Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Writing Music: Alice in Chains

This article is part of an ongoing series of discovering and reviewing heavy metal bands in the order in which they appear in The Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal by Daniel Bukszpan. Check out the rest of the series and stay tuned for new reviews each week. Until I finish this book, stay heavy, my friends.

When I was about 12, my across-the-street neighbors — I don’t remember their names — moved out. In the process of packing up, their late-teens son — I can’t even remember now what he looked like — was getting rid of his collection of cassettes. He must have heard me jamming out on early-90s top 40 radio with my friends and decided to educate me in the ways of rock, because he casually bestowed upon me his 100-odd tapes with nothing more than a “Hey, kid! You want these?” like Mean Joe Greene tossing his jersey at the kid in that commercial.

The collection was a who’s who of the metal world, from Metallica to Tool. Most of these bands I’d heard of before, having seen “The Unforgiven” and other metal videos on Headbangers Ball, but I didn’t have much experience with their music. Starting at the top of the rack, I grabbed a tape by a band with what I thought was a silly name, and my jaw hit the floor.

The band

I can still remember it. The band was Alice in Chains — which I presumed to be a hair band on the level of Cinderella. The tape was Dirt, an enduring piece that would later make every top-whatever list of amazing and influential albums. The song was “Them Bones.”

This music had come from no ordinary made-up hair group. I checked the liner notes and confirmed that besides bassist Mike Starr — who I thought looked a lot like Sara Gilbert as Darlene in the then-popular TV show Roseanne — these dudes were far from pretty.

And my astonishment didn’t end at “Them Bones,” as a sound that I thought couldn’t get any heavier did just that, as “Dam That River” hammered into life before the last echo of “Bones” had faded from the walls of my garage.

By the time “Rain When I Die” kicked into gear, after a long-but-worth-it introduction, I was totally hooked, and it would be months before I took Dirt out of my Casio dual-deck boombox to explore the rest of my heaven-sent gift of rock.

Go ahead, listen to Dirt in its entirety. I’ll wait.

[Even better, why not grab your own copy? Get your hands on this eternal classic and support this long-term project by checking out Dirt on Amazon here.]

By the next year, I was full-on AIC crazy, cranking up every track of their tragically-too-small catalogue on a daily basis. The band even inspired me to make my first Amazon purchase — VHS copies of their Live Facelift and MTV Unplugged concerts at twenty-five bucks apiece. I even borrowed money from a girl — a girl!? — to help me buy the Music Bank box set on release day in 1999.

When I needed heavy, I spun anything from Facelift, particularly the up-beat tracks like “Bleed the Freak.”

And when I needed something softer, I went for the Unplugged CD or the experimental Jar of Flies acoustic EP. My middle-school paper route was timed to Jar of Flies; I had different parts of the route benchmarked to different tracks of the album, which lived permanently in my Sony Discman with five-second anti-shock protection (look it up, kids), so I knew without looking at my watch if I was on pace.

The bottom line

My birth year prevented me from really following Alice in Chains during the prime of their career — their last studio album with original frontman Layne Staley had already been released and forgotten by the time that first tape fell into my lap. Most of my fandom of the band fell during the hopeful-but-ultimately-tragic period during which the band was eerily quiet about their status and rumors of Staley’s relapse into heavy drug use flew wildly in rock and guitar magazines (look them up, kids). In April 2002, while on a high school band trip to Chicago, I opened up a copy of USA Today to discover that Staley, and music as I knew it, had died.

But he left a great legacy, his pain poured out not on paper but on tape, the tape that was dumped on me by a teenager who had moved on to better things: jobs, relationships, who knows? I owe a lot about who I am now to him, but because I can’t remember his name, all I’ll say is, “Thanks, Mean Joe!”

Articles in this series use affiliate shopping links and ads. If you enjoy my reviews and writing, consider visiting these vendors through these links to support this website at no extra cost to you. For more about the monetization of this site, see my full disclosure. Metal cover image via Flickr by Photos by Mavis

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