SEASONS CHANGE: Pearl Jam's continuing turmoil, Staley's retreat, and McCready's fond memories ...
Had Mad Season not recorded a follow-up album due to growing tension within Pearl Jam’s camp, few would’ve been surprised. Power struggles within the band, including Eddie Vedder’s ascension to the throne, have been well-documented. McCready pauses to consider Pearl Jam in the mid-90’s, and how the lack of communication within the band could have influenced Mad Season.
“It was an interesting time,” he sighs. “We weren’t communicating as well as we could have. And it’s something we’ve always had to work on. I thought we might break up. We weren’t really reconvening and talking about things.”
“In terms of animosity, I don’t think there was anything. We tried to be very supportive of side projects. Stone was doing Brad at that time ...” he trails off.
But eventually, Pearl Jam would be called back onto the road in 1995 to promote Vitalogy on their ill-fated “Sponsored By No One” Tour, during which the band played venues not backed by Ticketmaster. It was arguably the most trying time for Pearl Jam as a band. McCready began getting bogged down by the business end of being in a band.
Recording with Mad Season, though often slowed by Staley’s poor health, allowed McCready to revisit the spontaneity that allowed him to begin writing and recording music as a teenager when he first arrived in Seattle.
“Those few shows we played helped us to get better and (Brett Eliason, the album’s producer), who captured the audio for those shows and who produced the record, he captured the spontaneity we had and kept the guitars pretty raw.”
Layne Staley took the cues, and produced an album’s full of lyrics that are as emotive and painfully revealing as anything he’d ever written. McCready admits that upon first hearing how Staley’s lyrics matched the music he’d written, he couldn’t help but feel that the band had become “very slow and very dark.”
No lengthy tours ever materialized for Mad Season. It’s unlikely that Staley would have been able to fulfill any touring commitments, given his health limitations by the end of the year. Confusion abounded over Staley’s health and his future. Was he serious about returning to rehab, after Mike McCready flew a well-liked counselor out from Hazelden to visit with Staley? Or were the days Staley did spend in rehab too few? His intentions remained unclear, with conflicting reports still emerging over whether Staley was indeed sober during the making of Above.
Perhaps Staley’s true emotional state is revealed through the lyrics he penned for Above. “See the more I think/I’m afraid to blink/I don’t move an inch/slowly draining me,” he sings on “X-Ray Mind”, shedding light on the intense isolation that was slowly engulfing him. “Isn’t it so strange/How far away we all are now/Am I the only one who/remembers that summer” he adds on “Long Gone Day”.
Perhaps Layne Staley couldn’t have been saved. McCready became very serious in 1997 about recording a follow-up to Above, but by this point, Staley was simply unable to put pen to paper, let alone perform. John “Baker” Saunders overdosed on heroin in January 1999. Layne Staley succumbed to his addiction just seven months later.
Tim Branom, lead singer of Gypsy Rose, asserts in Grunge Is Dead that heroin was somewhat unavoidable. “Just pot isn’t enough—it had to be heroin. It rains all the time, it’s so depressing—what can you do? It just does it to you—the darkness, the cold, and the attitude.”
Losing two of his friends wasn’t exactly what McCready had in mind when he originally envisioned Mad Season as a project. He maintains however, that persistence in the face of adversity saw him through the traumatic end of the decade.
“You just have to keep going on. Mad Season was initially a project I brought to everyone to help people get sober and clean. But I was naïve. I thought, ‘Yea, I can help my friends!’ As naïve as I was, I think my heart was in the right place. I thought Mad Season would be the antidote to my friend’s health troubles. In hindsight, I realised everyone has to figure out their own issues by themselves.”
LIFE AFTER DEATH
Death figures prominently into the Mad Season aesthetic. The band was brought together in an attempt to avoid certain peril, but ended up succumbing to it. Yet Mike McCready survived. Moving on and subsequently transforming the intense emotion he felt into an equally intense energy has become part of McCready indefatigable ethos.
“It’s crazy to think about,” he says of how death surrounded him and other Seattle musicians in the 80’s and 90’s. “Andy Wood died, and I got a career out of that. I used to go see Mother Love Bone all the time. It’s an interesting paradox.”
The fight to survive is heard in spades on Above, and McCready insists Mad Season themselves were simply a part of a larger struggle. The negative press brought forth by the death of Staley was the final nail in the coffin of worldwide recognition for the Seattle music community. Pressure was being felt by the musicians from record label executives, attempting to squeeze every last ounce of marketable value out of a tired and at times, disenfranchised community.
Toby Wright, Alice In Chains producer of their self-titled record (and last with Staley as vocalist) noted one particularly disheartening experience in Everybody Loves Our Town: “One of the things that happened when we were recording was the Mad Season record went gold. So at six in the morning we were still in the studio with Layne, and the heads of Sony, Donnie Ienner, and Michele Anthony, called and were congratulating him. And at the end of the conversation, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, you have nine days to get your record done.’ So they call him up to congratulate him and then threaten him.”
“And even after everything happened in Seattle people still weren’t very supportive,” chuckles McCready in agreement. “I remember trying us trying to put on a free show here and it was a big hassle. People talk about Seattle now and what a great scene it has now, but this is 20 years later,” he says, seemingly insistent on letting the notion of “grunge” pass naturally, while still giving credence to the records that were born out of that time and place.
“I’m very proud of what we had and proud of how hard we worked. It was an interesting phenomenon, because none of us saw it coming.”
The first bonus track on the deluxe edition of Above is a previously unreleased track simply titled “Interlude.” At 43 seconds, the track features McCready picking away on an acoustic guitar. With its wispy fragility, those 43 seconds could have easily found a home in the final scene of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, as Penny Lane follows through on her longstanding desire to leave the complications of her life behind.
Kate Hudson’s character boards a flight to Morocco, eager for the promise of better days ahead. And though “Interlude” is less than a minute long, it offers a glimpse into what, for a few months in late 1994 and 1995, really was; promise, opportunity and unabated hope.
It’s taken Mike McCready 17 years to understand the importance of not only what Mad Season was, but what they could have become. For the longest time, the morbid history that’s most often associated with the band was exactly where McCready’s mind went to.
“I had a very hard time listening to the Mad Season record after Baker and Layne died. I always felt too sad and couldn’t see past what had happened to those guys. It was still too close to me.”
Time has given Mike McCready a chance to re-examine Mad Season. For a musician who came perilously close to death himself, Mad Season was a way out. And while Above won’t ever be mentioned in the same sentence as Nevermind, Superunknown and Ten, Above represents the strength of the Seattle explosion in the 90’s: it’s the sound of musicians coming together in a desperate time, eager to help one another out. Layne Staley and John “Baker” Saunders left the world after Mad Season, though McCready looks fondly upon the time they spent together, still happy he offered them a way out.
Seattle, in terms of its rock community, was initially built on the strength of friendship. That may very well be what Mad Season is best remembered for.
“You have to continue to be part of the solution to your own life. There are other things out there than death. And I think that’s how you get through it. It’s weird for me to talk about Layne and Baker, because they’re not here to talk about themselves.”
“I have memories of them,” says McCready anxiously, “and I wish I could talk to them and laugh about things. Maybe they’d be parents, who knows. It’d be a whole different thing. I’m sad, but still happy that people have gravitated towards this record.”