Heaven and Hell Beside You – Alice in Chains
Michael G. Plumides, Jr.
In the fall of 1990, I was in hiding and flat broke. The 4808 Club had been closed down by the authorities after the infamous GWAR bust that September, and as the owner and licensee, I was held accountable. To add insult to injury, I had to pack up everything and move out of the defunct venue, mostly by myself. All my friends and employees had run for the hills. I went from being the “media darling” to the “media punching bag” in a matter of seconds, and no one wanted to know me anymore.
Once I had cleaned out my office and brought most everything back to my then-girlfriend’s basement, I started sorting through my effects. In early September, I had received a box of promotional material from Epic-Columbia. I hadn’t even opened it yet. And because I couldn’t get hired at McDonalds after the high profile arrests, I lived off the stacks of discs I had received over the course of the last few years, and was eager to make a run to Repo Records. Foraging through the box of mostly hair-flipping crap, I came across Alice in Chains’ disc entitled, Facelift: It was really heavy, balls-deep, outshining the other teased-hair pabulum the majors grew famous for. Needless to say, Facelift didn’t end up in the “new arrivals” bin… and I wore that fucker out.
In the months following, the whispers and finger pointing had become unbearable. So by February of 1991, I had left my girlfriend and packed up for Myrtle Beach, SC, where all the criminals go… and Facelift came with me.
The album’s first single, “We Die Young” hadn’t done much on AOR but was embraced by metal radio to a degree. By April of 1991, “Man in the Box” had hit the airwaves to an overwhelming response rising to #20 on the singles charts, amidst the Winger and Warrant songs. And the heavy rotation MTV video depicting a “Jesus Christ” posed shrouded man with his eyes sewn shut sparked controversy, setting the band apart from the likes of label mates Danger Danger, and Firehouse.
The band followed up with the single “Sea of Sorrow” which rose to #27 on Billboard’s single charts. Even radio stations like WKZQ-FM in Myrtle Beach had picked up a few deeper cuts from the album, more notably “It Ain’t Like That” and “Bleed the Freak.” The guard at the heavy metal house of cards had changed right under the mainstream’s nose, and Alice in Chains was swinging a wrecking ball.
In many ways, the new rock revolution had already begun, albeit sparsely, with bands like The Cult, Danzig, and Jane’s Addiction. But with the arrival of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, fueled by Sabbath-y guitar riffs and howling vocals, there was no question cheese metal was doomed, easily a year before Nirvana broke in the summer of 1992. This put Seattle, a town that famously blossomed Hendrix and Heart, back on the map with its new “sound.” But of the “grunge” set, it was an easy pick: Alice in Chains was the heaviest.
Originally, AIC had caught the eye and ear of Susan Silver, Soundgarden’s manager, in 1988. Silver pitched the band’s demo, The Treehouse Tapes, to Columbia, and the label quickly snatched up the quartet of street urchins: Layne Staley on vocals, Jerry Cantrell on guitar, the drums of Sean Kinney, and original bassist Mike Starr. David Jerden was ably assigned to produce the band’s first album. What set Alice in Chains apart from the other fops in their tight knickers wasn’t only the searing, crunchy, blistering guitars of Jerry Cantrell, but the dynamic yet haunting harmonies conjured between Cantrell and late lead singer Layne Staley. The combination of their vocal stylings was more than organic; it was symbiotic.
Together, Staley and Cantrell pushed the spectral envelope of operatic and piercing highs, though through the window darkly: The moody, brooding Facelift reflected the ethereal atmosphere of a rain canopied Seattle. But Facelift was also besieged by trippy, psychedelic flights that would become more evident in 1992’s multi-platinum selling Dirt. The combination of heaviosity and psychedelia might possibly be a by-product of the band’s drug use, and in my book Chains ranks in the top five “stoner rock” bands of all time, mostly because they lived the lifestyle openly and expressed it through their songs.
The carnival-esque, drug-induced atmospherics of Dirt would jettison the band to international stardom and critical acclaim, selling four million copies in 1992 alone. The album rose on the Billboard charts to #6, and would spawn five singles: “Them Bones”, “Angry Chair”, “Rooster”, “Down in a Hole” and lastly “Would” which also appeared on Cameron Crowe’s Singles soundtrack. (Cantrell dedicated the song to Andrew Wood, of Mother Love Bone, found dead from a heroin overdose in his apartment previously). In 1993, AIC would co-headline Lollapalooza with Primus, and due to mounting personal differences, bassist Starr would be replaced mid-tour by ex-Ozzy bassist, Mike Inez. That year, AIC would also release the critically acclaimed, Sap E.P., which would be an acoustic departure from their earlier work.
Described as “darkly gorgeous” by staff writer Paul Evans, of Rolling Stone, Jar of Flies, would yield the band’s first #1 single, “No Excuses” on Billboard. The following release subtly entitled, Alice in Chains, would debut at #1 in 1996. As Staley become more impossible to manage, Cantrell is featured on three of the four singles released: “Grind”, “Again”, “Over Now”, and “Heaven Beside You”. Alice would appear on MTV Unplugged in 1996: Staley’s gaunt, emaciated outer appearance had become more evident. Staley did form a new band for a time, the Seattle “super group” Mad Season, but rarely performed with the band. Layne Staley’s last live performance came while AIC supported the reunited original Kiss-lineup, with his final live show on July 3, 1996, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Despite all of Alice in Chains mainstream successes and kudos, it was evident that Layne Staley was falling apart. You might say, “with success comes excess” but Staley used drugs in spades, almost dancing with the devil with a demonic fervor, just to see if the rabbit hole would end up in Hades. After the death of girlfriend Demri Parrott in 1996, Layne became even more reclusive, rarely leaving his condominium, as he spun downward into a vortex of drug-riddled depression and self-loathing. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Staley was quoted to say, “Drugs worked for me for years and now they’re turning against me. Now I’m walking through hell.” Cantrell stayed busy in the studio, released solo efforts, and helmed the money making machine that AIC had become, releasing box sets, and b-sides with their Sony label. The band went on permanent hiatus, however, although Alice never publically disbanded, but had cocooned themselves intentionally.
Staley had finally succumbed to his battle with addiction, and was found dead in his condominium on April 20, 2002, with the syringe still in his arm. He had been dead for weeks. The autopsy revealed that Staley had taken a lethal dose of a mixture of heroin and cocaine. Before his death he openly admitted to the use of heroin and crack cocaine stating, “I never wanted my life to end this way” weeks before, acknowledging he was “near death.”
After a period of dormancy following Staley’s death, Cantrell and Alice in Chains would recruit William Duvall, of the Atlanta band, Comes with the Fall, in 2006, to do a series of reunion shows in selected cities, after a brief stint with Phil Enselmo of Pantera (also suffering from various addictions and a shot voice box). In October of 2008, the newly reformed AIC also had a new label. Virgin Records had picked up Chains and released Black Gives Way to Blue in September of 2009, the first studio album for the band since the mid-nineties. The latest single, “Your Decision” is ranked #2 on Billboard behind Stone Temple Pilots (who in 1992 incidentally released their pinnacle album, Core, the same day as Chain’s Dirt was released). Both bands have endured through their various torments, successes and addictions and were essential grunge-era aficionados.
Not to overshadow Alice in Chains’ accomplishments with stories of addiction and demise, let’s jump to the present. In support of their new release, Alice in Chains had been scheduled to play in Charlotte, NC, on March 2, 2010, at Live Nation’s Fillmore. I was eager to see AIC with Duvall, as I had previously watched some 2006 footage of their reunion, and was curious to see how he would hold up. I’m sure a lot of the fans suffered the same skepticism. I attended Black Sabbath three separate times in the early 80’s, when Dio had taken the reigns from Osbourne after years riddled with alcohol and drug abuse. To this day both Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules are among my favorite Sabbath albums. With Alice’s new singer I hoped to be pleasantly surprised, as I was those many years ago.
The March 2nd show was cancelled due to illness, disappointing throngs of fans who had sojourned in the rain and sleet from miles around. The band’s publicist told me that Cantrell was “burned out” and as winter weather was so foreboding on that particular day, Alice used the opportunity to take a break. After a series of unending sold out shows, Chains needed the rest. The AIC show was rescheduled to April 20, 2010, to the larger Uptown Amphitheatre, next door to The Fillmore, in the hope to sell more tickets and to better accommodate the sold-out Fillmore appearance.
Upon arriving at will-call, my name wasn’t on the list. So, the ticket office radioed the tour manager up to the gate. The tall, slender man sporting a shaved head, earring and goatee then escorted me down into the bowels of the venue. As we walked, I noticed he bore a striking resemblance to Anton Szandor LaVey, High Priest of the Satanic Church of San Francisco, so I mentioned it in passing. Chuck’s response was, “I’ve been mistaken for Anton LaVey on several occasions. The difference is… he was a lot nicer.” (LaVey had predeceased Chuck in 1997). Dancing with the devil indeed.
After several minutes of interrogation, the tour manager was kind enough to admit my girlfriend, Anne, and me through the side gate by venue personnel as it rained lightly. By this time we had missed the first act, Shooter Jennings, son of the incomparable Waylon, but several days later he appeared at local legendary venue, The Visulite.
We arrived just in time to grab a ten-dollar tall boy and find a spot on the lawn. Although hindered by the rain a bit, and not donning ponchos as we had previously discussed, let’s just say we got a little wet. But the new amphitheatre doesn’t have a bad seat in the house, and even a lawn seat is only a matter of feet away from the stage with no visual obstructions. And there’s no cover over the assigned seats front and center, so everyone got soaked, not just the bleeders. The crowd hung tight through the torrent to witness the rebirth of one of the better 90’s “grunge” bands.
Alice in Chains opened with “All Secrets Known” off of Blue, and it was almost as if the specter of Layne Staley crouched in the shadows of the stage as Duvall and Cantrell sang in unison almost supernaturally. A silence came over the crowd as if to hang on every note, and every chord. But most importantly, the crowd wanted to see how close Duvall could bring it. And Duvall did not disappoint. Alice immediately led into “It Ain’t Like That” then “Again” as the crowd rejoiced in the barrage of Seattle’s sound. It was “Check My Brain” that really got the crowd going, surprisingly. The band’s combination of old and new songs, coupled with articulately tight musicianship, was borderline overwhelming. Any other show I would have left, but instead I tied a t-shirt around my head and rode the storm out.
Cantrell apologized to the crowd for the cancellation and then went into a crowd favorite, “Them Bones” off of Dirt. What was mind-blowing; I had forgotten how many hit songs Alice in Chains forged over the years, and the band played each with a zealous intent, leaving little to be expected in their sonic assault, and in so, satisfying old fans and making new ones. “Dam That River” and the latest single “Your Decision” was further evidence of how much Cantrell was, and still is, the backbone of the band, complimented by his veteran rhythm section provided by Inez and Kinney. Alice would play nineteen songs in all: “We Die Young”, “Grind”, “Sickman” and “Angry Chair” all to the crowd’s sublime satisfaction, finishing up with “Man in the Box”, then encoring with “Would”, and “Rooster”. The experience at Charlotte’s Uptown Amphitheatre was quite enjoyable despite the teardrops from above.
All in all, Alice in Chains has managed to overcome some surmountable obstacles in their reformation. And I think Duvall, nightly, feels as if he has something to prove, but in this writer’s opinion, done so he has. Originally, it was thought that Staley was irreplaceable, but there’s no question in my mind that Layne Staley’s ghost walks with Duvall and Cantrell; “heaven beside you,” so to speak. As twenty years have passed since I first experienced AIC, their recent live performance made me feel as good as the first time. And of all the bands I’ve encountered, I can honestly say with Alice in Chains, I have been to hell and back.
Michael Plumides is a writer and author of the “well received” indie book entitled, KILL THE MUSIC, available on www.amazon.com, and will be among the BLURT staffers covering Bonnaroo this year.