by Robert L. Jamieson Jr. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Columnist)
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
You didn't have to know Alice in Chains to feel sad about how the band's lead singer departed the big stage.
Layne Staley died in his Seattle apartment, surrounded by the needles that heroin lovers use to reach a tragic bottom, the junkies' high.
Police believe Layne was lying lifeless for two weeks.
Think about that for a moment. So much happens in two weeks.
Financial fortunes come and go. Wars begin or end. And life, for most of us, follows the steady rhythm of getting up, going to work and heading back home.
Yet for two weeks, Layne was a forgotten man to the world.
Forgotten to his fans and groupies. To his band mates. Even his family.
Silenced, forever, at 34.
Layne either succumbed to a drug overdose or died of natural causes, officials say; the presence of drug paraphernalia at his pad suggests the worst.
You just have to shake your head over scintillating talent lost so young.
People will reflect on Layne's life, and they'll be quick to compare him to Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana singer who battled addiction before taking his own life in Seattle in 1994.
When Kurt died, music-industry observers said the door had officially slammed on the grunge era, even though bands such as Pearl Jam and Mudhoney continue to make music.
But Kurt's death was different; he died when Nirvana was popular, at a time grunge music gripped the nation, said my friend who worked in the local music industry in the '90s.
"There was an impact. Something happened. The music stopped," my friend explained. "People still wonder, 'What could Kurt have done if he hadn't taken his own life?'"
Layne's death is more like the screen door that softly closes after the main door has been shut. Layne's best days had faded. He had become the stuff of sad industry war stories, some of which touched on the drug addiction that he battled -- to the very end.
It tugs the heart to think of a person slipping away so quietly, so alone, especially someone who gave voice to dark, haunting lyrics and became a musical beacon for millions.
"Layne was a strong, unique singer," 18-year-old Loren Conner told me the other day at the Seattle Center. Loren had come from his home in Issaquah and brought along a video recorder to tape a candlelight vigil for the singer.
What did he like about Layne's voice?
"You could hear the suffering. The pain. The depression," Loren said, tugging on his blue-hooded sweat shirt. "I go into my basement and drown myself in it. He expresses for me feelings so that I don't have to express them myself."
Loren has been to nearly 100 concerts, seeing bands such as Weezer and Everclear. He didn't get the chance to go to an Alice in Chains show because he was too young when the band was touring frequently in the early 1990s. That was before Layne's battle with drugs weighed down the band.
"Now," Loren said, shaking his head, "I'll never see them."
Devotees of Alice in Chains, as well as people who've never heard of the musicians, should know this: The band made undeniable and indelible creative impressions.
The band helped to shape the contours of Seattle's rock-music scene, coming of age in an era that saw other local bands take flight -- Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Tad and, of course, Nirvana.
As the front man for Alice in Chains, Layne belted out sounds that appealed to many, even if what he was crooning was less than cheery.
"I wouldn't say I hate Pearl Jam," explained one fan, Mike Grate, who compared Layne's singing to satirical poetry. "But when it comes to Pearl Jam, (singer Eddie Vedder) has a bit too much enthusiasm in his voice for my taste."
The formula worked. Alice in Chains soared to fortune and fame, and in 1996, Layne landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, the holy grail of mainstream music glossies.
The notoriety and money, however, could not ease Layne's pain; he felt as if razors were scraping his soul.
From this troubled heart, Layne shared his gifts.
But heroin chased Layne. And the singer gave in to the drug that creates a high that writer Seth Mnookin, a recovering addict, described like this before his own tailspin: a "dreamy, narcotic state ... total physical bliss. Thoughts a blur of pointillistic free-associations. Music that sounds as if it were being played straight from Orpheus' lyre."
Layne's view of the world from his drug-influenced vortex was often cheerless; you could hear the echoes of suffering when he sang songs such as Alice in Chains' "Down in a Hole": "... Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved/See my heart; I decorate it like a grave."
In an interview, Layne described his drug habit as "walking through hell," the fight of all fights for an artist both tied down and freed by unspeakable pain.
Pain suffused his music.
And the music made the singer and his band white-hot popular for a wrinkle in time.
It's just a damn shame the people who were along for the ride didn't know the day the music man died.