If you visit Dictionary.com and search the term “grunge,” you’ll find that this “movement in rock music” is “characterized by aggressive, nihilistic songs.”
Therefore, Alice in Chains are, by definition, the grungiest of the grunge bands. Of the three others in the ranks of Seattle’s Big Four, Soundgarden, who played loud (but arty, melodic and, at times, beautiful) music, would come in second. Pearl Jam, with its moody, classic rock-indebted sound, would land in third. And Nirvana, who essentially played a noisy version of pop-punk (in the best sense of both words), isn’t even from Seattle (they’re from Aberdeen, of course) and detested their inclusion in a genre so glaringly coined for marketing purposes. So Kurt Cobain and Co. would be a distant fourth. Alice in Chains are the Kings of Grunge, and today (Sept. 29) their hit sophomore album, Dirt, turns 25 years old. There is no more nihilistic or aggressive album of the era.
Heroin and other drug addictions played a major part in the Seattle/grunge music scene; many bands used and/or were inspired by its destruction. But no other band so blatantly addressed its dark spiral, both lyrically and musically.
In 1989, on the strength of a demo tape, Alice in Chains — singer/songwriter Layne Staley, guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr — signed with Columbia Records. Soon they entered Seattle’s London Bridge Studios to record their debut LP, Facelift, which arrived in August 1990. Its sound was heavy and brooding, rife with metal guitar riffs and Staley’s sorrowful wailing. Already the band was addressing their narcotic affliction — the lead single, “We Die Young,” was about 10-year-old dealers in Seattle. This theme would be front and center for their follow up, Dirt.
By early ‘92, all of the band members were struggling with various substance and/or mental issues: Staley with heroin; Kinney and Starr with alcohol addiction; and Cantrell with substance abuse and clinical depression following the deaths of his mother as well as his friend, Andrew Wood. Staley had recently checked out of rehab, but had returned to using heroin by the time recording sessions were underway in Los Angeles and Seattle, between March and May ‘92. This caused significant tension, especially between Staley and producer Dave Jerden, who also helmed Facelift.
In June, the album track “Would?” appeared on the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe movie Singles, which chronicled struggling musicians in Seattle. It gave a further spotlight to the band and their sound, and when Dirt arrived on Sept. 29, 1992, it proved to be their breakthrough release, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and remaining on the chart for 106 weeks.
It’s essentially a concept album on the pains of drug addiction, and its opening track was a shot straight to the arm — “Them Bones” is pure terror, with Staley’s spine-chilling “Ahhhhhhhh!”s over Cantrell’s grindstone riffs. There’s no mistaking the agony in the music. Three songs directly addressed Staley’s struggles with heroin use: the aggressive and downright angry “Sickman”; the doom-and-gloom metal headbanger “Junkhead”; and the power chord chugger “God Smack”: “What in God’s name have you done? / Stick your arm for some real fun,” Staley screeches.
Others were less direct, but clear enough. “Down in the Hole,” one of the band’s signature tracks, opens on a tender note, before diving down the well with spiraling electric guitar: “Down in a hole / Feeling so small / Down in a hole / Losing my soul.”
On “Angry Chair,” Staley sings of solitude and addiction: “So I’m strung out anyway / Loneliness is not a phase.” His primal snarls of “Heyyyyyy!!! and “Ohhhhhh!,” right in unison with Cantrell’s mimicking riff, make it among the album’s most memorable moments. “Would?” rumbles with bass and showcases one of Staley’s most explosive vocals: “Into the flood again / Same old trip it was back then / So I made a big mistake / Try to see it once my way!!!” “Rooster,” the LP’s best-performing single, is perhaps the only song not directly about drug addiction, having been written about Cantrell’s dad’s tours in the Vietnam War. But in this context, it’s hard not to give its lyrics double meaning: “Ain’t found a way to kill me yet / Eyes burn with stinging sweat / Seems every path leads me to nowhere,” Staley pleads.
“I wrote about drugs, and I didn’t think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them,” Staley told Rolling Stone in 1996. “I didn’t want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I’ve had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they’re high. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen.”
Dirt would be the original lineup’s final release together; Starr left the band in January of ’93 over what Staley then called differing priorities. But drugs continued to dominate the band’s story. In ’93, Starr was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Michael Inez and the band went on to release their self-titled album in ‘95. But the following year, Staley’s addiction forced the band into an indefinite hiatus. Staley grew increasingly isolated, spending his final years alone, playing video games, recording and drawing in his University District condo, estranged from his bandmates. He’d reportedly lost teeth and was severely emaciated, due to excessive drug use. He died April 5, 2002 from a heroin and cocaine “speedball.” His body would be discovered two weeks later, partially decomposed.
In 2010, Starr, who would go on to have multiple drug-related arrests, would join the cast of the VH1 reality series Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew and claim that he was the last known person to see Staley alive, visiting the singer on April 4, Starr’s birthday. The two fought and Starr stormed out. The bassist was still wracked with guilt for not calling 911 for his sick former bandmate. Starr would die from a prescription drug overdose in 2011.
Unbelievably, Alice in Chains would rise from their ashes. Cantrell, now clean and sober, would reform the band with Kinney and Inez for a 2005 benefit concert featuring guest vocalists filling in, including Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, Pantera’s Phil Anselmo and Heart’s Ann Wilson. The following year the band would hit the road with singer William DuVall and in 2009 release their first studio album in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue. The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here would follow in 2013, along with extensive touring. The band is now working on a sixth album, set to drop early 2018.
Dirt is, however (and will forever remain), Alice in Chains’ artistic high water mark. The emotional heft is overwhelming, the music intoxicating, the aftermath heartbreaking. The Seattle Sound wouldn’t have been possible without their contribution and sacrifice. And what a sacrifice it was.