REMEMBERING LAYNE STALEY PART 5: MAD SEASON
REMEMBERING LAYNE STALEY PART 5: MAD SEASON
WRITTEN BY DAVID BRONSTEIN & BRETT BUCHANAN
Mike McCready is euphoric; it’s New Years Eve in Seattle and his new band Mad Season are due to play a show at the tiny RCKNDY. The Pearl Jam guitarist is trying his best to upstage his lead singer, the enigmatic Layne Staley- who is last to the venue and fashionably late. Up until now, Mad Season have played three shows and Staley is winning 3-0. Not only does McCready live further from the venue, but he has also agreed to a last minute interview with the British rock magazine Kerrang. When the journalist senses that McCready is running late, he suggests that the interview take place in the taxi to the venue. McCready knows that he will be throwing in the towel once again to Staley.
McCready is celebrating the New Year in the taxi, due to heavy traffic. The end of 1994 could not come soon enough, especially for Seattle after the untimely death of Kurt Cobain. Layne Staley and Mark Lanegan are at Staley’s condo, they are getting together to say goodbye to a miserable year. Staley’s flatmate and good friend Yanni Bacolas is at the venue with his band Second Coming, who are opening up for Mad Season.
Backstage in the VIP red bricked bar there is a who’s who of journalists and radio DJ’s who gave Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam their first spins on the radio. When Staley arrives at the venue he gives a knowing nod to McCready, who is talking to a guitar tech. Poor Mark Lanegan is locked out of the venue after security don’t believe that he is part of the band. Suffice to say the confusion is sorted out, and now the clock ticks as fans wait for the show to start. The club itself is packed and the patrons will enjoy a New Years Party followed by Mike McCready on lead guitar, Barrett Martin on drums, the unknown but talented bassist Baker Saunders and Layne Staley on vocals. There have been far worse New Years parties.
When Mad Season appear on stage at nearly two in the morning, the venue erupts. Staley lights up a Marlboro, the stage lights make him look almost demonic. Tonight Staley’s long blonde hair is flipped back, it is his longest hairstyle since the Dirt days. He is not at his healthiest but he is not defeated, instead he is owning the stage like he always has done. But this is not Alice in Chains. This is a million miles away from anything associated with Alice. Mad Season may be loaded with the rock supergroup label, but as Barrett Martin would describe in later years, Staley was on a spiritual mission with this band. After an hour and a few jams, the show ends. Even though a majority of the crowd have not heard the material before, no one is calling out for Alice or Pearl Jam numbers, it’s been a show that has been appreciated for what it is, something rather special to welcome in 1995. Staley in an upbeat mood, he even passes out ‘happy new year’ t-shirts after the show ends. He is truly happy.
Less than one hundred days before, this was not the case. Staley is holed up in his Queen Anne bedroom, he’s been there all day. His flatmate Yanni Bacolas is worried for him, but this has become the norm. Staley had been looking for a larger place to live since Alice In Chains wrapped up their mammoth 1993 world tour. In early summer he found a place in the same Queen Anne district, and immediately asked his ex bandmate and long term friend to move in with him. They were almost like brothers when they lived together. But Staley inevitably had his personal problems. During the summer of 1994 Staley was supposed to join up with Alice In Chains and go on a lucrative summer tour supporting Metallica, a band that Staley cherished as a teenager. But after rehearsals at the Moore Theatre that May, the band pulled the plug. Instead Staley spent time trying to find himself. His clay work, poetry and drawings became his passion. Perhaps Staley was trying to send a message to Alice’s fans that a break was needed, when the band’s released the video for I Stay Away, the video did not feature any band members (this would be the first time) and the video was done in clay mation, Staley’s latest love.
One thousand six hundred miles away Mike McCready was in rehab at Hazelden in Minneapolis. There he met fellow musician John Baker Saunders, the two shared an appreciation of music and both were dead set on kicking their habits. They promised that to help each other recover when they were ‘outside’ that they would form a band and play music. McCready contacted Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin who in turn suggested that he contact Layne Staley for vocals. McCready walked right into Staley’s home, woke him up and asked him to play with him. By mid September it had become the norm for the band to all meet up at Staley’s place, and for a time it felt as though these world famous rock musicians who were were starting over again. McCready even got Staley help and referred him to Hazelden. Staley went but quit soon thereafter, though he was more than happy to have Lowell Duncan, a Hazelden employee, come to his condo for his weekly chats.
Staley knew that by accepting McCready’s request to sing in the band that it would provide him with the ultimate artistic freedom. He could write all the lyrics, the concept and art direction of the album would be Staley’s final say, and most of all there would be no pressure, at least not in the Alice in Chains type of way. After a few jam sessions at best, McCready hastily arranged the band’s first show, on a desperately cold October night at the tiny Crocodile Cafe. Apart from Alice in Chains’ short acoustic set at the Hollywood Palladium in January, this would be Staley’s first full gig in almost a year.
At this point the band were called ‘The Gacy Bunch’, a take on John Wayne Gacy the serial killer and The Brady Bunch TV show. McCready had even bought masks for the show, but they were not needed. The band’s first ever live song was an instrumental version of Wake Up. When lyrics were put to the song days later it is worth noting that Staley sang the line ‘for 12 long years…. and then changed it to 10 in later performances and for the record.
The humor of the Gacy Bunch name that had once been hilarious to Baker and McCready had quickly worn thin, so McCready thought it was time for a change. When searching for a new name McCready thought back to recording Ten with Pearl Jam. McCready remembered people at the studio referring to it being the ‘mad season.’ It was the time period when hallucinogenic mushrooms had come up. McCready noted this and remembered the name, especially due to his personal connection to it due to his own struggles with addiction. The band henceforth were known as Mad Season.
By the time the band played their third show, the band were already ready to start working on a record. McCready thought the band should demo, but Staley said they should go for it and make an album immediately. They entered Bad Animals studio and spent the first week of December recording what would eventually be known as Above. Even though Staley never had the chance to write his autobiography, Above was practically a musical autobiography. Staley penned every lyric except for two verses on the chilling Long Gone Day, which were written and sung by Mark Lanegan. The inner sleeve featured Staley’s original drawings that had been displayed that summer in Seattle’s Sharp Wit Gallery. The cover of the actual album was another original piece of a man and a woman, Layne Staley and his true love Demri Parrot. Many of the songs on the album were written for Demri, notably I’m Above and Lifeless Dead. Layne’s lyrics were both triumphant and devastating at the same time. Like fans had learned on Dirt, Staley was not afraid to question himself, or open himself up emotionally. ‘The Cracks and lines from where you gave up, they make an easy man to read’ is a line from Wake Up that echoes this sentiment. Also ‘A head full of lies is the weight tied to my waist’ from River of Deceit. Long Gone Day was a heartwarming call to his old friends and shared memories from a much more innocent period, before the addiction, fame and money. Above was a masterpiece that bared the soul of this magnificent artist. Above meant so much to Staley, that he sent two separate letters to Sony with his artwork for the album, and demanded that absolutely nothing be changed. He even told them how he wanted the font for the lyrics to look like. Initially Mad Season was nerve wracking project for Staley. After spending his first several years in music in a band with Jerry Cantrell, a dominant creative force, Staley was finally on his own and in control. He became determined and had complete artistic confidence. Staley stated that Above was the greatest and most fulfilling record he ever recorded.
In 1995, a week after their New Year show, Mad Season played two songs at Pearl Jam’s live Self-Pollution radio program. It was the first time that their songs would be publically heard outside of Seattle. January concluded with a photo session conducted by Lance Mercer for the back of the album. Staley bundled up his hair on the top of his head and even wore lipstick in some photos, yet another example of his great wit and never taking himself or his rock star status too seriously. Mercer took close to 60 shots and a video was shot for lead single River of Deceit. After that the band were briefly put on hold as Mike McCready joined Pearl Jam on their Asian tour.
On March 14th, Above was released. Though critics were divided regarding its quality, Raw magazine stated ‘ Mad Season is a triumph of talent, Above is so good.’ But Kerrang only gave the album two K’s out of a possible five and stated that the album sounded like a bunch of men growing old before their time. By the end of the year the album went Gold, despite the lack of any live shows outside of Seattle. Staley paid an outstanding driving fine totaling over $600 a week after the release, but this didn’t damper his excitement.
Mad Season would play only two shows in support of Above. One at the Crocodile Cafe and then a week later on April 29th at the 1,400 capacity Moore Theatre. Because of the show being professionally recorded and later released on VHS, it is the Moore show that stands alone as Mad Season’s most glorious hour. With psychedelic effects, a chaotic crowd that even featured people jumping from the balcony, and a legendary performance, the video and performance remains a classic today. What was so striking about the Moore show was not the fact that the setlist was incredible or that Mark Lanegan showed up to sing a few numbers, or even the band’s mesmerizing moments jamming during November Hotel. The striking moment lasted the entire show, the feeling of a welcome home and a warmth that the sold out crowd had towards Staley, they had all missed him, we all had. This would be Mad Season’s swan song.
This piece was mostly written by the great David Bronstein, with additional information and editing added in by Brett Buchanan. You can contact David Bronstein at email@example.com
REMEMBERING LAYNE STALEY RETROSPECTIVE