Fans gather to mourn troubled grunge singer Layne Staley, dead at 34
Seattle Times staff reporter
The hand-scrawled note to Layne Staley, written on a scrap of grocery bag, read simply: "There is only one thing left to say. Say hello to heaven."
At least 100 friends and fans, many carrying candles and flowers, gathered at Seattle Center's International Fountain last night to remember the 34-year-old lead singer and guitarist for the Seattle grunge band Alice in Chains. He was found dead Friday in his University District condominium.
"When you walked into a room and saw him, you just wanted to smile," said Tracy Johnson, 29, of Seattle, who had known Staley since she was 14 and remembered when he was just another Seattle musician, albeit one who would ride a pink Big Wheel onto the stage.
"I knew that he was going to be someone," she said.
Friend Janese Fitch, 30, remembered when Staley once called her for a ride from Federal Way, where he was stranded. "He threw all this change on my desk for it, and said, 'Someday I'll be famous and I'll pay you back,' " she said. "He never did pay me back."
Seattle police went to Staley's fifth-floor condo on Eighth Avenue Northeast about 5:40 p.m. Friday after a relative of Staley's called to say she hadn't heard from him for several weeks, said Seattle Police Department spokesman Duane Fish.
Officers found Staley on a couch, apparently dead for several days. There was heroin paraphernalia, Fish said, and Staley's death appeared to be either natural or the result of a drug overdose.
The King County Medical Examiner's Office performed an autopsy yesterday but is conducting other tests to determine the official cause of death, investigator Don Halberg said.
Staley struggled with drugs and often sang about his addiction to heroin. On the Alice in Chains album "Dirt," five of the 13 songs were dedicated to the cycle of heroin addiction — from the initial appeal to the curse of dependence.
"He didn't pull any punches. He called it what it was — all the highs and lows," said fan Michelle Mathis, 34, of Seattle. "As a former heroin addict, I could really relate. His music just hit home. Every lyric, every cry, hit home."
Bryan McDonald, 26, remembered an Alice in Chains show he attended. Staley "was just really into his music. It was like the crowd wasn't there. He was just one with his music," he said. "There was also a dark side to his lyrics that you could definitely hear and it really just touched me."
Peter Blecha, the former senior curator for Experience Music Project (EMP), called Staley "one of the great rock voices of all time" and a fine poet.
"The story of Layne Staley is really an object lesson," Blecha said. "It's an example of a perfect talent being squandered. I wish I could say I'm surprised, but in fact (I'm) not really. It's a sad day, but there just weren't a lot of public indications that he was going to make it back."
Blecha had never met Staley but felt compelled to include Alice in Chains in "Northwest Passage," an EMP exhibit on local music, along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden and Mudhoney.
"It seemed critical to include them in that exhibit," he said. "There was a long, difficult process of how to tell the story of regional music history, but it was clear to me that they were in the front ranks."
Staley, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Starr (later replaced by Mike Inez) and Sean Kinney formed Alice in Chains in 1987. The band signed with Columbia Records two years later and released its first album, "Facelift," in 1990. The band was nominated for an American Music Award for favorite heavy-metal artist, and a Grammy for best heavy-metal performance a year later.
The flannel-clad musicians toured with bands such as Megadeth, Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne. The band released "Dirt" in 1992 and a self-titled album in 1995. That same year, Staley fronted a band called Mad Season along with Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and others.
But by that time, Staley was abandoning show dates, and some feared he wouldn't be able to overcome his drug habit and continue his music career.
"There had been efforts to come back with either group and get back out there and start touring," Blecha said. "But the years started ticking by ... '96, '97, '98, '99. There were just a lot of years without Layne performing, and I think a lot of people were worried that it would come to this. And it has."
At Staley's condo building yesterday, a handful of fans placed flowers at the entry. Kevin Bobletz, 33, said he had jammed with Staley before Alice in Chains hit it big.
"It's pretty heavy," Bobletz said. "It blew me away because he was the kind of guy who'd take his shirt off for anyone."
Stephanie Royce, 24, of Kenmore, said she was a fan of Alice in Chains as a teenager and got Staley's autograph while she was a cashier at a Toys R Us several years ago.
"He'd come in and buy PlayStation games. He came in quite a bit," she said. "It's sad."
Gina Kim can be reached at 206-464-2761 or email@example.com.