There are not too many voices in music that hit you where it counts and pulls on the heartstrings. We all have our favourite singers that we return to time and again to comfort us during challenging times or to rock out to as we turn the stereo loud. It is not often that a vocal style transcends the mundanity of everyday life and seeps into our bones, staying with us for the rest of our lives.
Layne Staley, who rose to prominence with Alice in Chains, one of the forerunners of the Seattle grunge scene throughout the late 1980s and into the first half of the ‘90s, had a voice like none other and is often overlooked as merely a drug-addled rock star. The fact is, Layne Staley, before Kurt Cobain, had the voice of a generation and sung for the misfits and the misunderstood.
It’s not that Alice in Chains’ material was overtly political or anything like that, instead, it had depth, anger, and power, and had a way of reaching the youth’s epicentre of pain. Of course, this was because Layne Staley lived within tremendous pain; his continued struggles with heroin were well documented.
Today marks 19 years since he died of a heroin overdose which brought the entire world into mourning. Of course, within the realm of rock music, drug addiction has been continuously glorified, most notably with The Doors singer and shaman, Jim Morrison. The truth is, it’s an ugly reality and doesn’t lend itself too well to a functioning lifestyle, even if you are a successful rock musician.
Alice in Chains drummer, Sean Kinney, in an interview with The Rolling Stone, once recalled in 1994 that Staley was in the full throes of drug abuse, after returning home from rehab. “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,” commented Kinney. Leader and primary songwriter, Jerry Cantrell, who also shared vocal duties with Staley, added: “We’d been going full force, just running at top speed with our eyes closed.”
Staley had returned from rehab, and upon his arrival to band rehearsal, it was clear that he had already gotten high. “Nobody was being honest with each other back then,” Kinney remembers. The band proceeded to take a six-month break after all the members stormed out of the rehearsal space. Despite this, Alice in Chains went pretty hard continuously, right up until 2002.
There have been a lot of ups and downs, bad gigs and good gigs when it came to Staley. There were a few shows where it looked and sounded obvious that he had been high. Although overall, Alice in Chains were an extremely well-oiled band and worked very hard at what they did, when Staley, the band’s frontman, had a good gig, it was tremendous.
To celebrate his life and in honour of Alice in Chains’ impact on music and culture, we decided to take a look at Staley’s five best performances he gave in his short but significant life.
Layne Staley’s 5 best performances:
‘Man in the Box’ – Academy Theatre, New York City (1991)
The concert took place at the Academy Theatre, in New York City in 1991. This rendition of ‘Man In The Box’ is delivered by a bunch of shirtless rockers, and they are viscerally alive with a rawness that is rarely seen anymore. ‘Man In The Box’ put Alice in Chains on the map and was originally released on their 1990 debut album, Facelift, picked up as a single the following year. Alice in Chains were still up and coming at this point — they opened up for Fishbone and LL Cool J 0151 but they proved to be vital as ever.
The audience helped make this performance everything that it is; it is clear that Staley is feeding off the energy that is being reciprocated by the crowd, and the result is magnificent. Staley is still young and impressionable here and not quite as run down by his upcoming drug battles.
‘Man In The Box’ is a perfect example of how the mechanics of the band functioned; the main rhythm of the guitar elicits down strokes imbued with heavy-metal distortion and is synced up with the bass drum. The main riff comes in with Staley mimicking the guitar melody, which perfectly recreates a ‘talk-box’ effect. By the time the chorus arrives, Staley reaches for heavenly heights, high notes riddled with fear but he grabs them with no less certainty.
Staley always performed like it was going to be his last concert ever.
‘Down In A Hole’ – MTV Unplugged (1996)
One of Alice in Chains’ most defining characteristics is their dynamics, their ability to pick up the acoustic guitars and deliver a softer side of the rock spectrum, although equally measured in its intention. The second and fourth records they released were an EP of acoustic songs to prove this facet. In a live setting, their performance for MTV Unplugged proved this even further. One of the highlights of this concert in 1996 was when they performed ‘Down In A Hole’.
Guitarist, Jerry Cantrell wrote the song for his then-girlfriend, Courtney Clarke and was slightly hesitant to bring the song to the band due to how soft it was, albeit its original electric form. In some liner notes years later, Cantrell said of the song: “‘Down in a Hole’s in my top three, personally. It’s to my long-time love.
“It’s the reality of my life, the path I’ve chosen and in a weird way it kind of foretold where we are right now. It’s hard for us to both understand…that this life is not conducive to much success with long-term relationships.”
‘River of Deceit’ – Mad Season – The Moore, Seattle (1995)
This selection comes from the grunge supergroup, Mad Season, which comprised of Layne Staley on vocals, Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, and bassist John Baker Saunders of a lesser-known Seattle band formed in 1984, The Walkabouts. Mad Season only released one record, Above, in 1995. ‘River of Deceit’ is the first single off that album and was a big radio hit.
The track had two main sources of inspiration: supposedly, Staley was reading The Prophet by Khalil Gibran at the time and also drew inspiration from his raging drug addiction. “Layne Staley felt as though he was on a spiritual mission through his music. Not a rock mission, a spiritual mission,” drummer Martin observed.
This particular performance is a bit understated, but what it reveals is Staley at his most focused and careful. His delivery is consistent, on-point, and truly sounds like the live version is a studio one.
‘Again’ – Late Show with David Letterman (1996)
This was their one and only performance on the David Letterman show, including their second song choice of ‘We Die Young’. ‘Again’ was the third single off their 1995 self-titled album. The song was very successful; it won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.
An impressive element that Alice in Chains possessed was their ability to recreate their studio songs live in just about the same way — if you listen to both versions of the same song, it is hard to tell that the live version is, in fact, live.
In the liner notes of Music Bank’s box set collection released in 1999, Jerry Cantrell said about the different versions that had existed: “This guy, Praga Kahn, did three different mixes. One I didn’t like, the second one, Trip hop Mix, had horns and strings without too many guitars or drums, which I kinda liked. Then there was the ‘Tattoo of Pain Mix’, which was cool too. We put a couple out as B-sides in Europe.
“Personally, I never got used to the idea that you had to give some places extra songs and not others, it should be the same for everybody as far as I’m concerned.”
‘Them Bones’ – Rio De Janeiro (1993)
If one is going to watch any live performance from Alice in Chains, then let it be their full concert in the beautiful Brazilian coastal city in 1993.
Some may not associate Brazil with rock ‘n’ roll, but the truth is, it has been a safe haven for rockers of all shapes and sizes throughout the years. Nick Cave famously moved there during the ‘90s, for example. One of the outstanding moments during the concert was the third song off their setlist, ‘Them Bones’.
I don’t know if Staley is drugged out of his mind here or not, but at this moment it doesn’t matter, his voice is out of this world. He doesn’t hit a wrong note, whatsoever, and despite his screaming, which would seem like it would take a toll on anyone’s vocal cords, this doesn’t deter the grunge rocker from maintaining his voice throughout the entire performance.
Worth checking out to get a taste of why Alice In Chains are so beloved.