ALMOST TWO years ago to the very day, Seattle’s Alice In Chains supported Megadeth here in Berlin’s Neu Welt club on a first, rather pointless European tour.
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell spent much of his twenty-fourth birthday crammed into one of these tiny dressing rooms where rock bands scrawl messages to no one in particular as they pass like the proverbial ships in the night. The band’s debut album, Facelift, had been out in the States for some eight months, selling a mere 80,000 copies and, despite the tour, Columbia’s European branches had barely bothered to put the record in the shops. As Cantrell and co. strode out for their 45-minute opening slot that night, they must have felt like they were dying a slow death. Their debut single, ‘Man In The Box’, was just beginning to turn into a MTV-generation metal anthem in the States but, as Cantrell puts it, “they didn’t know dick about us here!”
Two years later, Alice In Chains have returned to Berlin like conquering heroes. Like all the rest of the band’s European shows, the Neu Welt is sold out and there is an air of palpable triumph in the dressing room. Their second album, Dirt, entered the Billboard charts at Number 6 last September and has already gone platinum in the States, thanks to singles like ‘Would?’ which even crashed straight into the British Top 20 in January. Against all the odds, Alice In Chains have survived and prospered.
Columbia US eventually kick-started Facelift by sticking a free live concert video to 40,000 copies, the band kept touring, opening for Iggy Pop, Slayer, Ozzy Osbourne – anyone who would have them – and the album finally went gold in September, 1991. Then, just as Alice In Chains began to wind down from promoting Facelift and started to think about recording its follow-up, Nirvana exploded and fascination with the so-called Seattle sound went through the roof. The press wrote obsessively about the bands with whom Alice In Chains had been sharing rehearsal rooms since 1987 – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam et al – and eventually even turned the term Grunge (which Mudhoney’s Mark R. had supposedly coined as a joke) into a fashion look. Lead singer Staley had scared off the first major label that approached the band by turning up in a mohawk and swearing like a punk but Alice were still the third of the Seattle bands to get a deal with a major. Yet as “Seattlemania” took off, they were rarely even mentioned in despatches.
Alice In Chains might have been accused of missing the boat if they weren’t so dubious about the whole idea of a Seattle scene and if they hadn’t been digging so deep into themselves for Dirt. Despite the fact that the band’s name stems from singer Layne Staley’s one-time plan “to form a joke parody heavy metal band that dressed in drag”, Alice In Chains are, in many ways, a straight metal band with little interest in punk and roots in the likes of Black Sabbath and Metallica. Yet the harmonies of Staley and Cantrell can also sound like U2 or R.E.M. in full flight, Cantrell draws as much on Hendrix as on Eddie Van Halen for his snarling, rhythm-driven solos and the pair write concise and often melodic rock tunes that manage also to sound as if they were wrested from their innermost psyches at the bleakest hour of the night.
Sure, Facelift had given the band a strong fan base, Columbia were still determined to build themselves a proper “rock act” to put alongside such softer successes as Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton, Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles, complete with Alice In Chains filmed playing ‘Would?’ in a sleazy bar back in February, 1991, was finally on release and interest in all things Northwestern was still at a premium when they finally returned with Dirt. Yet while these circumstances may help explain the band’s success, they cannot account for the sheer, bleak intensity of both the songs and the band’s playing; titles like ‘Hate To Feel’, ‘Sickman’ and ‘Down In A Hole’ only hint at the levels of frustration, self-loathing and sheer depression that fire this album. Sickman champions “purity over rot” and much of Dirt describes a desperate battle to get clean.
Jerry Cantrell is undoubtedly the dominant personality in Alice In Chains; he’s a man who clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly and whose moods probably determine exactly what kind of day his bandmates and road-crew are having. Layne Staley is an altogether more ethereal presence with his vaguely dyed pink hair, his painfully thin figure and a habit of staring off into space while chuckling occasionally to himself. He’s no longer in the wheelchair he used on stage for several months after running over his foot while driving a three-wheel vehicle in Oklahoma City last September but he still looks like he’s been through the mill. All four members of Alice In Chains come from the far-flung Seattle suburbs and all of their parents divorced. They don’t sound as if they’ve ever believed in the American Dream but they will happily describe their music as a kind of therapy, albeit without a trace of the usual smiling positivity of the recovered.
“We’re not blaming ourselves for our failures,” explains Cantrell impatiently, “but we are trying to take a long, hard look in the mirror instead of putting on make-up and lights and candyfilling things up. It’s not like ‘I suck!’ but what do I have to do to make myself better? There are certain things I want to be as a person and I can’t be that until I take care of parts of my personality and my history.”
While Dirt encompasses all manner of internal struggles, at least four of the songs refer directly to Layne Staley’s attempts to kick the heroin habit he’d acquired since Alice In Chains signed to Columbia in April, ’89. Heroin has become increasingly popular in alternative rock circles of late with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Jane’s Addiction both heavily associated with the drug in recent years. Andrew Wood, lead singer with Mother Love Bone, the quintessential Seattle band, overdosed on the eve of the release of his band’s debut album in 1990, and, last June, Seven Year Bitch guitarist Stefanie Sargent also overdosed in Seattle. Staley had a lot of friends who’d died from heroin and at first he wanted to become what one of his songs, ‘Junkhead’, cynically describes as that “elite race of our own/The stoners, junkies and freaks”.
“Listened to in context,” Staley explains, “those four or five songs on Dirt are supposed to tell the story of what happened to me.
“They’re just about the insanity and the chaos and the desperate feelings of being controlled by a substance. At first it made me feel good but then things began to change very rapidly. I found myself becoming a slave to it in no time at all.”
“He wasn’t around for a while,” shrugs Cantrell. “He was there but he wasn’t around. He went through some heavy stuff but so did we, we had a few rocks in the fire ourselves. You get a bunch of young fucking guys going balls out and it’s bound to get messy…”
Staley tried rehab but eventually kicked his habit on his own. Both he and Cantrell are already tired of talking about heroin and perhaps a little afraid that the drug’s chilling attraction will obscure the dark heart of their songs. “We touch on a lot of other things besides heroin,” says Staley. “There’s addiction to drugs, addiction to relationships, addiction to self-abuse. The reason why you abuse anything is usually because of something buried inside you. We’re confronting all those addictions.”
© Mark Cooper, Q, April 1993