REMEMBERING LAYNE STALEY: “DOWN IN A HOLE”
Layne Staley only recorded six studio albums in five years — and yet his inimitable voice influenced an entire generation of singers. To commemorate his death ten years ago, members of the MetalSucks staff will be discussing their favorite Staley performances throughout the day.
Although some may consider awarding the title to an acoustic live album blasphemy, Unplugged remains my favorite Alice in Chains release. That their contribution to the MTV Unplugged series even exists is a marvel — and not just because the band had been off the radar for some time when they played show. How many high quality recordings of what ended up being the final performance of a legendary band exist in the world? To the best of my knowledge, despite whatever issues they’d been struggling with both as a band and as individuals, no one in Alice in Chains was aware that this would be their last concert. Even the pink-haired, pale-skinned, gaunt, barely-mobile Staley was in jovial spirits, telling the crowd at one point, “This is the best show we’ve done in three years.” (It was the only show they’d done in three years.) Alice in Chains’ entire Unplugged is a document of an incredibly specific and powerful moment in the history of a band so good that no one has ever successfully ripped them off (although many have tried). Its context alone makes it haunting… but the sounds it containts make it immortal.
My point being that I could write about almost any song on Unplugged at great length, and knowing what we do about that which the future held for Staley, the lyrics to every song on the album seem to carry a soul-crushing weight and significance. So why is “Down in a Hole” the album’s undeniable climax?
Maybe it’s the contrast between the quality of Staley’s singing and the sentiment behind his words. “My wings have been so denied?” But Staley’s voice soars! It’s not perfect, but it is incredible.
(That’s what modern vocalists don’t seem to understand — that the trade-off of humanity for “perfection” isn’t worth it. Look at what Staley achieved with nothing but his vocal chords.)
And, yes, Staley can sell the most depressing lyrics ever written in a way that few other singers ever could. There’s a human dimension to them that is undeniable. The words “You don’t understand who they thought I was supposed to be/ Look at me now I’m a man who won’t let himself be” ache out of Staley’s throat, suggesting a pain that has been life-long. He even apologizes for belly-aching, something which pretty much none of his whiney imitators ever bothered to do: “I have been guilty of kicking myself in the teeth,” he admits, before promising, “I will breathe no more of my feelings beneath.” It makes me want to reach into my stereo and hug him and tell him he can breathe of his feelings beneath until the sun dies.
“Oh I want to be inside of you.” Those words would normally be considered sexual, and maybe they were meant to be interpreted that way here. But they don’t feel that way. Was Staley trying to burrow his way into the listener’s soul? Doesn’t really matter — he succeeded.
If you ever want to see me cry like a five year old girl who’s just skinned her knees, play “Down in a Hole” from the Unplugged album. It gets me every damn time.