In 1993, music journalist Ann Powers met Alice in Chains on the Dirt tour and found a wandering group in the desert. The show she attends is a mess—Staley and bassist Starr are lost and missing their bearings—and she sees a band on the verge of falling apart. “They are like the children of lord of the flies, stranded in foreign territory without clear rules of conduct,” Powers observed. “They try to survive, but they eat each other alive.” Soon the band would fire Starr for increasingly erratic behavior, before spending the year touring the world, including co-headlining the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. Exhausted, they quickly recorded Pot of flieswhich looked more like Zeppelin III that master of reality; nonetheless, it became the first EP to debut atop the Billboard album chart. But Staley’s heroin addiction never went away for long, and the band were forced to drop an opening slot for Metallica the following year, along with the Woodstock ’94 bill.
Aside from the band’s self-titled third album – which also debuted atop the album chart in 1995 – Staley’s last recordings were moderate affairs. He provided lead vocals on Abovethe underrated, jazz-influenced LP of “supergroup” Mad Season, and flaunted his increasingly frail appearance on the band MTV unplugged set the following year. The band decided not to tour for the self-titled album, and after their fourth show opening for Kiss in 1996, Staley was hospitalized with an overdose. Shortly after, his longtime girlfriend died of complications from her own drug addiction. The band went on an indefinite hiatus and Staley disappeared.
Whereas Dirt solidified as a modern rock standard, a slew of less Alice-influenced bands rose up the charts, and “heroine chic” fell into disuse, Staley languished in isolation. When he was found dead in his Seattle apartment in 2002, Staley’s body had been decomposing for two weeks. It was a morbid but superficial note of grace in his many obituaries: he was the man, after all, who was best known for vividly documenting his addiction and depression on an album that sold four million. copies a decade earlier.
But it is also far too simple and cruel an explanation. When he was 18, Staley, like so many other budding rock stars, wanted the freedom to write about whatever he wanted, however he wanted. As his fame grew and his addiction and isolation deepened, he began to use his music to shock, but also to bridge his world. In this light, “Would?” is a much more accurate depiction of Staley’s drive to draw others into his personal darkness. “Try to see him once my way,” he pleaded, both a provocative challenge to the disgusted and an invitation to keep him company, for as long as you can.