In December, 1992, midway through my freshman year of high school, my best friend at the time, Josh, gave me, as a holiday gift, the cassette version of Alice In Chains’s second LP, Dirt. Last December, as a holiday gift, my (then) sixteen-year-old stepson, Jack, handed over a wrapped package. Inside was a Dirt t-shirt featuring Rocky Schenck’s iconic, shallow-grave-girl (Mariah O’Brien) album cover. I appreciate the suggestive symmetry of these two anecdotes, along with the implication that three decades occupy the space between them.
On September 29, 2022, Dirt turned thirty. Unflinchingly situated among my top five albums of all time, Dirt’s also a personally loaded album. The project’s emergence — and, generally speaking, the musical presence of Alice In Chains — exists along a timeline that possesses acute significance: from 1990’s savage and squalid Facelift, to the mellow and melodic EPs of Sap (1990) and Jar of Flies (1994), and on through the resuscitation and harmonic collaboration with William DuVall in the 2000s, the gravity and aesthetic of AIC’s oeuvre continue to affect me and provide continued sources of artistic reflection. But it’s Dirt that most profoundly grafted its bleak beauty on the corrugations of my creative conscience.
The Grunge Era saturated my adolescence, my style — sure, my bedroom closet was crowded with ratty flannels and abused jeans (in the corner: a ziggurat of beat-up sneakers and a pair of “Docs”), but I’m also speaking of my musical endeavors (or at least the teenager that still exists somewhere in my internal bedroom, “Down In a Hole” on repeat, cocooned in teenage angst and Dirt’s kindred cynicism). For the sake of veracity: vestiges of the Grunge Zeitgeist continue to linger in my life, in my wardrobe.
Of all my guitar heroes in the early- to mid-90s (Dimebag, Scott Ian, Thayil, Cliff Burton, Ty Tabor), Jerry Cantrell was at the top of my emulative foodchain. Guitar World magazine (Santa granted me a subscription for Christmas in 1993) was not only a source which helped form my (amateur) bones as a novice guitarist, but provided some insight in ways to mimic Grunge’s macro aesthetic.
MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball was also a steadfast, late-night source for access into heavier arteries of the rock genre (it was on Headbanger’s Ball that I first heard the music of Morbid Angel and Death), and Alice In Chains benefited from the exposure, enjoyed heavy rotations of their videos, “Man in the Box,” “Angry Chair,” “Would,” and “Them Bones.” (On a side note, there are some vintage clips of Headbangers Ball on YouTube — lots of metal / grunge artists who were knowns and unknowns at the time — and it’s worth checking out Riki Rachtman trying to interview Alice In Chains amid their antics at New Jersey’s Action Water Park in 1993.)
And it’s worth noting the thrash-legend presence of Slayer’s Tom Araya, who, toward the end of the album, can be heard shouting over the metallic cacophony, “I AM IRON GLAND!” (though in high school I interpreted it as “I AM IRON GOD!“…which was equally suiting).
Among the recollective echoes in this thirty-year span, I can hear my friends and I playing “Sea of Sorrow” at Battle of the Bands in the spring of 1995…I can see myself slipping from the school, skipping class to be the first in line to buy Alice In Chains (“Tripod”)…I sense coiled nerves preceding a Catholic Festival as our band unloaded equipment in the rain, “Rain When I Die” spilling from my car’s speakers…tangible is the cosmic comedy of an ex-girlfriend selling a stack of my CDs, only to discover, a few weeks later, a copy of Dirt with my initials on the back of the jewel case at a local re-sale shop…I hear myself within the confines of my pickup truck (which I would proceed to total), straining my vocal cords at full volume in an attempt to mimic Layne and Jerry’s harmonies on “Junkhead”…I listen as my Chef de Cuisine, Drew, steps up to the pass in our chaotic kitchen in the spring of 2002, breaking the news to the cooks about the overdose-death of Layne Staley (bassist Mike Starr would later die in 2011)…and I also hear my brother’s voice in 2009, just ahead of the arrival of his first son: We’ve decided to name him Lane.
My musical proclivity has always tended toward the dark and the heavy, and though Dirt has not necessarily been a sonic-constant along this thirty-year timeline, it endures as a steadfast presence, a morose source of inspirational solace. Dirt remains, for lack of a better phrase, my drug of choice.