This series will focus on late “iconic” musicians and their careers up until their death. This edition will focus on Layne Staley, frontman of Alice In Chains. Going through both his ups and downs in his career, I will try to get you a glimpse into singer Layne Staley; what made him so special, and my love for him.
The band Alice In Chains is considered one of the four greats in the Seattle grunge genre. These four are Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. Alice In Chains had a more metal-inspired sound than the other three, they took inspiration from great bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and The Stooges. The band was formed in 1987 by lead-singer Layne Staley, guitarist and backing singer Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and bassist Mike Starr.
Their debut album “Facelift” came out in 1990 and has since gone double platinum with over 2 million copies sold! The album’s lead single “Man in the Box” was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal in 1992. Slow to build its popularity, the album reached #42 in the American Billboard 200 chart, later becoming the first album from the grunge movement to be certified gold on September 11, 1991.
In 1992 the band released the 5 song acoustic EP “Sap“. The EP showed a softer version of the band and is well worth a listen. It features guest vocals by Ann Wilson from the band Heart, who joined vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell for the choruses of “Brother” and “Am I Inside.” The EP also features Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who appeared together on the song “Right Turn,” credited to Alice Mudgarden in the liner notes. The song was featured in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down.
Their second studio album “Dirt” came out later in 1992 and is considered to be the band’s greatest album, peaking at #6 on the American Billboard 200. It is also the album where Jerry Cantrell’s voice as a backing singer for the band really powered through; the harmony between Jerry’s and Layne’s voices went on to define the entire sound of the band. The magazine Rolling Stone listed Dirt as #26 on the list of 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time. This album focused on a lot of dark themes like depression, pain, anger, anti-social behavior, and drug addiction, which all were very personal subjects for Staley and Cantrell. The single “Rooster” was written by Cantrell for his father as the first step of healing from their separation after his father came back after serving in the Vietnam war. “Down in a Hole” was written about Cantrell’s breakup with his former girlfriend and is debatably the most depressing song on the album. All in all, Dirt had five top 30 singles and remained on the charts for nearly a year. At the 1993 Grammy Awards, Dirt received a nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance.
Starr left the band shortly after the Hollywood Rock concert in Rio de Janeiro in January 1993, stating that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Staley told Rolling Stone in 1994 about Starr leaving the band, “It was just a difference in priorities. We wanted to continue intense touring and press. Mike was ready to go home.” Years later, Starr claimed that he was fired due to his drug addiction. Starr was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez.
in 1994 the band released the critically acclaimed EP “Jar Of Flies”
The record was written and released in a single week, Layne said “We never really planned on the music we made at that time to be released. But the record label heard it and they really liked it. For us, it was just the experience of four guys getting together in the studio and making some music.”
Jar of Flies debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming the first EP—and first Alice in Chains release—to top the charts. Paul Evans of Rolling Stone called the EP “darkly gorgeous”
Jar of Flies features Alice in Chains’ first number-one single on the Mainstream Rock charts, “No Excuses”. The second single, “I Stay Away”, reached number ten on the Mainstream rock charts, while the final single “Don’t Follow”, reached number 25. Jar of Flies has been certified triple platinum by the RIAA, with over 2 million copies sold in the United States during its first year.
Everything looked bright for the band, Staley went to rehab for his heroine addiction and the band had a tour with Metallica scheduled during the summer of 94, but had to cancell due to Staley going back on heroine.
The band broke up for six months. Kinney told Rolling Stone in 1996, “Nobody was being honest with each other back then. If we had kept going, there was a good chance we would have self-destructed on the road, and we definitely didn’t want that to happen in public.”
While Alice in Chains was inactive during 1995, Staley joined the “grunge supergroup” Mad Season, which also featured Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, bassist John Baker Saunders from The Walkabouts, and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin. Mad Season released one album, Above, for which Staley provided lead vocals and the album artwork. The album spawned a number-two single, “River of Deceit”, as well as a home video release of Live at the Moore.
In 1995 Alice In Chains came back with the self-titled album “Alice In Chains” which debuted number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and has since been certified double platinum.
Jon Wiederhorn of Rolling Stone called the album “liberating and enlightening, the songs achieve a startling, staggering and palpable impact.”
The song “Got Me Wrong” unexpectedly charted three years after its release on the Sap EP. The song was re-released as a single on the soundtrack for the independent film Clerksin 1994, reaching number seven on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The band opted not to tour in support of Alice in Chains, adding to the rumors of drug abuse.
Alice in Chains resurfaced on April 10, 1996, to perform their first concert in two and a half years for MTV Unplugged, a program featuring all-acoustic set lists. The performance featured some of the band’s highest charting singles, including “Down in a Hole”, “Heaven Beside You”, “No Excuses” and “Would?”, and introduced a new song, “Killer Is Me”, with Cantrell on lead vocals. The show marked Alice in Chains’ only appearance as a five-piece band, adding second guitarist Scott Olson. A live album of the performance was released in July 1996, debuting at number three on the Billboard 200, and was accompanied by a home video release, both of which received platinum certification by the RIAA.
The band had its last appearance with Staley suporting Kiss at their comeback tour on July 3, 1996, in Kansas City, Missouri. Shortly after the show, Staley was found unresponsive after he overdosed on heroin and was taken to the hospital. Although he recovered, the band was forced to go on hiatus.
Although Alice in Chains never officially disbanded, Staley became a recluse, rarely leaving his Seattle condominium following the death of his ex-fiancée Demri Parrott due to infective endocarditis. “Drugs worked for me for years”, Staley told Rolling Stone in 1996, “and now they’re turning against me… now I’m walking through hell”
In March 2002, Cantrell commented, “We’re all still around, so it’s possible [Alice in Chains] could all do something someday, and I fully hope someday we will.
Unfortunately this never happened as Layne Staley was found dead in his condominium in Seattle on April 19, 2002 after a decade of battling drug addiction. The autopsy and toxicology report on Staley’s body revealed that he died from a mixture of heroin and cocaine, known as “speedball”. The autopsy concluded that Staley died on April 5, two weeks before his body was found. Cantrell dedicated his 2002 solo album, Degradation Trip, released two months after Staley’s death, to his memory. Mike Starr later claimed on Celebrity Rehab that he was the last person to see Staley alive, and admitted to feeling guilty about not calling 911 after Staley had warned him against it. “I wish I hadn’t been high on benzodiazepine [that night], I wouldn’t have just walked out the door”, Starr said.
Reflecting on the band’s hiatus in a 2011 interview, Kinney told that Staley wasn’t the only one battling addiction. “He was the focal point, like singers are. So they’d single him out. But the truth was, it was pretty much everybody. I definitely had my hand firmly on the wheel going off the cliff. And the reason we pulled back – you know when you stop when you have two #1 records, it’s not really the greatest career move – but we did that because we love each other and we didn’t want to die in public. And I know for a fact in my heart that if we were to continue that I wouldn’t be on the phone right now talking to you. I wouldn’t have made it. I just wouldn’t have.”
In 2017, Metal Injection ranked Alice in Chains at number 1 on their list of “10 Heaviest Grunge Bands”.
In June 2017, Ozzy Osbourne ranked Facelift at number 2 on his list of “10 Favorite Metal Albums”.