Sunday, February 26, 2012

CULTURAL MASH-UP: Layne Staley & Whitney Houston


While the Beast was visiting some good friends in Austin last week (the reason for our longtime absence in posting BTW), we were surprised, then moved, by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell performing “I Will Always Love You” at an Obama fundraiser in San Francisco. It set us to contrasting and comparing the careers of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, who was buried a week ago yesterday, to the late Alice in Chains frontman Layne Thomas Staley, one Cornell's old compadres from Seattle grunge’s heydays and one of that scene's most tragic drug-related deaths. Foolishly, we thought, Is there anything to this?

Namely, we found, they were linked by a singular attitude: A grim, oddly unrepentant pursuit of their drugs of choice (Houston = rock cocaine smoked with weed; Staley = smack 'n' crack) along the lines of: “I’ve got all the money I need to buy all the drugs I need, so step the f*ck off and leave me alone.” Whitney seemed merely better at hiding it.

Capitalism, their stealth arguments ran, allows one to pursue whatever one wants sans judgement or interference. And they had the money to make that happen. And when they both died alone in those perennial overdose inner sanctums of bathtub and couch, the reaction to their demise was eerily the same: This does not come as a surprise.

Well, actually, for us it did: Houston, by most accounts, had put her coke jones behind her, if perhaps not a predilection for alcohol and prescription meds for which she re-entered rehab last year. Staley died after multiple attempts to get clean and in deep regret over the hold drugs had on him (and by all accounts, his death was much more grisly and sad) but Houston, at least publicly, held out in admitting her addictions. When she did, it was under the rubric of "complete recovery."

Both had powerful, operatic vocal styles that were somewhat disproportionate to their body sizes.

Both were only four years apart in age and born during iconic years in American history: Whitney was born in 1963, the year JFK was shot; Staley was born in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love.

In a now-notorious interview for ABC-TV in December 2002, Whitney infamously told Diane Sawyer, “Crack Is Whack.” Nearly a year prior, Layne Staley admitted to Argentinean music writer Adriana Rubio: "I know I'm near death, I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way."

Staley’s dad was a drug abuser who dropped out of his sons’ life for fifteen years, causing Staley to he briefly take his stepfather’s name. Whitney’s father was John Russell Houston, Jr., a former cab driver turned manager for Dionne Warwick, and she never changed her name throughout her career.

Staley began playing drums at age 12, then switched to singing, briefly fronting funk and hair-glam bands (often wearing drag) and performing Armored Saint and Slayer covers; at age 11, Whitney started her career under the aegis of her Gospel vocalist mother Cissy, debuting at the New Hope Baptist Church with the old Welsh spiritual “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

Houston and Staley had weird hair challenges: Whitney early in her youth, which made her look like a skinny boy; Staley all his life, which made him look like a skinny girl. Whitney had a bevy of image-consultants and stylists to overcome this. Staley merely dyed his hair pink, shaved it off, or wore it in a Snooki poof.

“We Die Young,” Alice in Chains’ first single was released in July 1990, and is also the first song on Alice in Chains’ full length debut Facelift, released a month later. A month after that, Whitney releases the first single (and first song) from her gazillion-selling third album, “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” "Young" features Staley singing to fans who are drowning in a pool of blood. Whitney's video features “an edgier, rougher Houston paying homage to the sounds of black music that have helped define her sound.”

Staley's nickname was "Blanche"; Houston's was "Nippy" -- later changed
to "Nippy, Inc." after her modeling career began taking off,

Alice in Chains did not tour in support of 1992’s Dirt for very long, because of Staley's drug addiction. Ditto for 1994’s Jar of Flies. Whitney’s erratic behavior didn’t begin to surface in the press between the release of those two albums. In 2000, when she and Bobby Brown were found with marijuana in their baggage at a Hawaii airport, she began showing up late or not at all for performances, got booted off the Academy Awards broadcast, and appeared so out of it as to be playing an imaginary piano during a magazine interview.

Staley wrote songs with titles like “Sickman,” “Hate To Feel,” “Sea of Sorrow,” “Bleed The Freak,” “Killing Yourself,” “Sludge Factory,” and “Junkhead” – most of them stoned. Whitney sang songs with titles like “You Give Good Love,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Love Will Save the Day,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “My Love Is Your Love.”

Whitney appeared at a Michael Jackson Comeback Special in November 2001 [above], shocking the audience with her “emaciated” appearance. (The Drudge Report: "Images of Houston completely wasting away into skeletonism - and appearing to be at stages of illness beyond even Karen Carpenter before she passed - still haunt.") A dope-sick Staley made a surprise appearance at a rock festival in May 1994 [below] wearing a wool ski mask to hide his “sickly” features. He also liked to wear gloves to hide the needle marks on his hands. When Mark Arm of Mudhoney saw him a year later, he was quoted a sayng Staley was “totally green.” After interviewing Whitney on ABC, Barbara Walters referred to her appearance as “almost like a skeleton.” By the time of her autopsy, there was a hole in her nose from cocaine abuse and eleven fake teeth.

Staley admitted to using drugs since he was 13, openly told the press about his adult drug use, and wrote frequent lyrics on drugs about how great/awful drugs were. Whitney didn’t admit to using drugs until she was interviewed by Oprah in 2009, seven years after her Diane Sawyer interview and three years before her death where her body was found with the skin nearly boiled off from scalding bathwater.

Both entered into so-called “drug recluse” periods, Staley from 1998 to his death in 2002, Whitney for about the same period of time. It was rumored that Staley would spend most of his days creating art, playing video games, or nodding off on drugs. Months before his death, he told a visitor: "My liver is not functioning, and I'm throwing up all the time and shitting my pants." The rumors surrounding Houston included "hallucinating violent demons, to biting and hitting herself, putting her hand through walls, and locking herself away to smoke rock cocaine and pleasure herself with an apparently prodigious collection of vibrators."

Both were plagued by rumors of drug-related death even before their actual drug-related deaths. Staley's obituary had been on stand-by at the Seattle alternative newspaper The Rocket in the late 1990s. In 2001, MTV began collecting B-roll images for a Houston obit, an honor normally reserved for elderly celebrities.

Staley had so retreated from the public eye that his body wasn’t discovered until two weeks after he overdosed, when his body had decomposed past the point of identification. After Whitney’s death, her body was not removed from the premises by the L.A. Coroner Dept. for 10 hours.

Both ruined their voices with abuse.

200 people showed up to Staley’s memorial vigil, including former bandmates Mike Inez, Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney and friend Chris Cornell. 300 showed up to Whitney’s funeral, including Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Kevin Costner, Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Diane Sawyer and Houston's cousin, Dionne Warwick. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the flag at the state capital lowered.

Both died young.


  1. Thank you for the interesting comparison. I'm a fan of both AIC and Whitney. Deep emotion and vocal ability, plus sweet spirit, authentic, pull me in to artists. I've seen AIC in concert, but did not get my dream of seeing WH.

  2. You really should not quote anything from Rubio's book except her name. Layne didn't like to do interviews because all reporters wanted to talk about was his drug use and when he refused to talk about it they would just make things up. Just because some illiterate money whore wrote a book,especially one that was publicly admonished by his family and friends, does not mean its true. Just because he didn't have the "look at me" disease that a lot of celebs have does not mean he holed up in his home doing drugs and shitting his pants! Shame on you for comparing anything about Layne Staley to Whitney Houston, she was a dipshit married to another dipshit and that's why she had a drug problem and she didn't even write her own songs! How would you like it if I posted that you are a shitty writer because you have piss poor fact checking skills and shouldn't write about something as fact that you have no knowledge of? Judge not lest be judged ass clown!

    1. Aljoy I agree with you.

    2. I agree with Matthew,not you pussy AIC fans,even though i liked AIC i cant stand their bleeding heart "anyone got a rope" fans.

  3. Aljoy..
    Who the fuck are you Staleys afterbirth?Stop whining like a bitch,AIC fans are the lamest motherfuckers around.
    Deal with truth.Stanley took shit loads of gear and Stanley's body cried enough of this shit im out of here.Stanley was a decent singer but he wasn't god you bell-end.Stop cryin...