About eight months ago, Mike McCready was poking around the massive, South Seattle warehouse Pearl Jam calls home when, among the voluminous boxes of recordings, he spotted one labeled “Mad Season.”
It was from the night in 1995 when he, Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and Walkabouts bassist John Saunders debuted at the Crocodile Cafe as Mad Season, a so-called “supergroup” of musicians who had already built a franchise, but itched to step outside and breathe new creative air.
McCready and Saunders had met in a Minnesota rehab. Once back in Seattle, they enlisted Martin and Staley, who had been struggling with drug addiction, to play with them.
“I was getting sober and wanted to bring Layne along with me,” McCready explained to me recently. “The initial feeling was to help get Layne and Baker (Saunders) on the same page and work on the sober thing.”
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Mad Season — the name is a wink of irony, since the term refers to the time when psilocybin mushrooms are in full bloom — released a record, “Above,” which promptly went gold.
They were just starting to work on another album when Saunders died from a heroin overdose in 1999. Staley met the same senseless fate three years later. Saunders was 44, and Staley, 34.
“It was hard to listen for a lot of years,” McCready said of “Above” and the wordless songs that had been recorded, then put away.
“I’ve cried, and I’m not a guy that cries,” McCready, 46, admitted. “The album is prophetic. Layne is struggling.”
He paused. “I miss those guys. I miss where they would have been, and I’m sad. I miss my friends.”
But he and Martin, 45, have found a way to bring them back, at least musically, with the April 2 reissue of “Above.” The reissue will include a DVD of the band’s last show and three songs (“Locomotive,” “Black Book of Fear” and “Slip Away”), with lyrics and vocals by friend and Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan.
Lanegan was a natural choice to front the project. They trusted him. He had known both Staley and Saunders. It felt right.
“I can’t think of anyone better,” McCready said of Lanegan. “We had set a very high standard with Layne singing on it. He and Mark were friends. I just can’t think of anybody else.
“There’s Ed (Vedder) and (Chris) Cornell, and I would love them,” he said. “But it feels right for Mark to do them.”
Martin agreed. After all, he said, Lanegan co-wrote two songs on “Above” (the title song and “Long Gone Day”) and was close to Staley.
“Lanegan is known for being a poetic lyricist,” Martin said. “He is honoring those guys and conjuring a little mojo from those guys.”
The reissue eases the tumble of emotions that comes from knowing, working with and caring about addicts whose talents can’t overcome their demons.
In this way, Staley and Saunders are alive, and able to experience a small part of the arc that McCready and Martin have lived to enjoy.
McCready is part of one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Pearl Jam’s first album, “Ten,” just reached the 10 million mark in sales. He is a husband and father, a philanthropist and advocate for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. (He went public with his Crohn’s diagnosis in 2002).
Martin has traveled the world, earned his master’s degree and is an adjunct professor of music at Antioch University in Seattle. He’s also an ordained Zen monk, has written a book about how cultures express themselves through music called “The World is Singing” and is currently a member of The Walking Papers with Duff McKagan of Guns N’Roses and Velvet Revolver.
Happy as they are to finish the unfinished, McCready and Martin acknowledged the cool wind that blows through the project.
“There is a sadness when I think of the loss,” Martin said of his lost bandmates. “I think about the kind of music they would be making today.”
Martin last saw Staley in 1999, leaving the Tower Records store on Queen Anne with a huge bundle of CDs and vinyl.
“He looked pretty good, and we had a nice conversation in the parking lot,” Martin recalled. “I didn’t bring up the album. Sometimes it’s good to be friends and not talk about your record or your band.”
It was Lanegan who called to tell him that Staley was dead.
“These things happen to all kinds of people,” he said. “Not just musicians.”
Martin still marvels at how “Above” came together so easily.
“It was magical how quickly the ideas came,” he said. “I think it’s a blessing that we got to make a record together.”
Martin wrote a 10-page essay that accompanies the reissue.
“I tried to express how those guys were,” he said, “but I didn’t want to write a maudlin, nostalgic story.”
McCready is grateful to Mad Season for the chance it gave him to write songs — namely, the single “River of Deceit,” which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks and No. 9 on Modern Rock Tracks.
“At that time, I felt very ill at ease with my songwriting ability,” McCready remembered. “I felt like I wasn’t very good at it, until I got together with Barrett and Layne.
“Until Mad Season, I didn’t have that confidence to write songs, and I really got it, playing with these guys. It meant the world to me.”
Despite Staley and Saunders’ absence, there is still joy to be found.
McCready and Martin have reconnected, and are working together on various projects, including soundtracks.
They no longer share just a bittersweet past.
“We have a future together,” McCready said. “It’s closing a chapter and opening one at the same time.
“It’s all about still being around, and we’re lucky and grateful for that.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org