Layne Thomas Staley died at the age of 34 of a speedball overdose, sick and emaciated in reclusive squalor. It was a sad ending for the musician who always wanted to be a rock star, achieved the fame, riches and attention and ended up dependent on heroin, secluded from family and friends.
Layne had a fairly typical upbringing in Seattle, with father Phil, mum Nancy, and sister Liz. When Phil went off the scene and Nancy remarried to Jim Elmer, Layne gained a half-brother, Ken, and in time a new little sister, Jamie, to complete the family.
At school he was registered as Layne Elmer, and was remembered as quiet, sweet and sensitive. A good-looking boy, he flirted with alcohol and pot but showed few signs of the excesses you might associate with the music scene.
In his teens, Layne changed his name back to Staley and formed the glam rock band Sleze, with backcombed hair and make-up. His hope was that fame would lead to a renewed relationship with his father (who would eventually make contact, bonding over their shared addictions).
This band evolved into Alice ‘n’ Chains and eventually, once Layne ran into Jerry Cantrell at the Music Bank, the name was applied to a new quartet also featuring Sean Kinney and Mike Starr, and Alice in Chains were born.
Becoming one of the big four of the Seattle grunge scene, with harmonizing vocals and increasingly edgy subject matter, Alice in Chains dived into all the trappings of fame including girls and drugs, with Layne and his girlfriend Demri discovering and becoming quickly reliant on heroin: the run of songs on AIC’s second album, ‘Dirt’, which include Junkhead and God Smack attest to the growing trap of addiction.
Theirs was a turbulent and intense romance, an open relationship of great joy and great sorrow which ended with their 1994 split and Demri’s eventual death aged 27 in 1996. A friend’s account of how they discovered the drug details their excitement at the feeling it brought them, and how he knew then they were lost.
Layne Staley’s main attributes were a voice of wide range, a caring and playful nature, and a love-hate relationship with fame. He was also the epitome of a rock god, constantly experimenting with his hair, clothing and accessories.
His physical appearance slowly declined between the release of the EP ‘Jar of Flies’ and the MTV Unplugged show – by which time the band had been largely in hiatus for three years (other than the Nona Tapes mockumentary).
Layne had tried numerous stints in rehab, always sliding back to the needle – his longest period of sobriety led to the satellite project of Mad Season, a kind of supergroup which included the kind of reflective work which appealed to the introspective and intelligent musician.
The MTV show is all the more amazing if you consider the circumstances of a man so thin he needed more than three layers of clothes to bulk up, with gloves to hide track marks and sunglasses to mask the tell-tale look of eyes that are high. He’s physically weak, but vocally strong. It’s a stunning concert.
Following one more live show in 1996, Layne Staley all but left AIC but this was never confirmed. He never played live again and was only seen in public once more, at the 1997 Grammy Awards, looking thin but OK.
There’d be one more recording session for the Music Bank retrospective release, and photos from that time – his 31st birthday – are very sad to see.
The songs recorded were dark and morbid, and it is questionable why an addict with clear physical problems including muscle atrophy was expected to engage in a recording session. From this point on he retreated to his condo, rarely engaging with the outside world.
His sad decline and death has overshadowed the fact that this man was a talented artist and musician with the face of an angel who couldn’t stop battling his demons.
Fame gave him everything, but he grew to resent it. Money allowed him to retreat into a drug-filled stupor round the clock, even after he lost friends (Andrew Wood, Shannon Hoon, Kurt Cobain) and his girlfriend Demri to addiction. It’s a truly cautionary tale.
Layne was his own worst enemy, but also his greatest publicist. He left writings, artworks and songs which are brutally honest about the world as he saw it. He’s a far more complex case than the shell he became.
His early live performances show a force of nature, skin and dreadlocks, and a truly dynamic performer, while photographs show a sense of fun alongside a surprising amount of maturity for a young man who mainly spent his downtime playing video games.
I think we’re the poorer for not having him around, clean, vibrant, and making the music we would all love to hear.