[Note: This blog post appeared in slightly different form a couple of years ago, but as we're coming up on a pretty big anniversary I wanted to revise it and my thoughts.]
Timing is everything. Like most creative types, I owe my career to it. A stint volunteering at a film festival turned into the opportunity to pen a TV miniseries, and launched me into the world of being a professional writer. Had I not volunteered at that festival and ingratiated myself with the producer running it, who knows where I’d be? Success is predicated on the ability to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself, and acting accordingly. Being in the right place at the right time is key; being able to recognize when you are in one of those moments is crucial. If you’re not paying attention to the signals, that ship sails, leaving you standing on the shore and realizing that you just missed the golden opportunity that would have put you on it, rather than looking at it from a distance.
So what does that have to do with Kurt Cobain?
Kurt is immortal.
He’s deified and lionized and memorialized every time you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He’s a genuine rock icon on the same level as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (all of whom, like Kurt, died at 27). heck, NECA even released not one but two collectable toys of Kurt:
His journals have been published, a movie is forever in the works, books have been written, conspiracy theories about his death abound. He’s forever trapped in amber, howling like a demon in a fog shrouded high school gymnasium as a pep rally goes out of control. He’s forever twenty-seven. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death. He’d be 47 had he lived, but he didn’t. And another year comes and goes minus Kurt Cobain. Everyone knows who he was. But he’s not the reason I’m writing this. This is due to the gentleman pictured below.
If you don’t know who that is just by looking at him, chances are you’re one of the ones who forgot that Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains died almost 12 years ago, on April 5, 2002. He died of an overdose. His body lay for two weeks in his luxury Seattle condo before they found him. He was 35 — the same age Kurt would have been in 2002 had he lived. Both deaths were tragic. Yes, even Kurt, despite suicide being widely regarded as a dick move.
Unless you’ve dealt with crippling depression, or drug addiction, or chronic health problems like Kurt did, you’re in a glass house throwing rocks. But as years pass on, I find Layne’s passing to be the more tragic. It’s also hard to remember now just how big Alice in Chains was. Multiple platinum albums. Sell-out tours. A legendary Unplugged performance. Legions of devoted fans. And the songs, man the songs still have the power to send chills up one’s spine; The Rooster, Angry Chair, Man in the Box, Them Bones – fantastic. I saw Nirvana once, in 1993, in Toronto. But I saw Alice in Chains twice, once in 92 and again in 93 when they co-headlined that year’s Lollapalooza festival and for my money, their work cuts deeper than Nirvana, who had the luxury of releasing three great albums before imploding in such a dramatic fashion. They never got old or stale. Neither did Alice, but as each April passes with piles of stories about Kurt, I wonder why Layne isn’t afforded the same.
Why is Kurt commemorated with galleries and books and toys, but not Layne? Obviously, timing – or as much timing as death requires. Kurt died, if not at the height of popularity, then at the height of fame, when he’d shifted from being the indie rock star who broke into the mainstream and heralded a shift in music, to becoming a tabloid train-wreck aided and abetted by his very public marriage to Courtney Love. His rise into public consciousness was meteoric – roughly 5 years lapsed from Nirvana’s debut Bleach, to the shotgun suicide that ended Nirvana, and alternative nation. Kurt had timing on his side of going out when Grunge and Alt-Rock were at their peak. His death triggered their decline. It was hard to listen to Bleach or Nevermind with the knowledge that the guy singing about angst and loneliness blew his brains out. Face it, when “the voice of your generation” kills himself, it doesn’t say much about that generation’s prospects does it?
When Layne died in 2002, Grunge had been dead for nearly 8 years. Generation X had grown up, graduated college, gotten jobs and started families. I’m sure some people reacted with more surprise that he was still around – heck, I probably reacted the same way. There were no vigils at the Space Needle in Seattle like there were with Kurt. Rolling Stone and Spin didn’t publish commemorative issues. There are no toys of Layne. The band took time to mourn, and lick their wounds, and eventually reform with a new singer … and as it turns out they’re pretty damn good. But Layne’s absence is one they’ll never overcome, just like as great a band as Foo Fighters have became, they’ll never be a game-changer like Nirvana.
Now that era is a legend; as mythic to 17-18 year olds as the 60s were to people my age. People who never experienced it firsthand, and only have the songs in place of firsthand memory. Kurt is remembered/deified because his death signaled the end of Grunge, and the end of Alternative Rock as a mainstream force. It was like that moment in high school when a classmate dies sudden and unexpected. It’s that big moment that forces everyone around it to grow up. I know for my personal experience that Kurt’s death and Nirvana’s break-up marked the beginning of the end of music in my life. Not that it ended entirely, but its importance in my life began to wane. School became more important, as did getting my career off the ground. I gradually stopped going to shows, and while I still bought music, it wasn’t to the degree it had been since 1989. It took fourteen years and the beginnings of Mixtape for me to rekindle that passion for music.
Growing up means letting go of childish things and accepting responsibility. Not everything ends with a shotgun blast or a lonely overdose. Life is rarely that dramatic. But as years go by I think about Layne more than Kurt. In a way Layne’s death shaped my life and career more than Kurt’s death did. We all dream of a blaze of glory but for most of us the end comes when we don’t want it to. When there’s nothing left but darkness. That’s why, as I do get older, I’m more determined than ever to kick at that darkness, to make it bleed, and to not go willingly into it. To burn with a brightness so hot and so brilliant it banishes those shadows entirely.
Someone, and I can’t remember who, said something to the effect that “Foo Fighters are to Nirvana what New Order was to Joy Division”, and that’s as apt a comparison as any. Nirvana became legends the moment Kurt pulled the trigger. Alice was wounded the moment Layne OD’d, and while that’s unfair, it’s what it is.
So as the music world prepares to mark another sad anniversary, I encourage everyone to give more than a passing thought to Layne. He deserves it, because sometimes the worse thing than being trapped in the spotlight is going on after that spotlight has passed you by.