[19 March 2003]
Layne Staley: Angry Chair is not a biography of the late Alice In Chains singer. Argentinean writer Adriana Rubio barely even cracks a small window into his life. Essentially, the book is nothing more than one fan’s viewpoint on the tortured existence of Staley, and how he affected her life, his words and music getting her through a battle with bulimia.
Separating itself from the pack of disposable quick books that endlessly come out on any artist of note, flash in the pan, living or dead, it is the depths to which Rubio went to gather a greater understanding of what made Staley tick that makes Angry Chair particularly interesting. Gaining close confidence with Nancy McCallum and Liz Elmer, Staley’s mother and sister respectively, it is through their stories that Rubio paints a picture of the grunge icon’s youth. These interviews reveal little other than familial speculation, which, in all fairness, was as close to Staley as anyone had come in recent years.
More senseless is the dedication of an entire chapter to John Brandon, author of the awful 2001 biography Unchained: The Story of Mike Starr, about the former Alice In Chains bassist. Rubio not only gives him undeserved credence and space, she goes as far as to reprint six songs that he penned for and about various members of AIC and their family members. In one passage, Brandon comes off nothing short of a stalker, discussing how he pictured Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell trading vocals on one of his songs. That Brandon’s book is from the same small publisher that produced Rubio’s should not be discounted.
Angry Chair does contain items of worth, notably many of Staley’s early drawings, letters to his mother while on tour, previously unseen artwork, handwritten lyrics and photos from his childhood. Articles such as an undated Staley resume (“Personal Strengths: I am hard working, honest and get along well with people”) and the four—page program from his memorial are absolutely priceless. Yet, the fact that most of the images look as if they were reproduced by a low-grade photocopier leave the paperback almost like a ghetto version of the critically acclaimed Journals by Kurt Cobain.
Most riveting—but ultimately disappointing—is the highly touted “final interview” with Staley himself. Taking up less than a page, his words are harsh and painful, making the nonsensical filler bandied about elsewhere in the book almost digestible.
Staley had long ago sworn off journalists, yet two months before his death last year, he called Rubio in her home country in the middle of the night, railing against her for writing the book. With death hovering, and knowing that this might be his last chance to express anything of merit, Staley warned of the evils of heroin, the drug that left him defecating in his pants, constantly vomiting, nearly toothless and stripped of his ability to be artistic. Most importantly, he wanted Rubio to convey through Angry Chair the fact that it was not drugs that killed his girlfriend, Demri Parrott, but rather bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s inner lining.
Bringing her up in his own stage of swift deterioration further adds to speculation that after Parrott’s death in 1996, Staley had completely fallen apart. Since her passing, he had recorded only a few songs and ceased performing all together while becoming Seattle’s Syd Barrett. Adamant about having a chapter dedicated to Parrott almost confirms the fact.
In retrospect, everyone, it seems, wanted something different from Angry Chair. From hardcore Alice In Chains fans to Nancy McCallum, many are loudly discounting the book as pure drivel. What has Staley’s mother so up in arms is anyone’s guess, but she most likely has a good reason. As do those who wanted a juicy tell all and expose, which is what early publicity for the book promoted. Perhaps, short of all expectations, it might best to view the book as nothing more than a cathartic personal experience that Rubio tried to share with like-minded fans. Her life was truly affected deeply by Layne Staley, but instead of just writing a letter to him or silently passing tears at some post mortem vigil, she left her country, came to the United States and sought out the man who changed her life. She wanted to find out what it was about Staley that was so powerful, and for all of the book’s shortcomings, she found her answer—and no criticism directed at Angry Chair can take that away.