In Chains: music and drug addiction

In the wake of yet another music icon lost to a suspected drug overdose (Whitney Houston), I’d like to say a few words.  There’s no way I can pay tribute to all of the great musicians, actors, comedians, and entertainers that have had a tremendous influence or personal impacts on our lives and have been lost to drug and alcohol abuse.  Also, celebrities aside, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that probably almost anyone that reads this has known someone who they lost to either drug overdose or complications from past drug use. I know I have…several.

Another reason I’m not going to mention all of the artists lost over the years is because frankly (and I know this may be an extremely unpopular opinion/statement) I don’t really identify with or care about all of them.  This is not to say that I feel that anyone should overdose and die on drugs, but they did not all have the same effect on my life.  The two people I will mention here today struck a chord with me in particular and this is why…

First of all, I’d like to discuss Layne Staley.   Alice in Chains has to be one of my top three or four favorite bands ever.  Despite the fact that I have hundreds of CDs, not to mention hundreds more songs on my computer, I find myself going back to AIC almost weekly, no matter  what else I am listening to.  As it is, I am still discovering AIC music that I have never heard, though I have been listening for the better part of the last 15 years.  

Though I consider myself a professional music consumer (ha), I won’t even pretend I have the musical knowledge or lingo to innumerate all the things that make AIC musically unique and/or special.  So I’ll put it the best way I know.  Their music makes me feel. I mean, the music is tight, Layne Staley’s voice was one of a kind, and the harmonies between him and Jerry Cantrell were…freakin’ magic.  These words are inept at expressing the depth of emotion AIC music conveys.  I don’t know how else to put it, but if you get it, you get it.  

The lyrics spoke often about Layne’s own personal struggles with drugs.  Now, what makes Layne different than many (not all necessarily, but probably most) of the other artists lost to drugs, is his self-awareness and public acknowledgment of not only his problem with drug addiction, but the fact that he was losing the battle, and the eventuality that came with it would be his death.

A few statements from one of his last interviews resonate with me still:

 “I know I’m dying…I’m not doing well…”

“I’m not using drugs to get high like many people think. I know I made a big mistake when I started using this shit….My liver is not functioning and I’m throwing up all the time and shitting my pants. The pain is more than you can handle…”

“I know I’m near death…I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way. I know I have no chance. It’s too late.”

That coupled with the stories regarding his last visit with one-time friend and band-mate Mike Starr (also now deceased from drugs) and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Layne’s body make for a very depressing end to a promising life… It’s an end I can’t help but think about when I listen to his music and it makes the experience bittersweet and somehow even more poignant.  While some might say I’m being overly morbid and should focus on the music and not this story behind the music, the fact that his drug use was regularly subject matter in his music makes linkage of the two kind of appropriate.

I find it inexpressibly sad that he suffered so much before his death.  The fact that his body was not discovered until roughly two weeks after he died, and he was surrounded by drug paraphernalia and that his weight had dwindled to a measly 86 pounds on his 6’1″ frame just make it that much sadder.  A great light, snuffed out and reduced to nothing but a decomposing shell.

I keep mentioning his suffering because of the fact that so many of these talented people we keep ‘losing’ to drugs are either in public or personal denial of their problems (or both.)  To that end, if they are suffering (and often they aren’t, they are just partying and it goes too far), they don’t admit it to themselves, let alone the public.

The fact that these people have seemingly everything is not lost on the public (especially us poor schmoes who would practically kill to be in their shoes.)  Many people (among which I am sometimes one, depending on the situation) will say, “All that money, all that fame, and they couldn’t find someone, something, to help them?  What do they have to be upset about in the first place? (IOW, why the escapism in drugs.)”  

I would even go so far as to say (though I am sure this opinion won’t endear me to many) that sometimes, as in the case of Michael Jackson for example,the people that surround these bedeviled stars, people in their lives, enable these things to occur by allowing the individual not to be responsible for their own actions.  In MJ’s case, for example, everyone seemed very quick to want to lay all the blame at his physician’s feet.  Michael was a grown man, and I often wonder how much power these stars have over the “subordinates” in their lives.  Could Michael have pressured his doctor with implied or explicit threats to his career to get the doctor to acquiesce to his wishes?  Just something to think about…

Anyway, I digress.  Back to Layne Staley…regardless of what starts a person on drugs or alcohol, I suppose the point is that I don’t feel pity for each and every  rich and famous person who threw his or her life away on drugs, but I do feel sorry for this man.

Now, the other person I’d like to mention is Peter Steele of Type O Negative.  The voice of Type O Negative, Steele was a towering figure (6 foot 8 inches tall) with a uniquely bass voice.  Type O is another band whose music evokes strong emotions in me and perhaps that is one of the reasons his death also has a greater impact on me, than say, Whitney Houston’s.

As to the apparent cause of death for Peter Steele, it is largely believed to be an aortic aneurysm.  Steele had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation years before and was on heart medication.  Steele died at age 48.  

Steele himself admitted to being bipolar and having a depressive personality.  In addition he is said to have suffered from stage fright at some point or another.  Regardless of what drove him to alcohol, cocaine, and…whatever else he was on, Steele eventually did check himself into rehab and according to his band-mates, at the time of his death he had “enjoyed a long period of sobriety.”

That is another reason his death is especially sad and wasteful to me.  He had gotten his life back together, presumably.  His death was initially listed as heart failure, and finally determined to be sepsis as a result of diverticulitis. He had also been ill with the flu at the time of his death. *  But he acknowledged in an interview sometime before his death that he had issues with his heart and some other organs as a result of substance abuse.

So, anyway, that’s my two cents on the subject. I chose to blog about it in part because it’s something that has been on my mind a while (like I said, whenever I hear AIC.)  Whitney Houston’s death likely makes this subject relatable to more people, as she is largely considered to have been a “queen of pop” of sorts.  While I did grow up hearing Whitney Houston (and whatever else my parents listened to back in the day), her death does not necessarily inspire mourning in me.  I am not emotionally tied to her music.  I view her death as a senseless waste that did not have to happen, but I also feel like she did not acknowledge her problems with drugs and so threw her talent and life away.  But the names and faces that inspire hope and emotion differ for all of us, so I hope most readers can take something away from what I’ve written. After all, the feeling of loss and the emptiness that comes with such a tragic waste is partially owing to the senselessness of it, and that is something we can all relate to.

*this article edited to reflect new information, 2020)

19 responses to “In Chains: music and drug addiction

  1. This is a very powerful blog entry… I will admit that I didn’t care much for Whitney Houston while she was alive, and in her death I was almost as ignorant. I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to her music or not, but sometimes people just. Don’t. Care. Now, something you wrote I actually disagree with. Michael Jackson. He lived a horrible life. Abused as a child, forced into signing by his physically abusive father, treated like crap and expected to act like a prince his entire life. To be expected to not show any weakness, even though there were MANY weaknesses about him. To show that he wasn’t hurt, even though he hurt a LOT. I won’t claim to know much about him, but I can say this. it’s true, he may have bullied his doctor into changing his skin color, but WHY did he want it so badly? WHAT forced the “man” (who was a boy trapped in a man’s body) to WANT THIS SO BADLY? People are rarely driven to such extremes by anything other than pain in one form or another, and in this, I respect him because I can relate. I may not have the money or the will to change my skin color, but there are other things about my self that I would LOVE to change if I were able to, mainly because there are things about my self that are painful. I never listened to AIC or Steele, so I can’t comment on their music, but I, from reading what you wrote, am guessing that they, too, were in a lot of pain.
    Pain drives emotion, and when people make music that’s so loud that it drives out emotion and numbs the pain… what does that mean? I think it means something a little different to all of us, but to me, I think it was his way of surviving such horribleness, whatever that might have been. In the end, however you wish to interpret their demise, I don’t think I will use the word “wasteful”. Instead, I’d say that they lived their lives the best way they knew how, and whatever could have been is irrelevant because they survived long enough to live life. If they died early, they died early, but I don’t think it’s wasteful to die young if you’ve lived life the best way you knew how.

    • Well, I’m glad the emotion in this entry came through loud and clear, because that was really the driving force behind it- the emotions these men, their music, and their deaths evoke for me. That said, my reference too Michael Jackson really wasn’t intended as a personal slight against him. I realize he actually did have a hard life, but especially if you take up the mantle of being a role model and a public figure (which it seems he did, especially considering all the ‘stuff’ on his property just to entertain kids (or his inner child?)), then at some point he should have taken charge of his own emotional well being. For example, simply put, lots of killers will claim they were abused as kids. My answer to that is, MANY people were abused as kids, but they don’t all become deviants or killers, just as all people who have had hard lives don’t turn to drugs. Basically, you’d have to f*ck a person up pretty bad for them to have NO responsibility for their own actions.

      • True, but one has to wonder exactly what kind of hell MJ went through… I totally agree that most people don’t go to such extremes, but the extremes DO happen… I have no answer here, and I am not saying you are wrong or right in this. I am simply curious to see how many people do extreme things because they hurt too much? And I realize this post wasn’t a slight against MJ, I just saw that and chose to respond to it. Otherwise, this is a beautiful article 🙂 Well done 🙂

  2. Due to the nature of my blog I felt it would’ve been inappropriate to write about Layne Staley they way you did, but I can assure you, we’re on the exact same wavelength. That hollow feeling I get when I think about his ordeal… you found the right words, which is never as easy as it seems and always praise-worthy. Thanks for this!

    • Thank you for your kind words. And I understand, your blog is more about the music itself. Thank you for reading and commenting. It makes me feel good to know my writing and subject matter has a meaningful impact, especially when it means so much to me.

  3. I’m one of those people who will love a band as a whole and barely or rarely know anything about the musicians that comprise it. So I was surprised to learn that both of these men are gone. In my defence, I live with a DJ and get so entirely sick of music that I don’t want to hear anything about any group. But this week I found an old mix cd of mine, about 10 years old or more, and on it were both AIC and Type O Neg. So I’ve been thinking about them ever since I read this and got a fresh exposure to ‘my’ music rather than the DJ’s. I’m newly saddened that when I somehow manage to get all the back cataloge of both bands there won’t be any more. And due to drugs… something else they have stolen from my life. Thank you for this.

    • So glad this piece of my writing had an impact on you. That’s the best compliment I could get. I understand the “being tired of music” thing because I have dated a couple musicians, and they are…um, a pain in the butt? You always get the impression you’re not quite at the top of their priority list, and it doesn’t get any better when you’re IN the band.
      Sadly, I just heard “I Stay Away” on the radio and I was saying to my daughter (she’s 19 months so she probably was like, “yeah, whatever, Mom,”) we’ll never hear that man’s voice [alive] again. It’s sad.”

      And, as always, with both Layne and Peter, I seemed to find out later than everyone else as well. LOL (Although maybe not as late as you.) XD

      • I actually don’t know anyone else who even likes or has heard of Type O Negative – I have (had, it got broken) October Rust and always wanted to get it again, and get the rest of their music. I’ve asked the hubby…but as you say, MY requests for music seem to get lost in his head. Hmmph. I’ve asked about six times for him to get me AIC! Aaaaa. Don’t lose heart with your daughter just yet! I know a 19-year-old who surprisingly loves good music like this and not the crapola they have on the radio. I suppose 19 months is a bit early still 🙂

  4. I don’t know. I caught her dancing to A Perfect Circle once. She’s growing up in our house, so she’ll be subjected to decent music here, at least… (but we live in SoKy, so I can’t say that for outside of our home. LOL. ) I get exactly two rock stations on my radio, one of which is all classic rock, which is okay. The other is a mix of new and classic, but NEVER do I hear any Tool, System of a Down, Manson, Nine Inch Nails, or any industrial rock on the radio. 😦

    • You are my new favorite music-soul-mate! Can I gather that Kentucky isn’t your native habitat? My ancient CD had AIC, NIN (first album), Megadeth, Metallica, Stone Roses, the KLF, Rammstein, Type O, Butthole Surfers, and more – all heavy bass or hard guitar driven sound. I truly miss this music and it makes my drive to and from work so much better! I have to apologise to the hubby, he now says he has gotten me Alice in Chains, but he can’t find Type O just yet 🙂 Last week I had System of a Down on repeat all week long, the album with Aerials. Not every song brilliant, but some – wow. On LOUD, of course 🙂

      • Haha! Awesome! Yeah, I’m from Maryland, ’round about Baltimore. I like it well enough out here, but some of the “local culture” is a bit hard to swallow sometimes. I try not to repeatedly play the same song while hubby is around. He might make fun of me. :/ LOL

        • Ah, he’s the ‘local’ then? I was feeling a bit American-idiotic about playing System of a Down over and over as the boy would laugh at me… but he likes rap and country and he’s friggin IRISH! I win by default. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who grew up where you did – it seems such a multicultural area – do you think that made it easier to move? I completely believe America has different cultures from state to state.

          • Actually we’re both from Maryland. It IS pretty multicultural around there, I suppose. It’s a bit hard to deal with some of the closemindedness around here, and people here are less “rude”, but more “ignorant”. There most certainly are different cultures, maybe not between ALL fifty states, but yeah, between the south, and the west, and New England.

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  7. Reblogged this on alienredqueen and commented:

    I love all the people slinging shit around Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Yes, he was a junkie! Yes, he had small children that needed him. But I keep seeing all these people judging him like, “He should have just stayed clean…” (really?) are just showing how ignorant they are about the struggle of addiction.
    I read in an article recently that, when asked how bad his problem was, he claimed he knew he would die soon if he couldn’t get clean. He tried to get clean, going to AA and rehab more than once. He actually remained cleaned for quite a while. And he clearly was no longer using for the “fun of it.” He was suffering with his addiction, and his story, right up to his “death prediction,” reminds me once again of another brilliant artist who suffered and lost his battle with addiction.
    So I wish people would stop being so damn high and mighty, especially about things I’m betting most of them have never battled themselves. At the very least, if they have nothing “nice” to say, they should just refrain from commenting at all.
    The air must be really nice up on that high horse. ~smh

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