The tragic final days of Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley

Singer Layne Staley is shown performing on stage during a “live” concert appearance with Alice In Chains on November 19, 1990. (Photo by John Atashian/Getty Images).

Of all the Seattle bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it always seemed that Alice in Chains – led by vocalist Layne Staley – were doing something a little different. Of course, much of that ‘grunge’ movement saw bands provide their own take on whatever it was that grunge was meant to be.

Pearl Jam were essentially classic rock revivalists, with their rebirth of the guitar solo, while Nirvana were, deep down, punks at heart. Alice in Chains, meanwhile, bordered on metal, and glam metal in particular. In fact, the band formed out of the ashes of a previous band named Alice N’ Chains, who were heavily into glam and speed metal.

Alice in Chains went on to have an excellent career in the world of alternative rock and were formed in 1987 by Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, Mike Starr and Layne Staley, though Starr would be replaced by Mike Inez in 1993. The band’s first album, Facelift, would be heavily influenced by glam metal, though it began to make waves in the ensuing Seattle grunge scene.

Several magnificent records followed, including the band’s masterpiece album Dirt in 1992, as well as the intended-to-be acoustic EP Jar of Flies in 1994 and their third studio effort Alice In Chains. However, the band experienced an extended period of inactivity beginning in 1996, owing to Layne Staley’s extensive drug use.

In an interview with Rolling Stone that year, Staley said: “Drugs worked for me for years, and now they’re turning against me, now I’m walking through hell, and this sucks. 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.”

One of the last shows that Staley played with Alice in Chains was their highly-lauded MTV Unplugged session in April 1996, though it was actually the first they had played in two and a half years. Things worsened following that performance.

Staley had initially been scared into sobriety by the passing of friend Kurt Cobain but soon relapsed into addiction. He attended several rehabilitation facilities but could never stay clean for long. Late in 1996, Staley’s girlfriend, Demri Lara Parrott, died of a drug overdose, and Staley was subsequently placed on a 24-hour suicide watch. He then fell into a deep and dark depression.

In April 1997, Staley bought an apartment in Seattle’s University District. Sadly, Staley would rarely leave this apartment over the next few years. However, Jerry Cantrell claimed that he and other members of Alice in Chains would regularly hang out with Staley in the apartment. He said: “I’d fucking go over to his place, and he’d be playing me shit he’d be writing all the time. I would too. He’d play me stuff; I’d play him stuff, vice-versa.”

From around 1999, Staley was living on a diet of heroin, cocaine and the meal supplement, Endure. He would spend his time playing video games, painting and sleeping. It was said that he would go out to Toys ‘R’ Us to buy games and return home alone. Alice in Chains’ drummer, Sean Kinney, once opened up on Staley’s withdrawal from society and his depression.

Kinney said: “It got to a point where he’d kept himself so locked up, both physically and emotionally. 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 into 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?”

In April 2002, it was reported by Staley’s accountants that no money had been withdrawn from his bank account in two weeks. Police were called and visited Staley’s apartment with his mother, Nancy McCallum, where they found Staley’s body had begun to decompose, weighing a paltry 39 kilograms. The autopsy revealed that Staley had died of a speedball overdose – a mixture of heroin and cocaine.

It remains to be seen whether any of Staley’s friends made a genuine effort to save their friend from his impending doom. They had clearly been concerned enough, though it is admittedly challenging to help someone who, ultimately, doesn’t want to be helped. Former Alice in Chains bassist, Mike Starr, was the last person to see Staley, and when trying to help his former vocalist, the two had an argument because Starr had offered to call 911. Staley became enraged, and Starr left, never to see his friend again.

In Staley’s final interview before his death, it was plain to see what a state he had gotten himself into. He said, “I know I’m dying. I’m not doing well. Don’t try to talk about this to my sister Liz. She will know it sooner or later. This fucking drug use is like the insulin a diabetic needs to survive. I’m not using drugs to get high like many people think. I know I made a big mistake when I started using this shit. It’s a very difficult thing to explain.”

“I know I’m near death,” Staley added. “I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way. I know I have no chance. It’s too late. I never wanted thumbs up about this fucking drug use. Don’t try to contact any Alice in Chains members. They are not my friends.”

Staley’s presence in the alternative rock world has been sorely missed, not just since his death in 2002 but since the beginning of his isolation in 1996. He was a genuinely talented vocalist that shared with the world his tragic story of addiction and depression through iconic tracks such as ‘Down In A Hole’, ‘Junkhead’ and ‘Dirt’. Like his contemporary, Kurt Cobain, he is tragically missed, though his star continues to burn bright in the sky and our hearts.

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