Layne Staley, one of rock music’s most distinctive voices, was born on August 22, 1967 in Kirkland, Washington. When he was 7 years old his parents divorced and, according to Staley, his 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.” The dark tones that were to color much of Staley’s short life were set from a very early age. Layne’s early musical experience was shaped by his parents’ record collection which included Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and developed into a powerful affinity for metal bands like Anthrax and Judas Priest. Although he started drumming at the age of 12, by the time he reached his early teen years he became increasingly aware of his ability to sing. In 1984 he joined a high school band named Sleze and two years later they renamed themselves Alice N’ Chains. According to the bassist Johnny Bacolas, “We were talking about different concepts for backstage passes. It would say, like, ‘Sleze: The Welcome to Wonderland Tour.’ That ended up turning into a discussion – we were talking about changing the band name. And we were saying, ‘Alice in Wonderland? How about this, how about that? Maybe…Alice in Chains? We could put her in bondage stuff!’ I liked the ring of ‘Alice in Chains’ – I remember I came back to the next band rehearsal and I told the guys. The issue was the reference to bondage, which our parents would not go for. Layne’s mom was very hardcore Christian. So we ended up changing it to Alice N’ Chains, which made it more like ‘Alice And Chains.” While recording at Music Bank studios Staley met guitarist Jerry Cantrell and they immediately formed a close friendship. Alice N’ Chains disbanded shortly after and Staley joined Cantrell’s band which included drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr. Alice In Chains was born.
From the very first moment I heard Layne Staley’s haunted growl, shadowed by the ghostlike falsetto of Jerry Cantrell, I felt deeply moved. His soul grabbing, emotive voice, combined with the band’s unique perspective on metal influenced rock, resonated to my very core. Maybe it was their insistence on making metal so darkly melodic, or possibly the permeating sense of inherent, unreconciled human sadness that reminded me of my own personal struggles and drew me to their somber tones and messages of alienation. Layne’s rare gift was not only his mesmerizingly distinctive voice, but his uncanny ability to convey the sadness and futility of the human experience in a way no other singer ever had before or ever will again. His songwriting, rich in poetic imagery, captured his moods, the essence of his soul, in such an authentically dramatic way. Perhaps knowledge of his struggles with heroin preconditioned my sensitivities to a certain extent, but there was no denying that his voice could dig deep down into my soul and share his ultimate sense of impending doom. That mellifluous voice, when combined with the artistic genius of Jerry Cantrell, pushed the limits of my musical listening experience to a completely unexplored boundary. The excitement that discovery provided has stayed with me to this very day, over 20 years later.
We chase misprinted lies, we face the path of time
And yet I fight and yet I fight this battle all alone
No one to cry to, no place to call home
My gift of self is raped, my privacy is raked
And yet I find, yet I find repeating in my head
If I can’t be my own, I’d feel better dead.