by Jon Wiederhorn;
(magazine and date are unknown)
On April 19, 2002, Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley was found dead in his home situated in Seattle's University District. An autopsy revealed that Staley had died of an overdose of heroin and cocaine a full two weeks before his body was discovered - more than likely on April 5, the same month and day on which Kurt Cobain took his life with a shotgun in 1994.
Although Alice in Chains had not been heard from in years, in the nineties the band was one of the pillars of Seattle's grunge scene, crafting dense, moody alternative metal fueled by chugging guitars, sinisterly nasal vocals and mesmerizing harmonies. Staley was the groups centerpiece, a scowling vocalist who wrote and sang tortured songs about addiction, betrayal and despair.
While so many drug-dependent rockers go to great lengths to hide or at least condemn their own addictions, Staley was unapologetic about his vices. When I met with the singer in Seattle's Pike Place Market in November 1995 to conduct what would prove to be his final press interview, his fingers were dotted with track marks and a bandana on his forehead failed to adequately cover other puncture wounds. The band had just released it's chart-topping album Alice in Chains, and in the weeks that followed it would open four shows for Kiss before Staley’s weakened state forced the group to abandon the tour.
But if Staley was a hopeless junkie, he wasn’t the "basket case" the media made him out to be. In conversation he was talkative and clever, and had a likeable, self-deprecating sense of humor. Over the next seven years, Staley surfaced only twice: in 1996, to perform with Alice in Chains on MTV unplugged, and in 1998, to lend his vocals to a cover of Pink Floyd’s "another brick in the wall (part two)". (the track was featured in the 1999 movie the Faculty and also featured Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins.)
Although Staley apparently didn’t care about his own well-being, he was extremely concerned about the negative impact his drug use might have on his fans. During our interview, he emphasized that listeners should interpret his songs not as drug endorsements but of warnings of what can happen if you get hooked. Perhaps his death at the age of 34 is the most potent warning of all.
Revolver: the image on your shirt looks like a woodcut of a distorted face. It’s kind of disturbing.
Layne Staley it’s my first sketch ever. It’s me holding a mirror and drawing myself.
Revolver: it looks like something by Edvard Munch or Pablo Picasso, but then again I’m not an art expert. I have a real lack.
Staley I’ve got more of a lack. Art’s not my - I mean, I’m more into stuff like wrestling.
Revolver: professional wrestling?
Staley uh-huh. When I was twelve, my dad took me to my first match and they put Playboy Buddy Rose against this Indian dude, and everybody gave Playboy Buddy Rose shit. So I yelled, "fuck you, Playboy" and Playboy looked right at me and went, "no, fuck you!" I ran home and said, "mom, Playboy Buddy Rose told me to fuck off!" And she said, "don’t use that language!" [laughs]
Revolver: your new album, Alice in Chains, debuted at No.1 on the Billboard album chart this week. How does that make you feel?
Staley [sings] "it makes me feel like dancing, I’m gonna dance the night away - " No - [sings] "it makes me feel like a natural woman."
Revolver: dude, seriously.
Staley it makes me feel so excited I’m probably going to go home and celebrate by playing video games and drinking Snapple.
I mean, how to you celebrate something like that when you celebrate everyday?
Revolver: but it must seem like a real vindication, especially since Alice in Chains unofficially broke up right before the planned tour with Metallica in 1994.
Staley yeah, that was tough. When we had that break-up, it was about two weeks until every person I hung out with stopped calling. I got to see what it would be like [to not be famous]. It made me think, Am I only cool while I have this title, or am I a cool guy all the time?
Revolver: what did you do between the time the group broke up and got back together?
Staley I didn’t know what to do. I sat around playing video games and doing things that probably weren’t very healthy for me.
Revolver: why did Alice break up? Were there tensions between band members?
Staley we were drowning each other, relying on each other too much. It was the kind of thing where someone goes, "well, if you fuck up, you’re fucking me up." We could have done that tour with Metallica, but I think deep down no one wanted to. I said, "I’ll do it. I ain’t no pussy!" but I didn’t want to at all. I wanted to do other things.
Revolver: what kinds of things?
Staley oh, you know, I was getting fucked up. Sean [Kinney, Alice in Chains’ drummer] was back and forth drinking and on the wagon. And I slipped up and came to practice all messed up, and he blew up and said, "that’s it, I never want to play with you again."
Revolver: it sounds like some of the guys felt your indulgences were getting in the way of the band.
Staley I got things done, didn’t I? I’d show up five hours late to band practice with no lyrics, and they’d yell at me and I’d leave. But I’d come back and do it all late at night. In the end, all the songs got finished.
Revolver: do you like being a rock star?
Staley I like receiving the praise for my art. But having kids follow you home from 7-11 and park in front of your house to ask you for autographs is not fun. It can get really freaky and scary. There have been more attempted break-ins at my house than I can remember. And having kids drive by a three in the morning shouting out, "Whooo, Laaaaayyne!". That sucks, too. I was out at dinner with my folks and my sister, and this guy came and just stood there with a pen and a piece of paper. He held it out, grinning from ear to ear, and didn’t say a word. To deal with that is really hard. How do you say, "Hey, man, we’re going to have dinner and I’ll stop by your table afterwards and sign that" without sounding like a prick?
Revolver: isn’t that just part of the price of being a rock star?
Staley no, because people take it too far. When someone’s excited about what you do, you’ve got to give them respect and be grateful. But when they run by and pull a clump of dreadlocks out of your head and your scalp is bleeding, then you should just kick the shit out of them.
Revolver: you’ve felt victimized by journalists in the past.
Staley journalists have an obligation to give their opinion about somebody’s art. But when they make up their own ideas of what you are and how that is linked to what you do, that’s laying down a "fact" for millions of readers to read. Once, someone in the press referred to me as a "confirmed basket-case junkie". That’s totally irresponsible. Fuck freedom of speech.
Revolver: has that kind of thing hurt you?
Staley I don’t have MTV and I don’t have any magazine subscriptions, so I don’t see any of that stuff. I have a Wall Street Journal subscription because nobody ever talks bad about me in the Wall Street Journal. [laughs] But before my parents knew I partied, an article came out naming me as one of the singers in Seattle that was strung out on heroin, and I had never even tried the stuff at that point. My mom called me up crying, and I had to try to convince her that it wasn’t true. Why do I have to do that shit?
Revolver: it might be irresponsible for a reporter to ask a musician about his drug use, but so many of your songs are about addiction, and that leaves the door wide open.
Staley yeah, but I was just telling a long story that I thought was pretty easy to read, especially for someone who has bee around similar situations. I never glorify drugs in my lyrics. They’re all about the hell that you go through when you get addicted. In rock and roll there have been a lot of people who have been messed up with drugs, so I thought it was an important thing for me to describe because I know that there’s press about me being addicted to heroin, and I didn’t want my fans to think, Well, he writes great songs and he does heroin. Maybe heroin’s cool. I’ve had fans come up to me and say that, and that sucks.
Revolver: it’s clear that you’re experienced when it comes to drugs and rock and roll. What about the sex part of the equation?
Staley man, I got the sex part out of the way a long time ago. If I did not screw another girl for the rest of my life, I’d not be missing anything. Don’t get me wrong, I can chalk them up like Gene Simmons; I just don’t want to anymore. To take a girl into a bus and expect something out of her, and be all awkward and weird -I don’ really - I feel weird about treating people like that today.
Revolver: would you welcome a long-term relationship?
Staley I don’t know, because when your in a relationship, the girl usually instigates this big truth that you were put on Earth to be together. And after being with a person a long time and being convinced that you’re soul mates, you can get really crushed if things eventually fall apart. When I broke up with my last real girlfriend, life was just dismal. I didn’t know how to live or what to do. And then I had to realize, "okay, I got along for twenty years before I met her, and I had good times." But right now I’m alone, and I’m totally cool with it.
Revolver: was being by yourself a skill that you had to develop?
Staley it was. It’s hard to learn to be by yourself when you’re so used to relying on other people to have a good time. But when you turn off the lights at night, you’re alone in your own head. And once I got comfortable with that fact, it gave me a lot more confidence. Now I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.
Revolver: you’re happy being a hermit?
Staley being 28 and living on my own is totally cool. I’ve learned to enjoy being with myself and keeping myself busy. But I would say my greatest fear would be being 45 and living alone. I hope by that time I have someone that I can fall in love with and have kids. I’d really like a family. I have tons and tons of goals that I want to accomplish and I’m going to accomplish, and I think my greatest goal is to have a family, a great family.
Revolver: did you have a well-adjusted childhood?
Staley I think so, yeah. No deep dark secrets there. My parents were a little more strict than most, but we were normal kids - we beat the shit out of each other.
Revolver: were you a good student?
Staley no. I hated school. I wasn’t very popular and I wasn’t big into sports. I liked woodworking and skateboarding.
Revolver: when did you realize you wanted to make music for a living?
Staley fourth grade, but I didn’t know what I was going to play. I started playing the trumpet, then cornet, then drums. I’d listen to my favorite rock bands on headphones and try to imitate them. But when I was 15 I realized I was getting much better than when I started, so I decided I wanted to sing. At the time I was in a cover band with friends from high school.
Revolver: was it a smooth transition?
Staley no. I was playing drums and I wanted to sing one song, and the singer said, "no, you’re a drummer. Drummers don’t sing." So we got in a fight and I packed up my drums and got in my van and drove straight downtown, traded in my drum set for a delay, a microphone, and a mic cord, and went home and started practicing. I was horrible at first, but I found my instrument.
Revolver: what do you want to say to the people out there who look at your history and your lyrics and write you off as a passenger on a one-way ticket to oblivion?
Staley I’ll say, "I’m not going anywhere, so fuck you. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me." People who say that shit just make me so fuckin’ angry and make me want to stick around for a long, long time, just to prove them wrong.