In short, Layne Staley was an icon, and there will never be anyone quite like him again. The frontman of grunge legends Alice in Chains, alongside bandmate and songwriting partner Jerry Cantrell, Staley made a strong claim for being the most extraordinary figure to exist within the grunge movement.
The pink hair and sports shades combo from the band’s 1996 MTV Unplugged performance is timeless, but Staley was so much more than an aesthetic powerhouse. It is unfortunate that he’s often remembered for the drug use that would eventually take his life, but it’s up to us to remind ourselves of his brilliance as a musician and even more importantly, as a human being.
Whether it be punching a Nazi skinhead offstage during a 1993 Alice in Chains show or filling in for the hospitalised Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan during a tour, there are countless anecdotes in existence that reflect Staley’s unwavering character as a force for good. Outside of this, as a musician, his brilliance cannot be stated enough. Whether it be the internal morass that he conveyed on cuts such as ‘Man in the Box’ or ‘Angry Chair’, or the raw power of his vocals, listening to Staley’s work in Alice in Chains, you’re unfailingly blown away by his aptitude as a lyricist and songwriter.
Although it was Jerry Cantrell who wrote the majority of Alice in Chains’ music, you cannot deny Staley’s musical aptitude. Together, the pair forensically dug into the bleak mindset of Generation X and touched on much more challenging themes than that of the era’s most lauded musician: Kurt Cobain. The intensity and gloom of Alice in Chains’ records are palpable, augmented by the dovetailing vocals of Staley and Cantrell, which perfectly top off the often oppressive sounding music.
Clearly, the prominent bands of the grunge movement, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, all had one thing in common: commanding frontmen, and arguably, Staley was the best of the lot. You can hear this clearly across the first two Alice in Chains records, Facelift and Dirt, and tracks such as ‘It Ain’t Like That’, ‘Dam That River’ and ‘Would?’ are clear markers of his genius.
For those wanting to get to know his level of skill a little more, the entirety of the MTV Unplugged appearance is a masterclass, and although he was in ill health at the time, moments such as ‘Down in a Hole’ and ‘Angry Chair’ were a defiant finger up to his detractors and the health issues that would eventually claim his life, making it the most remarkable performance in the whole of the series.
Given that Staley was such a dynamic presence, it’s only suitable that his spirit lives on 20 years after his death. The frontman passed away owing to a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine on April 5th, 2002, which was eerily the same day that Kurt Cobain passed away eight years prior.
When news of Staley’s death broke, Alice in Chains released a statement that read: “It’s good to be with friends and family as we struggle to deal with this immense loss … and try to celebrate this immense life. We are looking for all the usual things: comfort, purpose, answers, something to hold on to, a way to let him go in peace. Mostly, we are feeling heartbroken over the death of our beautiful friend.”
It continued: “He was a sweet man with a keen sense of humor and a deep sense of humanity. He was an amazing musician, an inspiration, and a comfort to so many. He made great music and gifted it to the world. We are proud to have known him, to be his friend, and to create music with him. For the past decade, Layne struggled greatly—we can only hope that he has at last found some peace. We love you, Layne. Dearly. And we will miss you … endlessly.”
It’s a testament to Staley’s life that at his funeral, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart, performed a rendition of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’, indicative of the intergenerational appeal his work had, bringing together legends from two separate generations.
In the years after his death, many icons have paid tribute to Staley’s life and work. Billy Corgan of Chicago heroes The Smashing Pumpkins remembered that Staley “had an amazing voice that had such a beautiful, sad, haunting quality about it. He was different because his heaviness was in that voice.” The song ‘Bleeding The Orchid’ from The Smashing Pumpkins’ 2007 record, Zeitgeist, was also inspired by Staley’s passing.
It’s not just within the grunge/alt-rock community that Staley’s loss was felt. The grandson of country pioneer Hank Williams, Hank Williams III, released Attention Deficit Domination in 2011 and dedicated the project to the late Alice in Chains frontman. For Metallica’s 2008 album, Death Magnetic, Staley inspired the title, and the band recorded a song as a tribute to him in the shape of ‘Rebel of Babylon’.
Perhaps the best tribute to Staley came in 2009 when Alice in Chains released their first studio album in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue.
Notably, the title track is a tribute to Staley, and for it, Cantrell invited ‘The Rocketman’ himself, Elton John, to play the piano in what is a fitting album closer. The track, which was written and sung by Cantrell, was intended as the band’s final goodbye to Staley, so they enlisted Elton John to help, as the first show that Staley ever attended was Elton John, and it changed his life.
It’s not just in music where Staley is remembered either. On August 22nd, 2019, the date of what would have been Staley’s 52nd birthday, the Mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, officially announced the day as ‘Layne Staley Day’ in honour of the late singer’s contributions to music. The day also doubles up as a way of promoting the Layne Staley Memorial Fund, which was established by his parents in 2002 that treats heroin addicts and their families in the Seattle music community.
One of the last true greats, the void opened by Layne Staley’s death will never be healed. Nonetheless, we should remember him for his life, what he did, and the records he made, as they will live on forever. He’ll continue to inspire budding musicians for as long as his music is available, a clear demonstrator of his genius.