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Alice in Chains: Through the Looking Glass

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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.

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