For some odd reason, I’ve been watching old Alice in Chains videos on YouTube, more specifically breakdowns from vocal coaches, who are describing the mechanics and technical expertise of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell. Looking at the calendar, I noticed that Layne Staley passed away 20 years ago today. April is not a good month for Seattle rock singers. Though his body wasn’t found for another two weeks, they estimate that Layne Staley died of a heroin overdose on the same day as Kurt Cobain’s death, which was eight years before.
I used to listen to the MTV Unplugged album Alice in Chains made in 1996 when I lived alone in my little studio apartment in the late 90s. I might have driven my neighbors nuts with it. To me, it is a compilation of some of their best songs, even though it lacks the heaviness of Dirt or Facelift. Though “Man in the Box” got a lot of play on hard rock stations like KBPI, sidled up with “Mandatory Metallica Monday” (and endless loops of “Wherever I May Roam” and “Enter Sandman” which are so overplayed they puts me to sleep.) I enjoyed other Alice in Chains songs so much more. Honestly, I thought “Man in the Box” was repetive and a little boring. If you want an amazing, hard AiC song, check out Them Bones.
But the first song of theirs that really hit me was one I heard on NPR while listening to World Cafe of all things. It was a song called No Excuses and it was off their Jar of Flies album (which I also probably wore out–HIGHLY recommended). There was Sean Kinney’s drum groove, which I considered next to impossible, and then there were the lines:
You my friend
I will defend
and if we change
then I’ll love you anywayAlice in Chains, No Excuses
The song came at one of those moments in my life when everything was changing. My high school friends were drifting apart, I was seriously seeing someone (even then I didn’t think forever), and the enormity of the world stretching out ahead of me was almost overwhelming. I’ve found myself in that place many times since, saying goodbye to those I have loved, and always will, but knowing our paths have diverged.
The next song was “Down in a Hole“, which hell…I have been there many times. This song, in my opinion, is poetic perfection. The harmony is amazing. The pain drips from the whole thing (that link is the harder album version)…
“I’d like to fly, but my wings have been so denied”
That hits hard and danger close.
I had heard Alice In Chains a lot without ever really realizing. Their sound was ubiquitous during the 90s, appearing in movies like Clerks (“Got Me Wrong”), Last Action Hero (“What the Hell Have I?”), and they were even one of the “scarier” live bands in the Cameron Crowe film Singles. Almost an afterthought, or just a way to show the “grungier” side of Seattle at the time, when we were supposed to be marveling at Matt Dillon’s caricture of slackerdom as he hung out with Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, trying to get his band going, or the yuppie architect and his dream of a monorail that plays “really good music.” Cameron Crowe might have hung out with Led Zeppelin when he was a kid, but he just showed how out of touch he was later. Having a shit ton of money will do that, I guess. (Though I wouldn’t mind trying that out myself).
It kinda reminds me of a rewatch of Wayne’s World, when Mike Meyers dragged out bands that were even old back then to represent…whatever the hell he was trying to do. Back in the day, I could quote that movie, but now I see it as an artifact of the early 90s, when it was really more of a placeholder of the mid-80s. Anybody else notice that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the joke band the “Shitty Beatles”? While the headliner bands on the soundtrack were like a who’s who of has-beens and afterthoughts they thought would be cool for the kids? Talk about metafictional.
Layne Staley was also in the supergroup project Mad Season, (comprised of members of Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, and Walkabout) which has a few especially wonderful, bluesy songs I never skip when they come on the playlist. John Baker Saunders preceded Layne in death, and Mark Lanegan, who was also a member of that band, died in Februrary of this year.
Here’s my three favorites:
This hasn’t been the only time I’ve looked at the date and noticed it was the anniversary of some other event, usually an anniversary of something long passed. It’s just weird how things seem to come together. How time just keeps running away like wild horses over the hills like the poet says. You just feel the pull of it sometimes, you know? And you can’t help but have your heart pulled in that direction until you pay attention and say, “Yes, I know what it was now.”
It’s late, and I should try to sleep, but I know sleep will escape me for a while yet. Besides, it’s nice to just let the music play sometimes, sipping a whiskey, listening to old songs. Writing. Letting the paper keep the memories so my heart is a little bit lighter.
I leave you with one last Alice in Chains song to listen to or add to your playlist. I’m sure you know it, but tonight, I feel it.
Today, I have been working on edits and letting my mind wander down forgotten channels and back.
I know there are some out there who might think that glorifying the talents of a musician who lost the battle with drug addiction isn’t something a man like that deserves. The drugs killed him, but his talents are worthy of remembering, and I’m not going to judge somebody whose music has saved me plenty of times or spoken what my heart wanted to say, but my mouth could not carry.
Maybe I’ve been revisiting what is probably my favorite “grunge” era band of the 90s because I needed to be reminded that not all stories have to be happy to be beautiful or speak to people. My book isn’t happy. It is madness at times. I needed that reminder. RIP Layne. Thank you.