Alice in Chains: Through the Looking Glass

The dark, brooding side of the Seattle scene

Alice in Chains
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage
Alice in Chains
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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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."

With "Would?" leading the way, Dirt entered stores the same week that the Singles soundtrack and Pearl Jam's debut also hung in the Top Ten, following earlier chart assaults by fellow locals Nirvana and the resurrected Temple of the Dog. Their triumphs may be running concurrently, yet "each band has its own soul," says Cantrell, 26, when asked about the Seattle connection.

"We all play rock music, so there is some similarity," he continues. "But the bands are different. Ours is a little more brooding and introspective. Pearl Jam is a soul that's full of life and invigorating, and Nirvana is kind of beautifully dysfunctional.... These are just words I'm pulling off the top of my head. Even if I can't put my finger on it, there's an individual identity to the bands."

Cantrell adds that Alice's heavier sound and misanthropic attitude initially made it an outcast from the city's alternative scene: "Some stuff grabs you right away; ours is really an acquired taste. It takes a few deep bites to get what it's all about".

Alice in Chains formed during the late eighties when Staley, then singing in a different band, offered aimless Tacoma guitarist Jerry Cantrell his rehearsal studio as a place to crash. "It was in this huge warehouse called the Music Bank that had fifty different rooms," Cantrell says. "The place was open twenty-four hours, and there were always bands playing, chicks going in and out, beer and drugs everywhere, some really wild times."

A Vietnam veteran's son who cut his teeth on old AC/DC, Kiss and Ted Nugent albums, Cantrell had joined up with bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney but couldn't convince Staley to join the group. Later they struck a compromise – Cantrell would play guitar for Staley's ill-fated funk-rock band, and the singer agreed to howl for the warehouse metal crew. They fooled around with several incarnations, going glam for a while and even gigging under the name Fuck. "We weren't getting work anyway, so we thought it wouldn't hurt us," says Staley, recalling how the band members would pass around fuck the band condoms as a publicity gimmick. Eventually, the lack of marquee value made them switch their billing to Alice in Chains.

"The name came from a side project of my old group," says Staley, stroking the remnants of his blond beatnik goatee. "We were going to have this band that dressed in drag and played heavy metal as a joke."

As the quartet refined its musical direction, the Puget Sound scene was erupting with promising groups like the flamboyant Mother Love Bone, the hard-edge Sound-garden and the grunged-out Mudhoney. Once the buzz began that the region was a fertile territory for new bands, talent scouts from major labels came swarming up in droves. Considered a commercial long shot compared with other local heroes, Alice in Chains signed with Columbia in 1989 after Nick Terzo, a rep involved with the band's music publishing, joined the label's A&R team. "Everybody thought I was getting the worst of the bunch," says Terzo. "But to me they were a diamond in the rough."

For Columbia, signing Alice in Chains was a deliberate move to regain the label's foothold in the hard-rock market. "They came to us at a time when we were hungry for music," says label president Don Ienner, who has since taken the band – especially guitarist Cantrell, whom he refers to as "a future guitar god" – under his wing. From the beginning, Ienner turned the building of Alice's career into a crusade: "I flipped out the first time I heard their demo tape."

After haggling over deal points with Columbia for six months, the group was finally ushered into a studio by producer Dave Jerden, who had previously worked with the Rolling Stones and Jane's Addiction. The resulting Facelift featured violent, tortured Cantrell numbers like "We Die Young" and "Bleed the Freak," as well as several Staley-Cantrell collaborations, including "Man in the Box," a song inspired by thoughts of food and fascism.

"I started writing about censorship," explains Staley. "Around the same time, we went out for dinner with some Columbia Records people who were vegetarians. They told me how veal was made from calves raised in these small boxes, and that image stuck in my head. So I went home and wrote about government censorship and eating meat as seen through the eyes of a doomed calf."

Columbia made Facelift a top priority, hoping to prove the company wasn't merely a stable for fresh-scrubbed pop acts like Mariah Carey, New Kids on the Block and C&C Music Factory. Months before the official album release, Columbia sent selected retailers free Alice EPs, called We Die Young, which they could sell for pure profit. The expensive campaign didn't stop there – when the album went nowhere slowly, Ienner decided to attach 40,000 free concert videos to copies of Facelift. They were snatched up within weeks. An MTV-hyped clip for "Man in the Box," with its macabre image of a monk with his eyelids sewn shut, helped push the single into the Top Twenty.

Perhaps the label's most valuable contribution was providing the group with a touring bus. During 1990 and 1991, Alice opened for everyone from Iggy Pop and Van Halen to Extreme and Poison, as well as slogging through a bottom-billed slot on the infamous Clash of the Titans package with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth. "That tour was a real challenge, because we're not a speed-metal band," says Kinney. "During our set the entire crowd would chant, 'Slayer, Slayer, Slayer.' But we figured, hey, if we could play for a Slayer crowd and not get killed, we had it made."

All the hard work eventually paid off – in September 1991, thirteen months after Facelift was released, the album was certified gold for selling a half-million copies, making Alice the most successful new Seattle band – until Nirvana exploded. Ironically, when the full-scale media blitz hit western Washington earlier this year, Alice in Chains was virtually lost in the shuffle. "Once it got really big with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, there wasn't much mentioned about us," says Staley. "All those bands put out records around the same time, and we hadn't put one out in two years. I don't think it hurt us, though. I'm glad we didn't get lumped together with them, because we're not those other bands."

For all the album's out-of-the-box success, the making of Dirt was plagued by bad luck. Traveling down to Los Angeles to be near Jerden, the band began recording in April. When the riots broke out, various band members fled to the safer environs of Joshua Tree and Tijuana, bringing work on the album to a halt. A more personal downer for the band was Staley's drug abuse, which led the singer to a failed rehab visit and, finally, a cold-turkey kick of his own while reading The Bad Place, by horror novelist Dean R. Koontz.

Staley is reluctant at first to discuss his heroin problems, especially in light of a recent Rolling Stone article about the drug's revival, which mentioned him. The article, he says, caused his family and friends much grief. But he also welcomes the chance to clear up any rumors and gossip.

"The facts are that I was shooting a lot of dope, and that's nobody's business but mine," he says, resting on the tour bus before opening for Osbourne in Dallas. "I'm not shooting dope now, and I haven't for a while.... I took a fucking long, hard walk through hell. I decided to stop because I was miserable doing it. The drug didn't work for me anymore. In the beginning I got high, and it felt great; by the end it was strictly maintenance, like food I needed to survive. Since I quit doing it, I tried it a couple of times to see if I could recapture the feeling I once got off it, but I don't. Nothing attracts me to it anymore. It was boring."

Aside from his busted foot, Staley appears to be in fine shape these days. He's gained some weight, the color has returned to his skin, and a muscleman on tour keeps an eye on him in case the old urges return. Staley says he deals with those feelings now through his music, especially Dirt tracks like "Angry Chair" and "Sickman," as well as more overt tunes such as "Junk-head." More than anything, he's upset by comments that suggest the music advocates drug use: "From song to song, the album changes from glorifying drugs to being completely miserable and questioning what I thought once worked for me. By the end of the album, it's pretty obvious it didn't work out as well as I thought it would."

Staley also expresses his current sentiments onstage, introducing one grim number as "a song about a hopeless fucking junkie."

When Alice hits the stage in Dallas, the audience eagerly embraces the group, with the entire front section standing on its feet, waving outstretched fists, flicking cigarette lighters during every song. After the gig, the band briefly mingles backstage with fans and Columbia executives before scattering. Starr goes off to nuzzle his girlfriend, Kinney heads elsewhere, and Cantrell makes his way down to a tattoo and body-piercing emporium.

"As you can see," Cantrell says, "I'm into some twisted shit." Indeed, he endures a four-hour-plus session, getting a strange array of gruesome faces inked onto his arm, reaching from the wrist all the way up to the crook of his elbow. The tattoo parlor is cluttered with designs of skulls, gargoyles, dragons and other Goth images. A lurid T-shirt hangs on the wall, picturing an EC Comics-type cannibal and the motto Jeffrey Dahmer says, "Remember Kids…Tattoos Taste Great!" Some twisted shit indeed.

And Staley? Well, the Alice in Chains singer decided to make a return trip to the Basement. Although it's the night after Sadistic Sunday, Staley is having a grand time. There are beers all around, a bevy of exotic dancers smother him with affection, and – listen closely – they've even got "Man in the Box" playing on the club's speakers. For a young rock singer enjoying the first moments of celebrity, things can't get much better.

But despite the fun times and early commercial success of Dirt, Staley won't be singing any upbeat ditties in the near future. For the time being, he is intent on making music that can purge his pain. "We don't stuff our personal demons inside us, we get them out," Staley says. "It's therapeutic. I'm sure I'll never be completely 100 percent at peace with myself and the world. I'll always be bitching and moaning about something."

This story is from the November 26th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 644: November 26, 1992
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