Why Alice In Chains’ Dirt Had A Dark Downside

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Edited by Brett Buchanan

On September 29, 1992, Alice In Chains released their 2nd album Dirt. This wasn’t just any old album that would come and then disappear, this one was being hailed as a masterpiece from the very beginning. It would be a collection of songs largely drawn from singer Layne Staley’s drug problems, which had begun in a downward spiral 12 months before on the band’s support slot for Van Halen. Critics could not believe how open Staley was in his lyrics, which were filled with warnings to stay away from what he was doing to himself. But the songs were so good, the music that came from Jerry Cantrell on guitar, Mike Starr on bass, and Sean Kinney on drums, was so infectious that it was hard to believe that this was the same band who had made their debut album Facelift just two years prior to this record.

The downside to Dirt was that evidently the band had changed. Fame had made them darker, with drugs and unlimited crates of drinks now openly available on tour. The upside was that their negative experiences, like many bands before them, had been turned into such an artistic beauty that upon listening to Dirt from beginning to end, you almost felt violated, but there is no denying what a great record Dirt is and remains to this day.

With Alice In Chains almost being non existent on the touring front in 1992 due to their recording Dirt, which took most of the spring and summer of that year to complete, the band in earnest and looking refreshed begun a North American tour in the fall of that year to coincide with Dirt’s release. At first this wasn’t to be a headline tour, as the legendary Ozzy Osbourne asked for the band to support him. On most nights Alice In Chains and Blind Melon would fill the support slots, and it was on this tour that AIC connected with Mike Inez, Osbourne’s bassist at the time who would go on to be a full time member of Alice In Chains by the beginning of 1993.

Towards the end of 1992, Alice In Chains set up some headline shows for themselves, and some of the venues were the biggest up to that date that the band played as headliners. It would be a measure of how far the band had come in their short time together. In December, AIC were booked to play two nights at the famous 4,000 capacity Hollywood Palladium. Both nights sold out within an hour.

Alice In Chains’ first night at the Palladium took place just 77 days after the release of Dirt and is widely known as being one of the their finest shows. Back then the band decided to enter the stage in an almost classic theatrical way, reminiscent of a young Alice Cooper. One of the production crew members who worked in house at the venue explained: “We hadn’t really seen anything like this before, so they request that they had a large white curtain be erected at the front of the stage, they had their own crew so everyone was on board. I just had to make sure to get the signal right, so it fell at the right moment. That right moment had to be the moment the guitar and singer kicks in, it was quite a thrill, apparently they done this on every night of their tour.”

On December 15, 1992, with the house lights down, each member of Alice In Chains were standing behind the huge white curtain. They are silhouettes. The most effective being Layne Staley, whose shadow swings from side to side. The sold out crowd are already having a party, the atmosphere is electric, the Palladium roof which has stood firm since 1940 when it hosted Frank Sinatra is threatening to crumble under the anticipation. Then Sean Kinney’s thundering drums kick in, Jerry Cantrell revs up his guitar, and Mike Starr is already turning in 360 degrees moves, his trademark dance. The curtain falls and Layne Staley screams to the packed out LA audience ‘I broke you in the canyon, I drowned you in the lake’. It’s the beginning of ‘Dam That River’, and everyone is singing along, they already know the songs and lyrics. Standing up front is their God for the night, Layne Staley, dressed sharp in a leather jacket with his black sunglasses, and he is full of energy and in form.

Indeed all of the band are energized. They just had four days rest from their last show, which had taken place in Boulder, Colorado, and it’s easy to feel the buzz within the band and the crowd tonight. ‘Christmas has come 10 days early to LA’ screams out one fan as the band end ‘Dam That River’ and launch straight into Facelift’s ‘We Die Young’. The song starts with someone’s shoe being tossed into the air and ends with the other shoe being thrown onto the stage, someone was walking home barefoot that night. But who cared when live music was this good?

By the end of ‘We Die Young’, the screams are almost deafening as the crowd already look shattered, but the band continue their onslaught when Staley screams out the opening words to ‘Them Bones’, which only emits an even a bigger response. The band are not hanging around tonight, and intend to launch into song after song. There is a wave of crowd surfers, and security have their work cut out, one after the other try to connect with Staley, with one fan being raised aloft and singing along with him. Gheir eyes meet and Staley goes towards the fan, only for it to be a seemingly impossible task. ‘Love Hate Love’ is next introduced by Cantrell’s famous wailing guitar intro, Kinney’s sombre drums, Starr’s bass, which kicks in from the first verse, and Staley’s fantastic vocals as he pours out his emotional feelings into the microphone. At one point Starr manages to look up to the ceiling, spit, and then watch it fall back down whilst not missing a note. Cantrell’s stunning solo is also a highlight.

Whilst ‘Love Hate Love’ slowed the crowd down a bit, the band’s intentions were never to do that, and they launch into ‘Junkhead’. Starr is perfectly headbanging in tandem to Kinney’s drumming, Cantrell is shirtless, and Staley sings the next song ‘Godsmack’ almost crouched down for the entire four minutes. By the time the band launch into ‘Bleed the Freak’, Staley’s voice is so strong that during the quieter moments you can hear it bellowing throughout the sold out sweaty venue’s walls. Perhaps the only song of the night that does feel out of place is ‘Put You Down’. It takes the band back to their Seattle bar days, and some enthusiasm is lost between them and the crowd who clearly want the heavier stuff.

So when the band’s next song is ‘Sickman’, that wish is answered. It is an enthralling version with a magnificent light show, and Cantrell almost playing like he is possessed. ‘It Ain’t Like That’ follows to thunderous cheers, always a favorite, which includes Starr on bass jumping from the drum riser. Did anyone pick a bass like him? He almost beat it up every night, and still managed to stay on cue. During the song, Staley makes the first of his two stage dives. Diving right in during the guitar solo he is able to rush back to the stage, missing just one word of the next verse. By this point because the band are playing at such a relentless pace, they have a small break which includes a drum contest. This is something that Sean Kinney would do regularly on this tour, and a fan is invited up on stage to play drums. Tonight it is Michael, who looks like he is going to crap his pants. His big moment on the drums is stopped by Kinney, who upon hearing him says, “Go away.” In a surprise appearance, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers takes to the stage and shows Michael how it is done, with Kinney remaining the comedian and informing Smith that Michael was better, but it was close.

After that interlude, Staley picks up the guitar and after some encouragement from Cantrell, the band lead into ‘Hate To Feel’, and then say their goodbyes, which of course just leads us to the encore. The band then starts with a rousing version of ‘Angry Chair’, after Staley asks the crowd “one more?” and without missing a beat the band launch into their mega hit ‘Man in the Box’. For the 2nd verse of the song, Staley decides to climb up two monitors, which were at least 12 feet above the stage, handing his microphone to a roadie. The crowd sense what will happen next, and from high up Staley dives down on them. He then makes it back to the stage and the show is done. It has been an exhilarating experience for both the band and the fans and one show no one has forgotten about, even 26 years later.

  • PhoenixForce5

    A lot of people attribute the darkness to Layne and yes he had a hand in that because of his growing addiction which at that point had gotten so bad that Dirt producer Dave Jerden recalled Layne going out to score in the middle of the L.A. riots.

    But people also overlook Jerry’s contribution which is massive. As their main composer and sharing some of the lyrics duties with Layne – Jerry’s contribution to Dirt and to the band’s sound is so overlooked its criminal.

    At the time, Cantrell was reportedly battling depression, alcoholism and addiction. Cantrell lost is grandmother and mother from cancer in a span of 6 months, was kicked out of his home after a dispute with a family member and wasn’t even there when his family pulled his mother off life support. That’s really the catalyst of that dark sound. Jerry’s former bandmates from his previous band Diamond Lie recalled a massive change in his writing at that point. Add to that Andy Wood’s passing and it directly changed the bands in that tight-knit circle. Andy passing resulted in Jerry penning ‘Would?’. Add to that the end of Jerry’s 7 year relationship leading him to pen ‘Down in a Hole’. A dispute with Sean that led to a violent altercation was the cause for Jerry writing ‘Dam That River’. Jerry played with a lot of dark themes with ‘Them Bones’. Dirt was a difficult time in the band’s life – all of them – and it showed in the music they made.

    One shining ray of light in that darkness is ‘Rooster’. Written by Cantrell as a way to rebuild his broken relationship with his father. His mother, him and his siblings had left their father to live with their grandmother in Tacoma. Instead of hatred, Cantrell was able to put himself in the shoes of what his dad would have felt at the time during his Vietnam War assignments and what that did to him. And he succeeded. Rooster is a powerful song that is neither pro-war or anti. It places you in the shoes of every soldier that has ever felt fear and loss in battle. It remains relevant today as ever. But more importantly it brought father and son closer together.

  • fabicarb@aol.com

    I was there. I was 15 years old. Mind blown.

  • Michael Cunningham

    I was getting my tail kicked working 125 hours a week in my surgical internship when Dirt came out. I listened to it every morning (at 5 AM or so) on my way in to work. The music kept me sane and kept me alive. To this day I am thankful. Godspeed boys …

  • Tyrone Blackman

    Why Alice In Chains’ Dirt Had A Dark Downside

    Listen to the album. Its no mystery

  • Stone Gossardish

    Ah, Dirt is one of the baddest and darkest albums of all time. No one ever questioned if it had a dark side. It’s literally called Dirt.

    It remains the best purge “Grunge” album of all time. It will never be touched. So much of its sound is thanks to Dave Friedman too. Do not forget that.