Alice in Chains: To Hell and Back

They've survived personal tragedy, but the hardest thing for Alice in Chains may be finding a way to live with themselves

February 8, 1996
Layne Staley of Alice in Chains on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Layne Staley of Alice in Chains on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

Turning the steering wheel hard to the right and stomping his foot on the gas, Alice in Chains' lead singer, Layne Staley, accelerates full speed into the back of a stopped car. Grinning widely, he slams his open-top vehicle into reverse and glances over his shoulder just in time to see a Wiffle ball descend in an arc toward him. Staley shifts his bony hips, reaches his left arm out and catches the sphere in a scoop that resembles a cross between a squash racket and a jai alai cesta. Then he floors his car back to center court, where he passes the ball to Alice's guitarist, Jerry Cantrell, who is waiting under a small goal. Cantrell flings the object from his scoop and into the goal. A buzzer sounds, and a red light illuminates. Two points for the Alice in Chains team.

The game is WhirlyBall, a bizarre hybrid of basketball, bumper cars and lacrosse that was invented in 1962 by a Utah automotive-shop owner who received divine inspiration after watching his son improvise a game of hockey while driving a golf cart. Although WhirlyBall didn't catch on as quickly as the Hula-Hoop, today a dozen or so such facilities dot the country, including this one, which is about a half-hour outside of Seattle. Before enduring the grind of formal interrogations, including Staley's first major interview in more than two years, the band wants to have a little fun. Alice's drummer, Sean Kinney, came up with the idea of giving WhirlyBall a whirl, and although the other band members were initially reluctant, right now they're all smiles. Kinney and Cantrell seem hellbent on defeating the opposing team, which consists of friends and bassist Mike Inez, who somehow didn't wind up on the Alice squad. Even Staley, who minutes before was covertly mimicking and flipping off a drill-sergeant-like referee, seems to be having a good time. But despite a fine passing attack, Alice in Chains lack the rebounding and shooting ability to defeat their opponents. They also lack the teamwork, and by the beginning of the second game, Staley has bowed out to play video games on his portable Sega system.

Photos: Alice in Chains in the Nineties

Alice in Chains may never make the WhirlyBall all-star squad, but they've managed to hang together, sometimes just barely, through almost nine years of hardship and continuing struggle. Starting out as a fledgling glam-metal outfit, Alice in Chains' sudden move toward grunge after one album and one EP earned the derision of Seattle scenesters, some of whom dubbed the band Kindergarten, due to their sonic similarity to Soundgarden. But Alice in Chains silenced most of their critics with the 1992 album Dirt, a brooding disc of slow, savage riffs and Staley's harrowing lyrics, which detailed his battle with heroin addiction. Released in November, the band's self-titled third album displays further growth, coupling improvisational jams with bleak rhythms and intertwining melancholy with menace.

Considering how dark their music is, you'd expect the members of Alice in Chains to brood offstage as well as on. Instead, they play off one another like a depraved comedy troupe. "Since our music is so depressing, everybody expects us to run around in black and whine about shit," says Kinney. "But that's such a misconception. We just get together and fuck around. We're like the Monkees or something."

After they finish with Whirlyball, Alice in Chains return to downtown Seattle and stop at Umberto's, the kind of family-style Italian restaurant where, if you drink enough cheap wine, you won't care what's under the blanket of red sauce. Appropriately, the band is seated in a remote back room that doubles as a wine cellar. Before their food arrives the members of Alice engage in a primitive heavy-metal ritual: gross out the journalist. Cantrell brags about a girl he recently picked up who chewed tobacco, causing him to experience a peculiar but pleasurable burning sensation during oral sex. Staley counters with a story of a friend who received a blow job from an extremely drunk woman who vomited all over her partner midway through the act. Then we're on to the next topic: animal abuse. Staley talks about a childhood acquaintance who wrapped a kitten's legs with twine and threw it into a lake: "I screamed, 'No, man, take it out,' but he was bigger than me, so I just watched it drown." But the coup de grâce comes when Cantrell recalls the exploits of a neighborhood sicko: "He'd carve up these frogs and turtles and stuff on one side, but the other side would look completely normal. Then he'd come up to you, and you'd be like 'Oh, wow, a frog.' Then he'd turn it around, and all its guts would be hanging out." Needless to say, nobody's too hungry when the food finally arrives.

After dinner, Cantrell, Kinney and Inez return with Staley to his house, where they stay up until 5 in the morning, smoking pot and playing video games. Their camaraderie has helped the band mates endure the hardships of substance abuse and personal tragedy. Being so close has also nearly torn them apart.

In the summer of 1994, the day before the start of a tour with Metallica, Alice nearly reached the end of their chain. At the time, Staley was in the throes of heroin addiction, and Kinney was struggling with the bottle. "We'd been going full force, just running at top speed with our eyes closed," says Cantrell, peering through a half-empty glass of beer. "We had been way too close for too long, and we were suffocating. We were like four plants trying to grow in the same pot."

Things got worse when Staley, who, according to Kinney, had just returned from drug rehab, came to practice high. In response, Kinney threw down his sticks and vowed never again to play with Staley. Cantrell concurred, the tour was canceled, and the band parted company for six months. "Nobody was being honest with each other back then," admits Kinney, seconds after exhaling a cloud of marijuana smoke. "If we had kept going, there was a good chance we would have self-destructed on the road, and we definitely didn't want that to happen in public."

In the months following their breakup, the band members went through the stages of grief that accompany loss: denial, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance. "At first I was dumbfounded," Staley recalls, mumbling like someone awakened by a late-night phone call. "I just sat on my couch staring at the TV and getting drunk every day. When we first got together as a band, we were all brothers. We lived in the same house and partied together and drank as much as each other. But then we started to split apart and went different ways, and we felt like we were betraying each other."

Rumors of a permanent breakup and worse began to circulate. "I found out through the Internet that I have AIDS," says Staley. "I learned I was dead. Where else would I find out these things? I don't see a doctor regularly. I was in San Francisco at Lollapalooza, and this girl walked up to me and stopped like she'd seen a ghost. And she said, 'You're not dead.' And I said, 'No, you're right. Wow.' "

During their time apart, Staley recorded an album with Mad Season, his side project with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin; Inez scuba dived and worked with Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash on his album It's Five O'Clock Somewhere; Kinney snow boarded and recorded a track with Krist Novoselic, Kim Thayil and Johnny Cash for the Willie Nelson tribute album, Twisted Willie; and Cantrell, who writes most of the band's music, holed himself up at his rural home outside of Seattle and wrote riffs initially intended for a solo album. By January 1995, he was working on some of that material with Kinney and Inez. Four months later, Staley was invited back into the fold, and the band began working together on Alice in Chains. If Dirt was a diary of the pain and animosity caused by addiction, betrayal and hypocrisy, Alice in Chains chronicles the bitter aftereffects of conflict, seeking to reassemble the shattered pieces."We let shit come straight out on this one," says Cantrell. "It was often depressing, and getting it done felt like pulling hair out, but it was the fucking coolest thing, and I'm glad to have gone through it. I will cherish the memory forever."

"I'll cherish it forever, too, just because this one I can remember doing," says Staley. He's only half joking.

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