I never cared much for the term “grunge,” though I certainly understood its appeal. “Grunge” was a way of defining a cadre of similar-sounding bands from a fairly concentrated geographic locale. These bands dressed alike. Drug issues ran rampant throughout grunge culture. In short, it was easy to cast a whole lot with one simple word.
A simple Google search of “grunge bands” yields no shortage of results, and this makes sense. After all, bands like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees, along with many others, certainly warranted coverage for their respective talents. But, for purposes of how grunge was truly identified, there are really only four bands of note.
This bears mention because Alice in Chains is playing Revention Music Center on Friday, September 7. The band is far removed from its '90s heydays, though William DuVall has done an admirable job in replacing – inasmuch as you can replace a departed legend – the late, great Layne Staley. Hell, the band has as many studio albums with DuVall in the fold as it did during Staley’s run.
But, back to the big four. Grunge was defined – at least in a mainstream perspective – by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the aforementioned Alice in Chains. These bands had the look, the hits and most importantly, the charismatic frontmen to warrant such distinction. Cobain had the sort of brooding presence that appealed to disaffected '90s youth. Eddie Vedder was, and remains, a charming stage presence with energy to burn. Chris Cornell? Man, that voice! As for Staley, well, if anyone personified grunge, it was he.
And, yet, when the greats of grunge are mentioned, Alice in Chains rarely rises to the top. This makes sense, to an extent. Cobain was the face of the grunge movement, and his untimely passing signifies the unofficial end of the era. Pearl Jam was probably the best musical outfit of the era, and both they and Vedder (as a solo act) thrive to this day. Soundgarden, again, had Cornell and one of the most distinct voices in rock history.
Alice in Chains? If anything, they might be penalized for being the most grunge band of them all. Sure, Cobain had the whole depressed rock star thing going, and much of this was true, but it always felt like Cobain played that up for effect. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden sounded grunge, but both always came off more approachable and less depressed than the grunge movement would have indicated.
Staley and crew? Sadly, it doesn’t get more depressing than that. The band only has two former members – Staley and former bassist Mike Starr – and both died of drug overdoses. Jerry Cantrell has certainly had his demons, though he has been sober for more than a decade now. Alice in Chains’ songs weren’t tailored to sound dark, and often times, they weren’t even layered in metaphor. Rather, Staley and Cantrell made little secret of their lyrical intentions.
*From “Nutshell” – “And yet I find/repeating in my head/if I can’t be my own/I’d feel better dead.”
*From “Down in a Hole” – “Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved/See my heart I decorate it like a grave.”
*From “Would” – “Into the flood again/Same old trip it was back then/So I made a big mistake/Try to see it once my way.”
*From “Man in the Box” – “I'm the man in the box/Buried in my shit/Won't you come and save me?/Save me.”
Point being, Cantrell’s almost bluesy musical backings, coupled with Staley’s tales of drug abuse, depression and overall despair, remain raw some 20-plus years after their release. Grunge hasn’t aged as well as some might have originally thought, but Alice in Chains is the exception to that rule. If anything, the songs hit harder than they did at the time, particularly since Staley died of a drug overdose in 2002 at the age of 34.
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The perfect encapsulation of Alice in Chains lies in the band’s MTV Unplugged performance from 1996. The band hadn’t performed in some time upon its recording, and it marks one of Staley’s final public appearances with his bandmates. But that is what makes it so poignant. Staley, who opted for sunglasses for much of the performance, was obviously struggling with addiction at the time, as he did for much of his life. But the music is so haunting, the vocals so tight and heartbreaking, mostly because Staley was living those very lyrics in front of a live audience.
I circled back recently to watch the performance, and it’s just as beautifully painful to watch now as it was then, perhaps even more so, given that Staley’s former fiancée died of a drug overdose six months after the Unplugged performance, and that he himself would meet the same fate six years later.
Alice in Chains never rose to the heights of Nirvana. It certainly didn’t possess the longevity nor the catalog of Pearl Jam. And Staley wasn’t as accessible a frontman as Cornell. But, some 20-plus years after its commercial prime, and with a quality frontman at the helm for the past decade, Alice in Chains is still very much a viable musical entity. It’s also unquestionably the most underappreciated – and perhaps the best – band the grunge era produced.
Alice in Chains is scheduled for 7 p.m. (doors open) on Friday, September 7 at Revention Music Center, 520 Texas. For information, call 713-230-1600 or visit reventionmusiccenter.com. $55, plus fees.