Today marks the 50th birthday of grunge icon Layne Staley. A mighty presence in the 90s Seattle grunge scene, Staley tragically died from a heroine/cocaine speedball in his University District Seattle apartment on April 5, 2002 and yet the man and his music live on.
I’ve never been a big fan of grunge outside of Nirvana, but over the years (particularly this year) I’ve found a greater admiration. Chris Cornell’s death was a big part of that revelation. To see another Seattle icon befall such a tragic fate well before his time helped put everything in perspective. It was people like Staley and Cornell that gave the city I live in and love an identity, a pulse. Before grunge, Seattle was a sleepy fishing town. After grunge, people finally saw Seattle for what it was, a rainy, over-caffeinated hub of angst and alienation. A place of beauty and introspection but also pain. And we had the best spokesmen; Cobain, Cornell, Staley, all taken too soon.
Even before I was a fan, Staley was a figure that always intrigued me. He’s easily the most famous person ever born in my hometown of Kirkland, WA and unlike singers like Eddie Vedder, was a far more enigmatic presence. He lived the last six years of his life out of the public spotlight and struggled with addiction his entire life.
I don’t know if it was Staley’s voice or public persona, but Staley always struck me as a darker figure. Kurt Cobain’s songwriting could be dark and solemn, but it was also cynical and even funny at times. Staley and Alice in Chain’s music was non-stop, sad, serious, nightmare fuel. And in no place is that better personified than in their classic 1992 album Dirt.
Dirt is scary. It’s a moody sludge fest of booming rhythms and sonic guitars. Lyrically the messages are as clear as they are morose. “Junkhead” is about doing drugs, “Sickman” is about being sick, “Hate to Feel” is about hating to feel. Honestly, it’s refreshing to see a band that as far as I can tell, doesn’t hide behind a lot of metaphors. Guitarist/songwriter/band leader Jerry Cantrell writes from personal experience and isn’t afraid to share those experiences.
“Rooster” is one of Cantrell’s most touching reflections. A tribute to his father, a former soldier nicknamed “Rooster” it shows the more sympathetic side of Alice in Chains. Drugs and anger aside the band did have a “softer” side to them. I use quotations because even “Rooster” builds to a heavy explosion of guitars and screams.
What sets Alice in Chains apart from the rest of the grunge scene? If I had to pick one characteristic it has to be Staley and Cantrell’s harmonies. Like the Lennon and McCartney of Grunge, Staley and Cantrell’s harmonies are one of a kind. A dark croon that’s both moody and if I dare say, poppy, that made some of the darkest music of its time commercial. It’s not hard to see Alice in Chains influence in a group like Linkin Park or other nu-metal groups later in the decade.
Listening to Dirt makes me feel scared and tense, and yet there’s a therapy to that. Dirt is a release of emotion and energy and feelings. It’s one of the greatest grunge albums of all time featuring one of grunge music’s greatest icons. Happy Birthday, Layne.
Favorite Tracks: “Down in a Hole,” “Rooster,” “Would?”