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Dirt by Alice in Chains
That Seattle sound seems lazy in hindsight when you consider just how varied these bands were. But the flannel, right?
By the time I heard Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was drawn to whatever this “Seattle” thing was that was going on. I already wrote about the 30th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s Ten album, but that cassette tape was just the tip of the iceberg. June of 1992, the soundtrack to the movie Singles came out. Singles is a film by Cameron Crowe that takes place in Seattle, and because he’s Cameron Crowe, he used it as an opportunity to weave the local music scene into his film and onto his soundtrack. Members of Pearl Jam, including Eddie Vedder, have cameo-esque bit parts in the movie. Soundgarden is on stage playing “Birth Ritual” in one of the scenes. Also making a live music appearance? None other than Alice in Chains.
As an aside, do you know how I know Cameron Crowe is a real music fan? The scene with Alice in Chains, and the one where Soundgarden plays “Birth Ritual” are not a lip-synch special of the band pretending their studio recording is the same as their live performance. Crowe went to the trouble of filming and capturing the audio of a real live Soundgarden performance, warts and all. It’s an irrational move for a filmmaker unless the music was just that damn important to you. You can see the Sound Garden performance in total from the Bluray on YouTube.
Back to July 1992, when I was presumably listening to this soundtrack. The first track on the album was “Would?” by Alice in Chains and it was essentially the first single to an upcoming album Dirt that would come out a few months later in September 1992. When I heard those opening dirty bass notes and the foreboding drum beat, I was intrigued. By the time the two-part harmonies weaved through into an exploding chorus, I knew that I was going to be buying the new Alice in Chains record.
I’ll continue to lean on the Singles soundtrack on this site, but I don’t know that it will ever get its own essay. That’s probably appropriate, but debatable, considering it ended up being my gateway to Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees, and yes, Alice in Chains. That’s why this week’s Album of Record is the epic Dirt by Alice in Chains.
I have to be honest when I say that the first thing I really noticed about Alice in Chains was their lead singer Layne Staley. Even before I knew that he was writing about heroin and his struggles with addiction, I knew that I was listening to one of the most distinct and powerful voices I’d ever heard in rock music. Other than maybe scene-mate Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, you can’t imagine a more powerful and distinct voice from the time period than Layne Staley. Eddie Vedder has a distinct croon and style too, and Kurt Cobain relied on a striking, raw vulnerability in his vocals, but even they would probably give it up to Staley if you asked them. Staley had range, style, power, and precision as he alternated carrying tunes on his own and delivering perfect harmonies with guitarist Jerry Cantrell.
Layne Staley’s story is one of impossible sadness as he passed away alone after overdosing on a speedball - a combination of heroin and cocaine - in a Seattle apartment. He wasn’t found for two weeks, but it was discovered he died on April 5 eight years to the day after Kurt Cobain’s death. I reference Stayley’s death in an essay about Dirt for a few reasons. First, his death recasts a lot of the music that we heard at the time as the coping mechanism for a guy who would never really get away from the things with which he was attempting to cope. Secondly, it helps me to better understand the dynamics of a band that at the time I thought was mostly about Layne and his vocals and lyrics.
Only later would I find out just how strong of a personality Jerry Cantrell was in the band. Early on as I discovered their music, I had no idea. As we would come to find out, Cantrell is a brilliant songwriter who really doesn’t have much demand for the spotlight, despite his brilliant creativity and prolific writing. After Layne Staley’s death in 2002 and after a long period of inactivity, Alice in Chains would reform with singer William Duvall in 2006, and a lot of times when Alice in Chains does press, Duvall takes the spotlight and answers many of the questions. It might be strange for fans to have the new guy talking on behalf of the band. But when you watch it, it just makes sense. You have to assume that this is just the way Cantrell prefers things to be.
How big of an album was Dirt? First of all, it was much bigger than it was ever supposed to be. 1992 was the year that Billy Ray Cyrus took over the world with “Achy Breaky Heart.” Color Me Badd, TLC, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Mariah Carey, and REM were still dominant in the sales charts. Along with Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains was one of the unlikely success stories, but it was a slow burn. The album would go on to sell more than 3 million copies and lived on the Billboard 200 for 102 weeks before finally falling off in September of 1994.
While we’re talking about success, let’s talk about two of the biggest commercial songs to come out of Dirt, starting with “Rooster.” Talk about an unlikely single, “Rooster” is over six minutes long and features a long, slow falsetto-fueled opening. Something about this song - written by Jerry Cantrell for his father who served in Vietnam - just grabbed people and wouldn’t let them go. It’s both personal and yet feels like it describes something we all came to know through family members or movies like “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” or “Full Metal Jacket.” It was peak MTV days and the mostly black and white video was equally powerful with flashes of color for effect.
I’ve talked about videos as an important part of my personal history with music on this site before, but it bears repeating. When I was a teenager, I was glued to MTV because what else was I going to do? I got my copies of Rolling Stone and Spin once a month. There were no iPads or other electronic devices, so it wasn’t crazy to watch a few hours of music videos including a seven-minute clip featuring Alice in Chains and directed by Mark Pellington who also directed Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video as well as “Shut ‘Em Down” for Public Enemy, “One” for U2, and “Drive” for R.E.M. among others. The video was graphic, including war scenes including severed limbs, so it was initially taken our of rotation before being added back later.
The song has almost no comparison in the annals of popular songs. Sometimes a rock song comes along and just sounds like nothing that has ever been popular before. That’s how this entire time period felt. 1993 in modern rock had songs like “Laid” by James, “No Rain” by Blind Melon, “Pets” by Porno for Pyros, “Daughter” by Pearl Jam, and “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran just for a sampling. Put “Rooster” in a rock block on a rock radio station during that time period and hell yeah it stuck out. And it stuck out in a really good way.
The band wasn’t done…
August of 1993, Alice in Chains released the song “Down in a Hole” including the video above. The song spent 21 weeks on the mainstream rock charts, peaking at 10. What’s especially funny about this song in hindsight is that Jerry Cantrell initially didn’t want to present it to the band thinking it was too soft. Cantrell wrote it for his girlfriend at the time. Cantrell considers it to be one of his favorite songs and encapsulates what he views as his personal reality that “this life is not conducive to much success with long-term relationships.”
It’s another unlikely dirge that went on to be a staple of modern rock radio at the time. It’s been covered widely, including by Ryan Adams, which seems kind of crazy to me.
However, Dirt was so much more than these bigger singles that drew attention for the band.
When I bought Dirt on CD, I didn’t put it in my mom’s car CD player on the way home. Sometimes when I bought things, I would do that because I knew that it wouldn’t sound so grating to her that it might ruin her day. When I bought Alice in Chains, I knew better. I didn’t want her to say, “What are you putting in?” and me having to say to my Baby Boomer mother, “It’s a band called Alice in Chains.” My mom was pretty cool about letting me listen to what I wanted, but her ability to co-sign only went so far.
I arrived home and went upstairs to my boombox on my desk and loaded the CD in only to be smacked by Layne Staley screaming the opening notes of “Them Bones” in my face. For all the majesty of “Rooster,” or “Down in a Hole,” “Them Bones” is really direct, hitting you in the face with that screaming open and a knuckle-dragging guitar riff in an uneven time signature. It’s the definition of grating and a hell of a way to get you into the album. No sooner does it get you into the flow of the song, it just stops, leaving you wanting more.
“Dam that River” continues the theme, and it’s a great song, but I can’t wait to get to the next one, “Rain When I Die.” This six-minute epic was my first introduction to the dichotomy of Alice in Chains. On the one hand, you had this ugly complexity in a droning song open, before the band enters into the melodic main vocal line and riff. The verse is hard to figure out the first time you listen to it. The riff is doing one thing and it almost feels like it doesn’t match the drums and vocals. Then the chorus kicks in and it’s big, powerful, but unifying and almost user-friendly as it brings order to the chaos. It’s almost like Alice in Chains wrote these beautiful, bold choruses to justify the stuff they really wanted to do in the intro and verses.
“Junkhead” is the same way. I love that song, but imagine it without the pretty melody that’s in the chorus as Layne sings, “What’s my drug of choice? / Well, what have you got?” “Hate to Feel” seems to play in the same ballpark alternating the chaos with the organization.
“Angry Chair” and “Would?” finish it off. I’ll be honest when I say that I don’t love “Angry Chair” as much as the next Alice in Chains fan, but I get it. Maybe in my mind as a fan of the Singles soundtrack, it was just a final speedbump on the way to “Would?”
That video clip features imagery from the Singles movie and represents my very first images of the band I would come to fall in love with as a 13-year-old kid. After falling in love with Dirt, I went back and bought Facelift, but it would have been better if I’d heard them in order, I think. Anyway, back to “Would?” Hearing those powerful vocals from the chorus leaking into the sliding riff that pushes the verse from line to line just to explode again into another chorus? It was magical at the time melding metal and hard rock in a way that wasn’t cheesy like the ready-made ballads from hair metal bands of a few years earlier.
Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way
This song was a tribute to Jerry Cantrell’s friend Andrew Wood, the lead singer of Mother Love Bone who passed away from a heroin overdose in 1990. It would carry a tragic irony in the end, because an important song for Alice in Chains becoming this big wild success was a song that also served as a warning for their own future, though they didn’t know it at that time.
Dirt was a launching point for the band when it came out. For me as a listener, it brought me into this whole new world, that while it was “Seattle” was darker and heavier than many things I’d listened to before. It taught me the value of adding slower speeds to heavier sounds, which is something I love in music to this day.
It’s just hard to listen to Dirt today without a sense of longingness and loss. I can’t unknow what I now know that this was documentation of the struggles that would eventually cause Layne Staley’s self-destruction. I don’t want to judge him for his flaws or his sickness, and I won’t, but it forever recasts the unbelievable music on Dirt.
I love going back and trying to remember what it was like in the moment of discovery with these records. Too many times, I’m left feeling sad and wistful because I know how some of these tragic stories end. If I’m not careful, I could fall into the trap of feeling like there’s no such thing as a happy ending. I know that’s not true, but sometimes these deep dives into our departed rock heroes leave me overwhelmed even more than grateful.
I’ll leave you with the Unplugged version of “Down in a Hole,” which might be one of my favorite all-time Alice in Chains moments in their career. Staley didn’t look healthy and he would pass almost exactly six years after, but man could that man make you feel something when he sang.
That’s really the only conclusion. Even if we don’t always get a happy ending to the story, we’re unquestionably better off for having had Layne Staley in our lives even from a great distance.