Review: ALICE IN CHAINS by David de Sola (Thomas Dunne)

DeSolaD-AliceInChainsUntoldStoryThe tragic tale of one of America’s most influential bands of the 1990s

Alice in Chains were one of the loudest voices out of Seattle, iconic pioneers who mixed grunge and metal in ways that continue to influence today’s artists. Theirs is a story of hard work, self-destruction, rising from the ashes and carrying on a lasting legacy.

Four years after their first meeting at a warehouse under Seattle’s Ballard Bridge, Alice in Chains became the first of grunge’s big four — ahead of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden — to get a gold record and achieve national recognition. With the charismatic Layne Staley behind the microphone, they became one of the most influential and successful bands to come out of the Seattle music scene. But as the band got bigger, so did its problems. 

I am a big grunge fan. Ever since I took notice of music, and especially the guitar-driven genres, I have listened to Alice in Chains. Given my relative youth, though, I only discovered them shortly before Nothing Safe: Best of the Box came out (I picked it up in LA during my first visit to the city). This, naturally, led me to delve into their back catalogue of albums, and I quickly became hooked on Dirt and Facelift. Then, only a handful of years later, Layne Staley’s death was reported in the various music magazines I religiously read at the time. It is quite strange, as de Sola mentions in this book, that no proper biography of the band has been written until now. I’m happy to say, though, that de Sola’s book is a great tribute to Alice in Chains, and a must-read for any fan of their music and the scene they helped create and nurture.

Many people already know a fair bit of the band’s story — they were, after all, incredibly successful and featured in multiple media outlets (music-related and mainstream). However, this volume offers a fantastic, holistic look at the band, its career, its members lives, the lives of those caught in its orbit, and also the many tragedies that seemed to surround it. Tragedy, in fact, is the word that can most often be ascribed to much of what happened around the band — from the early heroin deaths of founding grunge musicians, to the eventual death of Staley, almost all of them involve drugs. Given the incredible talents of these lost musicians, it was difficult to read de Sola’s accounts without being moved — and especially so when I got to Layne’s death: described in such sparse detail, it was like a punch to the gut to realize the sorry, tragic state the singer was in at the time of his passing, and the fact that he was only discovered two weeks or so after the fact.

David de Sola writes very well throughout the book, taking (as he admits) a rather unusual approach: following more in the footsteps of political journalists and biographers than ‘traditional’ music biographers. (The author is a political journalist.) Over the course of Alice in Chains, he lays out the band members’ upbringing and childhoods, followed by an interesting account of each band member’s early musical careers and experiments. I think the book could have done with just a little bit of restructuring: it lacked a hook at the beginning. I’m not sure what the technical term is for this type of chapter or introduction, but I’ve encountered it in most biographies: a chapter that covers a defining event, which is, effectively, the “reason” for reading the book. For example, Duff McKagan started with an account of when his pancreas exploded… Without this, the book was a little slow to get going. Once it did, though, I had difficulty putting it down. He tells a very engaging story.

The book really picks up after the founding of Alice in Chains. As well providing detailed, interesting accounts of each album’s production, de Sola delves into the secrecy, gossip and rumors that surrounded the band (and, in some cases, continue to do so) in order to tell its full story. He draws on multiple, extensive interviews with friends, band members, colleagues, peers, fans, and others with first-hand knowledge of the band. While it’s understandable why Staley would receive a fair bit of attention, de Sola is careful to give other band members plenty of attention as well — including Mike Starr, the founding bassist who would be fired and, ultimately, also die from a drug overdose. The book also takes us beyond Layne’s death, and gives us just a bit of an introduction to the most recent incarnation of the band.

Overall, this is a very good biography and, to repeat from earlier: a must-read for any fan of the band and the Seattle scene they helped create. Highly recommended.

*

Alice in Chains is out now, published by Thomas Dunne Books.

Alice in Chains Discography:

  • We Die Young EP (1990)
  • Facelift (1990)
  • Sap EP (1992)
  • Dirt (1992)
  • Jar of Flies EP (1994)
  • Alice in Chains (1995)
  • Nothing Safe: The Best of the Box Compilation (1999)
  • Black Gives Way to Blue (2009)
  • The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)
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