The Last Days of Layne Staley
Charles R. Cross
June 1, 2002
In the summer of 1987 , guitarist Jerry Cantrell walked in a raucous Seattle party and saw a man at the center of it all , with bright pink hair pilled atop his head by means of fire poker. "he had a big smile on his face, and he was sitting with two gorgeous woman," Cantrell recalls of the moment he met Layne Staley. Cantrell didn't have a place to live, so Staley took him back to what passed for his residence - a dumpy, piss-smelling rehearsal studio where both would live for the next year. And when Cantrell heard Staley sing, he was convinced their friendship would be a lasting one: "I knew that voice was the guy I wanted to be playing with. It sounded like it came out of a 350- pound biker rather than skinny little Layne. I considered his voice to be my voice."
Sometime in the first week of April, that oversize voice - which fueled a half-dozen radio hits and helped sell millions of albums - died along with Staley. On Friday, April 19th, his body was discovered in his Seattle condo. The medical examiner estimates Staley had been dead for two weeks, putting his date of death roughly as April 5th - the exact date, eight years earlier , when Kurt Cobain took his own life. A heroin cooker and a syringe were found next to Staley, and though authorities remain uncertain of the cause of death, drugs clearly played a role. Staley was thirty-four.
His death ends the fifteen-year history of Alice in Chains, of the most successful Seattle bands of the Nineties. It also ends one of the longest-running personal tragedies in rock, as Staley's protracted drug problems were well documented both in the press and in his powerful lyrics. Half of the songs on 1992's 4- million- selling Dirt touched on heroin addiction, a theme that Staley detailed painfully in such songs as "Junkhead" and "Down in a hole." "I wrote about drugs, and I didn't think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them, " Staley told Rolling Stone in one of his last interviews. "They worked for me for years, and now they're turning against me - and now I'm walking through hell."
The end didn't come as a surprise to band mates who had watched his slow deterioration and failed rehab efforts, but it still left them grieving. "It's like one of the world's longest suicides," says Alice in Chains drummer Sean Kinney. "I'd been expecting the call for a long time, for seven years, in fact, but it was still shocking, and I'm surprised at how devastated I am."
Staley's death came at a time when the influence of Alice in Chains on modern rock seemed greater than ever. Groups as diverse as Creed, Puddle of Mudd and System of a Down show Alice's influence in their dark sounds and themes. "When Dirt came out, the thing did not leave my CD player," says Sully Erna, whose band, Godsmack, shares its name with an Alice song. "I've never heard someone's voice hit the tape like that. He's the reason I started singing."
Staley was born on August 22nd, 1967, in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. He began as a drummer but quickly switched to singing with his first garage band, sleze.
While most Seattle groups were exploring punk, the initial incarnation of Alice was decidedly glam - Staley wore baby-blue satin suits on stage. "He had a real cockiness about him," says musician Johnny Bacolas, a longtime friend. When Staley teamed with Cantrell, Kinney and original bass player Mike Starr, Alice in Chains quickly gained a Northwest fan base. "He was funny and lucid, and without a doubt he was not reluctant to be a star," remembers Pearl Jam Mike McCready.
Alice signed to Columbia in 1989, and on an early tour they headlined above the then - unknown Pearl Jam. The band played itself in the Cameron Crowe movie Singles, and "Would?" - its contribution to the soundtrack became Alice's first hit, in 1992. Dirt quickly followed and went platinum. By late 1993, as Nirvana and Pearl Jam cooled off, Alice had headlined Lollapalooza and briefly reigned as the most commercially successful Northwest band. In 1994, Jar of flies became the first EP ever to debut at Number One on the Billboard charts.
But even before the band's greatest fame, substance abuse problems - not just Staley's threatened to derail Alice. "We partied like demons." admits Kinney. "It took a toll. From 1991 on, it was getting pretty ugly, and Dirt is a shining example of how ugly it got. No one wanted to address it , because no on wanted confrontation."
During the early Nineties, Staley enrolled in several rehab programs , but he failed to stay clean for long. At one point , the other members flew to Los Angeles for weekly therapy at Staley's rehab. "We would have done anything he wanted to have helped him," Kinney says. "Sadly, I felt that what he wanted was for us to leave him alone."
Cobain's death in April 1994 scared Staley into temporary sobriety, but soon he was back into his addiction. "Everyone around him tried over and over again to help him get clean," says Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis. "In the end there was little else anyone could do." Alice's managers turned down lucrative touring possibilities and kept the band off the road, hoping that would help.
With Alice temporarily on hiatus, Staley formed a side project called Mad Season, with McCready. "I told him ," McCready says, " ‘You do what you want, you write all the songs and lyrics. You're the singer.' He'd come in , and he'd do these beautiful songs." The resulting album , from 1995, quickly went gold and spawned the hit "River of Deceit."
McCready had hoped that playing with sober musicians would encourage Staley. "I was under the mistaken theory I could help him out," he says. "I wanted to lead by example." But Staley's descent continued. After 1995's Alice in Chains, which also went to Number One, the band played only a hand full of dates. Its final shows were as the opening act for kiss, one of Staley's favorite bands.
The biggest blow for Staley came in October 1996, when his long time girlfriend , Demri Parrott, died of bacterial endocarditis as a result of her own drug abuse. "He never recovered from Demri's death," says Mark Lanegan, formerly of Screaming Trees and one of Staley's best friends. "After that, I don't think he wanted to go on." Following Parrott's death, Staley moved to a penthouse condominium in a secure building and rarely answered the door or the phone. His health deteriorated to such an extent that most of his close friends thought him near death. Abscesses from years of heroin abuse covered his arms, ad he lost most of his teeth. A 1997 internet rumor that he had lost an arm to gangrene became an urban legend. But Staley steadfastly refused to return to rehab and vehemently argued that self - help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous were not for him. "He was way , way past the point where walking into an N.A. meeting would have been sufficient," says a friend. "There were so many rationalizations he had of why he couldn't get better."
For several years, Staley rarely left his condo and spent most of his days creating art, playing video games or nodding off on drugs. He began to mix heroin and cocaine, and he started using crack. Even finding drugs became a physical burden, so he employed a series of dealers and other users who regularly brought him what he jokingly referred to as his "medicine." "His daily life," confides a friend, "was just a extreme struggle to get his medicine. His sense of time became so distorted." Acquaintances would visit after an absence of a year or more, and Staley would insist they'd been away for only a month.
"It got to a point where he'd kept himself so locked up, both physically and emotionally," says Kinney. "Even if you could get in his building , he wasn't going to open the door. You'd phone and he wouldn't answer . You couldn't just kick the door in and grab him, though there were so many times I thought about doing that. But if someone won't help themselves, what, really , can anyone else do?"
It is a question that has plagued everyone who cared about Staley. "I loved him and will always love him," says his manager, Susan Silver. "He was like a brother to me. He was this little broken but gentle spirit. We did everything we could thing of to help him choose life, but sadly the disease won instead.
Even as the sickness progressed, Staley's friends and band mates continued to reach out, with little success. "I kept trying to make contact," Kinney says. "Three times a week, like clockwork, I'd call him, but he'd never answer. Every time I was in the area, I was up in front of his place yelling for him." Both Kinney and Cantrell say they hadn't spoken with Staley for at least two years.
He did remain close to his mother, Nancy and stepfather, Jim. In February, the family was overjoyed when Staley visited after the birth of his first nephew. Staley's spirits seemed raised, and he used a video camera to capture the event. In early March, Staley's friends speculate, he may have contracted an illness, and with his drug weakened immune system, he couldn't fight it off. "I know for a fact they will find drugs in his system," says Kinney, "but I think his body just gave out."
Staley had the wealth to continue his addiction unabated, but , ironically, it was money that served as the tip-off that something was wrong: His accountants noticed there had been no activity on his accounts for weeks. On April 19th , his mother and stepfather went to his condo with the police. At 5:50 p.m. they kicked down the deadbolted door and found Staley's body on the couch.
A week after Staley was found, 500 fans gathered at Seattle Center on a rainy day night for a public memorial. "I knew Layne was loved because I loved him," his mother says. "But had no idea he had this kind of impact on so many people." A private funeral the next day brought together Staley's band mates, friends and family, away from the glare of publicity. "It's not the newest story," says Kinney. "It's the fucking rock & roll cliche, and I wonder if it will ever stop. I just hope nobody has to go through this again."
Cantrell says he'll choose to remember his late friend from an act of generosity in his pre-addiction days. In 1990, Cantrell and Staley visited New York and were put up in a ritzy hotel by their record company. That night Staley befriended two homeless men. "It was Layne's idea to invite them up to the room," Cantrell says. "We fed them room service and sat up and talked to them all night. That was the kind of guy Layne was - a guy with a huge fucking heart."
The addiction was worsening. In 1994, after the release of the ‘Jar of Flies' mini-album, the band cancelled their support slot on a high-profile Metallica tour. Rumours immediately began to circulate; the band had split (true, as it happens, though only for six months); Staley was suffering from AIDS; Staley was dead. The one thing that was undeniably true was that Alice In Chains were once a band who could have it all; now they were in danger of losing it all.
In 1995, Alice In Chains regrouped to record their self-titled third album, which emerged in October of that year. Muted and lackluster, it lacked the black-hearted grandeur of ‘Dirt'. Only the first single ‘Grind', with it's defiant opening couplet ‘in the darkest hole you'd be well advised/Not to plan my funeral before the body dies', contained the spark of old.
Journalist Jon Weiderhorn interviewed the band for ‘Rolling Stone' magazine around the time of the album's release. Although he dismissed rumors about his health, Layne Staley refused to comment on whether he was still addicted to heroin. Wiederhorn pointed out Staley's "uncut, dirt-encrusted fingernails", and noted "what appear to be red round puncture marks" from the knuckles to the wrist of the singer's left hand. "And as anyone who knows anything about (intravenous) drugs can tell you," wrote Weiderhorn, "the veins in (the) hands are used only after all the other veins have been tapped out."
The issue containing the feature hit the news-stands in early 1996. It was the last time that Layne Staley spoke to the press.
Alice In Chains played what would turn out to be their final live show on July 3, 1996 in Kansas City, Missouri, the fourth of four scheduled dates supporting Kiss on the latter's comeback tour. Up on the stage, Layne Staley looked ill: dangerously thin and unnervingly pale, he clung to the mike stand, barely moving. At the end of the set, the band took their bows and walked off the stage. And then Layne Staley disappeared.
It's not clear whether Staley initially intended to take a temporary hiatus from music, or make a permanent break, but sightings became increasingly rare. Sources close to the band suggest that it was the death of Staley's girlfriend Demri Parrott (sp?), that was the final straw. Parrott, 27, died of a heroin overdose on October 29, 1996. According to one report published at the time, the singer was so grief-stricken that he was put on a 24-hour suicide watch. Friends say that after Parrott's death, Staley didn't seem to care about his own drug habit anymore.
In his absence, stories began to spring up. It was rumoured that Staley rarely left his apartment, that he spent all his time painting or playing video games, that he had lost the ability to ingest food and was living on a diet of Ensure - a nutritional drink favoured by vitamin deficient pensioners. The most widespread rumour of all suggested that he had contracted gangrene from using dirty needles, and that he'd had, depending on who you talked to, either fingers, a hand, or a whole arm amputated (an allegation vigorously denied by everyone connected to the band). One man who did see Staley during this period was ‘Dirt' producer Dave Jerden. Alice In Chains reunited in October 1998 to record two new tracks for their ‘Music Bank' box set. The singer, said Jerden at the time, "weighed 80 pounds, and was white as a ghost".
In the late ‘90's, Seattle music paper ‘The Rocket' were said to have already written Staley's obituary, waiting for the inevitable opportunity to run it.
"We did say that the next time we'd be writing his name it would be for his obituary," says Joe Ehrbar, the editor of ‘The Rocket' during Staley's years of inactivity. "We used to joke about writing his obituary, but we never got round to it."
Staley might not have been visible, but a glimmer of his presence was occasionally felt in Seattle. When AIC's longtime manager, Susan Silver, announced her retirement in 1998, ‘The Rocket' ran a piece asking ‘But who's to wipe and clean Alice In Chains now?"
"It was a dig at Layne and the constant rumors about his health," says Joe Ehrbar. "A few days later, we received a package containing a jar of piss and a bag od shit, with a not attatched saying, "Wipe and change this, motherf**kers!'. It had to be from Layne. What a classic response."
Between 1997 and the time of his death, there were only a handful of public sightings of Layne Staley. Scour the official Alice In Chains message board, and you'll find only a handful of reports from fans (a grey-faced Staley, filling up his sports car in a gas station; a man resemebling the singer drinking in a Seattle bar called the Tractor Tavern). One posting claims that Staley had alienated all his friends, "except his dealer".
In 1998, Jerry Cantrell told Kerrang! That the members of Alice In Chains regularly hung out at Layne's house, "drinking beer and playing video games". Twelve months later, Sean Kinney also spoke to Kerrang!. The drummer was less upbeat.
"I talk to Layne, but we don't hang out," he said ominously. "I don't live his lifestyle, so his house isn't the healthiest place to be around. I don't need any help to get annihilated."
Three years later, Layne Staley was dead, an apparent victim of that very same "lifestyle". Precisely what happened in the years leading up to his death is unclear at the moment; considering the circumstances, there's a very good chance that it'll remain that way. In death, as in life, Layne Staley remains an enigma.
At 6 pm on Saturday, April 20, just 24 hours after Layne Staley's body was found, a vigil was held at the International Fountain in Seattle. Two hundred fans gathered to light candles and pay tribute to Staley. The vigil was organized by Alice in Chains fan Cain Rurup via the band's official website.
"It's the least I could do for what he gave to me," said Rurup. "Every Alice In Chains album came out a time of my life when I really needed it. They fit like pieces of a puzzle. I think they saved my life, because I had some of the same addictions."
Later in the evening, Staley's bandmates Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, and Mike Inez turned up at the vigil. They were joined by ex-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and Susan Silver, Cornell's wife and Alice In Chains former manager. "My heart is broken," said a tearful Kinney, while Cantrell hugged fans. Members of Staley's family are also in attendance; the singer's mother is reported to have spent time comforting grieving fans.
The final word should go to Jamie Staley, speaking outside her brother's apartment.
"It's clear that people loved him and will miss him," she says simply. "It would mean a lot to him too, to know that this many people loved him."