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Obituaries

Layne Staley, 34; Lead Singer of Grunge Group Alice in Chains

April 21, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Layne Staley, the Alice in Chains lead singer who rose to rock stardom a decade ago with a series of songs about battling personal demons, is dead at 34.

The King County medical examiner's office confirmed Saturday that it was Staley's body that police found Friday night at the singer's apartment in Seattle's University District, which isn't far from the house where Kurt Cobain, another star of the city's tormented grunge rock scene, committed suicide in 1994.

Authorities went to the apartment after receiving a call requesting that they check on someone there. Staley appeared to have been dead for several days. The cause of death is under investigation, a spokesman for the examiner's office said.

By the time of Saturday's confirmation, the band's Web site was already filled with expressions of sadness and loss from fans, who were aware of Staley's lengthy struggle against heroin addiction.

While parents generally dismissed grunge as relentless whining, young rock fans by the millions identified with the mostly dark, disturbing themes about such issues as betrayal, hypocrisy, abuse and self-destruction.

Unlike in the social protest of the 1960s, the target of many grunge songs wasn't government or other institutions, but parents, who, the songwriters felt, had failed in their responsibilities.

Many of the grunge musicians spoke, either in their lyrics or in interviews, about the struggle to overcome problems they traced to low self-esteem and having been brought up in broken homes.

There were frequent references to suicide and death in the songs. One of the most popular tracks on Alice in Chains' 1990 debut album, "Facelift," was "We Die Young." The album sold more than 2 million copies.

Though the grunge movement lost its commercial momentum in the mid-'90s, many of today's best-selling rock bands, including Creed and Staind, draw upon the style of groups such as Alice in Chains.

A native of Washington state, Staley formed Alice in Chains in 1987 with guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who was already working with bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney, and the band quickly built a name for itself in the Northwest rock scene.

The group was signed by Columbia Records, and its debut album was quickly embraced by many of the hard-rock stars of the day, including Guns 'N Roses' Axl Rose. The quartet had enough of a buzz by the time its second album, "Dirt," was released in 1992 that the collection entered the pop charts at No. 6. It sold 4 million copies.

Critics, however, were divided. Some felt that the music was every bit as calculated and one-dimensional as many parents believed it was. Yet the band won some support. "At its best, Alice in Chains hits the vein of the rock tradition that fearlessly confronts the most threatening end of the emotional spectrum," Spin magazine declared in 1992.

Neither the sales nor endorsements, however, seemed to soothe Staley's inner torment. "The easier things get, the harder they get," he said in a 1991 interview with The Times. "A couple of days ago, I woke up and felt like I wanted to kill everyone around me--for no particular reason. I felt like that for two days, uncontrollable emotions: hate, pain...."

Alice in Chains' next work, a 1994 mini-album titled "Jar of Flies," entered the charts at No. 1, but doubts were already being raised about the band's future. Even before Cobain's suicide, the grunge world had been rocked by tragedy. Andrew Wood, lead singer of the promising band Mother Love Bone, died of a heroin overdose in 1990.

When Alice in Chains didn't tour in support of "Jar," breakup rumors were rampant. The fans' fears were compounded when the band's scheduled performance at Woodstock II in 1994 was canceled amid talk of "health problems" in the group. The foursome did return in 1995 with a self-titled album that also entered the charts at No. 1. The musicians also gave their first live performance in years in early 1996 on MTV, but they remained largely out of sight.

When Staley did surface for interviews during that period, he made no secret of his addiction. Like Cobain had done in interviews, however, Staley spoke about the consequences of the drug and warned his fans to avoid it.

"I wrote about drugs, and I didn't think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them," he told Rolling Stone in 1996. "Here's how my thinking pattern went: When I tried drugs, they were

With Cobain dead, Soundgarden broken up and Alice in Chains inactive, the grunge scene lost its grip on the young rock imagination in the late-'90s as a new generation of bands took over the stages.

Because of the low profile and all the drug talk over the years, some casual rock fans may be surprised to learn of Staley's death. Many probably assumed he had died years ago. The news Saturday, however, was a reminder of all the lost promise in grunge rock--not only Staley's death but the whole tragic underside of the once passionate and vibrant movement.

One e-mail on the band's Web site Saturday summarized the feelings of a generation of fans. It read simply: "Damn ... "

There was no announcement Saturday about funeral plans.

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