Alice in Chains: To Hell and Back

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A few years later, Cantrell moved back in with his mother and began vandalizing his neighborhood with friends — egging cars and smashing mailboxes with baseball bats. Soon after, he discovered sex. "I was busted by the cops, trying to get a blow job in a park when I was 17," he says. "The thing that scared me most was that my grandmother had a fucking police scanner, and she used to listen to it every day and tell me when my friends got busted. But that night one of her crystals went out for that channel, so she couldn't hear anything. That was a godsend."

By that time, Cantrell was jamming regularly with friends and acting in lead roles in high school plays. At the age of 20, he suffered his first great loss when his grandmother died of cancer. Six months later he found out his mother was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. "She and my grandmother both spent most of their time in the house in the medical bed doped up on morphine and wasting away daily," he remembers, his voice cracking slightly. "My other relatives would come over, and there were some pretty tense times between us because they didn't understand me at all. I played the guitar 10 to 12 hours a night. It was a way of escaping the pain that was right in front of my face. I wasn't playing loud or anything, but they said it was probably bugging my mom, which is bullshit. She wasn't even conscious. If anything, it was helping her because I was playing for her, and maybe she could hear me just a little bit while she was down there."

A few months later, Cantrell got into a physical confrontation with his uncle and was kicked out of the house. A few days after that, Cantrell's mother's life support was shut off, and he wasn't able to be with her on her deathbed. "I was really angry with them for a long time," he says. "It was stupid childhood anger, but it caused a lot of distance between me and my family. That's a drag because I really love them all."

Shortly following his mother's death, Cantrell moved in with Staley at the Music Bank. The seeds of Alice in Chains were planted a little while later when Cantrell met the first Alice bassist, Mike Starr, after the two joined a local metal outfit, Gypsy Rose. They decided to form their own band with Staley, who was tiring of the glam group he was in. Starr introduced them to Kinney, who was dating Starr's sister.

Kinney had been couch surfing since the age of 17, when his mom kicked him out of the house for being disrespectful. Kinney may have lacked a home, but he had a good drum kit and plenty of talent. The original Alice lineup stayed together until 1993, when Starr quit the band. He was replaced with Inez, who had been playing bass with Ozzy Osbourne. "I was working on some demos with Ozzy, and I told him that Alice had asked me to go to Europe with them," remembers Inez. "I asked him if he thought I should go, and he said, 'If you don't go, you're going to be in the hospital for about seven days.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'It's going to take them that long to get my foot out of your ass.' "

Seattle's Pike Place Market is more than just a stop for the city's tour-bus companies. It's a great spot to buy local crafts, fresh vegetables and drug paraphernalia. Right now, Staley and Cantrell are less interested in macramè and zucchini than they are in pipes and bongs. Cantrell picks up a simple brown wood stash box with a one-hit pipe, and Staley spends $141.42 on a Quantum compass and lighter set, a clear Graffix long-tube bong, three glass pipes and a bowl that looks like a perfume bottle. "My cats always knock 'em over and bust 'em," says Staley, who started smoking pot and drinking as a teen before experimenting with and later becoming hooked on heroin.

Since then, addiction has been the malignant force that has made Alice in Chains' songs so gripping and has become the destructive power that constantly threatens to do the band in. "Layne battles all the time with that shit," says Kinney. "He probably will for the rest of his life. I used to wig out on him all the time just out of being worried about him. But then I'd be fucking drunk all the time. What's the difference, you know? Everyone's got to be allowed to live his own life. We try to keep an eye on each other, but you can't tell someone what to do."

Alice in Chains was recorded in four and a half months, but few of the songs had actually been written when the band entered the studio last April. Using the riffs that Cantrell had written as beacons, Alice in Chains jammed until they had a framework for the tunes. Then they handed the tapes to Staley, who cobbled together most of the lyrics. "I just wrote down whatever was on my mind," says Staley, "so a lot of the lyrics are really loose. If you asked me to sing the lyrics to probably any one of them right now, I couldn't do it. I'm not sure what they are because they're still that fresh."

One of the most emotional songs on the record, "Heaven Beside You," was written solely by Cantrell as a way of coping with his recent split from his girlfriend of seven years. He met her at a Guns n' Roses concert while he was trying to hand Axl Rose a band demo, and Cantrell still describes her as "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life." The two parted ways last year because Cantrell was unable to remain faithful to her. "I still love her, but I'm too much of a fucking wolf — kill, attack, move on," he laments. "It's so tough when you're so used to being hard. You can't tell an oak to be a pine."

Staley had a similar experience with a woman he was engaged to a few years ago. "I can definitely say rock & roll was a huge factor in us breaking up," he says. "When you're in a relationship, the girl usually instigates the big idea that you were born joined at the hip. So when the fighting comes, it's really painful.

"This isn't a dig on women," Staley adds before launching into a sexist theory, "but I think women are so different chemically from men, and that makes it hard to sustain a relationship. They have periods, they go through horrible, awful emotional swings, and trying to be logical with a person that's got a whole different logic running around in her brain is just impossible."

But Cantrell and Staley have been consumed with more than just relationship woes recently, facing an even more painful and frightening prospect: death. Last year one of Cantrell's cousins, suffering from deep depression and on Prozac, shot himself between the eyes. Five of Staley's friends also have died during the last two years. He won't say whether the deaths were drug related.

"I'm gonna be here for a long fuckin' time," Staley asserts. I'm scared of death, especially death by my own hand. I'm scared of where I would go. Not that I ever consider that, because I don't."

Well, maybe not, but two and a half years ago, Staley might easily have taken his life had it not been for a couple of near-death experiences that he claims forced him to re-evaluate his lifestyle. Again he refuses to say whether the incidents were drug related, but he willingly and vividly describes the experience. "I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of where I was going to go if I did follow through with it," he says frankly. "That makes me sad for my friends who have taken their lives, because I know that if your time is not finished here, and you end it yourself, then you gotta finish it somewhere else. There was a time when things seemed desperate, and I thought taking my life might be a way out. I made a couple of really weak attempts, mostly to see if I could do it, and I couldn't.

"I was sitting with a friend one time," Staley recalls, "and I blanked out for about a minute. I had no control over my muscles, and it scared the shit out of me because I experienced what I guess could have been hell or, you know, purgatory or whatever. It was freezing cold, and I was spinning like I was drunk and trying desperately to take a breath. There was chest pain like I was gonna explode.

"If you gotta feel pain here, you gotta feel it somewhere else," he continues. "I believe that there's a wonderful place to go to after this life, and I don't believe there's eternal damnation for anyone. I'm not into religion, but I have a good grasp on my spirituality. I just believe that I'm not the greatest power on this earth. I didn't create myself, because I would have done a hell of a better job."

For all the agony that went into Alice in Chains, there's a stark beauty to the way the buzzing guitars spiral around the pulsing beats. "Our music's kind of about taking something ugly and making it beautiful," Cantrell explains.

"I do that every day when I'm dressing," jokes Staley. "I take an ugly face and make it beautiful."

Such levity occasionally finds its way through the cracks of the new record. "For a long time I let problems and sour relationships rule over me instead of letting the water roll off my back," says Staley. "I thought it was cool that I could write such dark, depressing music. But then instead of being therapeutic, it was starting to drag on and keep hurting. This time I just felt, 'Fuck it. I can write good music, and if I feel easy and I feel like laughing, I can laugh.' There's no huge, deep message in any of the songs. It was just what was going on in my head right then. We had good times, and we had bad times. We recorded a few months of being human."

These days, that's all Staley longs for. He doesn't want to be a rock god, and he certainly doesn't want to be a martyr. "I'd hate to be stuck up there," he says. "I saw all the suffering that Kurt Cobain went through. I didn't know him real well, but I just saw this real vibrant person turn into a real shy, timid, withdrawn, introverted person who could hardly get a hello out.

"There was a time when we played out everything we ever dreamed of," Staley continues. "After I got my first gold record, my friend came over and pulled out a couple lines of blow, and I pulled the gold record off the wall, because that was a dream of mine. If I ever got a gold record, I was going to do my first line of coke on that. I had a great time riding around in limos and eating lobster and getting laid. I went hog wild for a while. I mean, sex is not something I crave so much anymore. I had a great time, but I can't physically or mentally live that lifestyle constantly."

In reaction to the avalanche of attention that accompanies fame, Staley moved into a house in the suburbs and now spends much of his time behind closed doors. "At the end of the day or at the end of the party, when everyone goes home, you're stuck with yourself," Staley says. "There was a time when I couldn't deal with that, and I couldn't go places by myself. I needed to call up a friend to go to a 7-Eleven. I just couldn't approach people when I was alone. Getting a place on my own was a step toward learning how to do that."

Troubled and withdrawn, Staley views himself as a little kid who won the lottery and moved into his own private fun house. "I run around and play all day long, and I don't have to come in and wash my hands and face," Staley says proudly. "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 Trek phasers and Batman dolls."

While aspects of Staley's conduct are endearing and childlike, the marks on his hands suggest that he hasn't beaten his addiction. "I don't know anything about the puncture marks on his hands," says Alice's manager, Susan Silver. "All I know is that this sort of journalism creates an environment that is dangerous to the youth who read it."

With their new album, Alice in Chains may have triumphed artistically, but they haven't had much time to celebrate. They're too concerned with whether they're going to be mentally and physically healthy enough to tour (no dates have been scheduled yet) and what force may next threaten their existence. The more records that Alice in Chains sell, the less they understand everything around them. "Fuck, I don't know what the hell I'm doing, man," admits Cantrell. "I never took Rock Star 101 in school. I never even saw the textbook. The way I view it, the only way to find out what's going on in life is to go through it full force with your head down and to smack into a few walls on the way. That's the only way to learn. Then, hopefully after a while, you figure out which ones not to keep hitting."

This story is from the February 8th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.

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