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TV’s Most Surreal Music Performances – Alice In Chains on ‘MTV Unplugged’

Maybe this one is more just plain sad than surreal, but it was definitely a shock to see Layne Staley and his band onstage at all in 1996.

Alice in Chains were at a definite crossroads when they emerged from a three-year concert hiatus to perform an all-acoustic set for the ‘MTV Unplugged’ series on April 10, 1996. Singer Staley — whose problems with heroin addiction and subsequent hospitalization to treat them put AIC on hold following the January 1994 release of their ‘Jar of Flies’ EP — was noticeably thinner at the taping, sporting a closely-trimmed shock of pinkish hair and hiding behind dark shades for much of the set.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to play this show,” Staley told the assembled ‘Unplugged’ crowd near the start of their gig at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theatre in New York City, wryly hinting at the time he spent away facing up to his battles with the needle and the damage it had done. “I would have to say this is the best show we’ve done in three years,” he later added during ‘Unplugged,’ stating the obvious.

Staley could try to hide behind shades all he wanted, but sitting there in front of a somewhat surprisingly animated ‘Unplugged’ audience, he had nowhere to hide as he bared his soul on stripped-down versions of Alice in Chains classics like ‘No Excuses’ and ‘Would?’

‘Jar of Flies’ was the first-ever EP to debut at the top the Billboard album chart, cementing Alice’s reputation among the leaders of Seattle’s grunge movement. And then … nothing. With Staley hiding away in rehab, AIC were forced to cancel a scheduled tour with Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Danzig and Fight during the summer of 1994. Seattle third-wave grungers Candlebox took over for the band, and Alice in Chains spent years basically treading water.

When they finally emerged again in 1996, they would do so for only five days. The ‘Unplugged’ show, which aired on MTV on May 28, was followed by four AIC dates as the opening act on a summer bill headlined by the reunited original lineup of make-up metal legends Kiss. Staley’s final live performance with Alice in Chains took place on July 3 in Kansas City, supporting the Kiss tour.

Which makes Chains’ ‘Unplugged’ appearance the Black Swan showing of their later era. For one single night, Staley returned in front of a national audience one last time to share the music that had made him a (barely still) living legend. His lyrics are full of less-than-subtle allusions to his demons — lines like “What’s your drug of choice / Well, what have you got?” read like a letter of confession to a substance abuse counselor — and coming at that point, they couldn’t have been lost on anyone in the room.

Staley was found dead in his Seattle condo on April 19, 2002. He had succumbed to an overdose of cocaine and heroin after a decade of battling addiction; his withered, emaciated body was discovered nearly two weeks after his death (the 6’1″ singer reportedly weighed a measly 86 pounds at the time of his death). In his final interview, given just a few months earlier, Staley bluntly predicted his own demise: “I know I’m near death. I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way.”

Alice in Chains, on hiatus (and, for intents and purposes, done) since coaxing Staley back into the studio to record two new songs for the box set ‘Music Bank’ in 1999, actually found new life following the death of their former frontman. In 2006, the surviving members reunited for a brief tour with new singer William DuVall and followed it up by releasing their fourth album, ‘Black Gives Way to Blue,’ in 2009. They’ve since issued another album, 2013′s ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,’ and continue to tour internationally playing all their old, Staley-sung classics.

Next Surreal TV Performance: The Pumpkins' Smashing Early Days

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