My daughter Jessica had to go to back to work. So I drove her back to her apartment in NYC this morning. On the way back I was listening to “Lithium”, a channel on Sirius/XM. I don’t listen to this channel much, but it seems to be one that is dedicated to rock music of the 90’s up until the turn of the century. This was the period when I was running promotion for the rock acts on Columbia.
A lot of people have told me to write a book. I have thought about it. But I have been told that publishers are not interested in a book about the music business. The ones that have been published did not sell very well. As a result I have decided to share a few of my memories with whoever cares to read this.
As I am driving back this morning, “Man In the Box” from Alice In Chains came on the radio. Sitting in the seat I was in at Columbia, this act was my responsibility. The band was signed by my friend Nick Terzo. For whatever reason it was not brought into the company with a tremendous amount of hoopla. Usually, when a priority band comes in, it was made very obvious to me that I had better get it played. I am not sure why but initially there was no such pressure attached to this act. I think because the sound was not very “radio friendly” at the time of release, the plan was to market them in the metal world first. Not commercial rock radio.
Early on, I was introduced to their manager, Susan Silver. Susan actually co-managed the band with Kelly Curtiss. I believe she is still is their co-manager. Although she has a different partner. Susan was married to Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell at the time. She was very immersed in the still burgeoning “Grunge Scene” in Seattle. This music had not yet become mainstream.
My first real contact with the band was in March of 1990. Each year Jeff Pollack and Associates, a radio consulting firm would hold a convention in LA. All the label reps went, as did I and my partner Paul Rappaport. Traditionally we would stage some sort of event for the PDs from the various radio stations around the country that came out. This year we took them to race go carts. We invited these four young guys Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Starr and Sean Kinney to come along. It gave us a chance to meet the guys and introduce them to the radio folks. Cantrell won a Sony TV for having the best racing time. But we should have know something was amiss, because we heard that the band was trying to bum coke off of the Program Directors. Certainly a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Their debut album “Facelift” came out in August of 1990. We released a single “We Die Young” and with the exception of one of the best stations of that era WXTB in Tampa, very few people played it. My local promotion guy that covered Phoenix gave a cassette (believe it not we still used them) of the album to Curtiss Johnson who programmed KUPD in Phoenix when he went on vacation. Curtiss played the tape in his car and came back and “added” “Man in the Box” to his radio station’s playlist immediately upon his return. The following week we saw strong sales in the market and we were off to the races.
At this time there was NOTHING on the radio as hard as this song. Most people considered them a hard rock band at the time, but even a bit more over the top. Listening to the record now it is hard to believe. But with the exception of a few insightful programmers no one wanted to play this record. Here is the original, startlingly good original video of “Man in the Box”.
One major element that drives radio stations to play songs and how often to play them is something called “Passive Research”. Without going into detail it is research done with heavy station listeners over the phone. This song “researched” astonishingly well. So while it was very difficult to get PDs to embrace the sound, eventually they could not overlook the research. Slowly stations began to play the song. We were definitely breaking new ground. Again there was nothing like this on the radio. But it took a long time. Stations added and dropped the song many times. One reason was the lyric “Deny your maker”, which was interpreted as a slight against religion at the time. Many stations initially refused to play it, either because of this lyric or because of the sound.
Eventually nearly every rock station in America played the record. But because it was stretched over six or eight months, with stations adding and dropping it, it only reached 19* on the chart. It was impossible to get all the stations in the country to play it in heavy rotation all at the same time. The band toured with Anthrax, Slayer and others in a show called “Clash of the Titans”. All heavy metal bands and Alice. The reviews were mixed. Not exactly their audience.
The band went back in the studio to record “Dirt” which was released in September of 1992 just on the heels of an acoustic EP called SAP. We didn’t work SAP at radio at all. The first single from “Dirt” was “Them Bones”. By then Alice had established themselves as perhaps the best new rock band of the day. They paved the way for Pearl Jam and then finally Nirvana. By this time “Grunge” was a major force in rock music. So it was easier to get the band’s music played on the radio. The second big hit track from the album was a track called “Rooster”. A song about Cantrell’s father, a Vietnam Vet. The ballad went Top 5 and further established the band as a mainstay on every rock station’s playlist. But weird things started to happen with the band.
Alice was opening for Van Halen at this time. A tremendous break for the band. I got a phone call one morning from the band’s Product Manager at Columbia, Peter Fletcher. Jerry Cantrell was missing. Following a couple of off days he failed to show at the airport on the day of the next show. The FBI was alerted and we were worried. Cantrell was the most responsible member of the group. The next day came and just on a whim the tour manager went to the airport the same time the plane was to land the day before. Cantrell strode off the plane as if nothing was wrong. He apparently was hunting with his Dad and was unreachable (no cell phones back then) and lost track of the date. The tour resumed, but rumors about Layne’s heavy drug use began to surface.
I got a phone call from KQRC/Kansas City Program Director, Doug Sorenson, who has since passed away. He said that he had gotten reports that Layne had overdosed the night before in KC and was in a local hospital. I found out later that day that the reports were true. The back story is that Layne’s girlfriend Demri was a serious heroin addict. Layne had his own issues, but the combination of the two was deadly. For both of them.
The band was at the height of their popularity, but couldn’t tour due to Layne’s continuing drug issues. In January of 1994 we released another EP, “Jar of Flies”. It was obvious from the first note that this was going to be enormous for the band. I bumped into the guys in the LA office in early January. I knew what was about to happen. The band was always concerned with their credibility and viewed airplay as a double-edged sword. Layne was sitting in a chair, obviously stoned. From behind his sunglasses he begged me not to let radio play the first single “No Excuses” too much. I told him, no matter what I did the song was going to be #1. I knew that nothing would stop it. The rest of the guys were mortified, both at Layne’s state and also at what he said. They apparently had a huge argument that night. Most of all they saw their careers being endangered by their brother’s drug addiction.
The band continued to stay off the road and it wasn’t until they got some dates on the Kiss reunion tour, when Stone Temple Pilots had to drop off due to their lead singers drug problem, that they toured. The band had not toured in years. The tickets to the show were sold out before Alice was added to the show. We had no idea what the audience reaction was going to be to the band. They had not played a full blown show in years. Cantrell stuck his head out from behind the curtain to look at the sold out crowd in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium and the entire place went crazy. They played for about 40 minutes. Susan Silver spent most of the show crying. I had hung out with the guys in their bus playing Madden Football and could tell that Layne was weak. He was so weak in fact that it looked like any song would be the last for the night. It seemed the microphone was holding him up. But he sounded amazing and the band was great. By this time Mike Inez had replaced Starr in the band. Starr had his own addiction problems. Ironically Layne once saved Mike’s life when he OD’d. Starr has since passed away. But this night there was hope. We had planned to put the guys on the road again. They never really had a proper headline tour. They would have a schedule with lots of down time built in to make things easier for Layne and hopefully allow him to make it through the tour. It would never happen.
Since Layne seemed on the mend, the band scheduled an appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, just prior to the Kiss Tour. It was at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music. Once again, Layne looked very shaky but sounded great. Jerry huddled with him, seemingly after each song, just to make sure he was okay. Here is a clip of “No Excuses” from that show.
That was the last time I saw the band perform. On July 3, 1996 Layne once again overdosed in Kansas City (what was it about that city) and ended up in the hospital. The band would never perform live again.
Staley was involved in a couple of side projects. Mad Season was one as was “Class of 99”. In 1998 along with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine they recorded “Another Brick in the Wall” for the soundtrack to the movie “Class of ’99”. By this time Layne could not stand erect. His back almost humped due to malnutrition. Many of his teeth had fallen out as well and he weighed about 80 pounds. If you listen to the recording you will hear a noticeable lisp. His voice, still sounded amazing, but the lack of front teeth made it difficult for him to enunciate the lyrics.
He stayed out of the public eye for a long time. Finally Layne was visited by his ex-band mate and fellow addict Mike Starr. They shot up together and Starr later admitted that he he left his friend to die, because he was so high he was incapable of even calling 911. On April 5, 2002, exactly 8 years to the day that Kurt Kobain took his own life, Layne’s body was found in his Seattle condominium. He had been dead for about two weeks.
Alice in Chains may have evolved into one of the greatest bands ever. From where I sat they were certainly headed in that direction. In 2006 the band re-formed with new singer Mike Duvall. Though he is very good and sounds similar to Layne, the purity of the voice is just not there. Layne’s voice and Cantrell’s voice were perfect together. At least from my perspective there will only be one real Alice In Chains. It is one of the most tragic stories in rock music.