It didn’t take long, after the announcement that Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley was found dead in his department, for the cliches to start flying. People talked about the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle”, and “dying young” (and were quick to mention that one of the band’s song titles talked of doing the same). Some even quoted Neil Young for the millionth time, “it’s better to burn out than fade away”. The connection between Staley and now-legendary Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain was there to be made, and many people made it. After all, both were part of the Seattle “grunge” boom of the early ’90s, both struggled with drug addiction, and the anniversary of Cobain’s death was a mere couple of weeks ago.
I was only 15 when Cobain chose the easy way out in 1994, so while the coverage of his death and his subsequent canonization, alongside such names as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin (all were 27 when they died!) bothered me. I wasn’t media-savvy enough to fully understand the role of the press in myth-making. Rock and Roll, in its scant five decades, has plenty of stars who died before their time, with untold albums and performances that we will never see.
The truth of this, of course, is that dying young is always romanticized, and not just in music. The idea will forever conjure up images of James Dean: we never had to see him grow old, lose his edge, become obese, and enter into a career twilight when no one would want to cast him. He is forever 21, or 17, clad in leather, astride the motorcycle that eventually took his life.
The initial report was that Staley was found dead in his apartment, after a relative called the police to check in. The cause of death was not determined, and won’t be for weeks, but was said to be either natural causes or an overdose. The more you find out, the worse things get. Staley was found on the floor of his apartment, having lain there decomposing for about two weeks. Investigators could not even identify the body right away. Also not released in the initial report was that Staley’s body was surrounded by heroin paraphernalia. The point of all this, of course, is that there is nothing even remotely romantic about his death. Staley was a fucking junkie, who let drugs destroy everything in his life, and eventually take that as well.
Being an Alice in Chains fan was incredibly frustrating between 1993 and 2001. They were supposed to tour with Metallica, a tour my friends and I avidly anticipated, until Alice in Chains backed out because Staley was in no shape to tour. The rest of the band’s history was a similar story. So it will be interesting to see if Staley and Alice in Chains receive the same treatment as other dead rock stars. After all, Alice in Chains has been out of action since the 1994 EP Jar of Flies. The band’s enforced inactivity came because Staley would not, or could not, get his shit together. (When guitarist and principal songwriter Jerry Cantrell released a solo album in 1998, Rolling Stone quipped that “Layne Staley is nowhere to be found on this release; nor is he missed”.) The band did release a self-titled album in 1995 (known in some circles as “Tripod”, for Jerry Cantrell’s three-legged dog that graced the cover), but despite the radio-friendly “Grind” and “Heaven Beside You”, the band phoned in the rest of the album. The discography since then has been a textbook example of a label trying to squeeze a little more blood out of a dead horse. They released a box set (with demos, live outtakes, and a couple of b-sides), a “best of the box set” CD (with a single new track), a live album, and a greatest hits collection. The greatest hits album was particularly galling, not containing a single new song and only featuring ten songs. Dirt, unquestionably the band’s best release (and an essential recording in any age) was only represented by four songs on the greatest hits CD. There were more than 10 good songs on Dirt alone!
Alice in Chains has been out of the public eye for long enough so that, when I saw their name in the headline on cnn.com, I knew one of the members had to be dead. And it wasn’t difficult to figure out who it would be. It’s no secret that Staley has struggled with heroin. Dirt basically has two themes: drugs and death. Drugs were central to songs like “Sickman”, “Junkhead” (“What’s my drug of choice? / Well what have you got / I don’t go broke / and I do it a lot”), “God Smack” (What in God’s name have you done / Stick your arm for some real fun”), and “Hate To Feel” (“New Orleans, gotta get / Pincushion medicine / Used to be curious, Now the shit’s sustenance”). In happier times, I joked to a friend that I’ve never tried heroin, but I know exactly what it would be like, thanks to listening to Dirt.
The band’s other theme, death, found enough in their lyrics that it’s fairly obvious that Cantrell and Staley, and maybe the whole band, should have been members of the Prozac Nation. Besides the eminently quotable “We Die Young”, there’s “Them Bones” (“I feel so unknown / Gonna end up a big old pile of them bones”), “Rain When I Die”, and “Dirt” (I want you to kill me, and dig me under / I want to live no more” and “I want you to scrape me from the walls”). So while Alice was often lumped in other Seattle bands of the Alternative boom, like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana, with whom they shared at least superficial similarities, I would argue that Alice in Chains was darker than the rest, having more in common with bands like Metallica. While the other Seattle bands preached teen angst, Alice in Chains trumpeted the downward spiral into addiction, depression, and finally death.
Which would explain, I think, my interest in the band. When you realize that you’re depressed (in the clinical sense, not the I-missed-my-favorite-TV-show-so-I’m-bummed way that depression often gets represented), everything in your life takes on a new clarity: the bands you listen to, the books you read, the movies you like. And in ninth grade, sometimes the music can get you through. In a way, Alice in Chains served as a “gateway band”, leading to darker fare like Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and sometimes Pink Floyd (whose album The Final Cut may be the most depressing album ever made). When you’re 14, knowing that there’s someone out there as depressed as you are can make all the difference, and I can still remember the first time I really understood songs like “Angry Chair” (“Loneliness is not a phase / Field of pain is where I graze”), and “Am I Inside” (“Black is all I feel / So this is how it feels to be free”).
Still, to limit Alice in Chains’ music to the dark, depressing stuff is to slight the band’s musical appeal, for they also produced two acoustic EP’s, Sap (1992), and Jar of Flies (1994). The songs on these, while dark, are also (for lack of a better term) beautiful, for they speak to that invincible force in the human condition: hope. “Don’t Follow” remains one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard, and I remember quoting “No Excuses” in my high school yearbook (“You my friend, I will defend / and if we change, well I love you anyway”). Now it sounds a little cheesy, but in ninth grade, it makes all the difference in the world.
Besides marking the end of a long struggle, Staley’s death marks, for me, the end of an era. I was never really into Nirvana, so Layne is the first musician I’ve been really into who has died (not counting performers who were dead before I got into them). Alice in Chains was one of the first couple of bands I ever really loved, and while I haven’t listened to them in a while, I still treasure their albums as a record of my development over the last 10 years. I can still remember arriving at the Ticketmaster office 10 hours before tickets went on sale for the Alice in Chains / Metallica tour. I remember debating the relative merits of Alice in Chains and Layne’s side project, Mad Season (whose Above was and still is a fine album). I remember the friend who introduced me to Alice in Chains wanting to kill another friend, who referred to their song “Man in the Box” as “that ‘Jack in the Box’ song”. I remember talking with friends about whether we were ever going to see any of the “big four” (Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana) in concert. I remember the feeling of sadness when I read that Staley had taken to wearing fingerless gloves, presumably to hide the puncture wounds on the backs on his hands, from injecting heroin when his other veins refused to cooperate. And above all, I remember the music, and feeling new worlds open themselves up to me: first Dirt then Jar of Flies then Facelift and Sap. And I remember hope.
On the band’s website, a message was posted to fans: “For the past decade, Layne struggled greatly — we can only hope that he has at last found some peace. We love you, Layne. Dearly. And we will miss you . . . endlessly”. I remember when Kurt Cobain died, someone saying that he had struggled so long with his problems, and now we never get to see him get the better of them. And being hurt. And angry. In an import CD I picked up years ago, there is a message from when Staley broke his leg on tour and had to sing from a wheelchair: “1990: Andrew [Wood, of seminal pre-boom Mother Love Bone, who also died from heroin]. 1994: Kurt. 1995: No more please! Keep on kickin’ Layne!” And Staley’s death, while perhaps being not as unfathomable as other rock and roll deaths, is no less devastating. It makes me think again of how, once someone dies, you can never again remember how you thought of them when they were still alive. And it made me think of how much I’ve changed since 1993, when I really discovered music. And it’s been a long time since I’ve gone to bed crying.