15 Years Ago: How Alice In Chains Carried on After Layne Staley’s Death
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell was two months away from releasing his second solo album, Degradation Trip. Unlike 1998’s Boggy Depot, he wasn’t working with Alice in Chains bandmates Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney this time. In fact, the band hadn’t performed together since a smattering of shows in 1996 that included a performance for MTV Unplugged and four dates opening for a reunited Kiss.
Their final time in the studio with Staley went back to the summer of 1998, when Alice in Chains completed two songs that were originally slated to appear on Cantrell’s next solo effort for the expansive Music Bank box set. Sessions for “Get Born Again” and “Died” were marked by intense friction between Staley and Cantrell, however, and they struggled ito work around drug-related dental issues for Staley that had led to a pronounced lisp.
“It was kind of hard to do that, because it shows up pretty much everywhere on those tracks,” producer Toby Wright said in Alice in Chains: The Untold Story. “But it was easy for me because Layne and I got along really well. So, I didn’t have any problem with him at all. It was just a matter of getting him to the studio, having him sit down and be creative.”
That was increasingly difficult to do, as Staley’s life had already taken a very dark turn. “Died” was allegedly about his girlfriend Demri Parrott, who passed away in October 1996 after battling bacterial endocarditis – a condition exacerbated by her own drug use. Already a paper-thin, reclusive addict, he spiraled further downward – then died alone.
The medical examiner estimated Staley’s date of death as April 5, 2002, though the 34-year-old wasn’t found inside his Seattle condo until April 19. (Ironically, April 5 was the same day fellow Seattle legend Kurt Cobain had taken his own life eight years earlier.)
“It was a call that we all feared for years,” Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver told Greg Prato for Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. “No one had heard from him, and the people that we were in touch with to let us know that he was still OK hadn’t heard from him.”
The scene inside wasn’t a pleasant one. Staley’s rigor mortis-laden corpse was propped up on the couch in a sitting position, and he was holding a “fully loaded syringe in his hand,” according to the Seattle Weekly. Further drug paraphernalia was scattered about, along with substances including cocaine and crack pipes – all illuminated by a television that was still on. He had morphine, codeine and cocaine in his system. Most troublingly, Staley weighed a scant 86 pounds.
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“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,” Staley’s mother Nancy McCallum told Alternative Nation. “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.”
Time passed, and Alice in Chains remained silent – until a tsunami benefit in Seattle finally brought them back together in 2005. Even then, they struggled to fill the void. Damageplan vocalist Pat Lachman performed with the band that night, along with Maynard James Keenan of Tool and Heart‘s Ann Wilson. A 2006 VH1 concert featured what appeared to be another revolving cast of singers, including Phil Anselmo of Pantera and a lesser-known performer named William DuVall.
Something clicked with DuVall, however, and Alice in Chains finally got back on track. They mounted a short club tour across the U.S., then played several European festivals as well as dates in Japan. By 2009, Alice in Chains had made a long-awaited return to the studio for Black Gives Way to Blue. (Four years later they followed up that well-received effort with The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, and after serving as the opening act for several of Guns N’ Roses’ 2016 reunion shows, in early 2017 the group returned to the studio to work on their sixth studio album.)
Even so, Staley’s death continued to loom large. Original bassist Mike Starr revealed during a 2010 episode of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew that he’d spent the day before Staley died – April 4, 2002, Starr’s birthday – shooting heroin with the singer.
“He said he wanted to be alone,” Starr said. “He said it was because I was too high. I got mad at him, I said, ‘I’ll just leave’ and his last words were, ‘Not like this.’ And I just left. I can’t believe that. I’m so ashamed. I wish I would have called 911. He told me if I did, he’d never talk to me again. I went home and I blacked out on [the depressant] benzodiazepine for a whole two weeks.”
Within a year of making that confession, a clearly still-distraught Starr died of his own drug overdose. Anyone would understand if Cantrell found it difficult to keep all of this in perspective – but he has.
In fact, he says he still looks back with no small amount of fondness on those early years with Layne Staley. “I owe a lot to him,” Cantrell told Prato, adding that he has “many fond memories and a lot of music to listen to that we created together. I’ve got a lifetime of memories about him that no one else really will have.”
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