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Remembering ALICE IN CHAINS' Layne Staley With 10 Of His Greatest Moments

layne stayley alice in chains

In 2019, Seattle celebrated the first-ever Layne Staley Day. Layne Staley was born on August 22, 1967. Layne may have been 34 when he died like Chuck Schuldiner, but other members of his ’67 birth year club include Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and STP’s Scott Weiland. Corgan named Layne, Scott, and Cobain as the greatest voices of his generation. Layne Staley passed away exactly eight years after his friend Kurt Cobain on 5 April 2002. The day that Shannon Hoon heard of Cobain’s passing, he drew a question mark on his forehead before stepping out with Blind Melon on The Late Show with David Letterman. It’s hard not to juxtapose the image of Hoon singing “Change” with that of Layne Staley ripping off his sunglasses as he belted out “Would?” Layne Staley as the enduring voice of the speechless. His words speak equally for the living. For all their morbidness, Alice in Chains’ songs have always had an uncanny amount of “fight” in them. While its easy to devolve into clichés when speaking about drugs, Layne managed to candidly recreate his life experience through his original sense of poetics and his vocal acrobatics.

Layne Staley first told his mother, Nancy McCallum, that he wanted to be a singer at nine-years-old. McCallum, whose maiden name is Layne, had vocal aspirations of her own. McCallum credits the vocal training she received from a Broadway instructor while pregnant with Layne’s success. Musical talent also ran in her family. As a child, Layne first picked up the trumpet before moving on to the drums. At 15, Layne joined a cover band as a drummer. Layne allegedly sang in various bands during his school years. In 1984, he began fronting a glam band called Sleze, which covered… Get this — Slayer?! Sleze broke up after a couple of years. Ever wondered why Layne Staley stopped wearing makeup? — Fans have seen photos and even videos of Layne rocking crimped hair, smoky eyes, and frosty lips. — The answer: Layne simply couldn’t always afford to look glam.

When Jerry Cantrell, the great-grandson of a train robber, first met Layne, he didn’t have a place to stay. Cantrell’s mother, Gloria Jean as referenced in “Rooster,” had just passed away, following her mother's death by only six months. Jerry’s uncle had given him the boot. Layne Staley generously invited Cantrell, who had played in a band called Gypsy Rose with bassist Mike Starr, to crash with him. Layne took a break from his new band Alice N' Chains to sing with a funk band, for which he recruited Jerry as the lead guitarist. In turn, Layne agreed to play with the band Jerry wanted to form. Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney joined Jerry’s side project, Diamond Lie. In 1987, Diamond Lie officially became known as Alice in Chains. We celebrate Layne and his legacy with Alice in Chains by remembering 10 of his greatest moments.

1. “Right Turn” (1994)

“Turn Right” features the voices of Layne Staley, Chris Cornell, Jerry Cantrell, and Mark Arm. The voices mesh so beautifully that it becomes difficult at times even for the most die-hard fans to distinguish them. AiC listeners have always marveled at the miraculous chemistry between Layne and Jerry’s voices. Jerry is an especially considerate musician, who has always kept the greater in mind. Critics have asked for more and longer guitar solos from the band, but Jerry’s greatness is that he has never simply wanted to be a one man show, or in his words “wank off.” Nevertheless, it seems that Layne had a gift for forging deep connections with other musicians as well. “Turn Right” was released on AiC’s second studio album Sap (1992), which boasts four other great tracks. “Am I Inside,” written by Layne, is a true gem. “Black is all I feel, so this is how it feels to be free.” The final recording “Love Song” is a playful bit of improv loaded with gags.

Chris Cornell’s girlfriend and wife-to-be, Susan Silver, managed Alice in Chains with Kelly Curtis. At one point, Kelly Curtis allowed Jerry to sleep in his basement. At another moment in time, Jerry lived in Silver’s basement after a fight with Sean Kinney. The later Dirt (1992) song “Dam That River” was inspired by an argument that culminated in Sean breaking a table over Jerry’s head. Who would think that these wild men would remain bandmates after roughly three-and-a-half decades? That is, if one factors in AiC’s many hiatuses while considering that Kinney has participated in Jerry’s solo work. AiC even survived a six-month break-up while Layne Staley was alive. The band would reunite, but Layne would drop out of touch. Towards the end of his life, Layne Staley refused to open his condo door to many family members, friends, and bandmates. Although Layne’s submission to his fate angered fans, there was something dignified about his acceptance of death as linked to his hereditary disease of substance abuse. As Layne sings in “Shame in You”: “I believe in inner peace.” “My sins I claim, give you back shed pain,” exemplify the band’s introspective lyricism. Mike Starr was the last person to see Layne. Mike stormed out after Layne refused to let him call an ambulance. “Not like this. Don’t leave like this.” Staley’s plea remains the most devastating in rock history. Starr had parted ways with the band after Dirt (1992). One point of contention was that Jerry believed that “Fear the Voices,” a song he co-wrote would not make the album. In 2001, Staley planned to audition for Audioslave, but was sidetracked as he confronted his addiction. Layne deserves credit for all the times he tried to attain sobriety. Maybe if Staley would have made the audition, he would have beaten Cornell for the job. “It ain’t right.”

The chorus goes, “She ain’t right,” but this song is so right:

2. MTV Unplugged (1996)

Bon Jovi’s 1989 performance with Richie Sambora inspired the The MTV Unplugged format. Alice in Chains’ Unplugged album, which recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of its release on July 30th, remains a fan favorite. An accompanying VHS version was later released. The actual concert took place 10 April 1996 at The Majestic Theater in Brooklyn. NY. In this raw and heartfelt concert, Staley hilariously fudges “Sludge Factory” on his first go. AiC MTV Unplugged featured some of Alice in Chains’ best songs, such as “Rooster,” “Heaven Beside You,” and “Down in a Hole” — “See my heart, I decorate it like a grave.” “Nutshell” in particular has become an anthem not only for those struggling with addiction, but for those experiencing existential doubt or intense pain. “My gift of self is raped. My privacy is raked.” This song defends the individual.

3. Facelift Live (1991)

The Live at the Moore recordings from Seattle in 1990 would not be released on VHS until the following year. The concert’s proceeds benefited the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Layne Staley’s energy and charisma can be seen here at there strongest. Layne gives the impression of a billy goat ramming horns into the listener. Staley’s mother describes Layne’s voice as akin to razorblades muffled in marshmallows.” At the Moore, Staley’s vocals are at their most consistent and controlled. The setlist? “It Ain’t Like That,” Man in the Box,” “Real Thing,” Love, Hate, Love,” “Sea of Sorrow,” and “Bleed the Freak.” The dialectical “Love, Hate, Love” and “Bleed the Freak” rank among Layne’s very best performances. “It Ain’t Like That,” is reminiscent of other gritty AiC tracks like “God Smack,” wherein Layne would uses a unique sound to convey the feeling of sickness that can result from drugs. Jerry Cantrell has covered “It Ain’t Like That” with Nickelback. In this Nickelback cover, Jerry gives the song a bittersweet twist.

Facelift was released a day before Layne’s birthday, 21 August 1990. In order to participate in the recording of Facelift, Sean Kinney sawed off his arm cast. He suffered from a broken hand at the time. It must have been worth the pain in view of the album’s double-platinum status.

Bleed it out with "Bleed the Freak":

For more Facelift, watch this brief video of Layne performing “Man in the Box,” one of AiC’s biggest hits while surrounded by men in boxes:

4. “Get Born Again” (1999)

“Get Born Again” was Layne’s penultimate Alice in Chains recording. “Died” was Layne’s final song for AiC. It remains in a semi-finished, or rough state, due to the difficulties of working with Staley. When a toothless Layne arrived to record these songs, he was presented with a birthday cake. The actual recording, however, transpired at a later date. Layne lied to his band and the crew, because he was too ashamed to admit that he felt he needed more drugs. Heroin withdrawal can cause cardiac arrest and apparently the most hellish experience known to man. Layne stated that he had to attend his sister’s birthday, which had already occurred. This was the root of his falling out with producer Dave Jerden. “Died” and “Get Born Again” appeared on Nothing Safe: Best of The Box (1999). Some of the footage of the band members “Get Born Again” was pulled from other shoots for the “Get Born Again.” Director Paul Fedor brilliantly patched this video together. He created a storyline featuring a mad scientist trying to clone the band. It features a woman wearing a Paco Rabanne-esque dress with painted veins on her skin. Fedor also shot Marilyn Manson’s “The Nobodies” (2000).

5, “Angry Chair” (1992)/“Again” (1996)

Layne Staley wrote and composed “Angry Chair” for Dirt(1992). The song’s imagery is some of AiC’s best. On the most obvious layer, Layne has explained that this song is about being punished as a child. On another level, “Angry Chair” describes Layne’s struggle with addiction. Layne personifies the room — “Angry walls that steal the air… What do I see cross the way? Hey. See myself molded in clay. Oh. Changing the shape of his face.” This song is simultaneously terrifying, comforting, and hysterical. “Pink cloud has now turned to gray.” The term “pink cloud” indicates the period of recovery when sober addicts view the world through rose-colored glasses. Although AiC’s lyrics seem abstract, they become concrete when one learns how to interpret language. The video, which had been pulled from YouTube at one time, speaks for itself.

Look out for a Galago on Layne’s shoulder:

Layne Staley co-directed the trippy “Again” music video with George Vale. The video features a red and blue color-scheme much like “Heaven Beside You.” Layne wears sunglasses and gloves to cover his track marks and most probably constricted pupils. “Again” hails from Alice in Chains (1995), Layne’s last album with the band. Layne Staley enjoyed drawing in his free time. That aligns with Layne’s exceptionally impactful abilities on the visceral level.

6. “Sunshine” (1990)

“Sunshine” is a fan favorite. Although it is rarely performed at concerts, the song sporadically appears to this day on AiC’s setlists. The lyrics were written by Cantrell after the loss of his mother. The warmth and ambivalence of the lyrics also parallel the feeling of addiction. Fans have also interpreted this song in light of the abandonment Layne felt in relation to his father. The female subject of this song faces abandonment as well, and father and son may morph. Layne Staley’s longing to have a relationship with his father was a major motivator behind his success as an artist. However, once Layne and his father reconnected, Phil Staley used Layne in order to procure drugs. The pair got high together.

7. “Wake Up” (1995)

Layne Staley was most proud of his work with Mad Season. The supergroup, famous for “River of Deceit” and “I Don’t Know Anything,” was formed by some of grunge’s best musicians, who were trying to support one another in sobriety. Many of Mad Season’s songs were created impromptu. The band first took the stage before they had completed a single song. “Wake Up” appears on Mad Season’s only album Above (1995). The cover depicts an illustration of Layne and his fiancée, Demri Parrott, with whom he had already ended his engagement. Layne appears on all of the songs on the original release except "November Hotel," which is an instrumental. (The 2013 deluxe edition contains five bonus tracks, three of which were recorded after Layne's death with Mark Lanegan's vocals: Mike McCready’s outro for “Slip Away” may be one of the most heartrending of all time.) The drowsy Above is overwrought with soul and overwhelms the listener. “Long Gone Day” and "I'm Above" are duets between Lanegan and Staley. Although it might be easy to dismiss Lanegan as another pompous Seattle grunge star, he is the real deal. Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho has named Mark’s Whiskey and the Holy Ghost (1994) as one of his favorite albums.

“Wake Up” reads like a love song to oneself. In this track, Layne pleads with himself and God. He begs for a recovery from his heroin addiction, which he diagnoses as “an infection, not a phase.” “Blue clouded gray, you're not a crack up. Dizzy and weakened by the haze, movin' onward… The cracks and lines, from where you gave up. They make an easy man to read.”

8. Alice in Chains On Headbangers Ball At The Water Park In Vernon, NJ (1993)/

Layne’s Brief Dave Mustaine Impressions

In a recent clip, Rikki Rachtman recently revealed that the Alice in Chains water park rendezvous is most often cited by fans as the most memorable episode of Headbanger’s Ball. Rachtman reminisces that he loved that Alice in Chains’ members would do “the stupidest things.”

Layne Staley in particular had always sought amusement from child-like activities. Jon Wiederhorn quoted Layne in his controversial 1996 Rolling Stone interview: “I run around and play all day long, and I don’t have to come in and wash my hands and face… And I don’t go to sleep until I’ve watched all my cartoons, and that’s usually not until 9 in the morning. When I first got a credit card, I maxed it out for the first three months at Toys ‘R’ Us. I bought a lot of video games and Star Trekphasers and Batman dolls.” Layne can be seen in Mike McCready’s book Of Potato Heads and Polaroids (2017). Staley’s mother co-founded the first co-op in a public school in the United States. She worked with preschool children. Even when her son’s passion for life was overtaken by nihilism, Layne’s fanaticism concerning video games persisted. Layne also loved cheeseburgers to the bitter end, even though he weighed 86 pounds at the time of his death. Layne worked as a cleaner and cook in an Italian restaurant and a buger joint, a phone solicitor, and a carpenter.

The water park episode is not the only time Alice in Chains appeared on Headbangers Ball, but it is the only time when Riki and Jerry wrestled in sumo suits. One of AiC’s early demos is called “Fat Girls,” and that’s what the band resembles here. Growing up, Layne earned his yellow belt in Tae Kwando, so it’s probably for the best that Riki didn’t mess with him. Although journalists found AiC exasperating, due to their tendency to goof off, their ability to play nicely with Riki earns them more gold star stickers than Dave Mustaine. Mustaine’s “love, hate, love” “feud” with Riki is well-known. At one time, Alice in Chains were nicknamed “Kindergarten” by fans. They pass.

Layne Staley had a talent for imitation. Allegedly, his impression of Dee Snider was particularly on point. Layne Staley had plenty of time to perfect his Dave Mustaine impression as well. During the second leg of the Clash of the Titans Tour, Alice in Chains supported Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth in 1991. The young band demonstrated their resilience even as they were pelted with beer bottles, some of which were filled with urine. The crowd spit upon Alice in Chains and even managed to boo them offstage. With the release of Dirt (1992), AiC would win over a lot of these same fans. Tom Araya made a guest appearance on the track “Iron Gland.” When Metallica mocked Alice in Chains for pulling out of their 1994 Shit Hits the Sheds Tour, so that Layne could attend rehab, the crowd booed and a fan threw a show at Hetfield. Tables turned quickly.

9. “We Die Young” (1990)

This smash hit single, which was featured on Facelift (1990), was a great way to swing into a career. This music video was directed by Rocky Schenck like “What the Hell Have I,” “Them Bones,” and “Grind.” Rocky has created so much mind-blowing content rich with imagistic metaphors for AiC. He is a top-notch artist. Therefore, it may come as a surprise that Rocky also directed the infamous mockumentary-style “The Nona Tapes.” Nick Donkin’s 1994 Claymation “I Stay Away” video is perhaps AiC’s strongest example of visual content by a director other than Rocky. “I Stay Away” resembles Donkin’s short film The Junky’s Christmas (1993), which narrates William S. Burroughs famous short story. Burroughs may have killed his second wife and survived his son, but he lived to the ripe age of 83.

Tragically, as we know, Mike Starr died at young 44 and Layne at 34. Layne’s mother estimates that her son died about five times. When Nancy received word that Layne hadn’t withdrawn money from his account in two weeks, she sped past cops to his apartment where she discovered his body. Although bassist Mike Inez, who has collaborated with Ozzy Osbourne, is as good as an original member, having been a friend beforehand and fitting right in, frontman William DuVall really has little in common with Layne. That is probably for the best. Layne cannot be replaced. In any case, attending an AiC concert can be a chilling experience. Some songs, in which Jerry has a part in the vocals, sound eerily as before. Whenever I have personally attended an AiC concert, I couldn’t help but dividing the stage into the side of the living and the dead — with Jerry and Kinney placed on one side, and the DuVall and Inez occupying the positions where Starr and Staley would have been. Kinney looks like a wax figure of himself — He doesn’t age. Meanwhile, Jerry hasn’t lost his cool. He remains to tell the story of how he rolled down a cliff into a thorny blackberry, in order to escape rehab, but was ultimately corralled into a facility where he tamed his habits.

Here’s a behind the scenes glimpse into the “We Die Young” video shoot:

10. “Would?” (1992)

Xana La Fuente, the girlfriend of Andrew Wood, relates the story of how she gave Wood’s orange shirt to Staley. A distraught Layne felt he needed to crash with Xana one evening. The night remained platonic, given that Layne’s girlfriend Demri was still alive. (Xana’s possibly rocky friendship with Demri Parrott is immortalized in photos as is Demri’s relationship with Layne.) Layne and Parrot had become engaged, but ultimately broke up. When Demri died at 27 after years of drug addiction, Layne became even more self-punishing. (Before Layne died, he claimed that Demri “visited” him. Demri’s brother passed away shortly before Layne’s corpse was discovered.) Seeing as it was raining the next morning and that Layne didn’t have a jacket, Xana gave him Andy’s orange shirt. Xana had likely bought this striped shirt along with Andy’s iconic pink cowboy hat. Layne wore Andy’s shirt in the “Would?” music video. The sunglasses Layne wore would later be sold on eBay. “Would?” concludes the album Dirt (1992). It was included on the soundtrack to the film Singles (1992) and has been covered by Opeth, Philip H. Anselmo, and Metallica. “Would?” was dedicated to Andrew’s memory.

Andy, a roommate of Chris Cornell, died of a heroin overdose at 24. Andy is remembered as the singer for Mother Love Bone. Jeff Ament and Steve Gossard of Mother Love Bone would become a part of Pearl Jam. After Andrew’s death, Xana became angry with Chris for giving away Andy’s notebooks and possessions, which she had paid for. Even though some belongings went to family, Xana believed that his actions were underhanded and disapproved of the way he handled other matters. “Stargazer” and “Chloe Dancer” are a couple of Andrew Wood’s best songs. They were both written for Xana, who in fact worked as a stripper as the lyrics detail. One wonders if Andrew’s stripper muse also taught children: “I used to treat you like a lady. Now you're a substitute teacher.”

Compare the studio version of “Would?” to Alice in Chains’ rockin’ 1991 demo and the a cappella version. Remember that Jerry sings the verses.

Honorable Mentions

In truth, there isn’t a Layne Staley moment that isn’t spectacular. “Dirt (Drunk and Disorderly Version) [Live],” is simply amazing. On that day in Japan in 1993, Layne put a fun spin on the insanely twisted lyrics he wrote to accompany Jerry’s music. “Dirt” instantiates how Alice in Chains managed to be even more brutal than bands that sound more superficially hardcore. “Sickman” feels like delirium tremens in a nutshell: “I can feel the wheel, but I can’t steer, when my thoughts become my biggest fear.” “Junkhead” is so wild and fun. “A Little Bitter” is unique in that it doesn’t sound like any other Alice in Chains song and is filled with great metaphors. “God Am” begins with the provocative joke from Layne: “Sure God’s all powerful, but does he have lips?” Although he was raised a Christian Scientist, Layne had a “Keep Kids Off God” bike helmet. “I believe that there’s a wonderful place to go after this life… I just believe that I’m not the greatest power on earth. I didn’t create myself…”

Watch Layne Staley wrestle with the notion of God in his last concert with Alice in Chains:

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