Co-written by Brett Buchanan
In 1996 the biggest story in rock music hit MTV News with a thud, and we all ran for tickets to what would surely be the hottest gig that summer. KISS were reuniting with their original lineup of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, the two former band members were joining Stanley and Simmons on stage for the first time since 1979. Set to join KISS on tour were Stone Temple Pilots, who had once performed dressed as KISS in 1993. It was no surprise that tickets sold out in minutes. However, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland entering rehab forced STP to pull out.
In came Alice In Chains, a band that also had problems with their enigmatic lead singer, Layne Staley. Staley’s heroin addiction had meant that Alice In Chains had in effect ceased touring since the Dirt tour ended in 1993. Indeed, the band from Seattle had played just two concerts since then, and both had been acoustic shows. The first was the lone show to promote Jar of Flies in Los Angeles in January 1994, a charity concert with Fishbone. The second was their high profile comeback show of sorts when they were invited to play on the prestigious MTV Unplugged series. A couple of television performances followed, but Alice in Chains had not toured behind their self-titled record released in November 1995. This decision was shocked the music industry given that the record had shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. But Alice in Chains were now ready to return to the road to support a band that they had grown up listening to, committing to four opening slots with KISS.
Layne Staley performing live with Alice In Chains at Tiger Stadium on June 28, 1996.
The Alive/Worldwide tour opened up in Detroit at Tiger Stadium on June 28, 1996 in front of 40,000 fans, and ended a year later after almost 200 shows. Alice In Chains may have played just a small part of the tour, but for dedicated AIC fans the shows remain significant, as these were Layne Staley’s final live shows with the band. Layne Staley’s final concert took place on an early Wednesday evening on July 3, 1996 in Kansas City at the Kemper Arena.
“What I remember,” says Steve Palmer, an in house technician at the Kemper Arena that night, “is that they were coming on stage in like three minutes or so and no one from their crew had put out the setlists. Usually you’ll have five, maybe ten copies lying around the stage – and there were none. I remember having to ask one of their guys where are the setlists? That clearly wasn’t my job, but I didn’t want anyone to screw up. I’m pretty sure one of their guys had to run down the hall and knock on Jerry Cantrell’s door to get it sorted, I remember there was panic at the time.”
The lights went down and a huge roar greeted the band. “Jerry went on stage and kind of looked back in surprise,” says Palmer. “He was really happy, this was a KISS crowd for sure but the fans were into Alice, plus they had their own fans there. From what I saw they had the support of the folks from Kansas, no one was hiding the fact that they had their problems.”
During set opener “Again,” Mike Inez jumped around, with his legs wide apart, and his head down and ferociously banging. Jerry Cantrell struck his chords of his guitar with everything he had, knowing that this could be Alice In Chains’ final show for some time. Sean Kinney was fully committed to energizing the band, and then there was Layne Staley. Rooted to the spot where his microphone stand stood, every so often shaking his head to the music. As much as we wanted it to be, this wasn’t the Layne Staley that we all remembered. Palmer continues, “That’s the sad thing about drugs and what it can do to you, I was working in the profession but I was a music fan, I had my dream job. I’m watching the band from the side of the stage and they are really into it, and then Layne is just standing there. The guy was a professional, but it seemed to me like he didn’t want to be there. I remember their Dirt tour just a few years earlier, but you couldn’t believe this was the same guy. His love for the music had died I think. You’d think you were witnessing a 15 year gap between his performances from Dirt to now, and it was like three or four years. Damn.”
Joe Matthias was a die-hard fan of Alice In Chains, and he had traveled from New York City to catch the band in Kansas City. “When you watch the video on YouTube, you can see me, I’m the guy pumping my fists to Jerry’s side of the stage. There were a couple of us, but I didn’t know the others. This was the first time I was seeing the band live since the Lollapalooza tour. I remember when they were announced on the lineup and tickets had already sold out. I paid $150, but I didn’t care, I had this feeling that it’s now or never. I was so bummed that I missed Layne with Mad Season, and now I had my chance to catch him live again.”
Matthias though was in for a surprise. “You know, just being there watching dear Layne was so cool, but after a few songs I realized that something wasn’t right with him. I felt sad for him, and I just focused on Jerry because I was virtually watching the same Jerry from like 1990, nothing had changed, but Layne man, wow. Everything had changed.”
And yet Staley proved much like he did on his MTV Unplugged performance never to write him off. He became energized during different points in the show, belting out huge vocals on “Sludge Factory,” “Them Bones,” “Rooster,” and the bands final song the night, “Man in the Box.”
“He tried until the very end,” says Palmer, “and to tell you the truth, this wasn’t a terrible show. People dug them, it was just that we knew what Layne had done before and what he was capable of.”
After the show, it was alleged that Staley had an almost fatal drug overdose and had to remain in Kansas City as his bandmates flew home to Seattle. Staley’s overdose was just another reminder that even after playing only four shows that this band in its current form were not fit to tour anytime soon.
The nail was firmly put in the coffin just three months later when Staley’s ex-finance Demri Parrott passed away. A year later, Staley sold his Queen Anne home to move into the University District of Seattle where he would spend his remaining years, distancing himself from the world around him. And yet even then with Staley mostly living as a recluse, locals would see him hanging around town.
Staley almost performed live again in 1998 when Jerry Cantrell rolled into Seattle on his solo tour for Boggy Depot. It was Halloween night in 1998, and Staley was backstage as a guest. Cantrell reportedly asked Staley to join him onstage, which would have been quite historic, but Staley declined.
Less than four years later, Staley died alone at his penthouse, and his body was not found until two weeks later by his mother. Palmer concludes: “The day I found out he had died I cried, the last time I did that over a singer was Jim Morrison.” Ironically, Staley’s final live show had come 25 years to the day that Morrison was found dead in a bathtub in Paris. “They were both great artists”, says Palmer “why do the best artists always die way before their time?” This is a question that rock fans have and will continue to ask for some time yet.
Layne Staley backstage at Jerry Cantrell’s concert in Seattle on October 31, 1998.