Grunge-metal legends Alice in Chains' early releases sounded tortured and depraved, and it was photographer Rocky Schenck's dark imagery that drove the band's bleak messages home on the cover of Facelift and the video for "We Die Young," among other collaborations. None were as eerie or poignant, however, as the cover of their second album, 1992's Dirt.
"I wanted this cover to have a rather 'Hellish' atmosphere," Schenck says, looking back on the image he and the album's art director, Mary Maurer, created. And for this cover in particular, the band indeed had something very disturbing in mind. "It was their idea to have a nude woman, half-buried in the desert," the photographer says, adding ominously, "She could be either dead or alive."
Rather than shoot in an actual desert, Schenck chose to build one in his Hollywood studio, so he could control the lighting. He painted the sky backdrop, constructed miniature mountains and the desert floor from foam core and clay, and left a body-shaped hole in the "ground" just big enough for a model to slip into.
That model was to be Mariah O'Brien, whom Schenck had shot previously for the cover of Spinal Tap's "Bitch School" single. "Everyone always asks if that is Demri [Parrott, then-girlfriend of frontman Layne Staley], on the Dirt cover," he says. "I think Demri's name might have been mentioned as a possible model once or twice, but it was never a serious consideration."
Parrott might consider herself lucky not to have been the cover girl, since O'Brien, who now works as an interior designer in Los Angeles, suffered considerably for the art. "They built me into the set, and I had to hold my pee for, like, eight hours," she recalls, laughing. "They were like, 'We'll put a diaper under you,' and I said, 'I'm not gonna pee on the floor.' When Rocky finally said I could get up, I just leapt off the set and dirt flew everywhere. I literally made a run for the toilet."
After O'Brien bolted, Schenck took the opportunity to snap a few shots of her wig, which was still embedded in the clay. The band would eventually use one of the resulting photographs in its 1999 Music Bank box set and have continued to use Schenck's photography since their 2005 re-formation. The artist contributed the picture of the woman holding her heart inside the booklet of Alice in Chains' comeback record — and Revolver's 2009 Album of the Year — Black Gives Way to Blue.
"All of my experiences with Alice in Chains have been great, life-changing experiences," Schenck says. "I'm very thankful for the truly brilliant times that I've had with these amazing guys."