Have you heard of Kurt Cobain? Almost certainly. Have you heard of Layne Staley? Probably not. Well, let me introduce him to you.
Layne was the lead singer of grunge/metal band Alice in Chains who passed away on this day a decade ago. Known for his tortured vocal style, Staley also fronted the grunge super-group Mad Season, as well as the short-lived Class of ’99, with whom he recorded a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)’. Tragically, Staley’s partly-decomposed body was found in his apartment on 19 April 2002, the 34-year old singer having overdosed on a lethal mixture of cocaine and heroin more than two weeks prior to his discovery.
With a vocal style ranging from agonised wailing on ‘Love, Hate, Love’, ‘Man in the Box’ and ‘Rain When I Die’ to tender self-reflection on ‘Wake Up’, ‘Down in a Hole’ and ‘River of Deceit’, Staley’s melodies and rich harmonies made Alice in Chains stand out in the metal crowd. His shocking lyrics, dealing with themes such as desperation, loneliness, bitterness and self-loathing, moreover, touched the nerve of an alienated generation.
By all accounts, however, Staley’s lyrical honesty bore little resemblance to his character. Layne was a charismatic individual with a keen intellect and a wicked sense of humour, according to the eulogy read at his funeral. He was principled too – memorably on one recorded occasion he had an extreme right-wing individual ejected from a gig, and whereas others would give their VIP backstage passes to friends or wealthy supporters of the rock industry, Layne would offer his to the fans who couldn’t afford their own tickets instead.
By the time of their 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, Alice in Chains had not been seen live for two years, and Staley himself appeared frail and vulnerable. Still, that show has gone down as one of the greatest of the unplugged series, alongside Nirvana’s set which aired in 1993. In many ways, though, that gig would mark the end of Alice in Chains. They never performed live again with Staley, whose dependence on drugs and increasing isolation would continue to grow at an alarming rate. True, the singer did return to the studio to track two new songs with his band in 1998 (‘Died’ and ‘Get Born Again’), and music videos were even recorded. But by that time he was in no state to tour. Alice in Chains’ guitarist, Jerry Cantrell, recorded and released two solo albums in the interim, but for all intents and purposes, the band was no more.
They never performed live again with Staley, whose dependence on drugs and increasing isolation would continue to grow at an alarming rate.
It is perhaps these circumstances that explain the great divide in attention paid to Staley posthumously in contrast to Kurt Cobain. Whereas the former died in obscurity, Nirvana’s front man took his own life at the peak of his fame and his band’s success. The conspiracy theories regarding Cobain’s passing and the continued struggles between Courtney Love, his widow, and his former band mates have only served to prolong his tragic story.
‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away,’ Cobain had written, quoting Neil Young, in his suicide note. Layne Staley’s death undeniably proves this to be true. As sad as the tale of Kurt Cobain is, the loss of Layne Staley to his family, his friends and his fans was truly devastating. Over 1,000 fans and close acquaintances presented themselves at Staley’s memorial service on 20 April 2002. As an integral member of the Seattle scene, the depressing inevitability of his passing had a profound impact that left the music world more saddened than shocked. Tributes came in the form of songs from Eddie Vedder, Staind, Black Label Society, Cold and Kat Bjelland, former leader of Seattle’s Babes in Toyland. Meanwhile the condolences expressed by Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, Mike Inez, Alice in Chains’ bassist, and the rest of his former band mates, who declared him ‘an amazing musician, an inspiration and a comfort to so many,’ reflect the intensity of the mourning produced by his death.
Staley’s legacy lives on in a number of ways. As a stylistic influence, many have tried but none have been able to match his distinctive timbre. Alice in Chains also lives on. After trialling a succession of illustrious rock stars at various events, Comes With The Fall vocalist William DuVall was invited to join Cantrell, Inez and drummer Sean Kinney in 2007, and the group released their fourth full-length album, ‘Black Gives Way to Blue’, in September 2009. The often heated discussions among fans of Alice in Chains old and new are indicative of the warmth and respect that is still felt for Layne Staley. And in a further act of remembrance, the Layne Staley Memorial Fund was set up to offer support, education and guidance for recovery from heroin addiction.
The deaths of Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain should not be compared as if in some morbid competition. The example of Cobain has merely been used here to illustrate the relative neglect of another talented musician, who died far too young, and whose contribution should not and will not be forgotten. Perhaps, though, it is time now after a full decade has passed to redress the balance by giving credit to the remarkable, the inimitable,
Layne Thomas Staley
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