REMEMBERING LAYNE STALEY: THE HIGH SCHOOL YEARS
WRITTEN BY DAVID BRONSTEIN & EDITED BY BRETT BUCHANAN
Every Wednesday night, Layne Staley and his friends would get together. Some arrived in crappy $100 dollar cars that sounded like a 90 year old smoker ready to draw their last breath, while others would take the more ‘healthy’ route and ride their bikes up to the ridge. The place they gathered was in a vacant part of Lynnwood known as Blue Ridge, a stone’s throw from Layne Staley’s house. When they got together it was be a familiar site- smoking, drinking, talking and most importantly blasting out music from their radios. The FM was almost always tuned into KISW for their weekly fix of ‘Music Shop’.
Layne Staley, being an actual musician, was always welcomed at Blue Ridge, and he was always able to get a free beer or smoke. Staley’s band Sleze had established themselves in Lynnwood and beyond with their cheap punk/rock trashy covers and a few originals thrown in for good measure. Layne was already known as quite the frontman, who embodied the spirit of a rock star in his knowledge right down to his fashion sensibilities. He almost always wore the same black levi jacket for social gatherings, with the word SLEZE painted on the back.
On one of those many Wednesdays, during the chaos of the music being played and the talk of youth being lost to time in the cool breeze, Layne was asked when and where will Sleze play their next show, and if they would ever cover Twisted Sister. The answer to the first question was always tricky for Layne. The Teen Dance Ordinance had just come in, which meant that it was harder and at times impossible for bands, especially unsigned ones, to play in traditional music venues. Hence why almost all of Sleze’s shows were at high schools. The Twisted Sister question made Layne laugh a little. To keep one outsider happy who was visiting Blue Ridge with his older brother, Layne promised that Twisted Sister would make some kind of appearance, before doing a spot on impersonation of Dee Snider. Within a second Layne was giving out a cheeky smile that he would become accustomed to in later life. A smile if spelt read ‘It ain’t gonna happen’.
The next day, a weary Staley was due in for school. The hang out and late nights at Blue Ridge had become more common, especially as this was his last year of school. Staley attended Meadowdale High School, which was just under two miles from his home. Known as ‘The Chiefs’, the school’s wrestling team were the current Wrestling State Champions. While Staley loved the sport, he was less than enthused that he did not make the team. Staley excelled at other sports though during his formative years, like basketball, baseball, and Tae Kwon-Do. Layne enjoyed Tae Kwon-Do most, earning a yellow belt in the process. Layne also had several jobs during his pre rock star years, including working as a carpenter, a phone solicitor, a cleaner/cook in an Italian restaurant and a burger joint. But Staley’s life was really all about the music. During breaks at school Staley and his friends, some of which were Goths, would hang out on the south side of the school right down by a ramp near the railings. Here they would listen to music and discuss the local trends, it was also safe place to have a smoke on school property.
Layne would frequently take the short ride to Sleze bandmate James Bergstrom’s house. There Staley and the rest of the band would meet up for rehearsals, they had for a short time tried at Staley’s place. The fact that his bedroom was in the basement of his house made sense to everyone but his mother, Nancy. One day during practice at Bergstrom’s place, a written practice set list included the familiar songs of the time. First up were a couple of Anthrax tunes including ‘Metal Thrashing Mad’ and Panic from ‘Fistful of Metal’. Staley loved British rockers Iron Maiden. When he was learning to play drums, Maiden’s drummer Nick McBrain was Staley’s numero uno sticksman. So a dash of ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ was also included. The rehearsal also featured a few Black Sabbath tracks, ‘Paranoid’, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘War Pigs’. Little did Staley know, his future band Alice In Chains would be supporting Ozzy Osbourne seven years later. The night’s work was rounded off with a Judas Priest number, ‘Screaming for Vengence’ from the album of the same name. All songs were staple diets for Sleze’s setlist. Sleze had sent in some early demos to local radio stations, and perhaps Staley would visit Blue Ridge hoping to make it on the radio and surprise everyone, but it never happened. Not on KISW anyway…
KCMU had a similar metal program entitled Brain Pain. Hosted by Jeff Gilbert, Brain Pain featured angry, despairing music for lost young souls and deadbeats that bore zero resemblance to the mainstream cock rock schlock that swarmed other radio stations. To spread the word of the station, the show would hold parties every Sunday night in the Northwest. It was here that the station gave Layne Staley his radio debut, when they aired the song, ‘Fat Girls’. Staley was ecstatic, he was proud and at the same time humble for any affection and praise that would come his way, something that did not change as he got older and more well known. Shortly after making his debut on the radio, Staley was to make his film debut. Now whilst it was true that Staley’s first ever appearance on television was back in 1982 on a talk show (he was a participating audience member having a go at Tipper Gore), this opportunity was the first time that the spotlight was on him. It was for about a minute in the locally produced Father Rock movie, but it turned out to be good promotion for the band. The brief scene would see Sleze playing a show in a school, to the dismay of the teachers. Life imitating art, or more like art imitating life?
But when you view that brief clip of a teenage Layne Staley, you can witness first hand that this cheap glam band had a frontman who had a rock star aura about him. It would, as it turned out, be an appetizer for what was to come.
This article is an extension of GrungeReport.net’s Remembering Layne Staley retrospective series from back in March/April, so since it’s the most recent it is ‘Part 7′ I guess, despite taking place before the events of the original 6 entries. David Bronstein is a freelance writer who writes for GrungeReport.net. David can be reached at davidjbronstein @hotmail.com. Brett Buchanan is the owner of GrungeReport.net and can be reached at grungereport @yahoo.com.
REMEMBERING LAYNE STALEY RETROSPECTIVE