In 2002, former Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley passed away after overdosing on heroin. While Staley’s death was tragic, if you were familiar with his lyrics and background, it was not surprising. Throughout his career, Staley wrote and sang about his addictions with an unrelenting honesty, taking listeners deep into the heart of his demons. The grunge era was full of songwriters who wrote dark, confessional lyrics, but no one – not even Kurt Cobain – gave us a more candid, warts-and-all look at his experience than Layne Staley.
Staley’s brutal honesty began with the first song on the first Alice in Chains album, 1990’s Facelift. There’s something truly ghoulish about a man who succumbed to drug addiction at the age of 34 beginning his career with a song called “We Die Young.” Sure enough, the song is just as dark as its title suggests. It’s hard not to get the chills when you hear Staley snarl “take another hit, and bury your brother.”
As dreary as that song, and several others on Facelift were, what Staley did next showed that he was just getting warmed up. Alice in Chains’ second album, Dirt, is one of the most harrowing accounts of addiction ever recorded, and quite possibly the darkest album released in an era full of them.
Dirt is one track after another of unrelenting misery, so devoid of relief that you could make a case “Down in a Hole” is actually one of more upbeat tracks on the album. Staley obviously wasn’t the first musician to write about his personal demons, but few have ever tackled them with such candor. It’s hard to say what the darkest moment here is, but you could make a solid case for the title track, which gives us such lines as “I want you to kill me / and dig me under / I wanna live no more,” and “I want you to scrape me from the walls.” It should go without saying that the “you” in the song represents the hold that crack and heroin had on him. Not only has our narrator become powerless against the drugs, he has accepted that powerlessness, and wants nothing more than to be done in for good.
Even if the title track is the apex of Dirt‘s descent into utter darkness, it’s certainly not the only song on here that might leave listeners with goosebumps. “Junkhead,” through its title alone, is a pretty straightforward account of what Staley was going through. While he had been addicted to crack and heroin at various points in his life, this song makes it clear that just about any high would do. “What’s my drug of choice / well, what have you got?” Staley sings here, naturally choosing the song’s most depressing lyric as its chorus.
Somehow, even the songs on Dirt that aren’t about addiction manage to contribute to the theme. For example, “Rooster,” one of the album’s more enduring tracks, was actually written by Jerry Cantrell about his father’s experiences in Vietnam. However, the loneliness and desperation described in the lyrics could just as easily be another tail of an addict struggling to survive. While Dirt was not a concept album, the themes of addiction, and helplessness against it, are so prevalent that even the tracks that tackle other subjects can seemingly be related to what Staley was going through. Whether it’s about being helplessly dependent on drugs, or about trying to survive in ‘Nam, the album continuously gives us stories of people fighting battles they have no chance of winning.
The songs on Dirt are so confessional that it often sounds like the journal of a man confronting his last days on Earth. That wouldn’t be the case, however, as Staley would go on to live for nearly another decade after Dirt‘s release. Throughout that time, however, he was never able to let go of his various addictions. In December 2001, four months before his death, Staley gave the last interview of his life, and predicted that his death was drawing near:
“I know I’m near death, I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way.”
The combination of Staley’s untimely death, and the all-too-brief career of the original Alice in Chains lineup (they made just three albums with Staley before re-emerging with William DuVall in 2009) means that his recorded output is far shorter than it should be. That said, the impact Staley made with the music he was able to record in his lifetime is truly remarkable. His unabashed honesty gave listeners a vivid idea of what he went through, and by extension, what many other drug addicts go through. Few songwriters have ever been as capable of sharing their darkest thoughts and struggles in a way that was so readily understandable. Staley was unable to win his fight with addiction, but his legacy lives on in the brilliant music he created in his short time here.