Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
The whips come down hard at the Basement in Dallas, an underground club where the last night of every weekend is celebrated as Sadistic Sunday. This particular October evening, several dominatrixes in body paint lash a patron's bare back with their riding crops, dig their nails into his shoulder blades, then pour vinegar into the wounds before rubbing honey and pillow feathers over his upper torso.
A few feet away, taking this all in, sits Layne Staley, the troubled, enigmatic twenty-five-year-old lead singer of the Seattle hard-rock band Alice in Chains. He's drunk off his ass, laughing it up, trying to get in on the action while enduring some very real pain himself. Staley, whose aching vocals and frequently haunting lyrics provide Alice with much of its dark, dangerous sound, has been in a cast since late September, when he ran over his foot riding a three-wheel all-terrain vehicle backstage at a show in Oklahoma City.
"It's really messed up, held together by pins," Staley says later, cracking a small smile as he talks about visiting a specialist who works with the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team. The accident couldn't have come at a worse time: Staley only recently kicked a nasty drug habit; Alice's powerful sophomore album, Dirt, just entered the Billboard album chart at Number Six; and the band is on the road opening for Ozzy Osbourne. As it stands now, Staley will be wearing the foot cast well into the new year.
A real trouper, Staley has been performing on crutches, bellowing his cathartic anthems of despair as he hobbles around the stage. In Dallas, during a moody new song about heroin called "God Smack," Staley scoots around in a wheelchair, repeatedly jabbing his arm with the microphone, simulating a junkie's needle. No hidden symbolism for this bunch.
"I really like the wheelchair effect," says bassist Mike Starr, 26. "I don't know, it somehow makes Layne look more ... evil." The band's stringy-haired beanpole of a drummer, Sean Kinney, 26, feels Staley's determination to perform right after his accident is a sign of Alice's fortitude. "Layne didn't break his voice, and he doesn't do any high kicks or dance moves," Kinney says. "Most bands would have stopped immediately, but we kept touring."
In fact, hard work has been a key factor behind the rise of Alice in Chains. The group emerged in 1990 with its debut album, Facelift; that LP's single "Man in the Box" garnered both Grammy and MTV award nominations last year. Before recording Dirt, the foursome kept busy by quietly releasing a mellow, guest-laden EP titled Sap and making an appearance in Cameron Crowe's recent Seattle-based film, Singles. That movie's soundtrack considerably boosted the group's profile when the crunchy dirge "Would?" caught on. (The single is also included on Dirt.)
Though Alice's nightmarish style may have seemed at odds with the soft, fuzzy, feel-good tone of Singles, the band's charismatic guitarist, Jerry Cantrell, enjoyed the film. "The movie touched on some really heavy feelings and emotions, and that's what we're about, too," he says. "Just because we play a certain breed of music doesn't mean I can't appreciate a lot of other, lighter feelings or lighter art."
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