All the lightness and everlasting weight of Alice in Chains, unplugged
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Why does this space exist? More and more, it’s just a place for me to get some thoughts out on whatever I’m stuck on, whatever’s filling my ears. It’s a place to process those thoughts, with the notion that this is a more productive way to accomplish that, rather than just annoying everyone else in reaching distance with them.
Still, for the tens and tens of people that will find this, I try to mix it up. There are a lot of records on the shelf, and even more on the harddrive, with new stuff coming out all the time. And there are certain albums I avoid on the assumption that I shouldn’t just keep talking about the same 15 records on repeat.
So as I sat here, spending the better part of the week running up and down the original Alice in Chains catalog, I thought, maybe, it’s time to dip back in there. Maybe I could come up with something on their self-titled 1995 album, under-appreciated as I feel it is, or maybe one of the EPs that dotted their early work between albums.
But because this site has been running far longer than it honestly should have, I have to check myself. Which means I dip into the archives and loop through quickly to make sure I’m not repeating myself. And I was stunned — a big, fat zero next to Alice in Chains.
So, far overdue, here it is, a paean to the MTV Unplugged album that has been a spiritual guide since 1996.
Thinking of those important bands that came into my life as a teenager, Alice in Chains sits in rarified air. Before looking backwards and discovering the bands of the 1960s and ’70s, there seemed to be a flood of music that seemed essential then and has only grown more significant since. Run through the first wave of that band — from “Man in the Box” to “Brother” to “Rain When I Die” to “I Stay Away” to “Grind” — and it’s a goddamned barrage of brilliance. They were dark and heavy, sounding as mean as any metal band on the scene. But they had more than one trick in their bag.
So the versatility of this band had always been on display, what with being able to flip from the heavy grind of Facelift, Dirt and their self-titled album with the acoustic EPs Sap and Jar of Flies with ease. And the weight and power of their acoustic side came through with such blinding intensity during the Unplugged session.
Arriving on the heels of the Alice in Chains album, which was already in heavy rotation on cassette, Unplugged offered one of my first real glimpses of the band, apart from the quick, distorted glimpses provided by their videos. The show and subsequent album revealed the depth of their all-too-brief catalog, with the band putting on a masterclass in how to strip these songs back without losing an ounce of their intensity.
That flawless transition from distortion and grime to the delicate touch required by un-amplified instrumentation might have been best illustrated on “Frogs.” A bleak, menacing song in its full, electric reading on Alice in Chains, it somehow becomes a darker illustration of depression in all it’s futility when the cloth is removed.
Mike Inez’s bass zooms up and down and in between Jerry Cantrell’s careful picking and Sean Kinney’s subtly complex rhythms. In front of all this, an almost meditative Layne Staley sings quietly but as intensely as ever. And the main question posed here is simple but no less destructive: “Why’s it have to be this way?” It’s haunting, and to say it captured my imagination would be an understatement. This was gripping.
Towards the end of the song, Staley slides back in his stool, muffles his voice with a green bullet microphone, and a modified version of the song’s recitation follows, which could well be the most revealing moment in the entire program.
“At 7 a.m.
On a Tuesday in August
Next week, I turn 28
I’m still young
It’ll be me
Off the wall I scraped
I gotta wake
Show me, young, I’m raped
That’s my fate
Never gonna fuck with me again
Don’t fuck with me again
Have one go, hell’s afraid
It wasn’t all dour, naturally. After noting “I think that’s it” towards the end of the night, Staley responded to the quick boos of the crowd with a playful “Hey fuck you, man!” And of course, his “this is the best show we’ve done in three years” comment, only to be reminded by Cantrell that “Layne ... it’s the only one we’ve done in three years,” showed a bit of the gallows humor the band was capable of as they navigated an incredibly difficult time. And Staley was just as quick to point out, “It’s still the best.”
Even in their less-than-transcendent moments, there was plenty of light. Present on the video versions of “Sludge Factory,” Staley accidentally sang a line from the second verse in the first, was quick to realize it and immediately drove the song into the ground:
“There’s no pressure besides brilliance / let’s say by day nine...FUCK.”
The show stops dead for a second, the band laughs, the audience laughs. Finally, a killer version of “Sludge Factory” follows. Self-deprecating on one hand, casually brilliant on the other. And that was true of the entire band.
Cantrell: “We’re allowed a couple of those. It’s been a while.”
Staley: “What’s my motivation here?”
It’s easy to remember Staley as this tragic figure, one for whom the demons overran and eventually conquered the castle.
But in the moment, I didn’t recognize how weighty it all must have felt to him. His songs were heavy and dark, which was part of the draw, but his appearance just seemed, to me, to be his look — sunglasses, gloves, clad in black, mysterious. It’s only in retrospect that I can see the signs that must’ve been obvious to those close to him.
And that’s part of the story, surely. But by every account, there was a funny dude in there that a lot of people loved. It’s there on the album when he ribbed the crowd towards the end, it was there when he joked that they were now going to cut to some LL Cool J videos. And at the end, following the impromptu version of the new “Killer Is Me,” he throws it back to the fans:
“I wish I could just hug you all! But I’m not gonna.”
He overcame a lot to get to that point, and it’s most obvious on a fierce reading of “Would?.” Building towards the conclusion of the song and nearing the end of a long night, he shuffles in his stool and grabs the seat, clearly summoning up the strength to deliver that song’s final lines. His voice has all of the natural rasp and fuzz it ever had, and it levels the crowd. It’s intense. And he lets out an inaudible gasp after he’s done the job.
I was in college when word came down that Layne had died. For so long, I accepted the lack of any activity from the band with a “no news is good news” attitude. Maybe he was doing better, that he was taking the time he needed away from the spotlight. He’d be back when he was ready.
So I was devastated when the reality of the situation landed. Filling the gaps with Cantrell’s solo stuff had kept those pangs for the band at bay until then, but that was over. This was crushing, and it left me in a funk for months. I’m not convinced the mourning ever really stopped. He was still young.
This April, it will have been 27 years since Alice in Chains sat down at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with July marking the anniversary of its release on CD. And a month after that, I made it — along with the Beatles' Abbey Road — my first purchase on the format, arriving much later into the digital age than my friends.
This album reached me at a critical time in my development, both in a musical sense and as a person looking for any way to express himself. It provide a dark lesson, but not an out-and-out bleak one. Simply performing, in as unadorned a fashion as they did, was a brave step back into the spotlight in the name of art and creation. They were seemingly not at their best, yet delivered the most powerful moment in their artistic careers. After that much time away, with that much uncertainty, it had to be terrifying. And the result was a thrilling, triumphant moment of music. It lives on nearly three decades later, and it will continue to live on beyond that. It will in my ears, at least.
March 23, 2023
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org