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30 Years Of Dirt: Celebrating ALICE IN CHAINS' Iconic Masterpiece 

We look back on the incredible grunge classic.

Photo by Jill Greenberg

On September 29, 1992, Alice in Chains unleashed their sophomore album, Dirt. Not only is Dirt arguably the definitive ’90s record, but it is also one of the greatest releases of all time. It is unsurpassed in its ability to take the listener on a poetic journey into the inflamed heart of addiction. Whereas the Alice in Chains boys once dressed like glorious glam rockers, Dirt feels like a naked free-fall into the Grand Canyon of misery. It is as if these gods fire have been condemned to the fate of Prometheus, who was bound to a rock where his liver was devoured daily by a bird of prey. Listening to Dirt, it’s easy to swear that it is the most soulful, rewarding, and disturbing piece of music known to humanity. Even Dirt’s cover is pure perfection. It showcases a photo of actress Mariah O’Brien that was shot by the brilliant Rocky Schenck. This year, Dirt was certified a whopping five-times platinum. It recently received the honor of a 30th anniversary reissue as well.

Dirt is a stone-cold sobering life-changer for which we can thank Alice in Chains’ original lineup: the late Layne Staley (vocals), the late Mike Starr (bass), Jerry Cantrell (guitar and additional vocals), and Sean Kinney (drums). Tragically, Layne and Starr’s dependence on drugs proved fatal, “an infection not a phase.” Layne passed away exactly eight years after Kurt Cobain on April 5, 2002. Mike Starr, the last person to see Layne alive, overdosed on March 8, 2011.

Dirt marked the end of Alice in Chains’ original lineup: It would be Mike Starr’s last album with AiC before he was replaced by Ozzy Osbourne’s Mike Inez. He and Sean had been jamming together since they were about nine years old. Jerry and Layne, on the other hand, first met at a house party, though the former had already seen the latter perform. The musicians encountered one another again after a show. Seeing that Jerry had just lost his mother and grandmother, Layne invited the young genius to stay with him at Seattle’s Music Bank.

After Dirt, Layne would remain with his enchained brothers to record the masterpiece EP Jar of Flies (1994) and Alice in Chains’ 1995 self-titled album. Exactly 13 years ago, a reunified Alice in Chains dropped Black Gives Way to Blue (2009): “Lay down, I’ll remember you.” The title track is a homage to Layne, featuring Elton John on the piano. Although AiC remains strong with frontman William Duvall, the outfit will always be “haunted by your [Layne’s] ghost,” which, in a strange way, is an asset. “Rainier Fog,” which hails from Alice in Chains’ album by the same name, also deals with losing Starr and Layne.

The late Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees understood what made AiC such a powerhouse. In Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir, he wrote: “… Jerry Cantrell, the architect behind their sound, delivered nuanced but powerful harmonies that gave their songs their unique, haunting, one-of-a-kind quality…” Jerry’s sweet choir boy voice and exceptional abilities as a songwriter and lyricist paired beautifully with Layne’s gifts. Lanegan continued: “Layne was such a monster vocalist… He was the most singularly impressive hard rock singer I would ever hear…” 

For Dirt’s 30th anniversary, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor revealed: “They [AiC] showed me that you could write/marry the heavy to the beautiful and combine the sadistic with the hopeful.” In David de Sola’s Alice in Chains: The Untold Story, musician Evan Sheeley, who unfortunately was not credited for his help with Dirt, emphasizes a less discussed component of AiC’s allure. Sheeley stated: “Mike [Starr] was more of a thrasher, which I think made the band honestly. It was a big part of their sound.” We agree wholeheartedly. Mike was like the Jan Axel Blomberg (Mayhem) of AiC — the envied lady’s man whose vibe didn’t quite fit and yet was totally essential. Meanwhile, Sean is an unstoppable machine, as demonstrated by the fact that he played Facelift (1990) perfectly with a broken hand.

Most rock fans know that Dirt’s closing track, “Would?,” is dedicated to Alice in Chains’ late friend Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone. AiC had been profoundly affected by Andy’s death due to a heroin overdose in 1990. In a Facebook post, the “Stargazer” muse’s former roommate Chris Cornell remembered mourning him at manager Kelly Curtis’ house: “… Layne flew in, completely breaking down and crying so deeply that he looked truly frightened and lost. Very childlike.” After coping with the initial shock, however, this tragic loss paradoxically pushed AiC into denial mode in regard to hard living. Nevertheless, the honesty and sense of humility on “Would?” is disarming: “Try to see it once my way. Am I wrong?”

“Would?” was created as Alice in Chains’ contribution to director Cameron Crowe’s film Singles (1992). During the music video, Layne wore a reddish-orange shirt that had belonged to Andy. With money used to record “Would?” at London Bridge Studio in Seattle, AiC ended up making 10 demos, which included most of Sap (1992) and some material for Dirt. AiC would return to London Bridge to complete more Dirt demo work, which pretty much hit the mark for which they were ultimately striving. Alice in Chains then spent time rehearsing Dirt in a rented house in Malibu. 

Unfortunately, the actual making of Dirt in California — started at One On One Recording Studios and completed at Eldorado Recording Studios — was stalled by the LA riots. Alice in Chains fled to the desert to spend time with Slayer’s Tom Araya until the action cooled down. Araya would appear on Dirt’s 43-second tenth track, “Iron Gland” / “Intro (Dream Sequence)” / “Untitled.” (Alice in Chains had toured with Slayer during the Clash of the Titans Tour. If fans sometimes treated AiC badly during that era, Dirt would be the record that would convert even the toughest piss-bottle throwers into worshippers.)

Dirt marked the period when drugs began to work against AiC, as Layne and Starr became quite irksome. All the same, they deserve major credit for pulling through despite their issues. Layne had relapsed because his recovery sponsor had betrayed his trust. Although completing this record was like pulling rotten teeth, Layne was ripe with inspiration. He made himself a safe space in studio with objects, including a dead puppy, that would help him access deep emotions. Layne worked hard to achieve his haunting stacked vocals. One of the singer’s best moments was improvising screams at beginning of “Them Bones,” a song that is a lot like the Facelift opener “We Die Young.” (Rocky Schenck directed the incredible music videos for both songs and more.)

Dave Jerden truly produced the hell out of Dirt. Yet, it doesn’t feel “overproduced” in the least. On the contrary, Jerden went about his job in such an artistic way that Dirt is intensely raw, organic, and intimate. During the Dirt sessions, Jerden was forced to confront Layne about his substance abuse, which led to a major argument. Although they were able to work past this, the pair had another infamous blowup years later during the recording of Alice in Chains’ final two songs with Layne, “Get Born Again” and “Died.”

In the end, the otherworldly Dirt obviously could not have turned out better. Nevertheless, it represents both a victory and a defeat. Dirt obviously came from an authentic place of pain that no amount of success can negate: “Toll due, bad dream come true. I lie dead gone under red sky.” The cost of being in a position to give birth to such an album was far too high. Sean Kinney stated in Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music: “That’s a tough album for me. People are like, ‘That’s your greatest record.’ It’s bittersweet.”

Although Dirt came together seamlessly as unified concept album, Jerry described the process of making it as “free-form.” The title track is simultaneously one of the sickest and most arousing songs you will ever hear: “I want to taste dirty. A stinging pistol in my mouth, on my tongue. I want you to scrape me from the walls…” Dearest Alice, “You, you are so special you have the talent to make me feel like dirt. And you, you use your talent to dig me under and make me feel like dirt.” No other release will take you on such a phantasmagorical ride. Dirt is as pointed as a syringe and cuts like a precision knife.

Layne’s ability to craft unforgettable images in his texts went hand in hand with his non-musical proclivities. Layne was actually a visual artist in his spare time. His drawings were even exhibited in Seattle galleries. Layne’s hobbies included working with stained glass, making clock faces, and sculpting characters and jewelry from clay. This gives new meaning to the following line from Dirt’s “Angry Chair”: “What do I see cross the way? See myself molded in clay.” 

Each line from “Angry Chair” is open to a variety of interpretations. Yet, as hallucinogenic as “Angry Chair” sounds, astute listeners will notice that it actually contains a fair amount of concrete AA/NA references. It is even the twelfth track: There are 12 steps in the program. Layne complains that his “pink cloud” — the artificial high that many convalescing addicts initially feel — “has now turned to gray.” Layne makes the same complaint in “Artificial Red” from Mad Season’s Above (1995) — the record that pleased him most. On one level, Layne’s “Angry Chair” can represent his seat within a recovery meeting.

This song plays like a plea to be taken seriously: “Loneliness is not a phase. Field of pain is where I graze. Serenity is far away.” Layne is expressing that the “Serenity Prayer” is not working for him. During “Angry Chair,” Layne speaks both as the individual — “Feed me your lies” — and as the group imposing its will — “Open wide.” It seems like Layne might be tired of guilt culture, where he is measured against the load of what he confesses, as opposed to what he is or brings to the table: “Weight of my heart, not the size.” The song’s final demand is meant to feel demeaning: “Get on your knees time to pray, boy.” However, an upright Layne finds the inner strength to “plead and beg” “for little peace from God” on Mad Season’s “Wake Up.” 

Like “Angry Chair,” both the lyrics and riffs for “Hate to Feel” were written by Layne. This is when the fruits of his determination to become proficient on guitar truly bloomed. “Hate to Feel” contains the lines: “All this time I swore I'd never be like my old man. What the hey it's time to face exactly what I am.” After the death of his ex-fiancée, Demri Parrott, Layne spent a few months living with Mark Lanegan. The Screaming Trees vocalist confirmed that Layne’s father, Phil, moved in with them and acted as their replacement drug runner. Lanegan remembered Phil Staley as “…a man I’d found to be just as sweet, funny, and smart as his son, as well as his physical mirror image.” These words are haunting when think of Facelift’s “Sunshine”: “Am I your reflection?! Melting mirror smile.”

The fearlessly autobiographical Dirt recreates the varying levels of self-awareness during the course of an addict’s illness. In conversation with Guitar World, Jerry Cantrell called music an “exorcising of demons.” Although some of what we have discussed may sound toxic, Jerry clarified Alice in Chains’ intentions behind Dirt:  

“‘Junkhead’ is a pretty blatant song — it sounds like we’re flying the flag for drug use. But the whole point is that a lot of people believe that it’s great to go out and get fucked up; they reflect the attitude of somebody who’s partying and using. ‘God Smack’ starts getting into the realization of what the fuck is really up, and the story moves all the way down into ‘Angry Chair’ and ‘Hate to Feel,’ where you realize that this is not the right way to live. Taken as a whole, it’s a really positive thing, but a lot of people will probably take it out of context. 

Layne wrote the lyrics for “Sickman” and “Junkhead” in rehab. “Junkhead” is a bit of a therapy session gone astray with Layne encouraging his doctor to try drugs. “You can’t understand a user’s mind but try with your books and degrees…” As Layne’s mother, Nancy McCallum, has commented, it takes an addict to help an addict. “Junkhead” manifests the desire deviate from the “hypocrite norm, running their boring drills.” The “Junk fuck!” exclamation that you here at the beginning of “Junkhead” is something that Sean Kinney uttered spontaneously. Meanwhile, Jerry delivered big on Layne’s request to write the most twisted arrangement ever for “Sickman.”

Dirt has not only given strength to those fighting against substance abuse, but it has also encouraged people to avoid drugs altogether. As Jerry has stated, Staley’s willingness to speak openly about his problems was truly courageous. Misery doesn’t love company. Again, Dirt warns: “Can’t get high or you will die.” Whereas Facelift ended on a jokey note with “Real Thing,” Dirt’s humor is dry and wry. It’s almost all business, very little play.

We hear a lot of concern over the effect that drugs have on others: “And I think that you're not blind to the ones you left behind.” Dirt definitely provides evidence of the band’s interpersonal struggles. “Down in a Hole” and “Rain When I Die” are songs that were written about girlfriends while “Dam that River” was inspired by a fight between Sean and Jerry. One of the biggest obstacles to Layne’s health was the fact that the anti-diva was treated like an “object” as a consequence of his fame. On Alice in Chains’ third, self-titled album, Layne sings: “What does friend mean to you? A word so wrongfully abused.” The star would ultimately become a recluse.

Yet, if Dirt digs deep into tales of shame, “Rooster” is a song that did a lot to make Jerry’s father and countless other Vietnam veterans proud. “Rooster” tells the story of Jerry Cantrell Sr. This hit dates back to the Facelift period — Jerry remembers writing “Rooster” at Chris Cornell’s home. Both Jerry and his father appear in the stunning music video, which was directed by Mark PellingtonJerry Cantrell Sr. has enjoyed watching his son perform “Rooster” live.

The tour that followed the release of Dirt, however, would be a disaster in many respects. Mike Starr overdosed after his last performance and was revived by Layne. Mark Lanegan just barely escaped having his arm amputated due to his drug use with Layne, who briefly filled in for him with Screaming Trees. Layne broke his foot. The list continues. Despite all odds, AiC still managed to slay. Nonetheless, it had become apparent that Layne was too self-destructive to take on the road. After Jar of Flies, which was recorded after AiC returned from a vacation, the band famously cancelled their slot at Woodstock and a gig with Metallica in 1994. All the same, Jerry performed at the former event with Primus.

Jar of Flies ultimately answers the second question posed by “Would?”: “Have I run too far to get home?” Jerry begins the penultimate track, “Don’t Follow”: “Hey, I ain’t never coming home.” Layne later intones: “Take me home.” Yet, during the final track, “Swing on This,” Layne sings: “Mother said come home. Father said come home… I said: ‘Let me be. I’m alright.’” Yes, the group had crossed the point of no return.

Re-experiencing Dirt always feels like a homecoming after a long hard battle. In 1994, Jerry told Guitar School the following concerning “Them Bones”: “… [It] isn’t really about death and dying, it’s about coming to grips with the time you have left as you get to the end of your life. It’s a very sad thing, realizing that you won't last forever. You should try to do as much in the meantime as you can. That’s how I live my life.” Let’s close on that message.

Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, released a remastered 30th anniversary 2LP 12" black vinyl edition of Alice In Chains' landmark album, Dirt, on September 23. Check that out here.

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