The history of the sludgy, heavy rockers of Alice in Chains has been as misery-riddled as much of the band's music. Its sound owed less to punk than it did to, say, metal, but its Seattle origin and late-Eighties birth date meant it was swiftly pigeonholed as grunge. It was a category that never really fit, and hurt the band's standing when that sort of music left the mainstream.
Nor did the band come to an explosive end. Rather the quartet ground on, only really spluttering to a stop with the sad heroin overdose death in 2002 of its lead singer, Layne Staley. So Alice in Chains never reached Nineties hard rock canon status. The band is remembered, sure, but not revered with the same kind of rock-crit paeans bestowed upon some of its erstwhile Pacific Northwest peers.
Which is why I opened with some interest a recent e-mail that landed in my box from the "Campaign for Respect for Layne Staley." Though I knew the band would be touring with Velvet Revolver, I didn't think anyone felt strongly enough to write me about it. And each of the letter's four signers hailed from a different country. What's more, three were female — strange, since I had always seen the band's super-testosterone-drenched wail as a turnoff, the fight song of some kind of boys-only angst club.
Of course Staley, as the lead singer, was a crucial element of the band, which produced mainstream hits "Rooster" and "Would?" But much of Alice in Chains' mystery hinged upon the chemistry between Staley and Jerry Cantrell, the guitarist.
After Staley's death, Cantrell disbanded the group, vowing never to re-form it. But then there was a one-off reunion gig at a tsunami benefit concert in 2005 and an appearance on a VH1 live show last year.
Finally it was announced the band would tour with Velvet Revolver. Staley would be replaced by William DuVall, erstwhile frontman for an Atlanta-based hard rock group called Comes with the Fall. (DuVall had previously played live with Cantrell's solo band.) All hell broke loose among Alice in Chains' diehard fans, who have long split into Layne vs. Jerry camps. Team Jerry says that in Staley's late years, Cantrell basically did all the singing and playing anyway, while the frontman was sometimes literally propped up. Besides, they argue, Cantrell holds far more official songwriting credits for Alice in Chains' songs than Staley does.
But on the Team Layne side, among the most vocal fans are members of the online forum www.respectforlaynestaley.com. It was they who sent me the open letter, penned by Amanda Slaughter of Russellville, Arkansas; Carolina Millan of Valparaíso, Chile; Annik de Dios of Melbourne, Australia; and Thomas Poussard of Bordeaux, France. It read, in part:
An open letter to the fraud calling itself Alice in Chains:
This letter is on behalf of the numerous fans of Alice in Chains that are appalled and disappointed by Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, and Mike Inez for replacing Layne Staley and still calling the resulting touring monstrosity Alice in Chains. To have this replacement sing personal, touching, and passionate songs written by the late, great Layne Staley is not only a gross insult to his memory but a slap in the face to his fans.
Layne was NOT just a lead singer, but he was FEELING in the band. It was the EMOTION that came through in Layne's vocal delivery that made Alice in Chains' sound. It was that special something that made them stand apart, the thing that listeners couldn't quite put their finger on, but made the band, the sound, the magic.
Jerry and Sean have both themselves said in the past they would not replace Layne, that the band wouldn't be Alice in Chains without Layne.... Are you too arrogant, too greedy, too hungry for success to acknowledge that what he added cannot be replaced and show him the respect he deserves by letting Alice in Chains rest? Are you so afraid you will not be successful ... that you feel the need to use the memory of Layne in order to draw in an audience? Shame on you, Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, and Mike Inez!
Slaughter says she first discovered Alice in Chains two years ago thanks to her husband, who had been a fan for 15 years, since the release of the group's debut album, Facelift. She was immediately taken with Staley's voice and delivery. "I was moved by the honesty of the lyrics, the feeling the music could bring out, and the emotion of Layne's voice," she says.
The forum is a weirdly guarded community; its bulletin boards are accessible only to members, whose registration must be approved by board moderators. Indeed the only publicly viewable text directs site visitors to the campaign's online petition, at www.petitionspot.com/petitions/respectforlayne. It is similar to the group's letter: "Layne was not all of AIC, but he was part of it.... Do not let it appear as though all he contributed can be replaced with another."
So far 214 people have signed, including the supposed spirit of Shannon Hoon, the late singer of Blind Melon (another band that has, sadly, recently reunited). "Could you imagine the Beatles without John Lennon?" asks one signer. Others are more direct: "Stop this horrific circus freak act, douchebag Cuntrell!"
The campaign is superorganized and incredibly thorough. Its missive has been delivered to every radio station, newspaper, fanzine, and Website across the metropolitan area of each stop of the band's tour. Locals even photocopy it onto flyers and post them at music stores, Slaughter says. The Layne-lovers are surprisingly media-savvy, too, allowing for plenty of advance notice — the first e-mail arrived in my box in August, almost a month and a half before the band's stop this Sunday at Sound Advice Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach.
But the idea is nevertheless easy to dismiss. Lead singers do not necessarily make a band. Take the current so-called Guns N' Roses, whose live shows are an excruciating excursion through Axl Rose's karaoke versions of the real, original band's hits. It's clear from GNR's example that for certain bands, greatness comes from the interplay of multiple sources. Check the public ridicule heaped upon Rose's traveling circus, versus the ever-rising star of Velvet Revolver, which features the rest of the original GNR lineup.
Or take the sacred cow of the Fab Four: Paul McCartney and company rightly never tried to play as the Beatles after John Lennon's death. The Allman Brothers Band flailed about after Duane's fatal motorcycle accident, but then correctly called it quits. Hell, even Creedence Clearwater Revival, sans John Fogerty, has the decency to at least tour as Creedence Clearwater Revisited. And plenty of solo acts perform their bands' old hits; fans know they'll hear their favorites, but nobody is under the wrong impression about who exactly is playing them.
More recently, in the fall of 2004, I caught a New York date of British group the Libertines. It was their last U.S. tour. They were light years away from Alice in Chains in sound and ethos, but what the bands had in common was the creative tension generated by two strong-willed dudes. (In the Libs' case, it was Carl Barat and the now-infamous Pete Doherty.) Doherty was alive but had gotten the boot; the tour was still going on. Although the rest of the band remained intact and Barat sounded good, he looked tired and deflated. Watching him harmonize with a fake Doherty stand-in was simply depressing. Soon after that, Barat pulled the plug on the Libertines moniker. It was the right decision.
Sure, Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, and Mike Inez have every right to play together and play old Alice in Chains songs. And fans have every right to pay to see them do so. But it's like getting a generic diet soda when you're a diehard Diet Coke drinker — same overall idea, but with a different formula and a taste that seems generally off. Sometimes the name really is the thing.