Music News

The Strongest Link

On the evening of April 20, 2002, three members of Alice in Chains — singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and bassist Mike Inez — walked toward the International Fountain at Seattle Center, where hundreds of people had already assembled in the chill air, bearing flowers, notes, and candles. The previous day, the quartet's fourth member, singer Layne Staley, was found dead in his condo just a few miles away. The 34-year-old frontman had overdosed on a combination of heroin and cocaine.

Though the band had been on hiatus for a number of years due to Staley's declining health, Cantrell, Kinney, and Inez had still held out hope that the singer might overcome his addictions and help get the band rolling again. But on that night, the story appeared to be finished.

Not quite, as it turned out. Early last year, Kinney contacted Cantrell and Inez about doing a benefit show in Seattle to aid victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami. In February 2005, the band took the stage for the first time since 1996, playing more than a dozen of its songs at a small club with vocal assistance from Tool's Maynard James Keenan, Heart's Ann Wilson, Puddle of Mudd's Wes Scantlin, and Damageplan's Pat Lachman. This past March, Alice in Chains appeared on VH1's Decades Rock Live tribute to Heart. Following that, Alice in Chains embarked on a brief spring club tour with William DuVall handling vocals and ex-Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan on second guitar. Now, they're in the middle of a full-scale world tour as a quartet, fronted by DuVall.

"It just felt right," Cantrell says of the early stages of the reunion. "We thought, 'Let's just go play a little bit,' and I've been really surprised that the support has been tremendous."

Before any of this could happen, however, the band felt it was crucial to get in touch with Staley's mother, Nancy McCallum, to see how she felt about Alice in Chains' pushing forward without Layne. Naturally, McCallum — who established the nonprofit Layne Staley Fund in 2003 to assist the Seattle music community in heroin recovery — had mixed feelings about the reunion. But she ultimately gave it her blessing. In a heart-rending conversation, her first public comments about the "new" Alice in Chains, McCallum spoke candidly to New Times about her son's struggle with depression and drugs, the last time she saw him alive, and how the surviving AIC members have handled getting back together.

"I believe the band has been more than appropriate, and I think that's because there are deep, deep emotions attached to, 'What do we do next?'" McCallum says. "You lose someone who you counted on being in your life for so many years and you have a fantasy of what the future will be like. If you're honest, it takes a long time to be able to regroup and come back from those feelings and do something new with it. I can't imagine that the band has moved in any direction without every step including a thought about Layne and what he would have thought."

From all accounts, Alice in Chains' performances on this tour have been fantastic. Footage posted online bears that out. Musically, the band — which in its heyday established a unique midpoint between polished Sunset Strip metal and raw, dark Pacific Northwest grunge — sounds tight and fierce. DuVall's a potent singer, able to hit all the right notes and convey the spirit of the songs. And the fans in attendance at the sold-out shows are eating it all up.

Still, you don't have to dig around the web too much to find other professed AIC fans expressing dismay, even anger, at the reunion. Most of their comments are precisely what you might expect: "It's not Alice in Chains without Layne!," "How can they even use the name Alice in Chains?" and, of course, "They're just doing it for the money." To some, the band's motives and sincerity become even more questionable in the aftermath of Rock Star: INXS or the Paul Rodgers-fronted Queen. But many of the group's closest friends and supporters insist that the band's aims are pure.

"It's totally a case-by-case kinda thing, these kinds of reunions," offers Barrett Martin, former drummer for Screaming Trees and the Staley-fronted Mad Season and the one who wrote the eulogy for Staley's funeral. "I think that in this case, they have every right to re-form as Alice in Chains because that's who they are, and they have years and years of effort invested in that. I've known those guys for 15 years now, and they're real solid, they're real sincere, and I think they'll do a good job."

Heart's singer/guitarist Nancy Wilson agrees. "I think people get a little too indulgent with their feelings of ownership about what they think bands should do or not do, but they're not in the band," she says. "It's up to the band, and those guys in particular are extremely aware of all that stuff — they care about how their fans feel, really a lot, but they've gotta do what's right for them in the time they have allotted on the Earth."

Though she's been supportive of the reunion, McCallum had initial concerns about the band's using the name Alice in Chains. "Frankly, from a personal standpoint, I thought maybe if they gave themselves a new name, it would be a fresh start. I figured that going out as Alice in Chains, they might get some negativity. But, you know, the business side of it says that if you keep your original name, everything flows more smoothly. I don't mean to put this in [terms of] dollars and cents, but the fact is, if you go out with a different name, then you have to reestablish yourself financially, and it's very expensive. Also, the fact is, Jerry wrote a lot of the music, and it's kind of like, that is their identity too."

Long wary of the media and skeptical of doing interviews — mainly due to the way Staley's drug problems were handled by the press — both Cantrell and Kinney have been willing to speak out lately and defend themselves against some of the criticism that's been hurled their way.

"We're not replacing [Layne]; we're playing our songs, man," Kinney says.

"It's like, who's somebody else to tell us we can't be with somebody?" Cantrell adds. "You get divorced and what, you can't be with anybody else? Somebody dies in your family, you can't continue to live on? People deal with it every day, and we're dealing with it right now, and that's our choice and our business."

"That's life. Welcome to life," Kinney interjects.

"Yeah, welcome to life," Cantrell continues. "So as far as that decision, that comes down to us, and as far as what we've seen standing in front of people, having William sing with us, people have been there with open arms, man, holding us up when sometimes it feels like you don't wanna fuckin' stand."

Although Alice in Chains hasn't named DuVall its permanent lead singer, longtime AIC producer Toby Wright says that plans are in the works to record a new album, though no new material has been written. For now, AIC's sets consist entirely of songs familiar to Alice in Chains fans, and the band stresses that the shows are a celebration of the band's entire catalog and of Layne's powerful legacy.

And though some people invoke the title of "We Die Young" — the lead track on AIC's 1990 debut, Facelift — to ironically assess Alice in Chains post-Layne Staley, perhaps the best representation of the band as it exists now is the image of the three-legged dog that appears on the cover of its last studio album, 1995's Alice in Chains: sad, missing a limb, but still standing.

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Michael Alan Goldberg