As another annual tribute concert in Seattle nears in remembrance of Alice in Chains star Layne Staley, drug-related deaths grow in King County and Staley’s mother revisits her heartbreak.
On the very day that Nancy McCallum and I were meeting to talk about the Layne Staley Tribute concert next weekend, King County announced there had been a record number of drug-related deaths last year — two-thirds of them opioid-related.
McCallum didn’t need the numbers to know that things had only gotten worse since Staley, her son and the gifted lead singer of Alice in Chains, died of a heroin overdose in April 2002 at age 34.
Fifteen years later, McCallum still hears from people who are addicted to heroin, or love someone in its throes. They want her perspective and advice.
“I don’t have any magic answers,” McCallum told me. “I just try to console people. It’s heartbreaking and overwhelming and unnecessary. But I know it’s coupled with a proclivity for habitual behavior.
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“I will never be able to understand even trying something that is so dangerous,” she said of opioids. “I’m as bewildered as the next person, because I see a beautiful world.”
Some of that beauty unfolds at the annual Layne Staley Tribute concert, to be held Aug. 19 at the Moore Theatre. It will be the 15th year that McCallum has celebrated her son’s talent with his family, friends and fans.
This year will also mark what would have been Staley’s 50th birthday on Aug. 22, and the 25th anniversary of the release of Alice in Chains’ second album, “Dirt,” which Rolling Stone listed as one of the greatest metal albums of all time.
The concert will feature the tribute band Jar of Flies, led by original member J.T. Phillips (Jamie Nova Sky), singer Rane Stone (Klover Jane) and Kyyle Cort (Superfekta); include several guest appearances; and benefit Therapeutic Health Services (THS), a network of clinics that treats chemical dependency and mental illness. THS manages the Layne Staley Memorial Fund, which provides “hope, education, support and treatment funds for heroin recovery in the Seattle music community.”
Fans come from as far away as Australia. McCallum wears a fake-fur-trimmed denim jacket that she bought at Nordstrom for the very first tribute show, and basks in the sense that her son is right there with her.
“Layne was the quietest child in his high-school class,” she remembered. “The stage gave him permission to do what we all want to do sometimes: Just scream.”
Phillips hopes that the music — so much of it about Staley’s addiction — causes people to talk about what killed him.
“It’s a conversation that needs to be had, about how to get help,” Phillips said. “The opioid explosion in recent years tells me that people feel alone. This music … Layne was writing a warning.”
McCallum agreed: “That’s what his music was about. The life of an addict.”
She tried to break her son from his addiction, but there was only so much she could do, since he was often out of reach.
“He was touring around the world, he was at home and he was in treatment,” she said. “He was caught in a trap. I came to understand it too late.
“Addiction is a disease like any other,” she continued. “Like a cancer, it can be treated, but it can also reoccur. We shouldn’t judge. The emphasis should be on research and treatment.”
That it is happening more and more angers her. She blames doctors who overprescribe painkillers, and recalled that when she got her wisdom teeth out five years ago, her periodontist gave her a prescription for 20 “oxy-somethings” — and a refill for 20 more.
McCallum took one, realized she could withstand the pain on her own, and sent the rest of the pills back to the doctor with a note: “Shame on you,” she wrote. “You get rid of these.”
She recommends that families of addicts attend 12-step meetings and remember that addiction can’t be healed, as some organizations would have you believe.
“When someone is charging you thousands of dollars, promising they will heal addiction, far away from home or with religion, you are being misled,” she said.
Staley entered drug treatment 10 times, McCallum said, and his heart stopped five times. He was saved only because there were people around.
When his heart stopped for the last time, he was alone.
On that day, McCallum was working at the front desk of a rehab center on the Eastside. She had plans to meet with one of the supervisors the following Monday to talk about a treatment plan for her son.
Then Staley’s accountant called to tell her that Layne had made a large withdrawal from his bank account a couple of weeks before, and that no one had heard from him since. She got into her Honda and raced across the 520 bridge in the HOV lane, passing five police cars on the way. None of them stopped her.
At his University District building, she buzzed his place with no response. Another resident let her in, and when she went to the third floor, she found the mail stacked up and could hear Staley’s cat, Sadie, meowing on the other side of his door.
When he didn’t answer, she called the police, who knocked down the door. An officer told her to wait while he went inside. He came out and told her Layne was gone, and that she shouldn’t go in. But she did anyway.
“I promised that I would always be there for my children,” she said. She sat beside him on the couch, where he looked so tiny.
“I told him I was sorry this was how it turned out.”
The police didn’t like that McCallum had gone in, but she didn’t care. She wanted to do it her way.
“Society thinks mothers are weak and whiny,” she said. “But women go to war, we have babies. This was my war.”
Layne’s conflict was over.
“While others were in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was fighting a war at home,” McCallum said. “He chose to write about it and sing about it and perform about it.
“It was a warning.”