Friday, February 8, 2013

On Alice in Chains

I've been listening to lots of Alice in Chains recently. One of my favorite bands from the 90s, their music had that nice blend of dirty guitar, dark lyrics, and amazing vocals that pleased this heavy metal and grunge music fan more than most bands. Jerry Cantrell, I should note, is a phenomenal songwriter and his backing vocals on much of AIC's work provides a texture that's unique, but also made the band's reunited effort, Black Gives Way to Blue, both a familiar and excellent album even if the original vocalist, Layne Staley, was nowhere to be found thanks to his drug overdose in 2002.

The Onion's non-satirical A/V Club has a great article about Layne Staley's life and death that I also came across recently. It's a fantastic and sad look at Staley's decline as well as a deep appreciation for Dirt, which is the band's masterpiece and a clear chronicle of the singer's struggle with (and sad unwillingness to overcome) heroin addiction. The album showcases a variety of attitudes about drug use, most of them more complex than simple regret or hope. Certainly titles like "Junkman," "Sickman," and "Hate to Feel" suggest Staley is already resigned to his fate as a user, likely an overdoser. Consider, also, the various lyrics:

"ah, what's the difference, i'll die / in this sick world of mine" -- Sickman

"Seem so sick to the hypocrite norm / Running their boring drills / But we are an elite race of our own/ The stoners, junkies and freaks" -- Junkman

"What in God's name have you done? / Stick your arm for some real fun!" -- Godsmack

Whether celebrating the status of the sick outsider, at least aware of his hypocrisies, or lamenting the pain he's causing himself, Staley's songs never find a true joy, only gritty rejection of what I'm sure were well-meaning pleas from his friends and family to get off of junk. ("Godsmack" itself seems to be a rejection of the Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous method of placing faith in a higher power in an effort to find strength to kick the habit. "And God's name is smack for some" is Staley's gruff response. Later followed by the more solemn declaration "Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved" underscored by the foggy questions of the entire song "Would?" which links Staley to another drug overdose story from the Seattle scene, Andrew Wood (who's sad death resulted in the founding of Pearl Jam.)

So, I've got the Alice In Chains Unplugged album on this morning as I write and after "Heaven Beside You" Staley says, "I would have to say that this is the best show we've done in about 3 years." In the background, one of the other bandmembers responds with "Layne, this is the ONLY one we've done in three years."

Layne's response: "It's still the best." Laughs. They then play "Would?"

I didn't know it at the time because I was not a major concert-going teen, but Layne's drug problem had limited Alice in Chain's ability to play shows in the mid-90s. Their last major tour with Staley was 1993, when I was 15. I saw them at Lollapalooza that year and bought two Alice in Chain shirts. They played "Godsmack," my favorite song at the time because of the guitars and chorus.

MTV recorded the Unplugged show in April 1996. The band would perform only 4 more concerts together, with the last performance coming in July 1996.

Handout from 2002 Memorial Service
Staley was found dead in April of 2002; "the tip-off that something was amiss came not from concerned family members or friends but from Staley’s accountants, who noticed that he hadn’t spent any money in several days." This, from a 2003 SeattleWeekly article on heroin's resurgence in Seattle, says more than anything about what is lost:
In addition to the singer's tracked-up and paraphernalia-littered bathroom and front room, detectives found a kitchen counter covered with more used needles, more narcotics pipes, and more spray-paint cans. Needles also were found beneath Staley when his 86-pound body was removed. He lived alone in the two-story, three-bedroom apartment (one bedroom contained toys and video games, another musical instruments; the master bedroom had a bed and TV). When police played back Staley's answering-machine tape, it was filled with two weeks' worth of calls asking where he was.

Donations to aid in addiction recovery services are best made locally to area communities where you can see the benefits; those in the Seattle, WA area can contribute directly to the Layne Staley Memorial Fund here.