Layne Thomas Staley (August 22, 1967 – April 5, 2002) was an American musician who served as the lead vocalist, occasional rhythm guitarist and co-songwriter of the rock band Alice in Chains, which he founded with guitarist Jerry Cantrell in Seattle, Washington in 1987. Alice in Chains rose to international fame as part of the grunge movement of the early 1990s. The band became known for Staley's distinct vocal style, as well as the harmonized vocals between him and Cantrell.
By mid 1996, Staley was out of the public spotlight, never to perform live again. Staley struggled for much of his adult life with depression and a drug addiction, culminating with his death on April 5, 2002.
Layne Thomas Staley was born to Phillip Blair "Phil" Staley and Nancy Elizabeth Staley (née Layne) in Kirkland, Washington. He was seven years old when his parents divorced, after which he was raised by his mother and stepfather, Jim Elmer. He was raised Christian Scientist. He took his stepfather's name while enrolled in Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, and was known for some time as Layne Elmer. In late 2001, shortly before his death, he would describe the experience of witnessing his parents' divorce: "My world became a nightmare, there were just shadows around me. I got a call saying that my dad had died, but my family always knew he was around doing all kinds of drugs. Since that call I always was wondering, 'Where is my dad?' I felt so sad for him and I missed him. He dropped out of my life for 15 years." In that same interview he hinted that his parents' break-up and his father's drug use were at least partially responsible for his own drug problems, and also said that he was convinced that if he became a celebrity his dad would return.
Staley approached music through his parents' collection, listening to Black Sabbath (regarded by him as his first influence) and Deep Purple. Other favorite bands include hard rock and metal bands like Anthrax, Judas Priest, Saxon, Rainbow, Mercyful Fate, Twisted Sister, Van Halen, and industrial/new wave acts such as Ministry, the Lords of the New Church and Skinny Puppy. He began playing drums at age 12; he played in several glam bands in his early teens, but by this point, Staley had aspirations of becoming a singer. In 1984, Staley joined a group of Shorewood High students in a band called Sleze, which also featured future members of The Dehumanizers and Second Coming.
In 1986, Sleze morphed into Alice N' Chains, a band which Staley said "dressed in drag and played speed metal." The new band performed around the Seattle area playing Slayer and Armored Saint covers. Staley met guitarist Jerry Cantrell while working at Music Bank rehearsal studios, and the two fast friends lived as roommates for over a year in the dilapidated rehearsal space they shared. Alice N' Chains soon disbanded and Staley joined a funk band who at the time also required a guitarist. He asked Cantrell to join as a sideman. Cantrell agreed on condition that Staley join Cantrell's band, which at the time included drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr. Eventually the funk project broke up and in 1987 Staley joined Cantrell on a full-time basis. The band eventually took the name of Alice in Chains.
Alice in Chains released their debut album Facelift on August 21, 1990, shaping the band's signature style. The second single, "Man in the Box", with lyrics written by Staley, became a huge hit. "Man in the Box" is widely recognized for its distinctive "wordless opening melody, where Layne Staley's peculiar, tensed-throat vocals are matched in unison with an effects-laden guitar" followed by "portentous lines like: 'Jesus Christ/Deny your maker' and 'He who tries/Will be wasted' with Cantrell's drier, and less-urgent voice." Facelift has since been certified double platinum by the RIAA for sales of two million copies in the United States. The band toured in support of the album for two years before releasing the acoustic EP Sap in early 1992. In September 1992, Alice in Chains released Dirt. The critically acclaimed album, also the band's most successful, debuted at number six on the Billboard 200, and was certified quadruple platinum. During the Dirt tour (in 1992), Layne saved Mike's life after he had overdosed. The band did not tour in support of Dirt for very long, because of Staley's drug addiction. While touring, Starr left the band for personal reasons and was replaced by Mike Inez.
Cantrell wrote almost all of the music and lyrics for Alice in Chains but as time went on Staley contributed more lyrics. Eventually Staley would receive credit for about half the lyrics from the entire Alice in Chains catalog prior to the release of Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009. He also wrote the music, as well as the lyrics, to "Hate to Feel", "Angry Chair" and "Head Creeps", and melodies to other songs. Staley's lyrics are largely viewed as having often dealt with his personal troubles, such as drug use and depression.
1994 saw the release of Alice in Chains' second EP, Jar of Flies. It debuted at number one, making it the first Alice in Chains release—and the first-ever EP—to do so. The other members of Alice in Chains, seeing Staley's deteriorating condition, opted not to tour in support of Jar of Flies. Following its release, Staley entered a rehabilitation clinic and began to work on a side project with several Seattle musicians, including Mike McCready of Pearl Jam and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees. The band worked on material for several months and eventually scheduled a show at the Crocodile Cafe under the name the Gacy Bunch. Within a few weeks, the band changed its name to Mad Season. In January 1995, Mad Season performed two songs on Pearl Jam's Self-Pollution satellite radio broadcast, "Lifeless Dead" and "I Don't Know Anything". The band completed an album, titled Above, which was released in March 1995. The first single, "River of Deceit", became a modest success on alternative radio, and "I Don't Know Anything" still receives occasional airplay. A live performance filmed at the Moore Theatre in Seattle was released in August 1995 as a home video, Live at the Moore.
During Alice in Chains' hiatus, reports of Staley's addiction began to gain widespread circulation in fan and media communities, in part from changes to his physical condition brought on by prolonged heroin abuse. He struggled tremendously. Referencing Staley's guest-singing appearance with Tool on the song "Opiate", the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, "At KISW-FM's 'Rockstock' concert at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds in Bremerton in May 1994—just a month after the death of Kurt Cobain—Staley made a surprise appearance. He looked sickly and wore a wool ski mask to hide his face." Some of the more persistent and unsubstantiated rumors, ranging from gangrene to missing fingers, surfaced during this period. Mark Arm of Mudhoney is quoted as saying: "I remember seeing him in '95… he turned up and was totally green, and my stomach turned at that point—watching somebody on a track that they couldn't get off."
Alice in Chains regrouped to record Alice in Chains, sometimes referred to as "Tripod", which was released late in 1995. The self–titled album debuted at the top of the U.S. charts, and has since been awarded—along with Facelift and Jar of Flies—double platinum status. With the exceptions of "Grind", "Heaven Beside You", and "Over Now", the lyrics are all written by Staley, making this album his greatest lyrical contribution to the band's catalogue. To accompany the album, the band released a home video, The Nona Tapes, in which they poked fun at the rumors of Staley's addiction, but the band lapsed again, failing to complete tours planned in support of the album. When asked about the frustration of not touring to support the record, Cantrell provided some insight into how Staley's addictions led to repercussive tensions within the band: "Very frustrating, but we stuck it out. We rode the good times together, and we stuck together through the hard times. We never stabbed each other in the back and spilled our guts and do that kind of bullshit that you see happen a lot."
"When he returned from a trip to the bathroom, his sleeves were unbuttoned, exposing what appear to be red, round puncture marks from the wrist to the knuckles of his left hand. And as anyone who knows anything about IV drugs can tell you, the veins in the hands are used only after all the other veins have been tapped out." The evidence of Staley's ongoing addiction was apparent, but he would deny using drugs when asked directly about it. "If I'm staying busy, and if I'm getting my job done, and I'm doing things I think are great, then I don't have a problem with anything, you know?" he asks. "If I live on just a strictly sugar diet, hey, I like it. Nobody ever asks Meat Loaf, "What do you eat? Why do you eat so much? Shouldn't you lose some weight?' No, he shouldn't. He's fucking Meat Loaf. He writes songs, and he has a great time, and none of your fuckin' business. Maybe he eats meatloaf every fucking night, you know?"
One of Staley's last shows with the band was their 1996 MTV Unplugged performance. He made his last performance on July 3, 1996, in Kansas City, Missouri, while Alice in Chains were touring with Kiss after their Unplugged appearance. In October, Staley's former fiancée, Demri Lara Parrott, died from secondary complications caused by drug use (bacterial endocarditis). He was reported to have been placed on a 24-hour suicide watch according to NME, which quoted, "a friend saying Layne was taking Demri Parrott's death 'extremely badly' and had fallen into a deep depression". "Drugs worked for me for years," Staley told Rolling Stone in 1996, "and now they're turning against me, now I'm walking through hell."
Shortly after the Grammy Awards, in April of that same year, Staley purchased a 1,500 square foot (140 m²), three bedroom condominium in Seattle's University District via "The Larusta Trust". Larusta was a reference to 'John Larusta', which, according to Layne's step-brother Ken Elmer, was an alias that Layne was using during this period. Elmer also stated that this moniker was used so that Staley's name was kept off of official public records on the transaction of the condo. Toby Wright, the producer of Alice in Chains' third self-titled album, had set up a home recording system for him at his new home. Wright recalled that, "I think he had some [Alesis Digital Audio Tapes] up there, a small console. I set up guitar paths, I set up a couple of vocal paths, and I think I had a keyboard path as well, and some multiple things where he could just go in, hit a button and record… He had a little drum machine and that kind of thing, he used to do demos."
In September 1998, Staley re-emerged to help record two tracks ("Get Born Again" and "Died") with Alice in Chains, which were released on the Music Bank box set in 1999. Additional reports of Staley's deteriorating condition persisted in the midst of the sessions. Dirt producer Dave Jerden—who was originally chosen by the band for the production—said, "Staley weighed 80 pounds…and was white as a ghost." Cantrell refused to comment on the singer's appearance, simply replying "I'd rather not comment on that…", and band manager Susan Silver said she hadn't seen the singer since "last year". Staley made his final public appearance on October 31, 1998, when he attended a Jerry Cantrell solo show. However, he declined Cantrell's request to sing with him on stage. A photo taken of Staley backstage at this show is the most recent photo of Staley that has been publicly released.
Thereafter, Staley was thought to have left behind his "self-imposed rock & roll exile" when in November 1998 he laid down additional vocal tracks as part of a supergroup called Class of '99, featuring members of Rage Against the Machine, Jane's Addiction, and Porno for Pyros. The group recorded parts one and two of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" for the soundtrack to Robert Rodriguez's 1998 horror/sci-fi film, The Faculty, with a music video filmed for part two. While the other members of the band were filmed specifically for the video, Staley's appearance consisted of footage pulled from Mad Season's 1995 Live at the Moore video. On July 19, 1999, syndicated radio program Rockline was hosting Cantrell, Inez, and (via telephone) Kinney for a discussion on the release of Nothing Safe: Best of the Box, when, unexpectedly, Staley called in to participate in the discussion.
Charles R. Cross would later say that they had Staley's obituary on stand-by at The Rocket in the late 1990s. Upon the retirement of Alice in Chains' manager, Susan Silver, in 1998, The Rocket published an article asking the question "But who's to wipe and change Alice in Chains now?", supposedly a jab at the rumors of Staley's addiction. Joe Ehrbar, the editor of The Rocket at that time, said, "A few days later, we received a package containing a jar of piss and a bag of shit, with a note attached saying, 'Wipe and change this, motherfuckers!' It had to be from Layne. What a classic response.'"
From 1999 to 2002, Staley became more reclusive, rarely leaving his Seattle condo; little is known about the details of his life during this period. It was rumored that Staley would spend most of his days creating art, playing video games, or nodding off on drugs. In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Staley's one time roommate and friend Morgen Gallagher revealed that Staley had nearly joined Audioslave around 2001. The audition with Staley ultimately never materialized and the job went to Chris Cornell instead. Gallagher recalled, "He said he had gotten a call from the old Rage Against the Machine members and they were putting together a new project, and they wanted him to audition. He said he was going back to treatment and then going to LA to do the audition in a couple of months." However, guitarist Tom Morello stated that Staley had neither auditioned for Audioslave nor was asked to join the band.
Staley's mother owns the last known photo of Staley, taken on February 14, 2002, which features him holding his newborn nephew, Oscar, although the photo has never been published. Other than this rare incident, Staley was not seen often by family or friends. Kinney has commented on Staley's final years and isolation period:
I kept trying to make contact...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...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?
Staley's physical appearance had become even worse than before: he had lost several teeth, his skin was sickly pale, and he was severely emaciated. As far as published reports are concerned, such as Blender's "We Left Him Alone", close friends such as Matt Fox have said, "If no one heard from him for weeks, it wasn't unusual." Further in the article, reporter Pat Kearney provides a glimpse into Staley's daily life and public routine:
It appears that Staley's last few weeks were typically empty. According to an employee of the Rainbow, a neighborhood bar close to Staley's condo, the singer was a frequent patron, stopping by at least once a week. 'He minded his own business,' said the employee, who wished to remain anonymous. Staley would never buy anything to drink, the employee said, but would simply sit at a small table in the back corner of the bar and 'nod off. We just left him alone'.
Staley's close friend Mark Lanegan had much of the same to say with respect to Staley's isolation: "He didn't speak to anybody as of late… It's been a few months since I talked to him. But for us to not talk for a few months is par for the course."
On April 19, 2002, Staley's accountants contacted Staley's former manager Susan Silver and informed her that no money had been withdrawn from the singer's bank account in two weeks. Silver then contacted Staley's mother Nancy McCallum, who placed a call with 911 to say she hadn't heard from him "in about two weeks." The police went with McCallum and her ex-husband to Staley's home; "When police kicked in the door to Layne Staley's University District apartment on April 19, there, laying on a couch, lit by a flickering TV, next to several spray-paint cans on the floor, not far from a small stash of cocaine, near two crack pipes on the coffee table reposed the remains of the rock musician." It was reported that the 6 foot (1.8 metres) Staley weighed only 86 pounds (39 kg) when his body was discovered. McCallum recalled the moment she encountered Staley's body, after she was advised not to do so by the police. "The police first went in and then they said − I said, well, I need to go in and be with him. And they said, “Oh I wouldn’t do that.” And I said, “I can do this.” I’ve always promised myself that if anything happened to my children I would be there for them. And I went in, and he was tiny and I thought at first that he had made like a life-sized mannequin of himself because he had lots and lots of art projects always. And I thought, you know, somebody could have thrown that little guy over their shoulder and walked down the street and nobody would have even know that it was a real person...so, and I sat with him for a few minutes. And I told him that I was really sorry how things had turned out...."
In an interview on VH1's Celebrity Rehab with McCallum, former Alice in Chains bass player Mike Starr said that he spent time with Staley the day before he died as Starr's birthday was April 4. Starr claimed that Staley was very sick but would not call 911. The two ex-bandmates briefly argued, which ended with Starr storming out. Starr stated that Staley called after him as he left: "Not like this, don't leave like this". Since Staley is believed to have died a day later, on April 5, Starr expressed regret that he did not call 911 to save his friend's life; Starr reported that Staley had threatened to sever their friendship if he did. Starr was the last known person to see Staley alive. The interview ended with Starr apologizing to McCallum for not calling 911, but McCallum was insistent that neither she nor anyone in her family blamed Starr for Staley's death. She also told Starr: "Layne would forgive you. He'd say, 'Hey, I did this. Not you.'" With that said, Starr still blamed himself for the death of Staley. Starr kept this story a secret until his appearance on Celebrity Rehab in August 2009. Starr was found dead on March 8, 2011 as a result of prescription drug overdose. During this same interview, McCallum also claimed that Staley had attempted rehab 13 times, although it is not clear whether any of these attempts were during his reclusive years.
An informal memorial was held for Staley on the night of April 20 at the Seattle Center which was attended by at least 1000 fans and friends, including Cantrell, Starr, Inez, Kinney and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. Cantrell dedicated his 2002 solo album, Degradation Trip, released two months after Staley's death, to his memory. Following Staley's death, Alice in Chains officially disbanded. For the next several years, the band refused to perform together out of respect for Staley.
In 2005, the remaining members reunited for a benefit concert for victims of the December 26, 2004 tsunami, with several vocalists filling in for Staley, including Patrick Lachman from Damageplan, Phil Anselmo of Pantera and Down fame, Wes Scantlin from Puddle of Mudd, Maynard James Keenan from Tool (a friend of Staley's), and Ann Wilson from Heart, who had previously worked with Alice in Chains when she sang on the Sap EP (performing backing vocals on the songs "Brother" and "Am I Inside"). Following positive response, the band decided to reunite formally in 2006.
In an interview with MTV News, Kinney noted that the band would use the reunion concerts to pay tribute to the songs and to Staley. William DuVall, a member of Cantrell's solo touring band (who often sang Staley's parts on the Alice in Chains songs that Cantrell performed), was announced to sing Staley's part for the reunion shows. In the same interview, Kinney noted the reunion didn't necessarily foretell a future for Alice in Chains:
If we found some other dude, I'd love to move on, write some cool tunes and change the name and go on like that. I don't see continuing as Alice and replacing somebody… We're not trying to replace Layne. We want to play these songs one more time, and if it seems like the right thing to do, it'll happen. I don't know how long it will go or where it will take us. It's kind of a tribute to Layne and our fans, the people who love these songs.
The reformed Alice in Chains (with DuVall), which are known to have an intermission to include a five-minute filmed tribute in between sets to Staley, generated enough enthusiasm from fans, including Staley's mother according to DuVall, to convince the band to keep the name. In 2009, Alice in Chains released their first studio album in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue. The title track from the album was written as a tribute to Staley.
Cold's song "The Day Seattle Died" (from the 2003 album, Year of the Spider) was an ode to Staley, as well as Kurt Cobain, who were both figureheads of the grunge movement. In addition, Staind featured a song called "Layne" in memory to the singer on the 2003 album, 14 Shades of Grey. Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, also recorded a song eulogizing Staley, titled "4/20/02" (the day Vedder heard the news and subsequently wrote the song). The song featured only Vedder singing and playing the guitar in a ukulele-inspired tuning, and was released as a hidden track on Pearl Jam's 2003 B-sides and rarities album, Lost Dogs, roughly four minutes and twenty seconds after the conclusion of the final listed song, "Bee Girl".
Jerry Cantrell had also written the song "Bargain Basement Howard Hughes" which was released a couple of months on the album Degradation Trip after Staley's death. It was never openly confirmed that this song was an open apology or even aimed towards Layne, but the song consists of lines such as: “Your life I belittle/Dignity I'd steal/Now I know how it feels/Stubborn bastard, hard head knocking/We had our good years too/Though apart, you're still in my heart.”
Adema opted to pay tribute to Staley with their rendition of Alice in Chain's "Nutshell" on the Insomniac's Dream EP, released late 2002. Zakk Wylde also wrote a song about Staley called "Layne" on Black Label Society's 2004 album, Hangover Music Vol. VI. A further tribute entitled "Layne to Rest" was recorded by former Babes in Toyland frontwoman Kat Bjelland with her band Katastrophy Wife for the 2004 album All Kneel. Tyler Connolly of Theory of a Deadman stated that their song "Shadow" (an outtake from the 2008 album, Scars & Souvenirs) was written about Staley.
Staley's influence has likewise been felt in other media. Two books have been written about him, both authored by Adriana Rubio—Layne Staley: Angry Chair and the more recent, Layne Staley: Get Born Again, which was described as "a 'brand new book' that has been revised and updated with the inclusion of two new chapters: 'Hate to Feel' and 'Get Born Again' as a revival of the acclaimed Angry Chair book." Staley's family disputes Rubio's work. On September 28, 2006, Blabbermouth.net reported on a movie project related to Rubio's most recent book on Staley: "According to a press release from ARTS Publications, Argentinean journalist/author Adriana Rubio has been contacted by writer/director Eric Moyer from Philadelphia about turning her biography of Staley, titled Layne Staley: Get Born Again, into a movie." Music Historian Maxim W. Furek released the comprehensive The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin, i-Universe. ISBN 978-0-595-46319-0, that revisited the deaths of numerous grunge artists. The content of Rubio's book, including what she described as Layne's final interview was called into question in David De Sola's 2015 book Alice in Chains:The Untold Story. In the book, he questions not only the content of the interview, which portrays Staley as using his lyrics in casual conversation, it dispels the claim that she held the interview at all. While Rubio's book received massive coverage during the time of its release, De Sola's counter claims were not quoted by any of the websites that cited Rubio's content as gospel truth.
Staley ranked #27 on Hit Parader magazine's list of "Heavy Metal's All-Time Top 100 Vocalists" (published in the November 2006 issue). Staley was an inspiration for the title of Metallica's 2008 album, Death Magnetic. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett brought a photograph of Staley to the studio where Metallica was recording. "That picture was there for a long time," said Hammett, "I think it pervaded James' psyche." Metallica recorded a song in tribute to Layne, titled "Rebel of Babylon".
I always thought that us being, like, almost being sequestered in the Pacific Northwest, there was time for bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana to marinate as a band and kind of discover their sound before they were put on a world stage. I think that was cool, just being isolated away from Los Angeles and New York was really good for all those bands. And every one of those singers, too, sounds different from the other guy. Truth be told, out of all of them, Layne was my favorite. He was just such an original, just an original American voice.
On the tenth anniversary of Staley's death in 2012, The Atlantic published an article written by David de Sola, who began:
The Seattle grunge scene that transformed rock in the '90s produced four great voices, but the most distinct among them belonged to Alice in Chains' Layne Staley. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain deeply understood musical dynamics and could simultaneously scream and sing a melody in a way that few others could—think of John Lennon's searing lead vocal performance on "Twist and Shout." Soundgarden's Chris Cornell wailed and hit high notes, putting him at times in Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury territory. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder combined a Jim Morrison-style natural baritone range with other punk and rock influences.
But Staley sounded like no one else. His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals, as well as the unique and complementary harmonies he created when singing with Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name.
|1993||Desire Walks On
||Heart||Guest vocals on the song "Ring Them Bells".|
||Mad Season||U.S. #24, Gold|
|Working Class Hero: A Tribute to John Lennon
||Vocals on "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier".|
||Second Coming||Guest vocals on the song "It's Coming After".|
|1998||The Faculty: Music from the Dimension Motion Picture
||Class of '99||Vocals on "Another Brick in the Wall Part 1, Part 2"|
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