Facing the Path of Time: Alice in Chains Remembered

In late April 2013, I sat in the Sonoran Desert, listening, for the first time in years, to Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell”. The occasion for this event was a cousin’s First Holy Communion. Her family lives just outside of Phoenix, Arizona, and though their neighborhood is willfully suburban — massive sports complexes don’t naturally exist in the desert—the Sonoran’s vast, charred landscape is never entirely masked by strip mall sprawl. Indeed, from the relative comfort of my cousin’s back patio, it seemed that any of the hundreds of miles that stretch outward from there to the Pescott National Forest (and well beyond) could have served as the setting for the cover photo of Alice in Chains’ Dirt.

On that late April evening, I found myself listening to AIC for the most banal of reasons: my uncle had set his satellite radio to the Lithium channel. As a teenager, I was a fan of Alice in Chains, perhaps more so than of any of the other grunge bands of the early-1990s. To date, I have probably heard “Nutshell” hundreds of times. Still, on that oppressively hot night, I found the song more moving than I ever had in the past. There was something eerily appropriate about Layne Staley, a victim of a fatal drug addiction, crooning, “I’d feel better dead” on the eve of a sacramental celebration. Catholicism, if nothing else, promises the ecstasy of an afterlife, a life that begins when the eternal soul is resurrected from the imperfect, ever-decaying body. In a way, Staley’s sentiment is entirely Catholic, which is a thought that I honest-to-God never imagined I’d think.

During the month that followed this event — the mass was beautiful, by the way — I revisited the recorded output of the Layne Staley-era Alice in Chains (1990-1996). I decided to take that journey because I wanted to do some soul searching. I wanted to evaluate how well one of the more meaningful bands of my youth had aged. The answer: not very.

Believe me, it brings me no joy to make that admission. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniable conclusion — for me, at least. Perhaps ironically, the main reason that AIC now sound rather juvenile is their lyrics. Images that were once harrowing and haunting — angry chairs, sickmen, men who kick themselves in the teeth, and (oh so many) men who have lost their minds — now come off as clunky and silly. Furthermore, having been exposed to better, more sophisticated representations of drug culture — Naked Lunch, How to Stop Time, The Wire, Breaking Bad, to name just a few — Dirt seems oddly distant from the dark depths of addiction that it attempts to narrate. In all seriousness, try to imagine a drug transaction — any drug transaction — progressing as follows, in perfect spoken English:

Dealer (who’s high): What’s your drug of choice?

User: Well, what have you got?

Truly, the relative shallowness of Dirt‘s imagery entirely undoes any and all arguments about the sublime aesthetic inspiration offered by intoxication.

And yet, despite the many, many times that I cringed during my month in the box, I still prefer Alice in Chains to all of their contemporaries.

Yes, even to Nirvana.

When I first came to the band, I did so through the basement, so to speak. AIC’s rhythm section is formidable, and I always found the interplay between Mike Starr and Sean Kinney deeply entertaining. The band’s most menacing moments, like the opening to “Angry Chair” and all of “Would?”, gain their force from the punishing, pummeling tumble of Kinney’s drums. Jerry Cantrell’s ferocious riffs always seemed like a bonus to me. A glorious bonus, mind you. But still, a bonus.

However, during my most recent trip through the AIC catalog, I found myself marveling at Layne Staley’s voice more than anything else. Don’t, um, get me wrong. I always considered Staley the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll cool (see that handy “Would?” video up there), and I always knew that his singing was the most unique of his era. Still, I don’t think I ever quite realized how much Staley’s vocals drive the band’s songs — arguably even more so than Cantrell’s guitar pyrotechnics. Just listen to “We Die Young” or “Sunshine”. There’s pure hellfire in Staley — an urgency, a desperation that perfectly matches his grisly subject matter. Whereas the vocal stylings of so many of the other Seattle überdudes (God, there were too many of them) frequently deteriorated into selfparody, Staley’s voice always retained a vital vibrancy that breathed life into Alice’s most doom-laden tracks.

That vibrancy is why I’ve come to prefer the acoustic Alice in Chains much more than the electric Alice in Chains. While Dirt and Facelift, in their time, captured my young imagination, Sap and especially Jar of Flies are the two AIC records that continue to resonate well into my, and their, adulthood — the latter standing as the best achievement of the Staley period of the band. On the two unplugged EPs, Alice in Chains established a fuller, more colorful sonic palette than they ever achieved on their electric long players. Sure, the two EPs are gloomy and often death-obsessed. But yet, they’re also quite playful. The goofy hidden track that closes out Sap, the bluesy sway of “Swing on This”, heck, even the back cover art of Sap that depicts the band pissing on their own press release photos — these are all moments that reveal this moody “metal” band to be nimble, diverse, and, yes, fun. They were the kind of band that, for instance, might be just as entertaining to watch in sumo wrestler suits at a water park as they would be in a rock club.

This aesthetic and emotional diversity is what, for me, has always made Alice in Chains feel human, and it’s also the reason why Layne Staley’s death remains the only celebrity death that has ever really made me sad. On that warm April night in Arizona, I felt that sadness once again.

Early in the summer of 1996, two of my closest childhood friends sat in my living room to watch Alice in Chains perform on MTV Unplugged. The three of us never really agreed on music. One of us immersed himself in a variety of Worcester, Massachusetts-based hardcore scenes; the other was a fan of progressive and industrial rock; I was a mopey Anglophile who preferred everything on Creation Records to anything on Sup Pop. Yet, for some reason, the three of us agreed on Alice in Chains, and so we made a point of gathering on that evening to watch what I think we all knew would be Layne Staley’s last performance with the band.

Through the rosy haze of memory, moments like this always garner a retroactive significance that never existed at the time. Yet, I can’t help but look back rather wistfully on that calm Massachusetts evening. It’s quite possible that those two friends and I were never simultaneously in my living room — or anywhere else — ever again. We were somewhere around 20 at the time, and each of us was slowly setting in motion the plans that would set our lives on three separate, distinct courses. Still, on that one night, we watched, communally, a band that soundtracked our youth emerge from the shadows one final time, for one final show.

The performance carries the same gloomy baggage that similarly surrounds Nirvana’s oft-touted appearance on the Unplugged series. True to form, though, Alice in Chains remained effortlessly light and funny despite the funeral feeling the show conveyed. At one point, Staley completely forgets the words to “Sludge Factory”, yelling, “Fuck!” before giggling in embarrassment. Later, when Staley tells the crowd, “This is the best show we’ve done in three years”, Cantrell counters by saying that it’s the only show the band has done in three years. Staley’s retort is perfect: “It’s still the best.” Finally, when the band ends their show, Staley tells the audience that he wishes he could “just hug [them] all.” The credits remain rolling at the time, offering the band’s thanks “to housepets, general acquaintances, doctors, lawyers, flight attendants, hairstylists, dance instructors, psychic friends, dog trainers, circus freaks, street vendors, and lawn care professionals.” I laughed when I read those words 17 years ago, and I laughed when I typed them out for this article 17 years later.

That humor, in a nutshell, is the reason why Alice in Chains remain relevant to me. Though I know that the band is now two albums into the second phase of their career, I have to confess that I have no interest in that iteration of the group. If you do, that’s fine. No judgment here. I simply prefer Alice in Chains as I remember them from my youth, because those memories have definitely faced the path of time. They’ve also traveled — and continue to travel — that path with me, which means that they’re never so far away.