as one-off collaborations go, ABOVE (COLUMBIA, 1995) by the ALTERNATIVE ROCK band MAD SEASON, made up of members of PEARL JAM, SCREAMING TREES and ALICE IN CHAINS, is one of the most COHESIVE, POTENT and EMOTIONALLY RAW creative efforts from the RENOWNED SEATTLE scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. in the wake of getting SOBER around the time of the making of VITALOGY (EPIC, 1994), PEARL JAM guitarist MIKE MCREADY wrote some loose outside material with bassist JOHN BAKER SAUNDERS (THE WALKABOUTS) and drummer BARRETT MARTIN (SCREAMING TREES) as a means of therapy as much as anything else. eventually he recruited the generationally TALENTED but profoundly addicted LAYNE STALEY (ALICE IN CHAINS) to the fold in hopes of providing a SOBER ENVIRONMENT for him on his road to recovery. at that point in the wake of JAR OF FLIES (COLUMBIA, 1994), STALEY had been something of a recluse in that ALICE IN CHAINS were FAMOUS for not touring due to his SPIRALING HEROIN ADDICTION.
STALEY is arguably in top form throughout ABOVE, providing absolutely WRENCHINGLY AFFECTING performances on STANDOUT tracks like "WAKE UP," "LONG GONE DAY," "I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING" and "RIVER OF DECEIT." sonically this record is sparsely constructed with a sound-bed that is almost JAZZ-like in its sparseness and use of space. it provides the perfect accompanying and unimposing support for a DELIBERATE focus on the weight of STALEY's VISCERAL and emotionally WROUGHT vocals. STALEY for his part never sounded so EXPOSED and VULNERABLE, even in his more ACCOMPLISHED compositions with ALICE IN CHAINS. even the artwork, an illustration also provided by STALEY, seems to showcase a couple deep in the throes of CODEPENDENCE which feels like another metaphor for his DOOMED relationship with NARCOTICS.
ABOVE very much is a gift to music fans as many of is collaborators sadly lost their battle with HEROIN over the next few years, including that of STALEY (in 2002) and SAUNDERS (in 1999). for STALEY, the tragic passing of his fiance from a HEROIN OVERDOSE in 1996 is something he never recovered from. in recent years, the project was resurrected for various benefit concerts with SEATTLE luminaries like MARK LANEGAN (who originally guested on two ABOVE tracks) and CHRIS CORNELL (SOUNDGARDEN) filling in for STALEY and DUFF MCKAGAN (GUNS N ROSES, THE FASTBACKS, 10 MINUTE WARNING) in for SAUNDERS, but nothing permanent came of it. especially in the wake of the CORNELL and LANEGAN's recent passings the door seems finally closed on such. to me ABOVE and this project is not CURSED or DOOMED as some in the press of morbidly attested, in fact i feel the opposite. DRUG ADDICTION is a powerful force and the MAD SEASON project was an attempt, however futile in retrospect, to fight the good fight through art, COMMUNICATION and EMPATHY. that deep well of COURAGE and VULNERABILITY that shines through in the material is something that is uniquely human despite its ultimate FRAGILITY. its like a DYLAN THOMAS poem attempting to give voice to DESPAIR and EXISTENTIAL PLIGHT and to find BEAUTY in spite of itself.
to me that is enduring legacy of ABOVE and why it is a SINGULAR achievement even among the CELEBRATED catalogues of its participating members. this record is required listening in my opinion.
its always COMPELLING to learn about the INDUSTRY GATEKEEPERS that had a demonstrative impact influencing and effectively curating AMERICAN culture for a period, be they RODNEY BINGENHEIMER of 106.7FM KROQ in LOS ANGELES in the 1970s/1980s/1990s or MARCO COLLINS of 107.7FM KNDD THE END in SEATTLE in the 1990s. these DJs are in essence force-multipliers who communicate novel sounds and new artists to a much wider audience, essentially giving permission for bigger entities like MTV or national radio to add them to the rotation. in a pre-internet age, these GATEKEEPERS were incredibly POWERFUL and BINGENHEIMER and COLLINS cultivated such influence by staying true to their ears and sense of tase. this in the face of the industry practice of PAYOLA whereby RECORD LABELS courted RADIO STATIONS and program directors with massive amounts of money for airtime, which had been a thing going back to the 1930s. such was still the case with the competition for both BINGENHEIMER and COLLINS.
as someone who has a regular INTERNET RADIO SHOW on a much lower scale, i can assure you having that sort of EMPATHY and capacity to lock in with emerging cultural movement is a RARE gift. scratch that, an extremely rare gift. the recent documentary THE GLAMOUR & THE SQUALOR (ORANJE FILMS, 2015) follows the COMPLICATED LIFE and impactful career trajectory of celebrated SEATTLE DJ MARCO COLLINS who in essence gave emerging local bands in the early 1990s their first radio exposure. current and past local bands like SOUNDGARDEN, DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, SEAWEED, ALICE IN CHAINS, HARVEY DANGER, SCREAMING TREES, PEARL JAM, SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE, MUDHONEY, THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and NIRVANA as well as national acts like BECK, THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, WEEZER, EVERCLEAR, THE CRYSTAL METHOD and GARBAGE and even international acts THE PRODIGY and DAFT PUNK. participants in this documentary include everyone from musicians like CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (SLEATER-KINNEY, WHITE FLAG), SHIRLEY MANSON (GARBAGE), MIKE MCREADY (PEARL JAM, MAD SEASON), PATTY SCHEMEL (HOLE), BEN GIBBARD (DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, THE POSTAL SERVICE) SEAN NELSON (HARVEY DANGER) and MACKLEMORE to MUSIC WRITERS and JOURNALISTS like MATT PINFIELD (120 MINUTES) and CHARLES R CROSS (HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN, ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS) as well as RECORD EXECUTIVES such as DEBI LIBETZ (EPIC RECORDS), MIKE TIERNEY (EPIC RECORDS), SUSIE TENNANT (GEFFEN RECORDS), SCOTT PERLEWITZ (SUB POP RECORDS) and ERROL KOLOSINE (ASTRELWERKS, CAROLINE RECORDS) among other INDUSTRY VETERANS.
all that aside, one aspect of this film i was particularly struck by was the argument that COLLINS' HOMOSEXUALITY gave him a sort of OUTSIDER STATUS that enabled him in his PROFESSION. it was almost an UNEXPECTED and UNINTENTIONAL competitive advantage in the sense that his very perspective and formative experiences as a GAY MAN surrounded by HOMOPHOBES (including his father) engendered him to go his own path and trust his instincts. surviving childhood in the sticks made the insular RADIO and MUSIC INDUSTRIES a breeze in comparison, although being 'out' publicly was another matter entirely. i just found it interesting that within a community of artists and musicians, COLLINS was excepted intrinsically due to his PASSION, INTELLECT and even his SEXUALITY. i wonder if there is something about being an OUTSIDER that resonated with the KURT COBAINs and EDDIE VEDDERs of the PACIFIC NORTWEST ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene at the time. interesting to consider when you take in the similar dynamics of BIGENHEIMER being an EFFEMINATE male, who likewise broke a whole platoon of HARDCORE, NEW WAVE and ALTERNATIVE bands a generation earlier.
less interesting was the drug angle and COLLINS coming to terms with his chemical addictions. i have no doubt that such were a massive DISAPPOINTMENT and PERSONAL FAILURE for him and dealt lasting blows to his work and close relationships. but such is not as interesting as his recovery which includes reintegrating himself in the current music scene and enabling new bands to get their initial exposure, much like he did nearly 30 years ago. that dedication to the here and now is what radio in my opinion is all about. its also nice to know that in years since this documentary COLLINS has been a regular contributor at the massively INFLUENTIAL 90.3FM KEXP in SEATTLE which has innovated the digital landscape with its high-quality recorded and mixed live performances at its dedicated multi-use CREATIVE SPACES. seems he is where he should be.
which is exciting for new music lovers and bands alike.
there is evil and then there is SACKLER FAMILY evil.
EMPIRE OF PAIN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SACKLER DYNASTY (DOUBLEDAY, 2021) by PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE is a cautionary journey into the depraved depths of boundless GREED that marked the IMMORAL behavior of the SACKLER FAMILY and the pharmaceutical business, PURDUE PHARMA, that they owned and operated over three generations. this operation was so successful in its peddling of addictive opioids in part due to the BRAZEN nature of their incapacity to showcase HUMAN EMPATHY or any SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY to their fellow man, instead hiding behind a fig leaf of false LIBERTARIAN-inspired dogma that is all to apparent in similar MORALLY CORRUPT CAPITALIST ENTERPRISES (i.e. tobacco and firearms).
but the outrage i felt reading this book is not limited to the SACKLER FAMILY and their unethical marketing of OXYCONTIN (and VALIUM before it) for widespread, common use. its tentacles went much further into the the very heart of the CORRUPT INCENTIVE STRUCTURES that are the basis of our federal LEGAL, POLITICAL and MEDICAL systems. every system failed. multiple times. it seemed that the whole capitalist system enabled this company to reek PHYSICAL, MORAL and PSYCHIC DESTRUCTION on the most DESPERATE and VULNERABLE elements of our society and profited unimaginably. and its not even a DEMOCRAT or REPUBLICAN issue, since everyone has blood on their hands over multiple administrations of inactivity. that and members of each have taken money from them and/or worked on their behalf (MARY JO WHITE and ERIC HOLDER of the OBAMA ADMINISTRATION to name only two prominent PURDUE PHARMA attorneys).
what also made EMPIRE OF PAIN so compelling, aside from its flawless construction as it expertly unveiled layers of interweaving depths of CORRUPT BUSINESS PRACTICES and IMMORAL BEHAVIOR over generations and geography, is how it is just as much concerned with the appearance and presentation of POWER and INFLUENCE. these ill-gotten gains were seemingly symbolically laundered through the name rights of institutes and galleries associated with numerous prestigious museums (THE MET, LOUVRE, TATE MODERN, NATIONAL GALLERY in LONDON, BROOKLYN MUSEUM, SMITHSONIAN, GUGGENHEIM, BRITISH MUSEUM and the AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY) and universities (HARVARD, COLUMBIA, OXFORD, NYU, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY, YALE, CORNELL and TUFTS). this "philanthropy" was a bid for immortality and a fraudulent display of MAGNANIMITY for cultural and educational concerns that was really based in basic, primordial instincts towards POWER and INFLUENCE. the fact that these institutions allowed such to happen just shows the vacuous nature of their INFLUENCE-PEDDLING to begin with. nobody is spared in this narrative.
well, actually there are a few heroes. namely the artist NAN GOLDIN who utilized her unfortunate experience with OXYCONTIN and its community of survivors to chasten and call out the SACKLER FAMILY and those institutions that enabled them. her leadership is one of COURAGE and DEFIANCE and all those enabled virtues devoid from any member of the SACKLER FAMILY. there is also MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL MAURA HEALEY and her NEW YORK counterpart LETITIA JAMES, as well as attorneys from across the country who tirelessly went after the family members themselves, even after the shell-game involved with the BANKRUPTCY COURT shenanigans of PURDUE PHARMA. their efforts are honorable and well within the scope of the public trust that defines their position.
the sad part about EMPIRE OF PAIN is that you are hoping that this constant craven display of INHUMANITY over many generations in one family is an anomaly in our system, a blip, but deep down we all know that this isnt the case. in fact, PURDUE PHARMA and their EXPLOITATIVE shell-game of an operation is our system. their bending and subordination of our LEGAL, FINANCIAL, POLITICAL and JUDICIAL structures to seek their needs and not the publics is as AMERICAN as BASEBALL or JAZZ.
this book really made me reflect on my own individual responsibility in the enabling of these types of structures and practices. the clothes i wear, the car i drive and the food i consume are all made available through unsustainable and exploitative practices on my behalf. i dont know how we exit our COMPLICITY as passive consumers within this complex system which seeks to generate consumer and investor value at the expense of limited resources and undervalued labor.
it just feels like this level of EXPLOITATION is bound to happen again and again on repeat because the incentives are there at every level to perpetuate such. again, seemingly we are all COMPLICIT. i just dont see this changing. ever. it is like JELLO BIAFRA riff on the PATRICK HENRY slogan which sums up our collective ADDICTION to CONSUMER CULTURE, damn the consequences, "give me convenience or give me death."
this is an excellent book, probably the best thing ive read since starting this blog a few years back. absolutely highly recommended.
i was pretty shielded from DRUG CULTURE funny enough as a kid living in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. that all changed in sixth grade when my family moved to NIGERIA in the mid 1990s. NIGERIA and specifically LAGOS where i lived was a major node in the global narcotic trade. it was also there that i was introduced to the seminal DIRT (COLUMBIA, 1992) album by SEATTLE ALTERNATIVE ROCK icons ALICE IN CHAINS through a friend a few years older than me. this album really served as an introduction to the physical and psychic costs of ADDICTION and it still resonates as such for me all these years later. in my mind it put context around the choices of others i was witnessing at the time, people dabbling in HEROIN and other OPIATES.
specifically i am referring to songs like "JUNKHEAD," "SICKMAN," "GOD SMACK," and "DIRT" which deal with the pain and throes of ADDICTION directly as well as "RAIN WHEN I DIE," "DOWN IN A HOLE," and "HATE TO FEEL" which get at the self-loathing and social consequences of maintaining such. the fact that the production (courtesy of TOBY WRIGHT) is so lush and the blended vocal harmonies of LAYNE STALEY and JERRY CANTRELL so intoxicating make the bleak subject matter palatable, although i would not go so far as to say it romanticizes it. if anything, STALEY is relaying his truth in one of the most transparent records about the damage wreaked by narcotics this side of NEIL YOUNG.
i would be doing a disservice if i didn't mention that "THEM BONES," "DAM THAT RIVER" and "WOULD?" are three of the most propulsive and catchy songs the band ever came up with. the CANTRELL penned ode to his father's VIETNAM service in "ROOSTER" is also highly affecting and puts context to their once strained relationship with empathy and courage. and ultimately i think that sense of empathy (towards other and themselves) is why DIRT is such a landmark record years later and doesn't fall into ROCK AND ROLL cliches regarding the subject. there is no real message other than a presentation of their experiences and that of people close to them (MOTHER LOVE BONE's ANDY WOOD being focus of "WOULD?" being an example). it lets the listener decide upon how to interpret and self-identify with subject matter, not the other way around.
this empathetic, humanizing approach would continue even in the years after STALEY's passing in BLACK GIVES WAY TO BLUE (VIRGIN, 2009), an ode to their lost friend and bandmate which is similarly focused on themes of loss and self-destruction as well as renewal and hope. in my mind that record bookends DIRT. all these years later and when i hear DIRT it still reminds me of the numbing interiority and loss of agency that comes with ADDICTIONS of any sort and makes me stop to be more empathetic to another's personal battle. as a child it gave me context to a world i was just witnessing for the first time. that sense of empathy for me that is the legacy of this record.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
in the wake of the suicides of both CHRIS CORNELL of SOUNDGARDEN and CHESTER BENNINGTON of LINKIN PARK in 2017, a conversation about MENTAL HEALTH in the METAL community was long overdue. obviously in a music genre that seemingly openly cultivates an exaggerated, almost cartoon-like, depiction of masculinity, the idea of publicizing a sense of self-reflection and being vulnerable is quite revolutionary. and that was what this 2018 four-part video series produced by REVOLVER MAGAZINE sought to accomplish. raising awareness about MENTAL HEALTH treatment, as well as the adjacent issue of SUBSTANCE ABUSE (which really only exacerbates the former).
JOHN DYER BAIZLEY from BARONESS, JESSE LEACH of KILLSWITCH ENGAGE, ZAKK WYLDE of BLACK LABEL SOCIETY/OZZY OSBOURNE and ROBBIN FLYNN of MACHINEHEAD all present testimonials about how they went about addressing issues surrounding their MENTAL HEALTH, whether that be ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR or issues of self-worth leftover from their formative years. the courage on display is astounding and it will no doubt pay forward in terms of raising awareness and elevating the consciousness of their audience.
not only that, i think this conversation will save lives. period.
i've written before and spoken on the air about the fact that the most impactful thing JAMES HETFIELD of METALLICA has ever done is being open about his issues surround MENTAL HEALTH and ADDICTION. when he returned to rehab in 2020, after years of sobriety since his previous stint in 2001, it took real bravery to take ownership and responsibility of his problems. and stop the machine to address such. the fact that his band supported such and didn't let financial or non-health related considerations influence his decision is a testament to their values and an example of human empathy. this has long not been the case. people will stay on the road so that the crew will get paid. because of that, the grind and pressures of the road and the music industry have claimed actual lives and anything that contributes to an atmosphere of less toxic masculinity in METAL is great, long-overdue thing.
if anything, i think it may actually assist in attracting a more inclusive and tolerant audience as well as fostering a more empathetic touring industry. how METAL would that be?