Surely it’s just a coincidence, but it’s worthy of mention: On April 5, 2002, exactly eight years after Kurt Cobain killed himself, another tragedy hit the Seattle music scene.
After years of drug abuse, Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley fatally overdosed on a combination of heroin and cocaine at the age of 34 (see “Layne Staley Died From Mix Of Heroin, Cocaine, Report Says” ). But where Cobain’s death was met with a massive public outpouring of grief, Staley’s was greeted with a general shrug of indifference and a complete lack of surprise. His band had been inactive for so long, and he’d been written off by so many, that it almost seemed like he’d already died.
It’s clear that Staley’s unwillingness or inability to kick drugs tore Alice in Chains apart. What’s not so obvious is why his addiction caused people to overlook his contributions to music and why only 200 fans attended a vigil after his death.
The Alice in Chains sound — Staley’s darkly melodic vocals and minor-key harmonies coupled with the band’s down-tuned chug — is the framework for numerous modern acts, including Godsmack, Taproot, Puddle of Mudd, Smile Empty Soul, Cold and Tantric. Even Metallica, who said they always wanted to tour with Alice in Chains, have some Staleyesque harmonies on their latest opus, St. Anger. And Alice songs like “Them Bones,” “Grind,” “Would?” and of course “Man in the Box” continue to be rock-radio staples.
Alice in Chains’ music has endured largely because it tied together timeless elements of classic rock and metal with passionate, well-crafted songwriting. Moreover, it captured the lifestyles of its members. If Nirvana were about the joy of destruction, Alice embodied the beauty of decay. Their songs were gloomy, cocky, abrasive, unrepentant and confrontational, and Staley frequently sang about being in the grip of heroin addiction. But there was more to Layne Staley than his incurable drug habit, tortured lyrics and unmistakable voice.
At the end of 1995, around the time Alice in Chains’ self-titled final studio album was released, I flew to Seattle to spend a few days with the band for a Rolling Stone cover story. Originally, Layne didn’t want to talk. He had been burned by the press too many times, and was interested in maintaining a quiet sort of dignity. However, the magazine wouldn’t do the story without him, so at the urging of his bandmates, he relented. I spent around 15 hours with Staley and found him to be warm, friendly and genuinely funny. He wasn’t a class clown, he was more like the dude who tells the next joke after the clown has gotten everyone’s attention.
Fans got a taste of Alice in Chains’ goofy sense of humor during an edition of “Headbangers Ball” shot at a water park. The bandmembers showed up wearing bathing caps, water wings and flotation devices shaped like animals. Later, Staley cast a fishing pole into the aquarium and Cantrell was pushed into the pool — the band was booted from the park soon after.
During my Seattle excursion, I saw a sicker side of Staley’s humor when, during a meal at an Italian eatery, the singer gleefully fired off a story about a girl who vomited on his friend during sex.
In some ways, Alice in Chains’ frontman was like a mischievous little kid trapped in the body of an agonized artist. He carried a Game Boy around with him, which he played at every free moment. During a walk through Pike Place Market, he told me about maxing out his first credit card at a toy store. At home, when he wasn’t playing one of his many video games, he spent hours watching professional wrestling and giggling at cartoons. Yet he also loved creating art, and for our first interview he proudly wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a self-portrait he’d made. He created a similar print of a couple embracing for the cover of Above, the 1995 debut album by his side project Mad Season.
There was a soft side to Layne Staley as well, one that contrasted sharply with his brooding vocals and haunting lyrics. He loved playing with his cats and talked about someday falling in love and having kids. He nearly started crying when he talked about friends who had passed away and expressed genuine compassion when I shared a story about a traumatic death in my family. But being in the music business hardened Staley, and fame scared him.
Like Cobain, he hated being viewed as a public figure. Most of all, he hated being characterized as a hopeless junkie — not because it wasn’t true, but because of the effect it had on those he cared about. He was pretty unapologetic about his own drug use and was convinced that his talents and personality defined his character, not his extracurricular activities. He was angry that articles about his usage grieved his mother and sister and made his fans think heroin was cool.
Like many drug addicts, Staley would disappear for days on end. A week after my initial interview, I was desperately trying to track him down for last-minute follow-up questions before my story went to press. I had pretty much given up when the phone rang at 4 a.m. and a sluggish voice at the other end of the line rasped, “This is Layne. I’m sorry I woke you.” I groggily tried to assure him that it was no problem, and that I’d love to ask him a few quick questions. “No, I can tell I woke you,” he said, then added, “I’m getting ready to do what you were just doing. You can call me later.” Then the line went dead.
I don’t think he was really planning to do what I was doing. I was deeply content — curled up next to my wife in a warm bed. It seems like Staley was never content and frequently felt alone. It’s one of the reasons his vocals echoed with such power and so much pain.
The beginning of the end for Layne came in October 1996, when Demri Parrott, his girlfriend, died from a bacterial infection caused by drug abuse. After that, he pretty much gave up and became the rock and roll casualty he swore to me he would never be — and for all intents and purposes, he vanished from view.
On “Sickman” from 1992′s Dirt, Staley sang, “I can see the end is getting near/ I won’t rest until my head is clear.” Sadly, nine and a half years later, the body of Layne Staley was laid to rest.