Nirvana's Nevermind may have been more seismic, Soundgarden's Superunknown more experimental, and Pearl Jam's Ten more successful. But when it comes to the bands that make up the Big Four of grunge, none ever unleashed an album as monolithic and downright harrowing as Alice in Chains' 1992 masterpiece, Dirt. The band's second full-length overall, it built and expanded upon the template they had laid out on their 1990 debut, Facelift, in the process jacking up the intensity and raw emoting to incredible, and at times uncomfortable, extremes. Jerry Cantrell's riffs were darker and sludgier; drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr's rhythms lumbered like an elephant trudging through molasses; and Layne Staley's raw-throated wail was agonized in a way that was almost painful to listen to. Furthermore, the album's second half boasted a five-song "mini-suite" of sorts about the ravages of heroin addiction, a topic that at least half the band had firsthand knowledge of at the time.
Despite its darkness, Dirt proved to be a massive mainstream success, spawning five hit singles, including the Andrew Wood ode "Would?" (recorded prior to the rest of the album, and featured in the Cameron Crowe movie Singles), the rampaging leadoff track "Them Bones," and the ballad "Rooster," which Cantrell wrote about his father's experiences as a U.S. Army man during and after the Vietnam War. Furthermore, the album sold more than four million copies in the U.S. and peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200.
But the turbulence captured on the album would soon overtake Alice in Chains. Starr was dismissed from the band during the Dirt tour due to issues with drugs, and Staley's vices proved to be an ongoing and worsening problem, resulting in the band canceling shows and even breaking up for a period. Both musicians eventually succumbed to their addictions, with Staley passing away in 2002 and Starr in 2011. Alice in Chains continues on today, having released the impressive The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here in 2013, and also opening some early dates on Guns N' Roses' current reunion tour. But Dirt still stands as the band's magnum opus. Here are 10 things you may not have known about the 1992 album.
1. Alice in Chains struggled dealing with the success of breakout debut album, Facelift
Dirt was produced by Dave Jerden, who had also helmed 1990's Facelift. He recalled the sessions for that first album to Music Radar: "They were hot and ready to go. They did some drinking, but there were no drugs. It was funny: They wanted to know where the strip clubs in L.A. were. We were driving down Hollywood Boulevard, so I pointed to one called the Tropicana." By the time Jerden and the band reconvened for Dirt, however, things had changed. "They were a big, established band, and the vibe was different," he said. "They were getting jaded. Layne told me that he didn't like being famous. He told me flat-out, 'People look at you like you're a piece of merchandise.'"
2. Dirt was recorded during the 1992 Los Angeles riots
Similar to Megadeth's Countdown to Extinction, Dirt was cut during the riots that erupted following the acquittal of four LAPD officers caught on camera beating unarmed black motorist Rodney King. In an interview with Guitarist, Cantrell recalled how that atmosphere of violence permeated the sessions, which took place at One on One Recording in North Hollywood, where Metallica had recently tracked their Black Album. "I was actually in a store buying some beer when some guy came in and started looting the place," he said. "I also got stuck in traffic and saw people pulling other people out of their cars and beating the crap out of them. That was some pretty scary shit to have to go through, and it definitely affected the overall feel of the album."
3. Layne Staley improvised one of Dirt's most memorable moments
The very first vocal sounds heard on Dirt are the series of "Ahh!" screams that begin "Them Bones." But while the song credits Jerry Cantrell as the sole writer, Dirt engineer Bryan Carlstrom says that not only did Staley come up with that vocal part, he also improvised it in the moment. Carlstrom told The Atlantic that Staley said to him, "Oh, I hear a little vocal part I want to stick in the song." He then listened to the playback of the song in his headphones and timed his screams to Cantrell's guitar riff. "He just made that up on the spot," Carlstrom recalled.
4. There's a reason why Staley is wearing sunglasses in the "Rooster" video
Jerry Cantrell wrote Dirt's biggest hit, "Rooster," about his father, who had served two combat tours in Vietnam and whose nickname was also Rooster. The accompanying video featured Cantrell Sr., as well as real Vietnam news footage and reenacted combat scenes. When it came to shooting the band's performance, however, director Mark Pellington ran into a problem. "Layne was pretty high," he recalled in Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town. "His eyes were really fucked up. He was totally pinned." Pellington's solution? Put him in sunglasses. "I said, 'God, you look like a badass in those sunglasses.' And it was like, 'All right, let's go. Let's get a couple of takes.'"
5. When Alice in Chains went on tour with Ozzy, Staley performed some of the dates seated in a wheelchair
In recent years, both Dave Grohl and Axl Rose have powered through performances while suffering from broken bones by sitting atop a throne onstage. But Layne Staley beat them to it by decades. Soon after the release of Dirt, the singer spent several of his band's fall 1992 dates opening for Ozzy Osbourne confined to a wheelchair, after a mishap on an all-terrain vehicle backstage at a show in Oklahoma City resulted in him riding over his own foot. An unusual way to start off the tour, but, as Staley reasoned in an interview at the time, "I didn't break my neck, so there's no excuse not to play." Nor did it stop Staley from giving it his all. "He jumped out in the crowd with his broken ... with his cast, so I thought that was kind of nutty," added bassist Mike Starr in the same interview. Overall, the band took a lighthearted approach to the incident, even printing up an official tour shirt emblazoned with an X-ray of Staley's broken foot under the band's logo.
6. In the lyrics to the album's title track Staley sings about being covered with dirt. One night on tour, he and his bandmates literally were.
Rock bands that are on the road together have a history of pranking one another. But fellow Seattle-ites Gruntruck may have pulled one of the best on Alice in Chains during their tour together in late 1992. Explained Gruntruck bassist Tim Paul in Everybody Loves Our Town, "It was the Dirt tour, so we found a hardware store that was open late and bought these five-pound bags of potting soil." Just before the AIC boys hit the stage that night, Paul and his bandmates hit them hard. "Looking back," Paul admitted, "it was maybe ill-advised because the poor guys had to play a show with dirt down their throats."
7. Mike Starr was booted from Alice in Chains for drugs ... and then OD'd after his final show with the band
During the Dirt tour bassist Mike Starr was kicked out of Alice in Chains due to his budding drug addiction. His final show with the band, before he was replaced by Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez, was at the Hollywood Rock festival in Brazil in January, 1993. According to Starr in a 2010 radio interview, he spent the night shooting up with Kurt Cobain. Indeed, in an interview, Cobain attested to as much, though slightly jokingly. Afterward, Starr said he went back to Staley's room and continued his drug binge. After passing out, he recalled, "I wake up ... and [Layne] had me in the shower and everything. I was flatlined. And he's crying and punching me in the face. I'm like, 'What's wrong? What did I do?' Layne's response? "[H]e's like, 'You were dead for 11 minutes, Mike.'"
8. Jerry Cantrell nearly bared it all on a memorable episode of Headbangers Ball
Given how dark and often depressing Dirt's music and lyrics could be, it was only natural that when Alice in Chains appeared on MTV's Headbangers Ball to promote the album in 1993, show host Riki Rachtman took them to ... a waterpark. Throughout the episode, filmed at Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, the band members yukked it up as they went tubing, water sliding and even indulged in a bit of illegal fishing. And while the fat suits they donned for a few rounds of sumo wrestling were eye-popping, that was nothing compared to Cantrell's getup, which consisted of little more than a snorkel and a bright blue Speedo. "Don't film down there," Rachtman warned the cameraman at one point. "You don't wanna see his package."
9. Alice in Chains co-headlined the 1993 Lollapalooza festival … and never did a full-scale tour with Staley again
In the summer of 1993 Alice in Chains and Primus co-headlined the third iteration of the Lollapalooza festival, topping an eclectic mainstage lineup that featured, among others, Arrested Development, Front 242 and Tool. The run would prove to be Alice's final full-scale tour; the following spring and summer they were scheduled as one of the openers on Metallica's Shit Hits the Sheds jaunt, but they canceled at the last minute, as Staley was in the throes of his heroin addiction. "If we had kept going," Kinney told Rolling Stone, "there was a good chance we would have self-destructed on the road, and we definitely didn't want that to happen in public." Their replacement on the Metallica dates? Candlebox.
10. The band didn't just cancel the Metallica tour dates — they actually broke up
The cancellation of the Metallica run was just the beginning of a downward spiral — in fact, after Staley, fresh out of rehab, came to a band rehearsal high, Alice in Chains not only called off the tour, they also disbanded for a good six months. "At first I was dumbfounded," Staley told Rolling Stone. "I just sat on my couch staring at the TV and getting drunk every day. When we first got together as a band, we were all brothers. We lived in the same house and partied together and drank as much as each other. But then we started to split apart and went different ways, and we felt like we were betraying each other."