photo & text by nacrowe
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.