Alice in Chains: To Hell and Back

They've survived personal tragedy, but the hardest thing for Alice in Chains may be finding a way to live with themselves

Layne Staley of Alice in Chains on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger
Layne Staley of Alice in Chains on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Turning the steering wheel hard to the right and stomping his foot on the gas, Alice in Chains' lead singer, Layne Staley, accelerates full speed into the back of a stopped car. Grinning widely, he slams his open-top vehicle into reverse and glances over his shoulder just in time to see a Wiffle ball descend in an arc toward him. Staley shifts his bony hips, reaches his left arm out and catches the sphere in a scoop that resembles a cross between a squash racket and a jai alai cesta. Then he floors his car back to center court, where he passes the ball to Alice's guitarist, Jerry Cantrell, who is waiting under a small goal. Cantrell flings the object from his scoop and into the goal. A buzzer sounds, and a red light illuminates. Two points for the Alice in Chains team.

The game is WhirlyBall, a bizarre hybrid of basketball, bumper cars and lacrosse that was invented in 1962 by a Utah automotive-shop owner who received divine inspiration after watching his son improvise a game of hockey while driving a golf cart. Although WhirlyBall didn't catch on as quickly as the Hula-Hoop, today a dozen or so such facilities dot the country, including this one, which is about a half-hour outside of Seattle. Before enduring the grind of formal interrogations, including Staley's first major interview in more than two years, the band wants to have a little fun. Alice's drummer, Sean Kinney, came up with the idea of giving WhirlyBall a whirl, and although the other band members were initially reluctant, right now they're all smiles. Kinney and Cantrell seem hellbent on defeating the opposing team, which consists of friends and bassist Mike Inez, who somehow didn't wind up on the Alice squad. Even Staley, who minutes before was covertly mimicking and flipping off a drill-sergeant-like referee, seems to be having a good time. But despite a fine passing attack, Alice in Chains lack the rebounding and shooting ability to defeat their opponents. They also lack the teamwork, and by the beginning of the second game, Staley has bowed out to play video games on his portable Sega system.

Photos: Alice in Chains in the Nineties

Alice in Chains may never make the WhirlyBall all-star squad, but they've managed to hang together, sometimes just barely, through almost nine years of hardship and continuing struggle. Starting out as a fledgling glam-metal outfit, Alice in Chains' sudden move toward grunge after one album and one EP earned the derision of Seattle scenesters, some of whom dubbed the band Kindergarten, due to their sonic similarity to Soundgarden. But Alice in Chains silenced most of their critics with the 1992 album Dirt, a brooding disc of slow, savage riffs and Staley's harrowing lyrics, which detailed his battle with heroin addiction. Released in November, the band's self-titled third album displays further growth, coupling improvisational jams with bleak rhythms and intertwining melancholy with menace.

Considering how dark their music is, you'd expect the members of Alice in Chains to brood offstage as well as on. Instead, they play off one another like a depraved comedy troupe. "Since our music is so depressing, everybody expects us to run around in black and whine about shit," says Kinney. "But that's such a misconception. We just get together and fuck around. We're like the Monkees or something."

After they finish with Whirlyball, Alice in Chains return to downtown Seattle and stop at Umberto's, the kind of family-style Italian restaurant where, if you drink enough cheap wine, you won't care what's under the blanket of red sauce. Appropriately, the band is seated in a remote back room that doubles as a wine cellar. Before their food arrives the members of Alice engage in a primitive heavy-metal ritual: gross out the journalist. Cantrell brags about a girl he recently picked up who chewed tobacco, causing him to experience a peculiar but pleasurable burning sensation during oral sex. Staley counters with a story of a friend who received a blow job from an extremely drunk woman who vomited all over her partner midway through the act. Then we're on to the next topic: animal abuse. Staley talks about a childhood acquaintance who wrapped a kitten's legs with twine and threw it into a lake: "I screamed, 'No, man, take it out,' but he was bigger than me, so I just watched it drown." But the coup de grâce comes when Cantrell recalls the exploits of a neighborhood sicko: "He'd carve up these frogs and turtles and stuff on one side, but the other side would look completely normal. Then he'd come up to you, and you'd be like 'Oh, wow, a frog.' Then he'd turn it around, and all its guts would be hanging out." Needless to say, nobody's too hungry when the food finally arrives.

After dinner, Cantrell, Kinney and Inez return with Staley to his house, where they stay up until 5 in the morning, smoking pot and playing video games. Their camaraderie has helped the band mates endure the hardships of substance abuse and personal tragedy. Being so close has also nearly torn them apart.

In the summer of 1994, the day before the start of a tour with Metallica, Alice nearly reached the end of their chain. At the time, Staley was in the throes of heroin addiction, and Kinney was struggling with the bottle. "We'd been going full force, just running at top speed with our eyes closed," says Cantrell, peering through a half-empty glass of beer. "We had been way too close for too long, and we were suffocating. We were like four plants trying to grow in the same pot."

Things got worse when Staley, who, according to Kinney, had just returned from drug rehab, came to practice high. In response, Kinney threw down his sticks and vowed never again to play with Staley. Cantrell concurred, the tour was canceled, and the band parted company for six months. "Nobody was being honest with each other back then," admits Kinney, seconds after exhaling a cloud of marijuana smoke. "If we had kept going, there was a good chance we would have self-destructed on the road, and we definitely didn't want that to happen in public."

In the months following their breakup, the band members went through the stages of grief that accompany loss: denial, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance. "At first I was dumbfounded," Staley recalls, mumbling like someone awakened by a late-night phone call. "I just sat on my couch staring at the TV and getting drunk every day. When we first got together as a band, we were all brothers. We lived in the same house and partied together and drank as much as each other. But then we started to split apart and went different ways, and we felt like we were betraying each other."

Rumors of a permanent breakup and worse began to circulate. "I found out through the Internet that I have AIDS," says Staley. "I learned I was dead. Where else would I find out these things? I don't see a doctor regularly. I was in San Francisco at Lollapalooza, and this girl walked up to me and stopped like she'd seen a ghost. And she said, 'You're not dead.' And I said, 'No, you're right. Wow.' "

During their time apart, Staley recorded an album with Mad Season, his side project with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin; Inez scuba dived and worked with Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash on his album It's Five O'Clock Somewhere; Kinney snow boarded and recorded a track with Krist Novoselic, Kim Thayil and Johnny Cash for the Willie Nelson tribute album, Twisted Willie; and Cantrell, who writes most of the band's music, holed himself up at his rural home outside of Seattle and wrote riffs initially intended for a solo album. By January 1995, he was working on some of that material with Kinney and Inez. Four months later, Staley was invited back into the fold, and the band began working together on Alice in Chains. If Dirt was a diary of the pain and animosity caused by addiction, betrayal and hypocrisy, Alice in Chains chronicles the bitter aftereffects of conflict, seeking to reassemble the shattered pieces."We let shit come straight out on this one," says Cantrell. "It was often depressing, and getting it done felt like pulling hair out, but it was the fucking coolest thing, and I'm glad to have gone through it. I will cherish the memory forever."

"I'll cherish it forever, too, just because this one I can remember doing," says Staley. He's only half joking.

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.

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.

From The Archives Issue 727: February 8, 1996