Monday, April 11, 2011
Electric Relaxation: Reflecting on Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley
Last week was the 17th anniversary of the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. I know folks who grew up in the 90's can't believe it's been that long. Quietly though, April 5th was also the 9th death anniversary of Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley.
Its fitting because when we think of grunge and the greatest 90's bands, Nirvana is the first name up and rightly so. Yet the older I get, the more I appreciate the underrated Alice In Chains and the beauty of Layne's pain.
When I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit around 2000-01, I loved it right away. The sound that changed an era was 10 years earlier was still as powerful as I'm sure it sounded in 1991. I was fresh off listening to the rap-rock of Korn/Limp Bizkit/Papa Roach but I instantly respected that 5 minutes of brilliance. As time passed, I still love the song but think folks overrate the guitar solo from a technical sense.
I had heard that Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter and the more I listened to his songs, the more I saw why. His songs didn't necessarily relate to me but they were catchy yet edgy. I wanted to listen to this gutteral voice and understand why folks revered him so highly. There was something rebellious in him that I liked. His attitude was completely anti-corporate yet smart enough to use the machine to sell records.
"Come As You Are" and "In Bloom" were great songs that got played out thanks to KROQ but I preferred the singles from In Utero. I'll still tell anyone Heart-Shaped Box is a better song with a better solo and if you don't get sad hearing "All Apologies" (esp. Unplugged), you don't have a soul. Of course, then I discovered "Breed" 2 years ago and felt that was Nirvana's most punk song.
To me, Kurt's gifts were his songwriting and his voice capturing the pain of his lyrics. I remember hearing the entire MTV Unplugged album as a college freshman and being chilled of his scream at the end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night. He wasn't the best guitarist but he excelled where he did.
Which leads me to Layne Staley. The same time I discovered Teen Spirit, I discovered Man in the Box and Rooster. It was edgier, dirtier, and darker than Nirvana and Layne's voice literally sounded like I expected a drug addict to sound. When you're told from an early age that rock music was the devil, you'd make a statement like that.
Of course, I respected Layne a WHOLE lot more after that. "Would" is my favorite AIC song because of that driving bass and brooding energy he was known for. "Rooster" was great even though it was a slow build but I thought AIC was rightfully placed as maybe the 4th of the Big 4 Grunge Acts.
I did kind of write Layne off when I discovered that Jerry Cantrell was the chief songwriter. As great as he was vocally, I was into guys who wrote more of their songs in high school. I knew Layne helped write but compared to Eddie Vedder or Kurt, he wasn't in their league to me.
That changed when a college professor gave me Jar of Flies my sophomore year. I played it back and forth repeatedly and I realized that "No Excuses" was my new favorite AIC song due to its alternative sound and the desperation in Layne's voice. I swear to this day to Jar of Flies might be the best EP ever because it showed me the depth of Layne's demons and the ability for him, Jerry and the band to make beautiful music around that.
Just like Kurt, Layne was able to capture his pain of addiction and as I got older and more musically inclined, I loved Layne/Jerry's dual harmonies and the heavier sound that made their songs experiences. "Nutshell" might be Jerry Cantrell's best solo outside of Man in the Box. Once I heard "Angry Chair", a song Layne wrote entirely by himself, I was convinced Layne was far more underrated than I gave him credit for.
So as I got older, I still respected Nirvana's legacy but I know that Guns N Roses and Metallica helped to set the stage for their death of hair band music. I respect Alice in Chains a bit more because they don't get enough respect for their depth, sound and musicianship. Kurt Cobain was a phenomenal songwriter with great delivery while Layne Staley had a richer voice that made his pain resonate (although the best grunge voice and arguably the best voice of the last 20+ years is Chris Cornell)
April 5 saw two legends whose demons took them away from music fans. It's a shame we don't have more of their music but we have plenty to celebrate and pass on to future listeners.