Layne Staley: The Self-Destructive Genius Of The Alice In Chains Frontman

The Alice In Chains frontman's tale is a tragic one, but the warning signs were always there in his music...
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The Alice In Chains frontman's tale is a tragic one, but the warning signs were always there in his music...

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There's an age old saying that goes - give a self-destructive man enough power and eventually he'll destroy himself. Such an individual was Layne Staley. As the lead singer for Alice in Chains he came up with arguably the most intelligent and literate songs of the entire genre. Drug abuse, depression and self-harm were all regular topics in Chains' songs. For Staley, however, they were no works of fiction. Like reels from a creepy home movie, he was actually describing the demons in his own life.

Forming the band in 1987, Staley had quickly rose to prominence by the early nineties by hitching a ride on the grunge movement. His authentic lyrics and distinctive singing style made Alice in Chains stand out from other metal bands. There was a sadness to him too. He came from a broken home and his father had been a drug addict. Staley's openness in interviews about the subject were brutally frank. Much like another grunge hero, Kurt Cobain, he had been deeply affected by his parents’ divorce too. It haunted him. His only outlet for anger was in his words.

Despite the fact that guitarist Jerry Cantrell wrote virtually all of Alice In Chains music, Staley was as much an equal songwriting partner. It was a thrilling combination of sonics and a sonnet. Ignoring the pantomime nihilism of heavy metal, their debut album 'facelift' sold two million copies. It was a huge return for a band that were actually breached between the two barriers of alternative rock and heavy metal, although such a blurred line seemed to help not hinder them.

In 1992 however, the band were to release a masterpiece. From its harrowing cover art it was obvious 'Dirt' was not happy record, but just how tortured a soul Staley had become by then was obvious to see. Heavily using Heroin by now, it was one long anguished howl of a record about the pain of drug addiction. It resonated both with critics and fans and went on to sell 4 million copies. It spawned five top thirty hits and put Alice In Chains in the superstar status of rock and roll bands. Successful tours followed.

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At this time Staley seemed able to still operate despite his habits. For the next three years in fact he was pretty much a working addict. With his band he went on to record a highly acclaimed acoustic EP ('Jar of Flies') and on his own formed a super group with members of a Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees (Mad Season). The Chains also toured extensively, although Staley's addiction sometimes clashed with the odd date - at this time they were able to carry out their contractual obligations.

Following the release and subsequent success of their eponymous third album however and a critically acclaimed performance on MTV's unplugged series things began to go terribly wrong for Layne Staley. His habits were kicking him hard. Following the death of his ex-girlfriend Demri Parrot from bacterial endocarditis, Staley, at the time talked frankly about the hell he was going through.

“Drugs worked for me for years and now they're turning against me. Taking me to hell.”

After this Rolling Stone interview in fact, Layne Staley became an almost recluse. For almost two years no one saw him, although after this period he did appear sporadically to lay down tracks with the band, and record a track for the movie the Faculty. At lot of people however were shocked by his deteriorating appearance, he was translucent almost. So bad in fact that it was rumoured at least one music magazine had his obituary already written on stand-by.

This was now Staley's cue to disappear from the public eye completely and for the next three years what occurred was the longest and most harrowing demise in rock history. Locking himself away from everybody it was rumoured he would spend his days shooting up and playing video games. Horrible rumours would spring up in the media talking about gangrene and missing digits. In his final interview of 2001 he painted a horrible picture of his lifestyle.

“I know I'm near death. I did crack and heroin for years. I didn't want it to end this way.”

It was to prove prophetic. In April 2002, Staley's accountants contacted Staley's mother telling her that no money had been drawn out of his account in 7 days. (Strange for him). She immediately phoned police who arrived at his door and broke it down. There they found the singers lifeless body surrounded by two crack pipes and a small of Cocaine. When he died he weighed an astonishing 86 pounds.