

Scantlin’s mother is trying to explain her middle child. Trying to make sense of why people resent him. Trying to explain why Kansas City is still his home. Scantlin may have relocated to the sun and silicone of Los Angeles after the phone call came, but he’s never left.

This is where his dream began. A serene, lakeside neighborhood of upper-middle-class homes with leaf-strewn lawns and snapping American flags a few miles east of Interstate 29 in the Northland. Scantlin spent hours in his bedroom here butchering Zeppelin riffs, unaware he would one day share a stage with Jimmy Page. And the basement figured prominently in the volatile history of the original Puddle of Mudd before it disintegrated.

How exactly Scantlin came to be the only Kansas Citian in the most successful Kansas City band around is a matter of contentious debate and a primary reservoir of disquiet in the music scene that spawned him. All most people know is that four native sons began Puddle of Mudd in the flooded remnants of a warehouse practice space beneath the Broadway Bridge, but only one emerged a rock star.

“What happened to the rest of the musicians?” asks Jeanie Moore, a writer for the local zine Heavy Frequency. “Yeah, the guy went off and did good for himself, but he also left three guys behind.”

Scantlin sold out his friends. That’s the story. Nü-metal guru Fred Durst tendered a you-or-them offer to join Flawless Records, and Scantlin took the one-way, one-person ticket to fame and fortune. Naturally, the story’s not so cut-and-dried.

The original lineup of Scantlin, Jimmy Allen, Sean Sammon and Kenny Burkitt collapsed at least two years before Durst entered the equation. The band was a regional success but couldn’t overcome in-fighting. Allen quit, and the band sputtered, then imploded. Scantlin kept the band on life support with a revolving lineup of musicians — including Burkitt — to record demos. That’s when the last gasp came.

“The band was already disfigureated, man,” Scantlin says. “I had to take matters into my own hands.”

The infamous story is that Scantlin slipped a demo to a security guard during a Limp Bizkit show, leading Durst to send A&R man Danny Wimmer to Kansas City to audition Puddle of Mudd. There was only one problem.

“There wasn’t really a Puddle of Mudd,” says Dave Johnson of local rockers Everybody’s X. “It was basically just Wes demoing stuff.”

Scantlin and Burkitt recruited two musicians for the showcase, who subsequently wilted under the stare of the major label executive. The audition was horrible. Wimmer was not impressed.

“Danny said he was ready to walk out the door,” Pat says.

Instead, Wimmer took Scantlin and Burkitt to Olive Garden for dinner.

“We agreed to meet at the studio the next day at noon, but they never showed up,” Burkitt says. “Apparently they put Wes on a plane to Los Angeles. I spent eight years of my life helping Wes reach his dreams. All he had to do was be man enough to stand up and say, ‘There is one guy that has to come with me.’ But he couldn’t do it.”

Flawless made Scantlin an offer. He could sign by himself and be at the cusp of the dream, or he could fight to bring musicians with him and risk languishing in obscurity. The label expressed concern that Burkitt’s admitted drug problem made him a liability. (Burkitt, however, says, “It was nothing I wasn’t willing to give up and nothing I haven’t given up since.”) The window of opportunity was narrow. Scantlin signed.

“A lot of people are misinformed that Wes left the band high and dry,” Allen says. “The band was pretty much disassembled. Wes threw a bunch of guys together for an audition. He had his shot, and he could have either eaten shit or taken what Fred Durst was dishing. I can’t blame the guy for doing what he had to do.”

But Burkitt can.

II. Integrity

Another stupid genius cracking underneath this pressure, sorry I couldn’t keep it together — “Nothing Left to Lose”

“Wesley was really lucky that they took him, period,” Pat Scantlin says. “He’s a talented guy, but it’s a total miracle he got signed.”

Getting signed was one thing. Getting paid was another. After inking the contract, Scantlin flew to Los Angeles to assemble a band and begin work on an album. Instead, the project went dormant. Scantlin sat for months in a label-provided apartment, living off a $100 weekly allowance from his mother.

“He had no money to live on, but he had a contract,” Pat says. “Everybody thought he was out there living the high life, but he didn’t even have a car.”

Scantlin was also under pressure to produce. He delivered by delving into the Puddle of Mudd catalog he had cowritten with Allen. The eventual result was four Top 10 singles. But as Scantlin’s career built momentum, grumbling in Kansas City grew as the new Puddle of Mudd was outfitted with Durst-affiliated musicians. When Scantlin was introduced to the world on Come Clean, he was unrecognizable to many back home.

“Nobody around here ever saw Wes wear a hat,” Johnson says. “Then he disappeared for a year and went to Fred Durst Rock School, where you wear a hat and look mean.”

The Puddle of Mudd sound was likewise made-over. The raw roar of the original band was replaced with what some criticized as rock-radio sheen.

“It seems as overproduced as anything by Britney or Christina,” Moore says. “I can admit that they’re good songs, that they’ve got really catchy hooks and really catchy lyrics, but to me, I don’t feel like anything he says is heartfelt.”

III. Alienation

I feel like I’m living inside of a dream that no one believes and no one sees — “Heel Over Head”

Several things happened this November 25. Life on Display was released. Puddle of Mudd performed on Late Show With David Letterman. And Pat Scantlin was really pissed off.

Several hours before Scantlin donned a Chiefs jersey and delivered a snarling rendition of “Away From Me” on Letterman, his mother opened The Kansas City Star to a less than glowing feature on her son.

“I was dumbfounded,” Pat says. “It’s the same thing over and over again. Wes can’t catch a break.”

The Scantlins are understandably defensive about the notion that their son abandoned his roots to pursue individual glory. But that impression on the Kansas City music community has nonetheless been indelible.

“If he outgrew the band, that’s fine,” Moore says. “But then he should have dropped the name. You have a new band, come up with a new name. Don’t open one door until you’ve closed the other.”

Sammon sued Scantlin over the rights to the band’s songs and name. (The suit was settled.) Allen hired a lawyer to negotiate shared songwriting credits for Come Clean. Burkitt will soon become the final member of the original Puddle of Mudd to seek recourse.

“You can tell a lie all you want, but eventually the truth will catch up to you,” Burkitt says. “I would never have taken any action against Wes … but I know the truth.”

The legal wrangling and the tepid response back home have left Scantlin weary and wary of his Kansas City ties.

“It’s hard to be beat down all your life,” Scantlin says. “I guess people don’t want me to be the guy standing on top of the mountain looking down like Rocky, going, ‘Yeah, man. I did it.”

Scantlin’s guarded relationship with Kansas City has also provoked fresh criticism from musicians who feel shut out.

“If Everybody’s X got signed tomorrow, one of the first things I would do would be to give Kansas City props,” Johnson says. “I’d say, ‘Hey, A&R guy, go check out Penumbra.’ We don’t see that coming from the Wes Scantlin camp.”

If anything, Scantlin’s astronomical success has buttressed the paranoia and doubt he has erected to safeguard against current and former enemies.

“We never got any love from [the Pitch],” Scantlin says. “It’s strange to be getting love from people who never gave us love back in the day. Did somebody pay you to call me? You didn’t want to do this interview, did you?”

He has reason for suspicion. Most local media outlets slept on the band until it exploded on the national scene, and Scantlin has since become accustomed to critical lashings near and far, which fuel his jaded songwriting.

“In life you get beat down, kicked down, walked over on and shit on … and that’s the kind of emotions I’m writing about,” Scantlin says. “Deception. Anger. Frustration. I’m writing about a lot of paranoid-type feelings that I think are happening around me. And most of the time, they are.”

IV. Jealousy

No one can find me, because I’ll be on cloud nine — “Cloud 9”

“Greg Upchurch [Puddle of Mudd’s current drummer] got the key to Oklahoma City. He has such super love coming from where he’s from,” Scantlin says. “People should be excited that a band from Kansas City made the mark. I don’t get why everybody is so upset. Jealous maybe?”

Of course.

“It boils down to [people saying], ‘I didn’t sell 4 million records this year,'” Johnson says. “‘Rachel Hunter isn’t blowing me tonight. I didn’t jam with Jimmy Page. And that kind of bothers me.’ Bottom line.”

Pure envy can’t account for all the ill will, but the thin line between Scantlin the rock star and Scantlin the short-order cook hasn’t escaped his mother.

“I tell people I’m just glad Wes has a job,” Pat says. “I was really worried about what he was going to do for the rest of his life, because he was a typical musician, doing jobs he knew he could quit on a moment’s notice.”

Scantlin is a likeable guy who uses super as an adjective, for sure as an exclamation and dude as a unisex title. (Example: “It’s been pretty hardcore, dude. I’ve been super busy, but I can’t wait to come home. I’m super stoked to play Memorial Hall, for sure!”) But even though he’s relatively eloquent on paper, the guy who, his mother says, graduated Park Hill “by the skin of his teeth” can come off as less than articulate in the flesh, a trait that further annoys those who begrudge him his success.

“He’s not a genius,” Johnson says. “He’s more like an idiot savant who can play Tchaikovsky after one listen.”

V. Redemption

Come on over the mountain, and I’ll meet you on the other side — “Spin You Around”

There’s a Red House over yonder. Actually, now it’s a Black Lodge. But the Eudora recording studio where the original Puddle of Mudd rolled tape may also be where Scantlin finds refuge from the storm. He’s been in discussions with Allen about reissuing material from the original band’s albums Stuck and Abrasive as a retrospective (tentatively titled Back in the Day).

“It looks like it’s going to happen,” Allen says. “I think it’s a good thing. Maybe it’ll give people some closure.”

Allen is the most prosperous of Scantlin’s former bandmates. He shared the ASCAP award for “Blurry” and receives cowriter royalties for songs on Come Clean. He also started the band Cut-Out in Los Angeles with onetime Puddle of Mudd bassist Troy McCoy. Sammon and Burkitt aren’t as fortunate.

“It’s bittersweet for me,” Allen says. “It’s a raw deal for Sean and Kenny.”

The blow was so crushing that Burkitt moved to Louisiana to pull himself together.

“It broke my heart,” Burkitt says. “I lost everything I believed in.”

But even if this saga has a happy ending, the original wounds will scar. Even if the reissue of old material comes to fruition and the true nature of the original band’s demise comes to light, it will be difficult for many to love a man they love to hate.

“It’s almost a hip thing to do around here, to bag on Wes,” Johnson says. “[But] a lot of the musicians we hear bagging on Wes weren’t around when he was sweating it out to four people in a club in Kansas City.”

Burkitt was there. And he has stayed quiet long enough.

“I’m not stupid. I know they’re going to try and make me look like a scab, a nobody,” Burkitt says. “But guess what? I’m somebody. I love Wes … but I don’t want to be remembered as a stepping-stone.”

Despite the bad blood, Scantlin insists he has “nothing but love for Kansas City.” He’s become a rock star. He’s living his dream. And as much as the criticism weighs on his mind, it’s also the dominant force in his success.

“I’ve been fighting an uphill battle pretty much all my life in this band,” Scantlin says. “People still don’t give us the benefit of the doubt. I still feel like we’re the underdog. But I’m OK with that. I’ve been the underdog my whole life.”

Categories: Music