Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Death By Misadventure: Layne Staley

Slowly wasting away from the residual damage of drug abuse is not glamorous. It's the after photo of the rock and roll lifestyle. While over the top partying helped rock stars maintain a larger than life mystique, ultimately it also killed them. 

"In the darkest hole, you'd be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies"

There was nothing spectacular about Layne Staley, other than his voice and uncanny ability to channel inner pain into poetic song lyrics. Like so many other musicians from Seattle's grunge scene, he was ill equipped and unprepared for the sudden fame and wealth that came his way. Staley was born in Kirkland, Wa. his childhood was marred by his parent's divorce. 

The absence of his father caused Layne no small amount of grief  "My world became a nightmare, there were just shadows around me" he would later say. A phone call led him to believe that his father was dead. Though, in actuality "he was around doing all kinds of drugs"  Layne would later hint that the desertion and his father's drug use was the catalyst for his own drug problems. He would also admit that he hoped his celebrity status would lead his father back to him, it never happened. 

Staley brought Alice in Chains together while he was still in high school, the addition of guitarist Jerry Cantrell in 1987 solidified the line-up along with drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr. With Staley as frontman, Alice in Chains gained notice for their angst driven, manic depressive approach to grunge rock. They had a knack for taking ugly subject matters and making beautiful music from them.

Signed by Columbia Records in 1989, the band's first major label release was "We Die Young" a three song ep. Their debut album "Facelift" was released in 1990 and was certified double platinum. "Facelift" shot the band to stardom, however as soon as they topped the charts, drug addiction started to become a factor.  "Sap" a five song ep, kept the fans stoked while awaiting the next release. The ep's release was the result of Alice in Chains choosing "not to mess with fate" after drummer Sean Kinney had a dream that they had recorded an album titled "Sap" Whatever inspired it, the ep went gold.

Released in 1992, Alice in Chains second album "Dirt" was critically acclaimed, doubling the number of sales of their debut. "Dirt" was certified quadruple platinum, but for Mike Starr it was the end of the road, his continued drug problems led to his being replaced in the band by Mike Inez. With both Staley and Starr battling drug problems, Alice in Chains curtailed their tour in support of "Dirt"

A period of inactivity and frustration followed as Cantrell, Kinney & Inez tried to work around Staley's addiction (after a short period of staying clean, he had started using heroin during the Jar of Flies sessions) "Jar of Flies" an acoustic recording was released in 1994. The ep debuted at #1, a first for the band, however Layne's drug use forced the group to scrap any plans for a tour. 

That same year, Staley entered rehab in Minnesota for heroin addiction. With Alice in Chains in hiatus, Layne hooked up with two Seattle musicians, Mike McCready (Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog) Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) and John Baker Saunders (Hubert Sumlin) to form the grunge supergroup "Mad Season"  This resulted in "Above" an album released in 1995 that went Gold and yielded two top twenty singles "River of Deceit" and "I Don't Know Anything."

Meanwhile, Alice in Chains returned to the studio to work on what would be the band's final album with Layne Staley. The relationship between the band and Layne was strained. Their collaborate effort was reduced to Cantrell delivering instrumental tracks to Staley, so he could write lyrics for them at home. It took an enormous amount of effort to complete the album (officially known as "Alice in Chains, though often referred to as "Tripod" due to the three legged dog depicted on the cover. 

The eponymous album went double platinum, Rolling Stone said "the songs achieve a starling, staggering and palpable impact." It was a departure from the grunge label the band was stuck with, but once again Layne was unable to tour.  Staley then disassociated himself from the band, telling those close to him "Don't try to contact any Alice in Chains members. They are not my friends." Layne sequestered himself, for all intents and purposes that was the end of Alice in Chains.

It wasn't unusual for two weeks to go by without anyone hearing from him. He was a regular at a neighborhood bar, where he neither drank nor spoke, preferring to sit in a booth and nod out. His health and appearance deteriorated, he grew deathly pale, lost several teeth and was severely emaciated. He refused to answer the phone or return calls and had drug dealers delivering to his door, which he would open to no one else. 

In his final interview a few months before his death, Staley stated: "I know I'm near death, I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way." The end came quietly, on April 19th, 2002 alarmed that no money had been withdrawn from Layne's bank account in two weeks, his accountants grew concerned. They contacted his mother, Nancy McCallum who had not heard from him during that same period. She went to his condo accompanied by police officers. After failing to get a response from anyone inside, the police kicked in his door. 

They entered the dark room, illuminated by the flickering light of a television, and on the couch sitting upright was Layne Staley. He had been dead for two weeks and had basically decomposed into the cushions. Layne was surrounded by drug paraphernalia, a stash of cocaine, two crack pipes, numerous spray paint cans and syringes. In his hand was a syringe loaded with heroin. Nancy McCallum approached and spoke to Layne in a soft voice as she tried to clean up around him.

Once his body was removed more syringes were found underneath him. The autopsy would show traces of cocaine, codeine and morphine in his system, his body weighed a mere 86 pounds.  There was $500 lying next to the toilet and both the bathroom and kitchen were littered with used syringes, crack pipes and spray-paint cans. Forensics set the date of death as April 5th. eight years to the day, that Kurt Cobain had taken his own life.  

It's believed that former bandmate Mike Starr was the last person to see him alive. A fact that would haunt Starr right up until his own death from an overdose in 2011. Starr confessed on the reality show, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, that he visited Staley on April 4th, found him in dire straits and offered to call 911. Starr stated that they then got into an argument and he stormed out as Layne called out to him "Not like this, don't leave like this". 

Layne's plight was all too common, as he explained "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. My liver is not functioning, and I'm throwing up all the time and shitting my pants. The pain is more than you can handle. It's the worst pain in the world. Dope sick hurts the entire body."

Death has stalked rock musicians with a persistence usually reserved for serial killers. Drugs have been the scourge of musicians, though accidents (car, airplane) have probably claimed the lives of more artists over the years. An accident, is an almost noble way to die compared to the pathetic path of self destruction taken by Layne Staley.