Layne Staley

The Man in the Box

Marco Montagnin

Unlike Kurt, Layne decided to fade away


I messed around as a little boy /I grew up, made the blade my new toy /Friends said “boy, with what you screwin’ around” I said /”Don’t concern yourselves and just /Gimme another blast”/Yeah, yeah. yeah, yeah/Under the hill, with just a few notches on my belt/Take it away, don’t want no more/Even if you say just one more/I won’t leave you alone, ooh[1]

 It was in 1967, when America was in the throes of the Vietnam War, that funds from The Great Society – an economic plan to help fight poverty – were being channelled into the military. Racial discrimination was also undermining social cohesion: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had finally recognised equal rights for the Afro-American population, the struggle for true equality, however, was still destined to last for a long time.

On 22nd August of that same year, Layne Rutherford Staley (later known as Layne Thomas Staley) was born in Kirkland, a small city in King County, in Washington.

Layne was a kind, sensitive child who had been passionate about music since childhood (at the age of nine he claimed that he wanted to become a singer when he grew up), but life was downright difficult on him. His father was a drug addict and an alcoholic who brought his friends home at night, while his mother tried to clean up the traces of his late-night revelry so that her son wouldn’t notice. His parents divorced when he was seven – which turned out to be a major setback. That man, who was hardly ever present, was still an important role model for Layne. He had disappeared (at one point his mother confessed that his father was dead) but was not forgotten by his son who began to suffer from nightmares: a veiled sadness began to accompany him, a sadness that turned into pain, which later turned into anger. He was expelled from school and placed into an institution for troubled patients. He then began to write poems, songs and thoughts. His fragility, his melancholy, his drug use and abuse were all there.

Toward the end of 1980s, Seattle became the grunge and heroin capital of America. This is where Layne met Jerry Fulton Cantrell Jr. and together, they founded their band Alice in Chains. Three years later, in 1990, they released their first album Facelift.

I grew up, went into rehab/You know the doctors never did me no good/They said son you’re gonna be a new man/I said thank you very much and/Can I borrow fifty bucks?/Yeah, yeah. yeah, yeah/Under the hill, with just a few notches on my belt/Take it away, don’t want no more/Even if you say just one more/I won’t leave you alone/’Cause I’m goin’ down the steps on a white line/Goin’ down the steps on a white line/Goin’ down the steps on a white line/Straight to nowhere/Goin’ down the steps on a white line/Goin’ down the steps on a white line/Goin’ down the steps on a white line/Straight to nowhere[2]

In 1992, the album Dirt was released and was an international success. The dark, distorted sounds and themes revealed Layne’s increasingly worrying condition to the public. Suddenly, his father reappeared: he had seen photos of his son, so they started hanging out together for a short while – he was then kicked out because Layne realised that his father was only interested in drugs.

“Junk, fuck”/Yeah/Yeah, yeah/A good night, the best in a long time/A new friend turned me on to an old favorite/Nothing better than a dealer who’s high/Be high, convince them to buy, yeah/What’s my drug of choice?/Well, what have you got?/I don’t go broke/And I do it a lot/Seems so sick to the hypocrite norm/Running their boring drills/But we are an elite race of our own/The stoners, junkies, and freaks/Are you happy? I am, man/Content and fully aware, yeah/Money, status, nothing to me/’Cause your life’s empty and bare, yeah/What’s my drug of choice?/Well, what have you got?/I don’t go broke/And I do it a lot/I do it a lot, yeah/Yeah, Yeah/Yeah/You can’t understand a user’s mind/But try with your books and degrees/If you let yourself go and opened your mind/I’ll bet you’d be doing like me/And it ain’t so bad/What’s my drug of choice?/Well, what have you got?/See, I don’t go broke/And I do it a lot/Say, I do it a lot!/I do it a lot!/I do it a lot!/Say, I do it a lot![3]

In order to face his inner demons and to give himself strength, Layne used music as a way of talking to himself. Yet album after album the songs got darker, he got thinner, he started losing his teeth, suffering from atrophy in his legs, his arms became covered in boils and scabs, and his hands met the same end (the hands’ veins are used once the arms’ veins are of no use anymore).

In 1994, Kurt Donald Cobain (Nirvana’s frontman) death was a severe shock for Layne. Even though the two were not close friends, they still knew each other. This episode convinced him to return to a rehabilitation centre, albeit in vain.

Kurt [Cobain] and I weren’t the closest of friends, but we ran into each other at shows and hung out a lot. I knew him well enough to be devastated by his death. I just don’t understand it at all. The last time I saw him, he gave me a ride from QFC on Broadway to a friend’s house, the whole way there, which was about a fifteen-minute drive, he talked about his daughter. For such a quiet person, he was so excited about having a child, he really loved that little girl. About a month later I saw on the news, that he was dead[4]

In 1995 the band released a third album Alice in Chains, but the band couldn’t tour: the frontman’s health conditions prevented it. Heroin had become an indispensable part of Layne’s life, and the more time passed, the more he realised that there was no going back. Whereas, 1996 was the breaking point for the singer. In April of that same year, MTV Unplugged took place – and he performed a sombre concert. Layne turned up in dark colours that emphasised his slim build, his hands were covered by fingerless gloves, his face was covered by a pair of sunglasses that shielded his eyes from inappropriate stares. The room was candle-lit, and the air was filled with the excruciatingly powerful, scratchy voice of a scrawny man who, with his last ounce of strength, had made it to the chair and to the microphone. At the end of his performance he said: ‘I wish I could hug you all, but I’m not gonna‘. In July there was another concert and then nothing.

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/Oooh… oooh…/Oooh… oooh…/My gift of self is raped/My privacy is raked/And yet I find/And yet I find/Repeating in my head/If I can’t be my own/I’d feel better dead/Oooh… oooh…/Oooh… oooh…[5]

The love of his life died in October, and Layne, who had previously shut himself off from most of those close to him, finally alienated himself from everyone. Previously there was a distant echo calling for help when a moment of clarity shone in his eyes, but then that echo, which had become so faint with time, faded away. Unlike Kurt, Layne decided to fade away. He was found, only two weeks dying, in his flat where he had lived as a recluse for years. Overdose, a speedball perhaps. He died on 5th April 2002, on the same day as Kurt eight years prior. Grunge died with him, which was a genre that – together with Nirvana – he had found on Unplugged. Its last heart breaking cry, and in the death of the two frontmen, its last note.

Layne was not a boy but a man who decided to ‘throw his life away’ and take drugs. Layne was a kind, sensitive, empathetic person who could not face his ghost and who, like many of his generation, found himself facing an unbridgeable generational gap. Drugs were not only a choice, but above all a consequence. He became, together with a few others, the voice of an ignored, cursed, erased generation. The voice of a generation that was inadequate in the eyes of the world and that found in heroin the possibility of forgetting everything, of filling with death the void of a fragile soul, allowing itself to be bled dry, slowly, until the end.

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 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.[6]

Life was not easy on him: every turn lead to a traumatic event; the one that marked him most was the death of his beloved. Mark William Lanegan (frontman of Screaming Trees) told Rolling Stones in 2002: ‘He never recovered from Demri’s death. After that, I don’t think he wanted to go on’.

Layne was a singer, the lead singer of Alice in Chains, one of the greatest rock singers ever; he was one of the most important voices of grunge – the Seattle sound – but above all he was a human being.

I suppose somewhere inside me
I yearn for freedom from
That which holds me stagnant
Over exaggeration turns underestimated
Emotion. Why the urgency to hide and
Slow the flow of that, which could,
And perhaps will, improve, and
Heal the burning inside?
I am protecting my pain
It is mine
And I so badly want to keep my
Pain to myself
But, in doing so I am hurting
So many who cross me, or care for me,
Aching for love and acceptance,
Only to throw you down in the latter
Of our shared love
Yet anger and guilt not shared
Between me and you
You are blamed for all that is a
Mystery within myself…burning
Oh, I pray that I might someday
Throw a blanket over that angry
If the strength is found within the
Core of my being
His tears soak my heart and 
Weight it down
I am drowning, and I am tired,
And so very, very lonely
I am.


[4]Pandemonium Magazine, Vol#29 – April 1995: “Layne Staley Unchained”

[6]Wiederhorn, Jon (February 8, 1996). Alice in Chains: To Hell and Back. Rolling Stone.

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