We Die Young: A Tribute to Layne Staley

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of former Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley. The following tribute to Layne appeared in the pages of Guitar World shortly after his death.

Layne Staley, the haggard, howling frontman of the hit Nineties metal-and-grunge amalgam Alice in Chains, was found dead in his Seattle condominium on Friday, April 19. He was 34.

Police arrived at the singer’s longtime residence late in the afternoon after receiving a call from a relative of Staley’s, who had been unable to reach him. They discovered Staley on his couch, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. Although the results of Staley’s toxicology tests were unavailable at press time, an autopsy had determined that his death was the result of either a heroin overdose or natural causes. A police spokesman said foul play wasn’t suspected, and there would be no criminal investigation.

When I was a rock writer based in Seattle during the highs and lows of the Nineties, the one question I was asked most often by music fans was, “When are Alice in Chains going to play again?” My answer—especially after 1996—was always pretty much the same: “Don’t hold your breath.” Over the past seven years, it was pretty common knowledge throughout the music industry that Staley was out of commission, hunkered down in his University District apartment, strung out on heroin. He was rarely if ever seen on the streets and only then, it was surmised, when he was trying to cop. For three years, I lived a scant two blocks from Layne’s place, and in that time I never saw him, or if I did, I didn’t recognize him. Said a friend who encountered Layne two years ago, “He looked really bad. His skin was yellow and gray, he had lost a bunch of teeth, his eyes were so sunken into his head you couldn’t see them, he had lost a lot of weight. He looked like an old man wearing punk rocker clothes. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.”

Although Staley had been forthcoming about his drug use for years, his death came as a shock to friends, fans and the music community at large. Many had hoped he would eventually overcome his addiction and return to Alice in Chains, who had never officially disbanded. Those hopes died with him.

Staley was born in 1967 in Kirkland, Washington, a folksy suburb east of Seattle across Lake Washington. Although he played drums in high school, Layne eventually became the lead singer of the early Eighties glam band Diamond Lies. No one thought much of his vocal abilities, but everyone who saw him in his glam glory agreed he was born to be a rock star. In 1987, he met guitarist Jerry Cantrell at a Seattle rehearsal hall. With drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr (later replaced by Mike Inez), they formed Alice in Chains. With Alice, Staley’s music took a far heavier turn, owing deep influences to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

The style suited Staley’s artistic sensibilities and his voice, which became a powerful and often anguished instrument. His influence on Cantrell also caused the guitarist to become a more confident singer and writer. The two would merge raw electric guitar with more subtle acoustic shadings, making for music far more complex than the norm. But regardless of the treatment or who did the actual writing, the substance of the songs always felt custom-tailored to Staley’s supposedly corrupt rock persona. Even Cantrell’s composition “Heaven Beside You”—from the group’s self-titled 1995 album—sounded like another chapter in the life of Layne.

Alice in Chains signed with Columbia Records in 1989 and released the EP We Die Young the next year, quickly following up with the full-length Facelift. Along with Nirvana, Soundgarden and later Pearl Jam, the band got caught up in the so-called grunge phenomenon that was then emerging from Seattle. Still, Alice in Chains’ style was uniquely their own, perhaps because theirs was a darkness beyond grunge. The single “Man in the Box”—and the accompanying video, which featured Staley with long, matted hair and his eyes crudely stitched shut—was vilified by some for its anti-God lyrics, but it became a huge radio and MTV hit. The album was followed in 1991 by the acoustic EP Sap and the track “Would,” which was recorded for the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s 1992 Seattle/Gen-X film Singles. “Would” became a hit and helped pave the way for the success of the group’s second full-length record, 1992’s .

Dense and morbid, Dirt rolls out with the clatter of “Them Bones” and crawls through the horrors of war with “Rooster,” a song about Cantrell’s father, a Vietnam vet. But the album’s main theme is drugs, a vein that both Staley and Cantrell mined aggressively. Tracks like “Junkhead,” “Sickman,” “Down in a Hole” and “God Smack” examined heroin, which had attained glamour status and the cachet of the Seattle music scene. The songs viewed the drug from all perspectives, from sudden ecstasy to inevitable agony. All along, Staley made little secret of his fascination and use of the drug. But over time, it began to eat away not only at the singer but also his band.

The last true Alice album was the group’s self-titled 1995 release, which contained the hits “Grind” and “Heaven Beside You.” The record, which features a three-legged dog on its cover, was originally going to be called Tripod. According to Cantrell and Kinney, that title, along with the dog, represented a number of things relating to the number three: it was the group’s third full-length record, and their first in three years. More tellingly, though, the dog’s missing leg represented the band’s missing fourth leg—Layne, whose contributions were mostly confined to his vocals and lyrics written and recorded after the band cut the tracks.

Although Alice in Chains declined to tour behind the album, they did open four shows for Kiss. Those would be their last public appearances as a group. One observer said afterward that the backstage feeling was one of both elation and regret. “It was kind of unspoken, but the shows were so great, the reaction so positive from the fans and friends and Kiss, you just felt everyone was kind of sad that they hadn’t played out more, that they could have been so much bigger.”

A few years before those shows, in 1994, Staley joined Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, playing a few gigs as the Gacy Bunch. The band, which included Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and bassist John Baker Saunders, later renamed itself Mad Season and scored with the 1995 LP Above and the single “River of Deceit.” But Staley again had a hard time showing up on time and eventually drifted away. Although he occasionally recorded throughout the rest of the Nineties (“Another Brick in the Wall” for the soundtrack of The Faculty) and was reportedly writing a great deal, he became less and less a part of the music or social Seattle scene.

Staley’s death is made more tragic by the fact that, at the time his body was discovered, he had been dead for about two weeks, according to the King County Medical Examiner. If so, he died almost exactly on the eight-year anniversary of the day the body of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was found following his suicide.

The evening after Staley’s body was discovered, an impromptu memorial was held at the Seattle Center fountain, the place where thousands congregated after Cobain’s death. Some 200 people, including Layne’s mother, bandmates and management showed for the gathering. The following Friday, at a better-publicized memorial, more than 300 people showed up, including Layne’s father and sister among them. There was quiet reminiscing, chanting, plenty of candle power and small groups gathered around guitarists, singing their favorite Alice in Chains songs.

A private service was held for Layne on Sunday, April 28, in the San Juan Islands at a lodge, an old family haunt. It was the same place where Layne was to have married his fiancée, Demri, who died in 1999, reportedly from complications of her own heroin addiction. Many felt Demri’s passing was one of Staley’s final pages, but most at the service took comfort in the thought that the couple was somewhere, together again. It was a gathering of the old gang—friends, family and many Seattle musicians from bands both famous and obscure. An emotionally moved Susan Silver, Alice’s longtime manager, spoke. Her husband, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, joined Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart in a deeply moving rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” It was followed by the profound and lonely sound of bagpipes.

Layne Staley wrote and sang about life’s underbelly, yet he was a kind, quick-witted, affable, creative and ultimately gentle man. Layne’s dad, Phil—so startling a Layne look-alike that the group’s surviving members asked him if he wanted to be their singer—was approached at the second public memorial by a man who said he had met Layne several times, and that he had found Staley to be a truly sweet human being.

“A sweet human being,” the senior Staley repeated with a smile. “Well, if that’s what you thought, you really did meet him.”

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