Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Influence of Alice in Chains

I think I've made it very clear just how strongly I feel about Pearl Jam, and I think others have made clear just how influential they've been over the past 15 years. (God, it's really been 15 years since Ten...sheesh...) It's pretty easy to draw some lines of association with rock music. For example... Pearl Jam -> Stone Temple Pilots -> Creed -> ...god, I just made myself throw up a little. Never mind. No matter how influential they are, they're not the current godfathers of today's rock sound. No, that would be Alice in Chains.

I saw this
blurb in Rolling Stone the other day, and I don't know if it made me happy or sad:

Alice in Chains
May 18th, 2006
The Roxy Theatre, West Hollywood

Alice In Chains fans are packing clubs across the country to witness the group's first tour since singer Layne Staley died of a heroin overdose in 2002. The surviving band members are all back, with former Comes With the Fall frontman William DuVall handling vocal duties. This show, taped at the tiny Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, features practically all of AIC's Nineties hits. Billy Corgan comes onstage for a rugged version of "Down in a Hole," and G n' R's Duff McKagen plays on the last few songs. The overall result is the world's best Alice in Chains cover band, which is as close as we're going to get these days.
I haven’t heard William DuVall singing with AIC, so I won’t judge, but it just seems to me like Alice in Chains without Layne Staley is like The Who without Roger Daltrey. Like Eddie Vedder, Staley’s vocal style is inimitable, even though everybody has tried to imitate it for the last decade. I hope Duvall’s good, but I just can’t even imagine it.

Alice in Chains were something like the stepchild of grunge music (since I haven’t said this before, I hate the term ‘grunge’. If you made music in the Pacific Northwest in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s, you were “grunge”, whether you were classic/hard rock like Pearl Jam, alternative like Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, or, well, sludgy and grungy like Alice in Chains. It was a stupid label. End rant.). They weren’t polished like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. They weren’t poster boys like Nirvana. They just made dark music, tried to get by, and tried to figure out how to deal with stardom. From a 1996 Rolling Stone

With their new album, Alice in Chains may have triumphed artistically, but they haven't had much time to celebrate. They've been too concerned with whether they're going to be mentally and physically healthy enough to tour (no dates have been scheduled yet) and what force may next threaten their existence. The more records that Alice in Chains sell, the less they understand everything around them. "Fuck, I don't know what the hell I'm doing, man," admits Cantrell. "I never took Rock Star 101 in school. I never even saw the textbook. The way I view it, the only way to find out what's going on in life is to go through it full force with your head down and to smack into a few walls on the way. That's the only way to learn. Then, hopefully after a while, you figure out which ones to keep hitting."
Despite the fact that they never seemed to have top billing when compared to all those bands I listed above, listen to AIC's "Angry Chair" and tell me you don't hear every single Godsmack song (which makes sense, I guess, since “God Smack” is actually an AIC song). Better yet, listen to any modern rock song and try to go a day, even 4 hours, without hearing "Would?" or "Man in the Box" or "Angry Chair" or "Heaven Beside You" or “Them Bones” or "Down in a Hole" or "Rooster" or "No Excuses". You can't do it. You hear them on the radio now as much as you did in 1994. Their music doesn't age. It still feels as raw and powerful as it did when it was released. The open lyrics and the dark, minor chords set an example that half the bands on rock radio still follow.

Layne Staley's lyrics set a standard that every modern rock lyricist tries and fails to meet. He wasn't the first singer to write about pain and darkness, but he was one of the best. From "Angry Chair":

Loneliness is not a phase
Field of pain is where I graze
Serenity is far away
Saw my reflection and cried
So little hope that I died
Feed me your lies, open wide
Weight of my heart, not the size

First of all, “Saw my reflection and cried/So little hope that I died” is about the saddest couplet ever written. Kind of trounces the current crop of "You hurt me/Me angry" lyrics making the rounds, doesn’t it?

I guess, in a way, if I'm talking about how influential AIC's sounds are, then I have to make the case that AIC is to blame for how widespread and popular the Godsmack's, Staind's, Default's, etc., have gotten in the last 5 years or so, but a couple of constant themes separated AIC from everybody else. The first theme was the hope and wisdom that seem to come from the desperation and sadness (hence the “Something’s got to turn out right” line from “Got Me Wrong” or “You were always so far away/I know that pain/So don’t you run away like you used to” from “Brother”). The second was the lack of wallowing in pain…Staley always expressed a longing to leave it behind, like he didn’t want to be singing about it, but it was all he knew. Even in “Down in a Hole”, one of the most, well, down songs in the AIC catalog, there’s a yearning and an acknowledgement of the reality of the problems at hand, with lines like “Look at me now—a man who won’t let himself be,” and “I’d like to fly, but my wings have been so denied.”

Here’s an interesting Staley quote from the 1996 AIC article in Rolling Stone (which, unintentionally, seems like the only music magazine from which I quote) to which I linked above:

Staley says he's reluctant to take about his addictions -- not because he's embarrassed but because he's worried his fans will think he's glorifying drugs. "I wrote about drugs, and I didn't think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them," Staley says. "Here's how my thinking pattern went: When I tried drugs, they were fucking great, and they worked for me for years, and now they're turning against me -- and now I'm walking through hell, and this sucks. I didn't want my fans to think heroin was cool. But then I've had fans come up to me and five me the thumbs up, telling me they're high. That's exactly what I didn't want to happen."
It didn’t make him a strong person to sing about how weak he was, but it does create a mythical, tragic figure. And it does make a difference knowing that he was really, really good at both writing the lyrics and singing them. And knowing that he eventually succumbed to his self-made problems (eight years to the day after Kurt Cobain killed himself, strangely enough) makes all of the old lyrics more poignant in hindsight.

Which is why, I guess, I feel weird about anybody else singing those lyrics.

What makes a lot of AIC’s lyrics even more moving is the fact that others wrote about Layne Staley as well, Eddie Vedder in particular. Vedder wrote some of his most gripping songs about Staley, and that just adds to the aura. From 1996's "Off He Goes":

He's been taken...
Where, i don't know
Off he goes with his perfectly unkept hope
And there he goes...
And now i rub my eyes, for he has returned
It seems my preconceptions are what should have been burned
For he still smiles... and he's still strong
Nothing's changed, but the surrounding bullshit that has grown
And now he's home
And we're laughing like we always did
My same old, same old friend
Until a quarter-to-ten I saw the strain creep in
He seems distracted and i know just what is gonna happen next
Before his first step
He's off again
This song was written about six years before Staley actually died, which also makes things sadder in hindsight. Makes heroin addiction seem like a slow-motion trainwreck that nobody can stop from happening.

While the lyrics hit hard and still separate Alice in Chains from the pack, it is the music, specifically Jerry Cantrell's guitar, that created the pack from which the lyrics separate them. Look at the tunings and chord progressions
here. What do you see? Low, flat tunings. “Dropped D” tuning (standard for just about every modern rock song, it seems). Minor chords, flat/sharp chords. Nobody knew it in 1994, but Jerry Cantrell was writing the book for the next decade of rock guitar.

I’m only 27 years old, but I almost feel I’m sucking myself into the “Today’s music sucks; it was much better in my day!” camp here by saying that Alice in Chains was great and everything that’s come since then is crap. But let’s face can’t deny the similarities in sound, and most imitators are indeed crap. Alice in Chains had depth and emotion of all kinds, while most bands just go for anger and adrenaline. Alice in Chains, the ugly stepchild of grunge’s big names, ended up (intentionally or unintentionally) being the prime influence for hundreds of bands that came around the decade after their demise, while their most successful imitator, Godsmack, whose name was the title of an Alice in Chains song,
sells their songs for military recruitment. That’s all there is to say, I think.

UPDATE: 10:14 pm, 1/16 - It's been politely pointed out to me in comments that Layne Staley didn't write the songs I credited to him above--that was all Jerry Cantrell. I'll just pretend like that's what I meant to say. Change "He wasn't the first singer to write about pain and darkness..." to "He wasn't the first singer to sing about pain and darkness..." Much better.