When Layne Staley, 34, was found in his Seattle home on April 19, surrounded by heroin paraphernalia, it was rock history’s most foreshadowed demise, and not just because drugs and death were his twin leitmotifs. Staley virtually disappeared after his problems forced his group, Alice in Chains — which had No. 1 albums in 1994 and ‘95 — into hiatus in 1996. That he survived this long puts the lie to romanticized heroin deaths; fewer junkies flame out on top than suffer protracted fade-outs like Staley’s.
Fortunately, ”cautionary tale” isn’t his sole legacy. ”Obviously [AIC] had come across Nirvana and Soundgarden,” notes Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, ”but that set ‘em off in a different direction. They walked a fine line between being a big band and doing their own thing.” Says Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross: ”Modern rock radio shows you their impact was as big as any of the Seattle bands. People imitate their sound, but he really had a distinctive voice.” Which was never more haunting than when Staley addressed his habit head-on. ”You can’t understand a user’s mind,” he taunted in ”Junkhead,” with such jolting self-awareness that we almost could.
ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS Dirt (Columbia, 1992); Jar of Flies (Columbia, 1994); MTV Unplugged (Columbia, 1996)