The day Scott Stapp decided to kill himself, his band, Creed, was the most popular rock act in the country. It was 2003. The group's third album, Weathered, had just been certified six-times platinum, making it the best-selling rock album of the past year. Stapp himself, though, had become the most hated man in rock. Long-ridiculed in the press for his Christian-tinged lyrics and Messianic stage persona, Stapp had also alienated his bandmates with increasingly erratic behavior. The Weathered tour had ended with a disastrous concert in Chicago, during which Stapp had been visibly intoxicated, at one point lying on his back in the middle of a song. Stapp admits now, "I don't even recall doing that show." After the tour, Stapp was dropped off at home in Orlando, Florida, where he lived in a plush gated community. "I was insane," Stapp says. "You saw Ray? I was shivering. All this stuff was coming out of my body."
While on tour, he'd been drinking heavily and had become addicted to Percocet. He'd also been taking Xanax and large doses of the anti-inflammatory steroid prednisone for throat problems. Once home, he quit all drugs, cold turkey. At which point, he says, "I wanted to end my life."
But he didn't stop drinking. One evening, after polishing off a bottle of Jack Daniel's, he removed two firearms from his collection. "An MP5 SD3 and an MP5 K," he says. "Machine guns. They're what SWAT teams use." Since the Chicago show, he hadn't spoken to anyone from Creed. He'd become convinced that everyone involved with the band wanted him to die, so that he would become a "Kurt Cobain martyr-type" and boost record sales. "I had crazy thoughts going through my head," he says.
Before he pulled the trigger, he looked up and saw a picture of his son, Jagger, the product of a troubled marriage. Jagger, then four, was staying with Stapp's mother at the time. "And in an instant," he says, "I just turned and shot the house up. And I just broke down. I was like, 'I was about to blow my head off. How low can I get?'"
Even this wake-up call turned out to be short-lived. In the ensuing months, Stapp would flee to Maui, where he became addicted to OxyContin. By the middle of 2004, Creed broke up. Stapp cleaned up long enough to get engaged and record his solo debut, The Great Divide. But last fall, when it came time to promote the album, he began to self-destruct all over again.
On Thanksgiving Day, after announcing his engagement to his fiancee's family, he got into a fistfight with members of the band 311 at a hotel bar in Baltimore. According to 311's frontman SA Martinez, Stapp was doing shots, being "loud and obnoxious" and made "a disrespectful comment to my wife that I'd rather not repeat." When drummer Chad Sexton asked Stapp to settle down, the members of 311 claim Stapp sucker-punched him and, in the follow-through, struck Martinez's wife. (Stapp denies starting the fight.)
A few days later, Stapp taped an episode of Casino Cinema, a celebrity poker show on the cable channel Spike TV. He was obviously intoxicated. During the episode, Stapp slurs his words, curses incessantly, claims Dave Grohl has "a little cock," demonstrates a bizarre series of kung-fu moves and demands a kiss from co-host Beth Ostrosky (Howard Stern's girlfriend), later telling her, "My son thinks babies come from my sac" and "I make more money than Howard."
After watching the show, Stapp entered rehab. Now, a few days after Christmas, Stapp, 32, is back in Baltimore, sitting in the finished basement of his fiancee's parents' suburban home. The basement, Stapp's future-brother-in-law's bedroom, is carpeted; a phalanx of ceramic Santas line the top of a big-screen TV. Stapp has dimmed all of the lights except for a silver lamp, and now he sits in the near-darkness, perched on the edge of a couch.
He's dressed casually, in faded jeans and a tight black jersey, with a white knit Chicago Bulls cap pulled low on his forehead, his long hair tufting out to his shoulders. His mother-in-law-to-be brings us sandwiches and homemade brownies on a tray. There's also a leatherbound Bible on the coffee table, with Stapp's name etched on the cover. He takes two heaping scoops of sugar in his coffee, his hand shaking as he works the spoon. His eyes, large and sad even when he's making a joke, begin to well up. He cocks his head and stares harder at me, ignoring the tears in a way that makes them more awkward. Eventually, his voice cracking, he says, "Before all of this happened, I think the last time I cried was 1991, when my grandfather died."
A few minutes later, he adds, "It's weird. You can sell millions of records, be showered with all this love and admiration and still feel despised and unwanted. That's what I felt. I've made a lot of mistakes I'm not proud of. These aren't tears of sadness. I'm happy to get this out."
Since 1997, Creed have sold 25 million records in the U.S. alone. The group's sound -- post-Pearl Jam arena-grunge -- may have been generic, but Stapp, as a frontman, stood out, though not always to the band's benefit. Irony-deficient, Jesus-haired and often shirtless in a way that reminded people of the guy from Lord of the Dance, Stapp came off as arrogant in interviews and preening onstage, and his lyrics, while inspirational to legions of fans, sounded like embarrassingly sincere Christian rock to the unconverted.
The band formed in 1995. Stapp had been raised in a strict Pentecostal family in Florida and was forbidden to listen to rock music. After leaving home at seventeen, he began drinking and using drugs, and became obsessed with the Doors. In Tallahassee, he reconnected with a high school acquaintance named Mark Tremonti, who turned out to be a guitar player in search of a singer. They recorded their debut, 1997's My Own Prison, for less than $6,000; it became the first debut album in history to produce four Number One rock songs.
But by the time of the follow-up, 1999's Human Clay, Stapp's personal life had grown increasingly hectic. He'd married his first wife, Hillaree, six months after they met; they divorced fifteen months later, but not before having a son. Since the divorce, he has retained sole custody of Jagger. One of the last times they saw each other, in 2002, she was arrested for hitting Stapp in the face with a cell phone.
According to Stapp, the nasty breakup, the responsibility of single-fatherhood and the success of the band soon proved overwhelming. He began drinking heavily and taking prescription pills. Attempts to get clean -- including a celebrity detox program at a luxury hotel in Hollywood -- didn't last. "There are a few people who get so crazy when they party, they have a nickname for their alter ego," says Tremonti, 31. "With Scott, it was Rick. I don't know where the name came from. But it would be like, 'Uh-oh. Here comes Rick.'"
"Basically, Scott was a cool, normal guy," says former Creed sound engineer Kirk Kelsey. "But fame caused the biggest destruction of his personality. The more power he got, the more corrupted he became."
Stapp's ego raged out of control. After shows, he'd ensconce himself in the corner of crowded college-town bars, ordering his bodyguards to bring over girls and keep everyone else away. He constantly threatened to quit the band, saying things like, "I'm going into acting or politics. This is just a hobby." A jock in high school, he bragged about the number of fights he'd been in and drunkenly challenged people to trade punches. "Scott's a time bomb every time he walks out the door," says a source who worked for the band. One night, after Kelsey critiqued Stapp's vocal performance, Stapp playfully tapped the soundman on the cheek a couple of times, then suddenly gave him a real slap. He walked away before a stunned Kelsey could react, later bragging that he had "bitch-slapped" the much bigger man.
"It's funny," says Tremonti, "how many people come out of the woodwork after a relationship is severed and say how much they hated your singer. Every band that ever opened for us pretty much said, 'Yeah, that tour was great, we loved opening for you guys, but Scott never even looked at us.' The Mayfield Four opened for us on one tour. I was talking to their bass player after a show and Scott came over and asked him to get him a Coke. He thought he was catering."
By this point, the band was more popular -- and more of a target -- than ever. Rock stars who had themselves been the objects of derision were delighted by the appearance of a singer more hated than them, and quickly, somewhat pathetically, piled on: Fred Durst taunted Stapp at a 2000 concert and Dexter Holland of the Offspring began wearing an EVEN JESUS HATES CREED T-shirt.
"That drove them all insane," says Kelsey. "They really, really hated the fact that they were doing something they genuinely loved, yet they caught so much shit for it."
"I'd always said, 'I'm not going to be one of those arrogant, asshole lead-singer guys,'" says Stapp. "But I really let that media stuff affect me. I developed a bitterness, and then I would walk into interviews with a chip on my shoulder. And I started drinking like I never drank before. I might have come across as holier-than-thou, but I was really just a messed-up kid looking for answers who fell back on his faith. It all hurt me, though. I felt like I was the reason these guys' dream wasn't happening. I think their rock &anp; roll dream got screwed over by my lyrics."
Things only got worse when it came time to tour for Weathered. Kelsey, who co-produced the album, says, "We'd have shows scheduled, and then suddenly we'd have a couple of weeks off instead. It was a get-Scott's-act-together kind of thing. I assume he was getting de-stressed-out."
Stapp insists his health problems were very real. When the tour finally resumed, he says he contracted pneumonia and had developed nodules on his vocal cords that could have ended his career. "I showed the band documented medical reports," Stapp says. "But they were being told other things by management, I think, to keep pressure on me to tour. Someone actually stood up at a meeting -- I'm not going to say who -- and said, 'I don't care. I've got an effing house and wedding to pay for.'"
Stapp was having anxiety attacks and had become increasingly isolated. He also alleges shady "rock doctors" were brought on the scene, improperly prescribing meds to keep the tour going. "According to three doctors I've seen since then," says Stapp, "I shouldn't be alive."
Things came to a head at the infamous Chicago show. Says Tremonti, "Fifteen minutes before we went onstage, I saw Scott, staggering, slurring his words. I looked behind him, and there's a bottle of Jack Daniel's, half-drunk. I didn't even look at him again until we were onstage, because I wanted to wring his neck. He got all the words wrong and walked offstage after five songs. I had to get on the mike and say, 'Sorry, I'll be right back.' Backstage, Scott is laying on the couch with his eyes closed. I said, 'What the hell are you doing?' He was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry, dude. I thought the show was over.'"
Upon returning to the stage, Stapp removed his shirt and shoes (but not his socks) and lay on his back. Says Kelsey, "At one point, he was walking backwards while singing and fell over a monitor. You could see his socks flapping in the air."
"He was singing the words of 'Arms Wide Open' to 'Higher,' and the words of 'Higher' to 'Arms Wide Open' -- two of our biggest songs!" says Tremonti. "I don't blame the crowd for being pissed. That was the most embarrassing hour-and-a-half of my life."
"My problems were not what ended Creed," Stapp insists. "Creed was ended by egos and people wanting to do their own thing and poor decision-making. You have family members whispering in people's ears, saying, 'You're not getting enough credit.' In every interview I did, I'd say, 'This is easy to do when you're playing with the best guitar player in the world.' I meant it. And I still think he's a genius. But Mark was never happy. He wanted to do his own thing."
Tremonti, who formed a new band, Alter Bridge, with the other members of Creed, says, "The only reason to do a fourth album would have been to be greedy. We got into this to make music we were proud of, not to be the laughingstock of the entire industry because of our singer. We wanted to help the guy. But we'd been through that game so many times; eventually, you know, you're not your brother's keeper. We had a hundred people in that organization that relied on us. After a while, it's like, 'Are we going to live our lives like this for one person?' Then you decide, 'OK, I'll remove the cancer.'"
After the band's collapse, Stapp checked himself into a rapid-detox facility near Laguna Beach, California, for an expensive, controversial procedure in which all opiates are supposedly drained from the patient's body within twenty-four hours. In 2004, he moved to a waterfront mansion in Miami Beach. "Essentially, I was retired," he says. "I'd fired anyone who was involved with Creed. I didn't want anything to do with the music business. The entire press and industry hated me, so what was the point?" Instead, Stapp coached his son's football team, read film scripts and, while hailing a cab in Manhattan, met his fiancee, Jaclyn Nesheiwat, a pretty Jordanian-American who was Miss New York in 2004.
He also managed to stay sober for a record seven months -- until he returned to the studio. Ironically, it was to record a song for a compilation inspired by The Passion of the Christ. "Demons reared their heads, in terms of partying," he says. "I didn't have any boundaries."
Today, the sober Stapp is friendly and humble. "I think everything worked out the way it was supposed to. Mark's happier. I'm sober. There are still phone calls to be made, people I need to say something to. But everyone from Creed who I've offended or hurt, I ask for their forgiveness."
After his wedding in February, Stapp will launch his first dry tour. (A sobriety coach will travel with him.) Though The Great Divide debuted at Number Nineteen, selling only 315,000 copies so far, Stapp says the album is doing great considering there has been very little promotion. He also says he could foresee a Creed reunion someday. Tremonti says fans shouldn't hold their breath. "I haven't listened to a Creed song in years," he confesses. "I can't stand it. I wouldn't want to play those songs again. It was a complete nightmare. When people from that era get together, it's like a convention of people who went through Nam."
Responds Stapp, "If he served, I served too. No one wins in a war."
.Mark Binelli, with additional reporting by Shirley Halperin