Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where wefind out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music and musicians from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip!
When sitting down to write a song, the composer has a unique opportunity in front of them. The lyric sheet provides an open canvas for the artist to write about anything they could possibly dream up. It could be abstract, it could be fiction…and sometimes it could be an actual person.
“Rooster” is a song by the American rock band Alice in Chains, featured on their second studio album, Dirt (1992), and released as the fourth single from the album on February 22, 1993.
Dirt by Alice in Chains is known today as one of the most introspective records to come out of the grunge era. Centered around drug addiction, this record shows the band wrestling with their demons as they descend further and further down the narcotic slide into Hell. However, halfway through we hear torture of a different kind on “Rooster.”
Instead of focusing on drug-fueled excess, guitarist Jerry Cantrell composed this song after having talks with his father about his time in Vietnam. Nicknamed the Rooster, Cantrell’s father’s gruesome ordeals in the service are put at the forefront of this tune, as Layne Staley sings about the horrors of war. When the Rooster is not fending off bullets and disease from mosquitos, he’s watching his fellow soldiers around him dying.
However, this song is definitely not a song of defeat. After each verse, the Rooster stands tall as Staley affirms that “he ain’t gonna die.” Cantrell’s guitars also drench this song in a melancholy ambience, as if you are right there as the Rooster works his way through the war-infested jungle. Though he may come out on the other side, the unspeakable things the Rooster had to endure can be felt through every note Alice in Chains plays.
Alice in Chains: Dirt, Released September 29th 1992
Layne Thomas Staley born Layne Rutherford Staley, August 22, 1967 – April 5, 2002 was an American musician best known as the original lead singer and co-songwriter of the rock band Alice in Chains. The band rose to international fame in the early 1990s as part of Seattle’s grunge movement, becoming known for Staley’s distinct vocal style and tenor voice as well as the harmonized vocals between him and guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell. Staley was also a member of the glam metal bands Sleze and Alice N’ Chains, and the supergroups Mad Season and Class of ’99.
Few rock vocalists created such a dark and eerie body of work as Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley. Born in Kirkland, WA, on August 22, 1967, Staley showed musical talent at an early age, and took up the drums. But upon joining garage bands and discovering rock music as a teenager (Black Sabbath, the Doors, etc.), Staley switched to singing. He met guitarist Jerry Cantrell shortly thereafter, and both formed a band.
From mid-1996 onwards, Staley was out of the public spotlight, never to perform live again. Staley struggled for much of his adult life with depression and drug addiction, which resulted in his death from a speedball overdose at the age of 34 on April 5, 2002.
However, Staley’s body wasn’t discovered immediately. It wasn’t until April 19, after no one had heard from him for two weeks, that the police were called in to break down the door to his Seattle apartment. Surrounded, in squalor, by drugs and drug paraphernalia, was Staley. His 6′ 1″ frame had been reduced to 86 pounds, and in his hand was a syringe loaded with another dose of heroin. The autopsy and toxicology report placed the date of his death, which was ruled as accidental, at April 5.
Alice in Chains had been mostly inactive since the summer of 1996, when they opened up for Kiss on a handful of dates. There were two new songs — “Get Born Again” and “Died” — recorded in late 1998 that were recorded for the Music Bank box set, and Staley and other ’90s alt-rock stars, calling themselves Class of ’99, covered Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” for the soundtrack to The Faculty.
Staley was without a paternal figure during his formative years after his father left the family when Layne was just 8 years old. When his dad found a picture of Staley in a magazine, the two wound up reconnecting and would even do drugs together as both were known addicts.
At the age of 12, his passion for music was expressed through percussion. He would go on to play drums for some glam-rock acts in his teens.
When Staley did find a passion for singing in his teenage years, he started belting out tunes for an adolescent glam rock band called Sleze. The group also played on stage in full on drag, and later changed it’s name to Alice N’ Chains.
Staley asked Jerry Cantrell to join a funk band, and in exchange agreed to sing in Cantrell’s band with drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr. The funk band would break up, but the latter band would go on to become Alice in Chains.
A tattoo of a mystery man whose eyes are sewn shut was located on the right side of Staley’s upper back. The tattoo has a striking resemblance to the hooded figure that appears in the ‘Man in the Box’ video.
Just before Alice in Chains kicked off their tour opening for Ozzy Osbourne as the singer was supporting the ‘No More Tears’ record, Layne broke his foot in an ATV accident. As a result, the singer had to prop himself up onstage using crutches.
Prior to branding themselves as Mad Season, Staley’s side project had been named The Gacy Bunch, combining the name of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and the hit ‘70s sitcom, ‘The Brady Bunch.’ Mad Season is less subtle about its nature, taken from the term attributed to when psilocybin mushrooms are in bloom.
In his last known interview, Staley told reporter Adriano Rubio that he knew his time on Earth was running out. “I know I’m near death,” he said. “I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way. I know I have no chance. It’s too late.”
In an eerie coincidence, Staley died eight years to the day that Kurt Cobain, whose success with Nirvana began the Seattle-dominated grunge movement off the early ’90s, took his own life with a shotgun.
Bassist Mike Starr is believed to be the last person to see Staley alive, visiting him the day before he died, which was his birthday. Their relationship ended on a strained note as Starr left Staley’s apartment after the two engaged in an argument. The singer is said to have cried out, “Not like this, don’t leave like this.” Starr later claimed to be the last person to see him alive. “I wish I hadn’t been high on benzodiazepine [that night],” Starr said on Celebrity Rehab. “I wouldn’t have just walked out the door.”
Coincidentally Mike Starr, the original bassist for Alice in Chains who struggled with drug addiction during much of his tenure in the band died March 8, 2011 of a prescription drug overdose.
Although technically not a full album, Jar Of Flies (1994) by Alice In Chains features some of my favorite songs they ever wrote, and certainly contains more great music than many proper length albums, then or now.
There is something about the primarily acoustic flavor of these songs that bring out elements that Alice In Chains truly excelled at, like the supernatural beauty of the way Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell harmonized.
Sometimes 2 voices blend together and somehow create a third voice, something that kind of becomes its own entity.
It is hard to explain, but I have always heard Layne and Jerry as just one voice, one spirit.
Whatever you call it, or however you hear it, it is simply a glorious thing, and it is all over Jar Of Flies.
Check out Nutshell, Don’t Follow, No Excuses, and I Stay Away.
Alice In Chains kind of channeled that kind of spookiness and mystery that Zeppelin perfected on some of their acoustic based material, but filtered through their own version of the Seattle sound.
Dirt is the album that put Alice In Chains firmly in the big league. It is a brutally dark album, with death and heroin lurking in virtually every corner. There is raw beauty (the haunting vocal harmonies of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are simply a force of nature), memorable story lines (Rooster, Down In A Hole, Angry Chair), and plenty of rock hard riffs (Them Bones, Would?) but overall, Dirt is a relentless ride through the perils of the drug life and it is a no-comprising, non flinching account of what Alice In Chains faced in the years of the early ’90’s. Is it metal or is it grunge? Who cares…it’s a masterpiece of despair with an iron core of never surrendering the fight for life…and it endures for its honesty and bravery. Art is rarely easy, and Alice In Chains found out the hard way.