Learning from Layne

Learning from Layne

I gave a talk about creating a work community last year that started with thirty seconds of me playing “Rooster” by Alice in Chains. If you don’t know Alice in Chains – first, you should. And second, they were a band that was popular during the 90s and were contemporaries of the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Based out of Seattle, as well, they played (and continue to play) in some of the largest venues. Third and last point here, the need to create a community, and the Alice in Chains story occupy the same space in my brain. That is why I felt playing them at a Corporate retreat was fitting. Also, I didn’t get fired for playing them – so, you know, there’s that.

Chapter 1: Man in the Box

The original lead singer of Alice in Chains was a guy named Layne Staley. He was known for having incredibly haunting melodies. If you don’t believe me, watch this video. The funny thing about Layne joining Jerry Cantrell, the guitarist for Alice in Chains, is that they purposely had awful vocalists try out in front of Layne to entice him into joining. The last singer to try out was a male stripper and the pain of watching that forced Layne to finally agree to join the band. What an insanely perfect start to a rock band!

I saw Alice In Chains in 1993, where they had a person dressed as a Rooster dance on stage. It was odd and very memorable at the same time. (Apparently, there were also actual roosters thrown on stage – I didn’t see that part). From that performance, I would never be able to separate Layne Staley from Alice in Chains. I had never seen or heard anything so powerful, dark, beautiful, and pained. In other words, Layne delivered musical perfection that spoke to the teenage version of me.

Chapter 2: No Excuses

Alice in Chains began their climb to fame in 1990 with their first album “Facelift.” They continued with their sophomore album “Dirt,” and the best way to tell the impact of this album is to share the Editor’s notes on iTunes.

Alice in Chains were the darkest group to emerge from the grunge explosion of the early ’90s. Where other groups balanced their moody extremes with pop hooks (Nirvana) or anthemic riffs (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden), Singer Layne Staley eventually died at the hands of his addiction and Dirt remains one of the most disturbing looks at a wasted life and is one long slide down to the bottom of Dante’s Inferno. It’s frightening in its intensity and its mastery of a world Black Sabbath once merely suggested.

The band toured non-stop from 1989 to 1993. Playing with the likes of Megadeth, Pearl Jam, Van Halen, Ozzy Ozborne, Screaming Trees, and a slew of others. They eventually hit a wall in late 1993 and pulled out of a scheduled tour with Metallica slated for summer of 1994.

The band would put out some albums between 1994-1996 and would even play an unbelievable MTV unplugged performance in May 1996, but the band would not remain together for much longer. Late in 1996, Staley’s ex-Fiancee, Demri Parrott, died due to a drug overdose. With that news, Staley became a recluse – turning to drugs and isolation to deal with the pain and any real hope of Alice in Chains returning slowly dissipated.

Chapter 3: Heaven Beside You

Layne’s last public interview was July 19, 1999. He was found dead on April 19, 2002, nearly three years later. Though little is known about his activities during that time, one thing is clear – Layne retreated from the spotlight into drugs. He turned ghost white in the process and was hovering around 100 pounds (down from his average 150-170 pounds). Layne, at the age of 34, was found dead with heroin and cocaine in his system and several needles located near him.

My bad habits aren’t my title. My strengths and my talent are my title.

Layne Staley

Unfortunately, Layne’s addiction and subsequent death were not (and is not) an uncommon story for rock legends from that era. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden are only a couple of legends from that era that would have a similar fate. What makes Layne’s departure different was that he retreated from everyone for six-plus years and was eventually found dead only because his bank accounts weren’t used. The thought of that still scares me. How could someone so influential to me be so alone in the world that only his banking activity alerted people of his death? Layne was at the top and so incredibly alone at the same time.


The lesson from Layne that we can learn here is that isolation can be incredibly dangerous. When Layne left Alice in Chains, he was completely isolated and alone. He retreated away from his community, didn’t reach out for connection or help. We sometimes see that behavior in our coworkers and friends. Isolation can create narratives and habits that are unchecked. Not only is it dangerous for individuals, but isolation can also kill company progress. Community, just like on the individual level, restores connection and can give meaning where some only see the abyss.

In the time of COVID-19 – isolation is very real. People, who had vibrant work communities, don’t have them now. The office culture has been replaced by even more forced isolation. Bars, Restaurants, Movie Theaters, and Coffee Shops are all still closed. For many, there is nowhere to go. It is important now, in this time, to ensure that you and your coworkers have a community to rely on. If we are to learn one thing from Layne Staley, it’s that isolation can be fatal. Isolation can also mask other detrimental behaviors. But with no office to go to and very few places to retreat to, reclusion is real.

References and Resources

Icons: Jerry Cantrell

Layne Staley Man in the Box Documentary

Alice in Chains: The Untold Story by David de Sola

Note from the author: I am a huge fan of Alice in Chains and Layne Staley in particular. In no way do I intend any disrespect to Layne or his memory. I did not mean to suggest a parallel between Layne Staley’s drug addiction and workplace isolation related to COVID-19. His addiction to drugs clearly caused his downward spiral into isolation. I am not ignoring this part of his life or his struggles. This blog was more about the isolation that he self-imposed as a result of his addiction. Lastly, I can understand how some can view the use of his name and his story in a technology blog. I can only say that I learned from him and his story. His presence and his loss left a memory in me that I hope to never shake.

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