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Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Follow the late frontman from his high-school cover-band days to his grunge-era glory years

Original Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley passed away 15 years ago today, his demise sadly coming as no great surprise to those who knew him or had followed his career. Even at the peak of the influential Seattle hard-rock band’s career, Staley had made no secret of his dalliances with heroin, and he’d completely dropped off the radar following the band’s brief 1998 reunion to cut a pair of songs for their Music Bank box set.

But while it’s impossible to fully separate the man’s art from his addiction, the fact remains that Staley was a massively talented and charismatic singer, one whose intense performances are still capable of raising the hairs on the back of your neck more than two decades after the fact. So rather than dwell on the unfortunate circumstances of his death, let’s enjoy these 10 amazing live highlights from his incredible but all-too-brief career.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Sleze, “False Alarm” (Lakeside School, 1985)

Though he actually started out as a drummer, Staley shifted to lead vocals in 1984, when he joined Sleze, a metal band made up of kids from a couple of Seattle-area high schools. “We were just blown away by him,” remembered lead guitarist Johnny Bacolas in Greg Prato’s 2009 chronicle Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. “He had ‘star qualities’ even then. He was much more timid – he looked down while he sang, but the grain of his voice was there, the soul was there.” Staley had clearly shed the timidity by the time this Armored Saint cover was filmed at Seattle’s Lakeside School; even in a poodle mullet, fur-topped boots and what looks like a blazer from the International Male catalog, he totally delivers the big rock goods.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Love, Hate, Love” (Seattle, 1990)

One of the standout tracks from Facelift, Alice in Chains’ debut album, “Love, Hate, Love” showed the band already moving away from their Eighties metal roots and heading into darker, moodier, more claustrophobic hard-rock territory, with Staley’s scarifying voice leading the way. “It sounded like it came out of a 350-pound biker rather than skinny little Layne,” guitarist Jerry Cantrell told Rolling Stone in 2002. “I considered his voice to be my voice.” This stunning concert performance, which was filmed at Seattle’s Moore Theater for the Live Facelift video, demonstrates exactly what Cantrell was talking about.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “It Ain’t Like That” (‘Singles’ bonus footage, 1991)

Alice in Chains hadn’t yet broken nationally in the spring of 1991, when Cameron Crowe filmed them in concert at Seattle’s DeSoto club for a scene in Singles, his 1992 romantic comedy that took place amid the backdrop of the city’s burgeoning grunge scene. While this high-energy performance – included as a bonus in the 2015 Blu-ray release of the film – shows Staley and his compadres completely dominating the stage that night, Crowe told Entertainment Weekly in 2011 that the execs at Warner Bros. were utterly mystified by the footage. “When Harry Met Sally was the big hit as we were filming,” he recalled. “I think the studio saw Singles and thought, ‘What is this guy with the dreads, shaking?’ That’s Layne, man! From Alice in Chains! ‘Uh, where’s Billy Crystal? C’mon man, give us the thing we know!'”

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Man in the Box” (‘ABC in Concert,’ 1991)

The first track from Facelift to receive significant airplay, the hard-grinding “Man in the Box” became a staple of Alice in Chains’ set lists, providing a captivating live showcase for Staley’s powerful vocals and charismatic stage presence. “Layne was, and still to this day is, one of the most compelling front men I’ve ever seen,” Mike Inez, who replaced Mike Starr on bass in 1993, told Greg Prato. “He was so cool and creepy and just a badass dude.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment, especially after watching this searing, sweaty segment from ABC in Concert.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Junkhead” (‘Singles’ release party, 1992)

Written during the first of what would be more than a dozen rehab stints for Staley, “Junkhead” – like “Sickman” and “God Smack,” two other songs from 1992’s Dirt – showed the singer wrestling with the anguish and self-loathing that accompanied his heroin habit. But despite Staley’s addiction, Dirt producer Dave Jerden was impressed by the drive and vision the singer displayed in the studio, especially when it came to layering his vocal tracks. “He had it all worked out [in his head], and he would just say, ‘Give me another track.’ ‘I want to double it.’ ‘Now let’s triple it.'” Jerden recalled to The Atlantic in 2012. “He was just telling me what he wanted to do, and we’d do it.” Despite his demons, Staley seems similarly focused in this gripping performance at L.A.’s Park Plaza Hotel ballroom, which was filmed two weeks before Dirt hit the streets.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Godsmack” (Ozzy Osbourne tour, 1992)

Three days into Alice in Chains’ opening stint on Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tours tour, Staley badly broke his left foot while messing around backstage with an all-terrain vehicle. While such an injury might have sidelined other bands, the group simply pressed on with their singer in a cast. “Layne didn’t break his voice, and he doesn’t do any high kicks or dance moves,” drummer Sean Kinney explained to Rolling Stone during the tour. If anything, the injury lent an additional element of theatricality to Staley’s performances; after first taking the stage with the help of a crutch, he would return to sing “God Smack” from a wheelchair – and as this clip shows, the man could sing his ass off even when seated. “I really like the wheelchair effect,” said bassist Mike Starr at the time. “I don’t know, it somehow makes Layne look more … evil.” 

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Would?” (Rio de Janeiro, 1993)

Written by Jerry Cantrell, “Would?” – inspired by the guitarist’s friendship with Andrew Wood, the late Mother Love Bone frontman who died of a heroin overdose in 1990 – became one of Alice in Chains’ signature songs, distilling the very essence of the band into three-and-a-half minutes of killer riffs, haunting hooks, foreboding vibes and an air of utter defiance in the face of addiction. The song was also an excellent example of Staley and Cantrell’s unique vocal arrangements; not only did the timbre of their voices mesh beautifully, but their droning harmonies were part of what gave the band such a striking sonic presence. “He was single-handedly the guy that got me to start singing,” Godsmack frontman Sully Erna told MTV News following Staley’s death. “Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley were the coolest team to me since Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. Just the way they address their melodies and harmonies – and his vocal style in general was so different than anything that anyone was writing … you couldn’t help but be influenced by it.” This live version of the song shows that Staley and Cantrell had no problem at all duplicating that same magical blend onstage.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Mad Season, “River of Deceit” (Seattle, 1995)

With Alice in Chains temporarily on hiatus, due in part to Staley’s drug issues, the singer joined Mad Season, a side project formed by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. Having completed a stint in rehab himself, McCready hoped that playing with sober musicians would encourage Staley to commit to his own sobriety; while that didn’t happen, the collaboration did produce a great record. “I told him, ‘You do what you want, you write all the songs and lyrics. You’re the singer,'” McCready recalled to Rolling Stone in 2002. “He’d come in, and he’d do these beautiful songs.” The mournful “River of Deceit,” one of the Mad Season album’s standout tracks, is gorgeously rendered in this clip from the band’s 1995 concert at Seattle’s Moore Theater – the last show that Staley would ever do with Mad Season.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Down in a Hole” (‘MTV Unplugged,’ 1996)

When Alice in Chains taped their appearance on MTV Unplugged in the spring of 1996, it marked the first time since January 1994 that all four members of the band had appeared together on the same stage. While Staley certainly looked fragile, and while his continuing struggles with addiction gave a newer, darker meaning to “Down in the Hole” – originally written by Cantrell about the difficulty of juggling life on the road with long-term relationships – his soulful performance of the song seemed to offer some cause for optimism, as did the entire Unplugged set. “It’s really hard to pick favorites [from the show],” Cantrell told Guitarist magazine later that summer, “but I will say that we’ve never played ‘Down in the Hole’ live, and that track turned out really good.”

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Again”/”We Die Young” (‘Letterman,’ 1996)

One month after taping Unplugged, Alice in Chains fired up their amps for a guest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Staley looks considerably worse for the wear, and his vocals on “Again” – a single from 1995’s Alice in Chains, which the band was performing live for the first time – seem tentative, but the way he rips into the Facelift classic “We Die Young” is absolutely goosebump-raising. It’s almost as if, at least for a moment, he was once again able to tap into the internal fire that powered his vocals in the early days. Sadly, Staley would only make a handful of live appearances after this. 

“Layne had an amazing voice that had such a beautiful, sad, haunting quality about it,” said Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, in an official statement following Staley’s death. “He was different because his heaviness was in that voice. I saw Alice in Chains at one of their final performances, opening for Kiss at Tiger Stadium [in the summer of 1996]. They played outside in the sunshine, and they were awesome. I think that’s a good way to remember someone who has and will be missed.”