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Music

The Pearl Jam song about the death of Layne Staley

@TomTaylorFO

The Seattle music scene was a cultural explosion that we rarely see these days. Within a brief purple patch in one close-knit community, bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Nirvana all burst into bloom with grungy brilliance and their success helped to galvanise the culture around them. Tragically, however, this scene was plagued by its own issues. 

The darkness in a lot of the music held a sad prescience that later came to the fore. As Layne Staley wrote in the Alice in Chains song ‘Nutshell’, “My gift of self is raped/My privacy raked/And yet I find, and yet I find/If I can’t be my own/I’d feel better dead.” Sadly, when the pressures of the band and drug issues mixed, Staley struggled to cope. 

In 1996, Staley spoke openly about his struggles with heroin addiction before he parted ways with the band in April 1966 after their iconic MTV Unplugged performance. “Drugs worked for me for years”, Staley told Rolling Stone, “and now they’re turning against me, now I’m walking through hell and this sucks. I didn’t want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I’ve had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they’re high. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen.”

Sadly, his drug addiction continued to be a struggle and by 1999 he was depressed and living an almost reclusive existence in Seattle. As his late friend Mark Lanegan said in this period: “He didn’t speak to anybody as of late… It’s been a few months since I talked to him. But for us to not talk for a few months is par for the course.”

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Tragically, this quote holds a prescience too. Staley died of a drug overdose on April 5th, 2002, but it wasn’t until the 20th that his remains were found. Eddie Vedder marked this moment in the song ‘4/20/02’ written in tribute to his late grunge scene fellow. The song resides as a hidden track on the Lost Dogs collection.

Vedder was hit hard by the news of his friend’s passing and that emotional outpour is palpable in the rawness of this song. He sings of imitators in a matter of fact fashion, caustically rattling with his unique gruff vocals: “So sing just like him, fuckers. It won’t offend him. Just me, because he’s dead.” Bruised and vulnerable this rare deep cut is a dark expression of grief and an examination of the dark side of grunge. 

Vedder had seen the sorry side to a scene ravaged by drugs at this point and that leads to a blunt track that always remains unflinchingly to the point and that might prove unsettling, but there is no doubting how heartfelt his tribute is to a fallen hero and friend. 

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