LAYNE STALEY was already something of a ghost. Alice in Chains, the Seattle band he’d fronted since 1987, was officially on “hiatus,” a two-year respite that had stretched to six. Some friends and even his bandmates say they hadn’t seen him for several years. Rumors spread that he’d lost an arm to gangrene, or maybe all his teeth.
Heroin addiction was Staley’s demon and his muse, but what once fueled his art also kept him from making any more. His death from an overdose on April 19 at the age of 34 was as inevitable as it was tragic.
Seattle grunge was a hybrid of punk and metal, but Alice in Chains were one of the few bands to emerge from the scene more attuned to local metalheads like Queensryche, Culprit, and TKO than to Pacific Northwest punks like the Wipers and Green River, bands that fueled Nirvana and Mudhoney. It was as a metal band that Alice first gained a national following, opening for Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax on the 1991 Clash of the Titans tour, while ‘Man in the Box’, from Alice’s debut Facelift, became a minor hit. Two years later, their alt-rock credentials were solid enough for them to tour with Lollapalooza.
Alice’s second album, 1992’s Dirt, was where Staley perfected his ability to take metal’s gothic screams and turn them on his own dysfunction. It wound up going platinum four times over and remains the band’s best album as well as its most popular. After the melancholy and mostly acoustic Jar of Flies, which featured the hit ‘No Excuses’, Alice released only one more studio album, 1995’s Alice in Chains. But the band’s legacy lives on in the primal melodramas of current bands like Creed, Staind, and Nickelback (Alice guitarist Jerry Cantrell is Nickelback’s opening act this summer).
Staley had been through rehab several times and lost a former fiancée, Demri Parrott, to an overdose in 1996. In a 1993 Spin cover story, he discussed the many drug references in such Alice songs as ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’: “Maybe something this blatant and heavy.. .might steer people away from being excited about the idea of trying heroin.” He made that point one last time.
© Jason Cohen, Spin, July 2002