Alice in Chains: To Hell and Back

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It's the day after the Whirlyball adventure, and Staley is seated at a corner table of Cafe Sophie, a quaint Seattle jazz restaurant that served as a morgue in the early 1900s. After ordering a root beer, he peers out the window at the sun, which is burning a hole through the darkening clouds and reflecting on the sparkling water of Puget Sound.

Staley's frail frame is swallowed up by a blue warmup jacket and white T-shirt embossed with the scribbly design of his first watercolor self-portrait. His pants are decorated with Sesame Street characters. His head is bound by a white spotted bandanna, and a small scab above his right eye sets off his pale skin. A pair of black gloves covers his hands. Yesterday he wore the same gloves. Last night at dinner the gloves were gone, but the sleeves of his white oxford shirt were buttoned between the thumbs and forefingers, revealing his uncut, dirt-encrusted fingernails. When he returned from a trip to the bathroom, his sleeves were unbuttoned, exposing what appear to be red, round puncture marks from the wrist to the knuckles of his left hand. And as anyone who knows anything about IV drugs can tell you, the veins in the hands are used only after all the other veins have been tapped out.

Despite the evidence, Staley won't acknowledge that he still battles with heroin. "If I'm staying busy, and if I'm getting my job done, and I'm doing things I think are great, then I don't have a problem with anything, you know?" he asks. "If I live on just a strictly sugar diet, hey, I like it." He laughs weakly and nervously, then continues. "Nobody ever asks Meat Loaf, "What do you eat? Why do you eat so much? Shouldn't you lose some weight?' No, he shouldn't. He's fucking Meat Loaf. He writes songs, and he has a great time, and none of your fuckin' business. Maybe he eats meatloaf every fucking night, you know?" He laughs a bit harder.

"People have a right to ask questions and dig deep when you're hurting people and things around you," Staley continues. "But when I haven't talked to anybody in years, and every article I see is dope this, junkie that, whiskey this — that ain't my title. Like 'Hi, I'm Layne, nail biter,' you know? My bad habits aren't my title. My strengths and my talent are my title."

Staley's argument might carry more weight if he didn't write about using drugs. Five songs on Dirt were about heroin, and several tracks on the new album feature lines like "Things go well, your eyes dilate/You shake, and I'm high?" ("Sludge Factory") and "No more time/ Just one more time" ("Head Creeps"). Yet Staley says he's reluctant to talk about his addiction — not because he's embarrassed but because he's worried his fans will think he's glorifying drugs.

"I wrote about drugs, and I didn't think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them," Staley says. "Here's how my thinking pattern went: When I tried drugs, they were fucking great, and they worked for me for years, and now they're turning against me — and now I'm walking through hell, and this sucks. I didn't want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I've had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they're high. That's exactly what I didn't want to happen."

Although Staley won't go into any details about his past or present drug use, he admits to having an addictive personality. "When I'm not doing drugs, I eat," he says. "And I binge, and I fucking gain 20 pounds. And I work out. And when I start working out, I go crazy on it. I can't do anything in small doses. If I sat here and said, 'I'm 90-days sober and easy does it, stay the course,' I'd be full of shit, because I'm not 90-days sober. But I'm not in the bathroom getting high, either. And two years ago I would have been. It's not something I think about. It's not something I wake up and have to go find."

Staley was born in Kirkland, Wash., in 1967, and was raised with two sisters in a middle-class family. His first memory is of looking up at a musical carousel hanging above his crib. At 5, he joined a preschool rhythm group that met once a week. When he was 7, his parents divorced, and his mother remarried, adding a stepbrother to the family. "No deep, dark secrets there," Staley says. "I remember sometimes wondering where my dad was, but most of the time I was too busy running around and playing."

At 12, Staley started playing drums. It was at about this time that he first connected sex and drugs with rock & roll. "I read my first article about [a major '80s rock star], and he was in a limo doing lines of blow on a mirror, and he had babes under each arm," says Staley. "And that's when I decided I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to do blow, and I wanted those babes under my arms. I didn't know what blow was, and I didn't know what sex was, but it looked impressive to me because it was written in the magazine."

During high school, Staley switched from drums to vocals, swapping his drum gear for a PA. He sang with a number of garage groups, including one that practiced at the home of a band member whose mother was a devout Christian woman. "I had a pentagram on my jacket, so I usually had to sneak into band practice," Staley recalls.

For Staley, music provided an escape from the monotony of school and the frustration of being unpopular. After high school, Staley moved into a local rehearsal studio called the Music Bank. One night at a party in 1987, he ran into Alice in Chains' future guitarist, Jerry Cantrell.

Almost 40 miles outside of Seattle, past a network of twisting roads surrounded by emu and llama farms, is an old dirt road better suited to horse and buggy than automobile. Just off this road is Cantrell's house, a modest three-bedroom dwelling that sits on 20 acres. When he's home, Cantrell spends much of his time on the rec-room couch, staring at his 57-inch projection-screen television, which is hooked up to a satellite dish in his back yard. "We definitely know how to lounge around here," he says as he fires up his first bowl of the afternoon. Having just woken up, he's unshaven and wearing a Suicidal Tendencies jersey and blue sweat pants — likely the same outfit he wore to bed last night. "The only thing more relaxing is fishing. That's the one thing I can do where I don't think about the band or my bills or nothing. It's just quiet fucking peace."

"Jerry's a very complex person," says his sister, Cheri. "He's very guarded of himself and especially of those whom he cares about. It's very hard, because he has so many different sides to him, and it just depends on what side you get in the morning. I never, ever thought he would be as big as he is today. I thought he would end up working for Safeway or at a video place or something."

Adds a close friend of Cantrell's, Metallica's drummer, Lars Ulrich: "He's a lot like me. There's always something going on in his head. In terms of mood swings, I think we're both like a VU meter, bouncing back and forth between being really happy and an asshole and being really into something and not."

Cantrell, whose great-grandfather was a Wild West train robber, was born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1966. At the time, his father was a soldier fighting in Vietnam, and his mother, an amateur organist and melodica player, was raising Cantrell, his older brother and younger sister. "One of the first memories I have was my dad coming back from Vietnam in his uniform when I was 3 years old," says Cantrell, "and my mom telling me that he was my dad."

After the war, Cantrell's father bounced from one Army base to another, including stints in Germany and Alaska. But three years in Vietnam took their toll on his father, and when Cantrell was 7, his parents got divorced. "My dad was trained to be a fucking killer," says Cantrell. "After that, you can't just come back home and say, 'OK, everything's cool. I'm going to work 9 to 5 now.' That shit scars you forever. We had a lot of problems and occurrences because of that." On Dirt, Cantrell wrote about his father's Vietnam experiences in the song "Rooster," which sparked a new bond between Cantrell and his estranged dad, who agreed to appear in the video and later traveled with Alice in Chains on the road to introduce the song.

After his parents separated, the Cantrell family moved back to Tacoma to live with his grandmother. "We had some rough times," Cantrell says. "We were on welfare and food stamps. We'd have like one jar of tomatoes that we grew in our fucking garden, and my mom would try to make dinner out of that by buying noodles from a next-door neighbor. It was really hard on us."

Despite the hardships, Cantrell knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life. Shortly after he learned how to write, he documented his goal in a Dr. Seuss book called My Book About Me, filling in the sentence "When I grow up I want to be a ..." with the words rock star in sprawling cursive letters.

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