HEAVEN AND HELL BESIDE YOU Alice in Chains

With a comeback album
climbing the charts and a new singer filling Layne Staley’s tall boots, the
grunge-era kings get the last laugh.

 

BY MICHAEL G. PLUMIDES, JR.

 

In the fall of 1990, I was in hiding and flat broke.  The 4808 Club had been closed down by the
authorities after the infamous GWAR bust that September (read the account
here), and as the owner and licensee, I was held accountable.  To add insult to injury, I had to pack up
everything and move out of the defunct venue, mostly by myself.  All my friends and employees had run for the
hills.  I went from being the “media
darling” to the “media punching bag” in a matter of seconds, and no one wanted
to know me anymore.

 

Once I had cleaned out my office and brought most everything
back to my then-girlfriend’s basement, I started sorting through my
effects.  In early September, I had
received a box of promotional material from Epic-Columbia.  I hadn’t even opened it yet.  And because I couldn’t get hired at McDonalds
after the high profile arrests, I lived off the stacks of discs I had received
over the course of the last few years, and was eager to make a run to Repo
Records.  Foraging through the box of
mostly hair-flipping crap, I came across the Alice in Chains long-playing debut, Facelift: It was really heavy, balls-deep, outshining the other
teased-hair pabulum the majors grew famous for. Needless to say, Facelift didn’t end up in the “new
arrivals” bin of used CDs at Repo… and I wore that fucker out.

 

In the months following, the whispers and finger pointing
had become unbearable.  So by February of
1991, I had left my girlfriend and packed up for Myrtle Beach, SC,
where all the criminals go… and Facelift came with me. 

 

The album’s first single, “We Die Young” hadn’t done much on
AOR but was embraced by metal radio to a degree. By April of 1991, “Man in the
Box” had hit the airwaves to an overwhelming response rising to #20 on the
singles charts, amidst the Winger and Warrant songs.  And the heavy rotation MTV video depicting a
“Jesus Christ” posed shrouded man with his eyes sewn shut sparked controversy,
setting the band apart from the likes of labelmates Danger Danger, and
Firehouse.  

 

The band followed up with the single “Sea of Sorrow”
which rose to #27 on Billboard‘s
single charts.  Even radio stations like
WKZQ-FM in Myrtle Beach
had picked up a few deeper cuts from the album, more notably “It Ain’t Like
That” and “Bleed the Freak.”  The guard
at the heavy metal house of cards had changed right under the mainstream’s
nose, and Alice
in Chains was swinging a wrecking ball.

 

In many ways, the new rock revolution had already begun,
albeit sparsely, via bands like The Cult, Danzig,
and Jane’s Addiction. But with the arrival of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains,
fueled by Sabbath-y guitar riffs and howling vocals, there was no question
cheese metal was doomed, easily a year before Nirvana broke in the summer of
1992. This put Seattle, a town that famously blossomed Hendrix and Heart, back
on the map with its new “sound.”  But of
the “grunge” set, it was an easy pick: Alice
in Chains was the heaviest.

 

Originally, AIC had caught the eye and ear of Susan Silver,
Soundgarden’s manager, in 1988.  Silver
pitched the band’s demo, The Treehouse
Tapes
, to Columbia,
and the label quickly snatched up the quartet of street urchins: Layne Staley
on vocals, Jerry Cantrell on guitar, the drums of Sean Kinney, and original
bassist Mike Starr. David Jerden was ably assigned to produce the band’s first
album.   What set Alice in Chains apart from the other fops in
their tight knickers wasn’t just the searing, crunchy, blistering guitars of
Jerry Cantrell, but also the dynamic yet haunting harmonies conjured between
Cantrell and late lead singer Layne Staley. 
The combination of their vocal stylings was more than organic; it was
symbiotic.

 

Together, Staley and Cantrell pushed the spectral envelope
of operatic and piercing highs, though through the window darkly: The moody,
brooding Facelift reflected the
ethereal atmosphere of a rain canopied Seattle.
But Facelift was also besieged by
trippy, psychedelic flights that would become more evident in 1992’s
multi-platinum selling Dirt.  The combination of heaviosity and psychedelia
might possibly be a by-product of the band’s drug use, and in my book Chains
ranks in the top five “stoner rock” bands of all time, mostly because they
lived the lifestyle openly and expressed it through their songs. 

 

The carnival-esque, drug-induced atmospherics of Dirt would propel the band to
international stardom and critical acclaim, selling four million copies in 1992
alone. The album rose on the Billboard charts
to #6, and would spawn five singles: “Them Bones”, “Angry Chair”, “Rooster”,
“Down in a Hole” and “Would” which also appeared on Cameron Crowe’s Singles soundtrack – Cantrell dedicated
the latter song to Andrew Wood, of Mother Love Bone, found dead from a heroin
overdose in his apartment previously. (Earlier that year AIC also released the
critically acclaimed Sap E.P., an
acoustic departure.)

 

 In 1993, AIC would
co-headline Lollapalooza with Primus, and due to mounting personal differences,
bassist Starr would be replaced mid-tour by ex-Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez.
The band subsequently recorded the 7-song mini-album Jar of Flies, described as “darkly gorgeous” by staff writer Paul
Evans of Rolling Stone and spawning
the band’s first #1 single, “No Excuses.” The next album, subtly entitled Alice in Chains, would debut at #1 on
the album charts following its November ’95 release. Meanwhile, though, Staley
became increasingly hard to manage, and when AIC appeared on MTV Unplugged a few months later Staley’s
gaunt, emaciated outer appearance had become more evident.  Staley did form a new band for a time, the Seattle “super group” Mad
Season, but rarely performed with the band. 
Layne Staley’s last live performance came while AIC supported the
reunited original Kiss-lineup, with his final live show on July 3, 1996, in Kansas City, Missouri.

 

Despite all of Alice
in Chains’ mainstream successes and kudos, it was evident that Layne Staley was
falling apart. You might say, “with success comes excess” but Staley used drugs
in spades, almost dancing with the devil with a demonic fervor, just to see if
the rabbit hole would end up in Hades. 
After the death of girlfriend Demri Parrott in 1996, Layne became even
more reclusive, rarely leaving his condominium, as he spun downward into a
vortex of drug-riddled depression and self-loathing. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Staley was quoted as
saying, “Drugs worked for me for years and now they’re turning against me.
Now I’m walking through hell.” Cantrell stayed busy in the studio,
released solo efforts, and helmed the money-making machine that AIC had become,
releasing box sets and B-sides with their Sony label.  The band went on permanent hiatus; however, although
they never publically disbanded, they had cocooned themselves intentionally.

 

Staley had finally succumbed to his battle with addiction
and was found dead in his condominium on April 20, 2002, with the syringe still
in his arm.  He had been dead for
weeks.  The autopsy revealed that Staley
had taken a lethal dose of a mixture of heroin and cocaine.  Before his death he openly admitted to the
use of heroin and crack cocaine stating, “I never wanted my life to end this
way” weeks before, acknowledging he was “near death.”

 

After a period of dormancy following Staley’s death,
Cantrell and Alice in Chains would recruit William Duvall, of the Atlanta band, Comes With
The Fall, in 2006, to do a series of reunion shows in selected cities, after a
brief stint with Phil Enselmo of Pantera (also suffering from various
addictions and a shot voice box). By October of 2008, the newly reformed AIC
also had a new label, Virgin Records picking them up and eventually releasing Black Gives Way to Blue in September of
2009, the first studio album for the band since the mid-nineties. The latest
single, “Your Decision” is ranked #2 on Billboard behind Stone Temple Pilots
(who in 1992, incidentally, released their pinnacle album, Core, the same day as Chain’s Dirt was released). Both bands have endured through their various torments,
successes and addictions and were essential listening for grunge-era
aficionados.

 

Not to overshadow Alice
in Chains’ accomplishments with stories of addiction and demise, let’s jump to
the present.  In support of their new
release, Alice in Chains had been scheduled to
play in Charlotte, NC, on March 2, 2010, at Live Nation’s Fillmore. I
was eager to see AIC with vocalist Duvall, as I had previously watched some
2006 footage of their reunion, and was curious to see how he would hold up. I’m
sure a lot of the fans suffered the same skepticism. I attended Black Sabbath
three separate times in the early ‘80s, when Dio had taken the reigns from
Osbourne after his years of alcohol and drug abuse.  To this day both Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules are among my favorite Sabbath albums. With Alice’s new singer I hoped to be as pleasantly
surprised as I was by the Dio-fronted Sabbath.

 

The March 2nd show was cancelled due to illness,
disappointing throngs of fans who had sojourned in the rain and sleet from
miles around.  The band’s publicist told
me that Cantrell was “burned out” and as winter weather was so foreboding on
that particular day, Alice
used the opportunity to take a break. After a series of sold out shows, Chains
needed the rest.  The AIC show was
rescheduled to April 20, 2010, to the larger Uptown Amphitheatre, next door to
The Fillmore, in the hopes of selling more tickets and to better accommodate
the sold-out Fillmore appearance.

 

Upon arriving at will-call, my name wasn’t on the list.  So, the ticket office radioed the tour
manager up to the gate. The tall, slender man called “Chuck” and sporting a
shaved head, earring and goatee then escorted me down into the bowels of the
venue.  As we walked, I noticed he bore a
striking resemblance to Anton Szandor LaVey, High Priest of the Satanic Church
of San Francisco, so I mentioned it in passing. 
Chuck’s response was, “I’ve been mistaken for Anton LaVey on several
occasions.  The difference is… he was a
lot nicer.” (LaVey died in 1997.) 
Dancing with the devil indeed.

 

After several minutes of interrogation, the tour manager was
kind enough to admit my girlfriend, Anne, and me through the side gate by venue
personnel as it rained lightly.  By this
time we had missed the first act, Shooter Jennings, son of the incomparable
Waylon, but several days later he appeared at local legendary venue, The Visulite. 

 

We arrived just in time to grab a ten-dollar tall boy and
find a spot on the lawn.  Hindered by the
rain a bit, and not donning ponchos as we had previously discussed, let’s just
say we got a little wet.  But the new
amphitheatre doesn’t have a bad seat in the house, and even a lawn seat is only
a matter of feet away from the stage with no visual obstructions. And there’s
no cover over the assigned seats front and center, so everyone got soaked, not
just the bleeders.  The crowd hung tight through
the torrent to witness the rebirth of one of the better ‘90s grunge bands.

 

Alice
in Chains opened with “All Secrets Known” off of Blue, and it was almost as if the specter of Layne Staley crouched
in the shadows of the stage as Duvall and Cantrell sang the harmonies almost
supernaturally together.  A silence came over the crowd as if to hang on
every note, and every chord.  But more
important, the crowd wanted to see how close Duvall could bring it.  And Duvall did not disappoint.   Alice
immediately led into “It Ain’t Like That” then “Again” as the crowd rejoiced in
the barrage of Seattle’s
sound.  It was “Check My Brain” that
really got the crowd going, surprisingly. 
The band’s combination of old and new songs, coupled with articulately
tight musicianship, was borderline overwhelming.  Any other show I would have left, but instead
I tied a t-shirt around my head and rode the storm out.

 

Cantrell apologized to the crowd for the cancellation and
then went into a crowd favorite, “Them Bones” off of Dirt.  What was mind-blowing:
I had forgotten how many hit songs Alice
in Chains forged over the years, and the band played each with a zealous intent,
satisfying old fans and making new ones. 
“Dam That River” and the latest single “Your Decision” was further evidence
of how much Cantrell was, and still is, the backbone of the band, complimented
by his veteran rhythm section provided by Inez and Kinney.  Alice
would play nineteen songs in all, including “We Die Young”, “Grind”, “Sickman”
and “Angry Chair” all to the crowd’s sublime satisfaction, finishing up with
“Man in the Box”, then encoring with “Would”, and “Rooster”.  The experience at Charlotte’s Uptown Amphitheatre was quite
enjoyable despite the teardrops from above.

 

All in all, Alice
in Chains has managed to overcome some surmountable obstacles in their
reformation. And I think Duvall, nightly, feels as if he has something to
prove, but in this writer’s opinion, he’s already done so. Originally, it was
thought that Staley was irreplaceable, but there’s no question in my mind that
Layne Staley’s ghost walks with Duvall and Cantrell; “heaven beside you,” so to
speak.  As twenty years have passed since
I first experienced AIC, their recent live performance made me feel as good as
the first time.  And of all the bands
I’ve encountered, I can honestly say with Alice
in Chains, I have been to hell and back.

 

[Photo Credit: Michael Plumides]

 

Michael Plumides is a
writer and author of the “well received” indie book entitled,
KILL THE MUSIC, available on www.amazon.com. Read an excerpt from it in the latest print
issue of BLURT.

 

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