Alice in Chains were one of the loudest voices out of Seattle, iconic pioneers who mixed grunge and metal in ways that continue to influence today’s artists. Theirs is a story of hard work, self-destruction, rising from the ashes and carrying on a lasting legacy.
Four years after their first meeting at a warehouse under Seattle’s Ballard Bridge, Alice in Chains became the first of grunge’s big four – ahead of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden – to get a gold record and achieve national recognition. With the charismatic Layne Staley behind the microphone, they became one of the most influential and successful bands to come out of the Seattle music scene. But as the band got bigger, so did its problems.
Acclaimed journalist David de Sola delves beneath the secrecy, gossip and rumor surrounding the band to tell its full story for the first time. Based on a wealth of interviews with people with direct knowledge of the band, many speaking on record for the very first time, de Sola explores how drugs nearly destroyed the band and claimed the lives of Staley and founding bassist Mike Starr, Jerry Cantrell’s solo career and Mike Starr’s life after being fired from the band and the band’s resurrection with new lead singer William DuVall.
From their anonymous struggles to topping the charts with hits like “Would?” “Man in the Box” and “Rooster,” Alice in Chains reveals the members of the band, not as caricatures of rock stars but as brilliant, nuanced and flawed human beings, whose years of hard work led to seemingly overnight success that changed the music scene forever.
You can’t freaking sing!
LAYNE RUTHERFORD STALEY was born on Tuesday, August 22, 1967, at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Washington. His parents, Phillip Blair Staley and Nancy Elizabeth Layne, were living in the town of Kirkland, located along the eastern shore of Lake Washington.
Layne’s birth was announced in the “Born Yesterday” section of the next day’s edition of The Seattle Times. Under the subheading “To Mr. and Mrs.—” the section is an alphabetical listing of every child born the previous day in each hospital in the greater Seattle area. The final birth listed under Overlake Hospital reads, “Phillip B. Staley, 10146 N.E. 64th St., Kirkland, boy.”
Phil and Nancy, who were twenty-nine and nineteen at the time, had been married by a minister nearly six months earlier in a ceremony witnessed by Paul R. Staley, the groom’s brother, and Margaret Ann Layne, the bride’s sister. The previous summer, Nancy had competed in the Miss Washington Pageant as Miss Bellevue. When Phil and Nancy’s engagement was announced in January 1967, Nancy was a student at the Cornish School of Allied Arts. She was the oldest of Robert L. Layne and Ann J. Becker’s three daughters. Her parents were both graduates of the University of Washington, where they were involved in the fraternity and sorority scene on campus.
Phil was the oldest of Earl R. and Audrey Staley’s four sons. He went to Denver University, where he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. A car salesman by profession, Phil had the car business in his genes going back two generations.4 His father, Earl R. Staley, had been involved in trailer manufacturing and related industries since 1935, when he was just twenty-one years old. Phil’s grandfather, Earl B. Staley, was born in Kansas in 1884, from which the family relocated to Denver, according to the 1900 U.S. Census. Earl, who worked in the automobile and truck industry, began his career in Denver in 1903, working in various capacities in the field until he relocated to Seattle in 1907 after accepting a job as service manager for the Pacific Coast Automobile Sales Company.
In September 1970, when Layne was three, his mother gave birth to his sister Elizabeth Audreyann Staley. His affinity for music showed at an early age. Layne told Rolling Stone his first memory was of looking up at a musical carousel hanging over his crib.
According to his other sister Jamie Elmer, Layne was known for being very focused as a child. “He would really be into whatever drawing he was doing or art project. He was really focused. I remember [Nancy] saying that [if] he was really focused on … drawing something or playing with Legos or Tinkertoys [and] she’d put a sandwich in front of his nose … he wouldn’t even notice. He was so into whatever art or craft he was doing at the time.”
She also described Layne as being very close to Liz. “I don’t ever remember hearing stories of them not being close. And definitely because of them having the same parents and being full brother and sister, there was a closeness between the two of them that was pretty apparent and special and different than with the rest of us.”
After seven years of marriage, on October 30, 1974, Phil filed for divorce. The filing does not provide a specific cause, stating only that the marriage was “irretrievably broken.” Through his attorney, Phil proposed a settlement and child-support plan. Because Nancy never went to court or filed a motion to contest the documents filed by Phil, his attorney successfully argued that the court issue an order of default accepting Phil’s proposal.
James Kenneth Elmer was an appraiser working for a bank where Nancy was working as part of a public relations campaign. Jim went to a Christmas party in December 1974, which Nancy also attended, where they were introduced by a mutual friend. Jim isn’t sure if he’d call his initial reaction love at first sight, but said “It was certainly interesting. I certainly took notice.”
It was a fairly quick courtship—a matter of a few months. The first time Jim met Layne and Liz was at Nancy’s mother’s home. “One evening, we were going to go out. The kids were there. At that age, they’re just real delightful. Nothing spectacular happened, but that’s when I first met them.” Jim didn’t think the kids understood the idea that he was dating their mother at the time. His impressions of Layne: “He’s a sensitive child, smart kid. Certainly loved his sister and mom.” As the relationship became serious, they talked to Layne and Liz about it.
On June 13, 1975, two months after Nancy’s divorce from Phil was finalized, she married Jim Elmer. Nancy would eventually take her new husband’s surname. At the time, Layne was two months shy of his eighth birthday. In addition to Layne and Liz, Ken, Jim’s son from his first marriage, was added to the mix. Of his parents’ divorce and his mother’s remarriage, Layne would say years later, “No deep, dark secrets there. I remember sometimes wondering where my dad was, but most of the time I was too busy running around and playing.”
Ken’s parents had divorced when he was three years old. A few years later, they both remarried within one or two weeks of each other. Under the visitation terms worked out by his parents, Ken had a schedule where he would see his father every weekend, as well as during summers and holidays for extended visits. “Layne and I got together and got along very quickly. Liz was a year younger than me, so she was about four, he was probably seven turning eight, and I was five turning six. So it was a good age. I remember we picked on Liz quite a bit in life, but that’s what older brothers do,” Ken said.
Jim offered a similar recollection. “I think they became reasonably close. You’ve got three little kids. You’re always going to have some type of dynamic and so forth. But by and large, we did things with the three of them and kept everybody involved.”
“Layne was always a gentle kid, a kind kid—smart in his own way. Not school smart, but certainly incredibly intelligent, as we learned later in life,” Ken added. Layne played T-ball in elementary school, Jim said, but didn’t show much interest in sports as he got older. Ken recalled watching Seattle Seahawks football games with his father on TV, during which Layne would get bored and leave the room. Academically, Jim described Layne as “a reasonably good student. I don’t think he was straight-A, but he seemed to like school. He had his group of friends.” He also noted, “I don’t remember any drama with him being in school until he started to grow up.”
Though Layne’s serious interest in music wouldn’t develop until a few years later, one noteworthy event happened in October 1975, when Elton John was on tour and was scheduled to perform two nights at the Seattle Center Coliseum. Jim wanted to go to the show. He doesn’t remember how this came about, but he took Layne to what would be his first concert.9 As the lights went down before the start of the show, people inside the venue began smoking marijuana. Layne looked around, looked at Jim, and asked “Dad, do you smell that stuff?”
As far as Layne’s impressions of the show, Jim said, “He was certainly not bored. He certainly enjoyed the music. It was sold out. You had a lot of people, well-behaved, there was excitement. He was just taking it all in at that age.”
In the first year or two after Nancy married Jim Elmer, Phil would come by occasionally to see Layne and Liz. Eventually, Phil started spending progressively less time with them, leading to a major decision within the family.
“In Liz’s case, she got to the point where she wanted to have a stay-at-home dad. While she and Phil got along, once he started to kind of disappear, she wanted a little more stability, and [to] know that she could count on somebody. We talked with her about being adopted and she liked that idea.” The Elmers went through the process so Jim could legally adopt Liz as his daughter, a decision Phil—who declined to be interviewed for this book—consented to. As a result, she legally changed her surname to Elmer. Layne felt very differently about the situation. According to Jim, “He was waiting for his dad to come back and didn’t want to be adopted.” He would use the Elmer surname through high school, but he never legally changed it like Liz did.
Layne and Ken developed an interest in music during the late 70s and early 80s, according to Ken. “We both gravitated very heavily to that hair-band rock and roll: Twisted Sister, Ozzy, Scorpions—I mean, that’s all we listened to.” Layne’s tastes weren’t limited to the metal and hard rock of the day. At one point, Ken remembers Layne being a big fan of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album. “I remember for a year or so, he was so into that that it was crazy. And that was at a very young age.” Jim remembers him liking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
When Layne was between ten and twelve years old, Jim took him and a few boys from the neighborhood to a Van Halen concert. “That’s where they really started to like the music, I think. We were down in the general seating area, without any seats, so we were down in that mosh-pit area. So when things started, I got off to the side. The two neighbor boys and Layne were about the same age, and they stayed down there.” He added, “I stayed down there with them for just a little bit, and even in those days, I was the oldest person down there. Some girl came up with her boyfriend and said, ‘You’re really great for being down here.’ I took that as a compliment, because it was action-packed. It was a great concert. I think they stayed down there for the whole thing.”
Years later, Layne told journalist Jon Wiederhorn he realized he wanted to make music for a living in the fourth grade. “I didn’t know what I was going to play. I started playing the trumpet, then cornet, then drums. I’d listen to my favorite rock bands on headphones and try to imitate them. But when I was fifteen I realized I was getting much better than when I started, so I decided I wanted to sing. At the time I was in a cover band with friends from high school.”
Jim’s parents owned a vacation home on Long Beach, Washington, and every summer Jim would take his family there for a week. Ken has many fond memories of Layne during these trips. Ken remembers spending time at the sand dunes or Marsh’s Free Museum. The last year they went, Layne and Ken wound up double-dating a girl from Marsh’s and one of her friends the entire week.
A major milestone was the birth of Jim and Nancy’s daughter, Jamie Brooke Elmer, on January 20, 1978. At the time, Layne was ten, Ken was nine, and Liz was seven. In terms of parenting, Jim credits Nancy for joining a support group with other stay-at-home mothers focused on how to help or improve the parenting process. “That was extremely important,” Jim said. “I think that fostered a lot of good things in the state and certainly within our family, with the girls as they were growing up.” She began the classes within a year or so after Jamie’s birth.
According to Rolling Stone, Layne took up drums when he was twelve. “Our friend had a drum set and offered to let Layne use it,” Nancy would later recall. According to Ken, “He started playing the drums, and he was a pretty good little drummer. But he just never had contacts or never really had that big group of friends to go and form a whole bunch of bands. You’ve just got those pockets of guys who are like that, and Layne just wasn’t like that.”
The decision to switch from drums to singing was one of the most consequential of Layne’s life. Years later, he explained how it happened. “I was playing drums and I wanted to sing one song, and the singer said, ‘No, you’re a drummer. Drummers don’t sing.’ So we got in a fight and I packed up my drums and got in my van and drove straight downtown, traded in my drum set for a delay, a microphone, and a mic cord, and went home and started practicing. I was horrible at first, but I found my instrument.”
Ken Elmer was in the car with Layne when Layne mentioned in an almost offhand manner, “Oh, by the way, I sold everything and I got a microphone.” Layne and Ken shared a large downstairs room, each with his own waterbed. Until that day, their beds had shared the space with Layne’s drum kit, which had been replaced by microphones and a PA system. “The drums were always a part of the family for years, and he would always be a drummer. And then one day I came over for visitation, and all the drum stuff is gone. And there’s these big speakers and an amplifier and like two microphones. I’m like, ‘Dude, what did you do?’”
“Oh, I sold everything. I’m gonna be a singer.”
Ken was flabbergasted. “I’m like, ‘You can’t freaking sing!’” he recalled years later, laughing pretty hard. “I’m like, ‘You suck!’”
“No, this is what we’re gonna do now.”
Ken had no idea where his decision to sing came from. During subsequent visits, Layne and Ken would transcribe lyrics to songs by Twisted Sister, the Scorpions, and Van Halen and then sing over the songs. This lasted for about a year at most. “The funny part of it is, I really didn’t think he had a good voice.”
* * *
Though they went to schools in different districts, Ken remembers Layne had little interest in academics growing up. “He was a very intelligent guy. He just didn’t have time for certain structures that society told him he had to be a part of. He would say, ‘Screw that. Why?’ And later in life, I kind of respected him for that.”
Regarding his grade school years, Layne said, “I hated school. I wasn’t very popular and I wasn’t big into sports. I liked woodworking and skateboarding.”
According to Jim, Layne began dabbling in drugs and alcohol at some point during his teenage years. “He was running around with the wrong crowd and coming home from school later. He was doing something. We knew that; we could smell it.” He doesn’t remember smelling marijuana on his clothes, but he did smell alcohol. He never found evidence of drugs or drug paraphernalia while Layne was living at the house during this period.
During one of Ken’s weekend visits, he and Layne—who was a teenager at the time—went to a neighbor’s house one night to watch Friday the 13th on HBO. Someone had brought marijuana, and everyone there that night except Ken smoked it.
Layne once tried Dexatrim, a weight-loss drug that was available over the counter at the time. According to Ken, “It speeds up your metabolism massively. I think that the thing was when we were kids, we were told if you take a bunch of that stuff, it hits you like speed. I mean it makes you super high. I just remember him experimenting with that at least once that I knew of.” Ken does not know the extent of Layne’s drug use during this period, but does not think the Friday the 13th episode meant he was regularly smoking marijuana. Nancy told The Seattle Times, “He got in trouble doing things kids do. He dabbled in trying drugs, about the age thirteen or fourteen. Then his junior and senior years he stayed drug-free, and he was the happiest then.” Ken has no recollection of Layne’s doing any hard drugs at this point but said he was drinking.
Layne began his freshman year at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood on September 8, 1981, according to a record shown by a school source. When he was a student, he was one of the shortest boys in his class. “In his junior year he had pretty much lost interest in school—he’d been picked on because he was small, so he was really through with the scene,” Nancy said. She gave Layne the option of dropping out. Around the same time, Layne went through a growth spurt and went from being one of the shortest boys to being six feet tall—a height he had always wanted to be. He told his mother, “The girls have started to notice me,” and decided to stay in school.
According to Jim, “He did get picked on when he was at that younger age because of his size. He certainly started to dabble around. It took him a while to grow, but when he did, he did. Then things started to change.”
“I can remember when he was in a situation where he was getting picked on [at] school. A couple of times, it ended a little more dramatic than just getting picked on. He got in a couple of fights and so forth. He started to change and got more interested in the drug culture and music and so forth. He definitely had some options.”
According to Ken, “I’m not going to say that he always hated being around people, but he wasn’t an overly gregarious person. So I don’t think just that he was short, it was a little bit of his nature, his personality, as well.” He also noted with a slight laugh that “Layne was not a big stud with the ladies. He kept to himself a lot. He didn’t have a lot of girlfriends growing up.”
When Layne was about fifteen, he and Nancy were having an argument. The car was packed for a weekend family trip and Layne didn’t want to go. Jim recalled, “They were having words and things started to escalate. Nancy had mentioned to me, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ I was prepared to just leave and let things cool down. She says, ‘You’re not protecting me.’ Calling his mother names and that type of thing—I’m caught in the middle between her getting verbally abused and so forth.
“I got out of the car [and] went to see Layne, who was on the front steps. I took him around to the backyard and I spanked him.” That was the first and only time he ever did this. “He was not going to give in. It shows the resolve of that kid. I did push him against the side of the house, and he was not going to show any defeat or anything else. Of course, I felt bad, and I think he felt bad.” Jim and Layne talked about the incident a few years later and apologized to each other.
The family left for the weekend, leaving Layne alone at the house. When they came back, there was a smell of Lysol. “That’s not how we left the house. It was clean, but not spotless. This house was spotless,” he recalled. “Nancy and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to be calm, going to see what happened, what he tells us.’”
Layne approached them visibly shaken and crying. He and his friends who lived next door had gone out to a 7-Eleven to get food. A comment was made that Layne’s parents were out of town, and word got around that there was an open house, so a party was organized. One of the neighbors called the police. Jim found out later on that when the police showed up, there were at least a hundred people at the house.
“Layne came to us and confessed. He was just so remorseful that things were so out of control. It was meaningful because he and the two neighbor boys were going from room to room, constantly keeping people out of closets, looking for stuff and so forth. Once the police got there, got everybody scared away, those boys spent the next two days cleaning that house. It was a telling point in his life where it scared him, in terms of being out of control. He had mentioned that because there were so many people, and he couldn’t do anything about it.
“We didn’t chastise him or anything. He learned his own lesson. But that was telling to us all.”
At about the same age, Layne ran away from home for the first time. He was staying with a friend two houses away for a few days before the mother called Layne’s parents and asked, “Would you come get your son?”
They refused to pick him up and told her to send Layne home.
The second incident happened about six months later. Layne had taken off for a day. It was dark and rainy that night, and his parents got a call from the Lynnwood Police Department, informing them that Layne was at the station and asking them to pick him up. He had not been arrested or detained for anything, according to Jim.
“Nancy and I kind of looked at each other. We [have] got [to draw] a line of responsibility.” Jim’s personal inclination was to pick him up. After talking about it, Jim and Nancy decided to teach Layne a lesson.
“Well, he walked down there. He can walk home,” they told the police officer.
“He may not want to do that.”
“Well, you can bring him home or you can tell him. We’ve made it real clear, he knows where his home is. Just tell him his dinner is waiting and his waterbed is ready.”
Layne walked home, ate his dinner, and went to bed. He never ran away again. “Here we were having another dispute, a child running away. I think both Nancy and I would agree it was the best thing to do,” Jim said. “The point of contention was you can’t just have your way in the family, of running away, and having everything brought back to you in terms of we’ll come pick you up, we’ll take care of you. It’s all about you, Layne. It’s drawing some boundaries—you’ve got some responsibility.”
Jamie’s earliest memory of Layne, probably from around this period when she was about five years old, is of him making potato chips in the kitchen. She also remembers him practicing the trumpet and drums.
At some point during this period, he worked as a busboy and dishwasher at an Italian restaurant close to his home. According to Jim, Layne would do whatever odd job they gave him, but he doesn’t think Layne had any skill or focus at the time to work as a waiter or cook.
When Ken visited on weekends, he and Layne would go to their room and sing along to songs all day. For Ken, it was just fun. For Layne, Ken said, “It was like, ‘I’m training for what I want to do.’ And I think that’s why he got his head on straight a little bit.
“Because he had a focus. He had a goal. He had something that gave him some drive. School didn’t give it to him. He was never overly interested in girls in that way at a young age, and this kind of gave him a push. I think that’s just as much a key as whether he was six feet or not.” In switching from drums to singing, Layne may have found something he was passionate about that he could develop, but it was an encounter and a chance suggestion by Ken that would ultimately change the direction of Layne’s life.
Copyright © 2015 by David de Sola