The death of Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley should come as a surprise to no one. The stories of his chemical abuse are well documented, and among the gaudiest displays of excess the rock world has ever seen. He wrote about his demons constantly, and not only was he unable to beat them, he didn't even seem interested in trying. So anyone who was shocked at the news that Layne Staley overdosed in his house, so badly decomposed when they found him that they couldn't even immediately identify him, is just foolish. It was all but written in stone that this would happen. Some were even amazed he lasted as long as he did.
But there's something else about Staley's death that troubles me, that this inevitable tragedy is actually far more symbolic than it appears. Layne Staley overdosed because he had to, because he had nothing to offer anyone anymore in the world of music.
If you think that statement is a slam on Staley's talents, it's not. In fact, it's quite the opposite. I was never a huge fan of Alice in Chains, but I admired them because there wasn't a band out there that sounded like them. Even after the record labels snapped up every Seattle band that had played more than five gigs together, there was no one as dark, as dirty, as sinister, as Alice in Chains. Kurt Cobain's songs, by comparison, sound like the Beach Boys.
But this is what I'm getting at: The current crop of rock bands owes a huge debt to Seattle. What Cobain did in terms of opening up markets to harder-edged rock was nothing short of revolutionary. And yet, grunge is deader than even disco right now. Those bands that sold millions of records in the early 1990s mean absolutely nothing to the kids buying up Creed or Godsmack, even though Creed is little more than a Pearl Jam tribute band and Godsmack named themselves after an Alice in Chains song, for crying out loud. There is truthfully very little separating today's bands from the rock bands of the early '90s, and yet the artists that were popular 10 years ago, with the notable exception of Dave Grohl, can't get arrested now.
Look at the careers of the Big Four (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains) Seattle bands. Cobain was dubbed a messiah, and no one wanted to tell the messiah to stop doing smack. Put bluntly, Cobain was enabled to death. Pearl Jam is still popular and successful, but they don't carry anywhere near the clout or the record sales that they used to. Soundgarden was incredibly smart. They broke up the band before anyone had to tell them they weren't needed anymore, though I'm guessing the sales of their last album, Down on the Upside, gave them a subtle hint of their sell-by date.
Alice in Chains, however, did none of these things. They didn't blow up at the height of their popularity, they didn't persevere through the rough times, and they didn't disband before it was too late. No, Alice in Chains did something worse: they let time pass them by. While they were off doing side projects and injecting Jack Daniels into their eyeballs, the world was moving on. There was no last album. There was no final tour. It was just over. And while a new crop of bands clearly idolized them (Puddle of Mudd, Days of the New), the trailblazers were suddenly as cool as Vanilla Ice. Where Cobain & Co. killed the hair metal bands, the rap metal bands like Korn killed the grunge bands. I seriously doubt that this was their intent, but they did it nonetheless.
Take a look at the other members of Seattle's Class of '91. Chris Cornell, fabulous singer that he is, hasn't even been a blip on the radar post-Soundgarden, and even the now-aborted collaboration with Rage Against The Machine wouldn't have changed that. Eddie Vedder is hanging out with Aussie pop god Neil Finn these days. Krist Novaselic has dedicated his life to suing Courtney Love, who herself continues to be dogged by rumors that Cobain wrote her best songs. Sure, grunge may be not quite officially dead thanks to Puddle of Mudd's uncanny Alice in Chains impression. But their success is almost entirely due to their association with Fred Durst than the music that they play. If anyone else had signed them, they would have disappeared faster than you can say Four Non Blondes.
Which brings us back to Staley, strung out, bandless, and irrelevant to the new generation of record buyers who don't even remember the Pixies. The papers will say that heroin killed Staley, but the truth is, pop culture, and its vicious cycle for all things new and now, killed him years ago.