This weekend marks the 20th anniversaries of two very successful albums. Alice In Chains 2nd LP Dirt and Stone Temple Pilots' debut Core both hit stores on September 29, 1992, and both albums went on to become the zenith of each band's commercial success.
Alice In Chains predated the rush by years. They had been signed in 1989, to Columbia, and packaged, to some extent, as a metal band (the same way Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, 24-7 Spyz, and Voivod were packaged as metal bands, i.e., awkwardly). They had toured with Ozzy and Van Halen. They already had one gold-certified album (1990′s Facelift). They also had one gold-certified EP (the all-acoustic Sap, which had been released in March 1992, and featured guest spots from Chris Cornell and Mark Arm) and a standout song on the Singles soundtrack (“Would?”), both of which were blatant label-driven maneuvers designed to repackage Alice as a grunge band, to recontextualize them as part of the valuable Seattle landscape, rather than the rapidly receding metal scene. But 20 years ago, on September 29, 1992, Alice In Chains released Dirt: an album that is neither grunge nor metal, yet is deeply indebted to both; an album that explores the darkest arteries of the dark heart of Seattle; a flat-out, no-two-ways-about-it masterpiece that stands behind only Nevermind as the best album produced by the grunge scene that dominated charts and headlines, and changed the face of popular music.
Among its myriad qualities, Dirt is without question the bleakest album ever to go quadruple platinum (beating out In Utero in this regard), and that darkness is in its marrow. The band started recording the album with Dave Jerden (who also produced Facelift) in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 — the same day the Rodney King verdict was delivered, which led to six days of rioting, 2,000 injuries and 53 deaths in LA; the chaos not only suspended the recording sessions, but left the band spooked. All four members of the band reportedly engaged in drug use, but two of them — bassist Mike Starr and especially vocalist Layne Staley — imbibed to dangerous degrees (Staley’s heroin dealer was said to be a constant presence at the studio during mixing). That ugly blend of violence, fear, sickness, nihilism, and death provides the clay of Dirt.
The piece continues with a song-by-song analysis of the album which mostly addresses substance abuse, death, and other bleak subjects.
But Dirt wasn’t an afterschool special on the dangers of addiction. For Staley, these themes were autobiographical. Alice In Chains toured behind Dirt with fellow Seattleites Screaming Trees, where Staley and Trees frontman Mark Lanegan reportedly bonded over heroin, and fell in deep together. The entire grunge scene in Seattle was more or less affected by heroin at some point, with everyone from Kurt Cobain and Mark Arm to Dylan Carlson (of Earth) and Kurt Danielson (of Tad) struggling with addiction. But no one wrote about it so directly as Alice In Chains on Dirt, and few were brought down so hard by the drug. Starr was kicked out of the band during the Dirt tour (according to Starr, the sacking was a result of his drug use); that night, Starr claimed, he overdosed on heron and “died for like 11 minutes.” In 2011, he passed away after overdosing on prescription drugs.
Staley went in and out of rehab after Dirt, leading to the band canceling tour dates and eventually going on hiatus. They got back together in 1995, to record their third album, but Staley was often late to the studio, or entirely absent. “It was horrifying to see [Layne] in that condition,” said Cantrell in a 2011 interview. “To be in a meeting with him and have him fall asleep in front of you was gut-wrenching.” The band didn’t tour behind their third album, a decision many believe was forced by Staley’s addiction. In 1996, Staley’s own long-time love — ex-fiancée Demri Parrott — died from complications caused by drug use. Staley slowly became invisible, deteriorating physically (after seeing the singer in September 1998, Jerden said, “Staley weighed 80 pounds … and was white as a ghost”) and becoming a recluse. His last public appearance was at a Cantrell solo show on Halloween 1998. He died of a drug overdose on April 5, 2002.
It’s easy to listen to Dirt now and hear only the suicide note of a man lost to addiction, but that’s reductive and inaccurate: Many of the album’s lyrics were penned by Cantrell, and even Staley was miles above bottom in ’92. The darkness captured on Dirt is much bigger than any one person’s struggle. The album wrestles with depression on a primal level, but it really does wrestle with it, neither wallowing nor surrendering. In this way, it provides for listeners not a window in, but a window out. Because when Staley and Cantrell join voices, and a gnarled verse gives way to a full-throttle chorus, the sensation is not one of anguish but pure elation. They have broken free and are soaring above all the demons that would bring them down. And they have brought you, too; with them, you too are momentarily unshackled, free, flying.
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