Grunge, less than 30 years past its heyday, has far too few surviving icons. Kurt Cobain's the most obvious absence, of course, but other fixtures of the genre — including Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood, Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, 7 Year Bitch's Stefanie Sargent, and Alice In Chains' Layne Staley and Mike Starr — also died young. And, of course, we lost Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell earlier this year. He was 52-years-old.
The common thread here, other than grunge, is cause of death. All the aforementioned artists had struggled with substance abuse, with Sargent asphyxiating after drinking, taking heroin, and passing out on her back, Wood and Staley of heroin overdoses, Weiland and Starr of prescription overdoses, and Cobain and Cornell of suicides that may or may not have been drug-related (Cobain had relapsed into heroin at the time of his death; Cornell had five prescription drugs in his system when his body was found).
Listening to their music, those circumstances begin to seem less like coincidences. Angst, depression, and addiction were common themes in grunge, which was often marketed as a product of the dreary, then predominantly working-class Pacific Northwest, but actually came to embody that image as time went on. As a 1992 New York Times article entitled "Grunge: A Success Story" put it, Seattle's three principal drugs at the time were "espresso, beer, and heroin."
Soundgarden's Superunknown and Nirvana's In Utero are among the darkest albums to ever go 5x platinum, both addressing the pitfalls of the fame achieved by both bands' previous albums. If you really want to get to the core of grunge's inner demons, though, Alice In Chains' Dirt — released 25 years ago today — offers a fearless probing of the issues that plagued the booming Seattle scene.
Like Superunknown and In Utero, Dirt followed its creators' commercial breakthrough, 1990's Facelift (which, by the way, opens with a song that guitarist Jerry Cantrell wrote after seeing kids between the ages of 10-12 selling drugs on public buses). Singer Layne Staley had written about his struggles with heroin on Facelift's "Real Thing," on which he asks a doctor for $50 to score on his way out of rehab, but his writing on Dirt reflected the worsening of his habit. Five songs on the album directly reference heroin, with "God Smack" and "Junkhead" being the most blatant, both named after slang terms for the substance. Closing track "Would?" was a chilling ode to the late Andrew Wood. Peruse Dirt's lyric booklet and you'll find literal mentions of junkies, users, drugs of choice, "pin cushion medicine," being strung out, and sticking oneself in the arm.
That's already enough to classify Dirt as one of the most graphic depictions of heroin use in music history, but its harrowing content doesn't stop there. The album is downright death-obsessed, from unsubtle metaphors like the song "Down in a Hole" to a particularly startling moment when Staley says he wants to taste a pistol in his mouth and then have us "scrape [him] from the walls." The most uplifting song is "Rooster," which proclaims that its titular character "ain't gonna die," but even that has its dark connotations, written in response to Cantrell's Vietnam veteran father's PTSD. There isn't a single moment for the sun to poke through Dirt's impenetrable storm clouds.
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The marketing and press coverage of grunge often exaggerated and glorified the boozy, "white trash" aspect of its stars, as Michael Azerrad wrote in the Mudhoney chapter of his excellent book Our Band Could Be Your Life, but there was no mistaking Alice In Chains for poseurs or sugar-coaters. It seems almost impossible that an album as bleak as Dirt could go 4x platinum and spawn five singles that broke into the top 50 of the Mainstream Rock chart, but then again, the album was often misconstrued by young fans. In a 1996 Rolling Stone cover story, Staley talked about his decision to share his darkest moments in the band's music:
I wrote about drugs, and I didn't think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them. Here's how my thinking pattern went: When I tried drugs, they were fucking great, and they worked for me for years, and now they're turning against me — and now I'm walking through hell, and this sucks. I didn't want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I've had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they're high. That's exactly what I didn't want to happen.
At the time, there was no mistaking it: Alice In Chains did sound cool to a large swath of kids. They blended the mysterious brooding of their fellow Seattleites with heavier riffs. They were unquestionably the most metal of grunge's first wave of bands, having toured with Van Halen, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer, and earned praise from Ozzy Osbourne and Pantera's late guitar hero Dimebag Darrell. No grunge band crossed over between hard and alternative rock quite like Alice In Chains, and especially to audiences more familiar with the performative darkness of metal acts, Staley's hyper-personal songwriting may have gone over some heads.
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In another way, this misreading of Staley and other grunge icons' writing about their collective drug of choice would lead to larger cultural trends. The "heroin chic" look of Kate Moss and other models became popular in the mid-'90s, and along with films like Trainspotting and Kids, grunge was partially blamed for its proliferation. As the genre faded and gave way to the loosely-defined "post-grunge" that came to dominate alt-rock radio into the mid-2000s, bands like Staind and Puddle Of Mudd further commodified grunge's bleak outlook, and one of them, Godsmack, even named themselves after a Dirt song without paying any thought to its significance.
None of that should distract from the actual gravity of Alice In Chains' best and most soul-baring album. Peruse the comments of any one of its songs on YouTube and you'll quickly learn just how many people affected by similar struggles found solace in the band's message. Those who have battled depression, addiction, and PTSD hear something in Dirt that others who just tuned in for the riffs or Staley's magnificent voice often miss, and the band deserves credit for facing those issues unflinchingly, if graphically. Whereas Soundgarden and Nirvana often couched their messages in metaphors or sardonic wit, Alice In Chains were blunt and to the point.
In a perfect world, the degree to which the band addressed their struggles on-record would correlate to recovery, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The band's last shows with Staley would come while opening for KISS' 1996 reunion tour (added to the bill when Stone Temple Pilots dropped out due to Scott Weiland being in rehab). Shortly after performing their last date on the tour, Staley was found unresponsive but alive, and a subsequent hospital visit revealed he had overdosed on heroin.
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Mike Starr, who was kicked out of the band in 1993, appeared on VH1 shows Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and Sober House in the 2000s, revealing on the latter that his drug use had led to his departure from Alice In Chains. In 2002, Staley was found dead in his apartment, weighing 86 pounds, holding a loaded syringe, and sitting on a pile of used ones, according to the book Alice In Chains: The Untold Story. In 2011, Starr was found dead at his home, having overdosed on an undisclosed prescription medication.
It feels wrong to suggest that Staley and Starr died so that others struggling with addiction could live, but in the music they gave us, we have as lasting and as powerful an anti-heroin argument as has ever existed in the arts, save possibly for Trainspotting. Luckily, Cantrell and Sean Kinney managed to get sober in the wake of their bandmates' deaths, and Cantrell even won the MusiCares Stevie Ray Vaughn award in 2012 for his work helping fellow musicians through addiction recovery.
Dirt is a thrilling, rip-roaring masterpiece that can be enjoyed on a pure musical level, but its depictions of pain and inner struggle should be impossible to ignore, especially now that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. In closing, here's Staley in that same '96 Rolling Stone article, with the definitive word on darkness for aesthetic's sake alone:
"I thought it was cool that I could write such dark, depressing music. But then instead of being therapeutic, it was starting to drag on and keep hurting."
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