Archive for December, 2011

Signing Off Until 2012

Posted: December 27, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I’m flying out of the country with plans to spend the remainder of the year at the beach. Best wishes to all of you for the new year. Blogging and tweeting will resume after the first.

Live Performance

Posted: December 25, 2011 in Music
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The Clash – “Straight to Hell”

Holiday Reading List

Posted: December 25, 2011 in Books
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Here’s my literary to-do list for the next two weeks:

Angel Rabasa, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Jeremy J. Ghez, and Christopher Boucek, Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists
Ioan Grillo, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
Lesley-Ann Jones, Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography

I highly recommend all of them.

Scenes from Texas

Posted: December 24, 2011 in Photography
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Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays…

20111224-083814.jpg

You knew this was going to happen… Somebody edited the video of North Koreans mourning the death of Kim Jong Il and set it to the “I’m So Ronery” song from Team America: World Police.

During the past decade, two of the founding members of Alice in Chains – singer Layne Staley and bassist Mike Starr – have died from drug-related causes. In 2001 and 2003, books about Starr and Staley were published. Both books were poorly written, not vetted, and have not undergone any critical review until now.

John Brandon’s book Unchained: The Story of Mike Starr and His Rise and Fall in Alice in Chains was released in 2001. Brandon interviewed Mike Starr, his family, and a few of his close friends. The book contains numerous inaccuracies, some the cause of sloppy research, others that are wildly and consistently off the mark.

Among the most egregious claims in the book is the following unsourced assertion about the final days and death of Staley’s ex-fiancée Demri Parrott: “In Seattle, with doctors, a counselor and John Starr [Mike Starr’s father] by her side – Demri passed away.”

Asked to review and comment on this excerpt, Kathleen Austin – Parrott’s mother – said, “This is bullshit. Demri died at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland and there were two people there – me and my sister. And that’s the only people that were there. This is a lie, an out-and-out lie.” Parrott’s death certificate confirms she died at Evergreen

There is another error on the same page which some simple fact-checking could have avoided. Brandon writes that Alice in Chains continued working after Parrott’s death – recording the MTV Unplugged special in spring of 1996 and then opening four shows for the KISS reunion tour that summer, which were Layne Staley’s final public performances. The timing for the Unplugged and KISS shows is correct, but Parrott’s death certificate shows she died on October 29, 1996, well after Alice in Chains had pulled out of the KISS tour and stopped performing live.

Brandon wrote the following unsourced statement about Layne Staley’s family, “He [Layne] came from an affectionate family – with two loving sisters and his caring mother, Nancy. His father, Phil, had disappeared when he and his sisters were young.” The second part of this sentence is not correct. Phil and Nancy Staley had two children before their divorce: Layne and Liz. According to court records, Nancy Staley married Jim Elmer in 1975 and gave birth to their daughter Jamie in 1978. Bottom line: Phil Staley only fathered one daughter with Nancy, not two.

At another point Brandon writes about how Starr was in a Houston jail cell “naked and dopesick from the pain” when he found out about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. He quotes Mike Starr talking about listening to the radio hearing Courtney Love read excerpts of his suicide note at the memorial vigil at Seattle Center. Again, a simple review of the facts proves this did not happen. According to Charles Cross’s biography Heavier than Heaven, Cobain’s body was discovered on the morning of Friday, April 8, 1994, and the public vigil at Seattle Center took place on the afternoon of Sunday, April 10. According to Houston police records, Mike Starr wasn’t arrested until the night of Monday, April 11. Simply put, he can’t have been in jail when he found out about Cobain’s death or the vigil on Friday and Sunday when he wasn’t even arrested until the following Monday.

Brandon briefly writes about Mother Love Bone and the early days of Pearl Jam: “He [Andy Wood] had been the lead singer and front man for Seattle favorite, Mother Love Bone. Shortly afterward, MLB worked things out with singer Eddie Vedder and became Pearl Jam.” “In 1991 after being off heroin for a year, Mother Love Bone’s front man and lead singer, Andy Wood, was celebrating a record deal.” “It [Wood’s death] forced Mother Love Bone band members to turn to singer Eddie Vedder to be their guiding force.”

All three are incorrect. According to the documentary Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story and the Pearl Jam: Twenty book, Wood died of a heroin overdose on March 19, 1990. Mother Love Bone already had a record deal, having just finished their full-length debut album Apple which they were preparing to tour in support of just before Wood’s death. Only two members of Mother Love Bone – bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard – went on to form Pearl Jam.

There is a quote attributed to Mike Starr in which he talks about Eddie Van Halen being impressed by Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s playing. “Eddie was like ‘God, I wanna know how you’re writing this stuff right now.’ And tuning those strings down, you know, that no one else tuned down before – making different sounds.’” Any serious musician, whether it be Mike Starr, Eddie Van Halen, or anyone else, would know this is laughably false. It would be like crediting Stephen King for inventing the horror novel. Tuning down guitar and bass strings to get a heavier, deeper sound was done two decades earlier by hard rock pioneers like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix. In Mark Yarm’s book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil claims he was the one who explained to Jerry Cantrell the concept of Drop D tuning – in which the low E string on the guitar is tuned down a whole note to D – after Cantrell asked him about his guitar playing on the Soundgarden songs “Nothing to Say” and “Beyond the Wheel,” and if he was using a different tuning.

Brandon writes briefly about the beginnings of Mike Starr’s musical career: “At 12, John [Starr] gave Mike his first bass guitar. He began taking lessons on it and improved dramatically.” In what was probably one of his last major interviews, Starr told Yarm an entirely different story: that he had a job as a dishwasher at IHOP when he was 12 years old, saved up money and bought a bass guitar for $50 off the brother of his future SATO bandmate, drummer Dave Jensen.

Brandon writes that, “Oddly, the song that brought the band its first airplay in Seattle was ‘Queen of the Rodeo.’… The band later relied very little on outside help in its songwriting.” This is partially incorrect. As Brandon notes, the song was co-written by Staley and Jet Silver, but it pre-dates the grunge Alice in Chains. According to Tim Branom, the one-time singer of Gypsy Rose and a co-worker of Staley’s at the Music Bank, he was there when Staley and Silver co-wrote that song sitting at a piano in a room at the Music Bank one night in the fall or winter of 1986. At that time, Layne had been the singer in a metal/glam band called Sleze for about two years. At some point in the first few months of 1987, they would change their name to Alice ‘N Chains. “Queen of the Rodeo” was a regular part of their live setlist. Journalist Jeff Gilbert remembers hearing the original Alice ‘N Chains version of “Queen of the Rodeo” on a KISW radio show called “Metal Shop.” It was this version of the band – not the one with Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Starr that would come together in late 1987 – that first performed “Queen of the Rodeo.” Later on, as numerous bootlegs show [watch here, here and here], it became a part of the grunge Alice in Chains live set during their early days. The song would eventually appear on the Live album and the Music Bank boxed set. Bottom line: Alice in Chains never relied on any “outside help in its songwriting,” as Brandon wrote.

Adriana Rubio’s book Layne Staley: Angry Chair was released in January of 2003, less than a year after his death. For the project, Rubio did extensive interviews with his mother, Nancy Layne McCallum, and his sister, Liz Elmer. The book drew attention because she claims to have gotten Layne’s final interview, and got coverage in Rolling Stone [which included a blurb from Seattle rock journalist Charles Cross], MTV News, and Metal Hammer Magazine. Rubio’s interview is even listed on Staley’s Wikipedia page. Because the book was published after his death, Staley was never able to comment one way or another about the quotes attributed to him in the interview. This interview should be disputed after careful analysis.

On page 118 in the PDF file of the updated version of her book, retitled Layne Staley: Get Born Again, Rubio wrote of her alleged conversation with Layne, “I did not ask many questions, he didn’t allow me to do so. It was him who was in charge of the situation and was clear enough about the way he wanted his story published. This phone call lasted for about 2 hours and a half.” Later on, she writes, “I certainly know that the first publication of this book should have done completely the way Layne wished. And, that’s why I decided to go ahead and transcribe the whole conversation for this re-release,” and “Layne Staley’s words need to be known here and now without having any intentions of hurting anybody’s feelings, especially his mother Nancy’s, and to tell you all, in his own words, what he sadly had to say.”

The implications of these three separate quotes are clear – Rubio is saying she talked to Staley on the phone for two and a half hours and was going to publish the complete transcript of that conversation. I have been in the journalism business since 2002. In that capacity, I have transcribed dozens, if not hundreds of interviews with sources from video or audio recordings, ranging from five minutes to three hours in length. Based on what Rubio wrote in the book, it is obvious she did not speak to Staley for two and a half hours as she claims. In fact, I have reason to believe that conversation didn’t happen at all.

The portion of her book detailing the full account of their conversation runs approximately six pages in the PDF file of the 156-page manuscript, which I bought through her publisher’s website. I copied and pasted this portion of the text into a Microsoft Word document and set it to 12-point single-spaced Times New Roman font – the default setting I use for all of my writing.

Full disclosure: I am researching and writing a biography of Alice in Chains. By comparison, my on the record interview with Kathleen Austin ran for slightly longer than two and a half hours. Using those same Word settings, the transcript for that interview came out to nearly 25 pages. There is no way that what Rubio published is anywhere near a two and a half-hour transcript of her alleged conversation with Staley. Besides the discrepancy in the length of her transcript, there is other evidence to suggest she fabricated this interview.

In the course of my research for my own book, I have read or listened to Staley’s comments in several radio, television, and print interviews from over the years. I have also obtained and reviewed quotes attributed to him published in other books or articles, as well as through my own interviews with people who knew him and agreed to talk on the record. In doing so, I became familiar with his way of speaking, his word selection, and the types of subjects he would and wouldn’t talk about during an interview with a reporter or in a private conversation. Setting aside the substance of the comments attributed to Staley in the Rubio book, it is necessary to look at the language he used. This interview doesn’t read or sound like something he would have said.

Specifically, there are several comments from Rubio’s transcript that stand out: “I hate to feel,” [p. 135, 137] “We did stick our arms together and it wasn’t done for fun,” [p. 136] “One of my lyrics says that without eyes you cannot cry and, it’s funny, I’m crying now,” [p. 136-137], “I must admit that this time, I am the one here confessing, pulling off my skin…. ( pause )… my own dirt, so you can now understand why this pink cloud has turned to grey,” [p. 137-138] “You cannot understand a user’s mind, especially junk,” [p. 138] “That fallen head, is what we called rush, and keeps the junk head drowsy for hours,” [p. 138] “I shouldn’t blame her for my condition because my pain is self chosen, but I know that in some way I do,” [p. 140] “I know I made a big mistake when I started using this shit,” [p. 140] and “Don’t do drugs. Keep away from this corporate prison,” [p. 141].

Each of these quotes is a reference to the title or a lyric from an Alice in Chains or Mad Season song. In order, they are “Hate to Feel,” “God Smack,” “I Can’t Remember,” both “River of Deceit” and “Angry Chair” or “Artificial Red” in the same sentence, “Junkhead,” “Junkhead,” “River of Deceit,” “Would?” and “Angry Chair.” During the course of my research over the past four months, which includes an extensive review of published material related to Alice in Chains as well as interviews with dozens of sources, I have not discovered a single instance in which Staley ever quoted his own lyrics or song titles during an interview or a private conversation the way Rubio claims he did in her interview.

As was the case with Brandon’s book, there are glaring errors in Rubio’s book regarding the death of Demri Parrott. On page 71, she writes, “She [Parrott] was declared dead because of an ‘endocarditic bacterial,’ In spite of the planned choice to keep some distance, Layne was at her side till the end.” The correct name of the condition is bacterial endocarditis, which Austin confirms Parrott was diagnosed with. The part about Staley being with Parrott until the end is not accurate.

Based on a review of the medical examiner’s report and an interview with Austin, Staley was not with Parrott at all during the final 15 hours of her life. The medical examiner’s report erroneously describes the man who brought her to the hospital as her boyfriend. He was not her boyfriend, according to Austin, and Staley did not bring her to the hospital. Parrott spent the last 12 hours of her life unconscious in an intensive care unit at Evergreen Hospital, with only her mother and her aunt by her side, before doctors turned off the life-support machines on the morning of October 29, 1996. Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver told journalist Greg Prato in his book Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music that she was the one who went to Staley’s apartment to tell him that Parrott had died.

The other major error regarding Parrott’s death is on page 119, when Rubio quotes Layne as saying, “Go and write a special chapter for Demri and make it clear that her cause of death was bacterial endocarditic. It wasn’t an overdose.” This is not accurate for two reasons: first, she again misspells endocarditis; second, Parrott’s death certificate lists her cause of death as “Acute intoxication,” and “Combined effects of opiate, meptobamate & butalbital.” In other words, she did die of an overdose.

Unchained and Angry Chair, the first pressing of Rubio’s book, were both published by Xanadu Enterprises, a vanity publishing firm based in Iowa. According to Craig Chilton, the publisher who worked on both Brandon and Rubio’s books, his company is not responsible for vetting or reviewing the content. His company receives manuscript submissions, Chilton reviews them for grammar and spelling errors, and puts the manuscript into book form, after which the authors are responsible for marketing, distributing, and selling them. “I did not review any tapes or transcripts. If they had such things, I never saw them. They wrote the book, I cleaned it up grammatically and spelling-wise. We don’t vet anything.”

Chilton can’t be held responsible for simply following his company’s business policy of publishing what his clients provide him. But it was the lack of editorial vetting which allowed Rubio and Brandon’s subpar quality books to be published and remain unchallenged for years.

Rubio and Brandon have since collaborated on a proposed biopic about Layne Staley – based on and titled “Get Born Again” – with Rubio writing the screenplay and Brandon directing and contributing to the script. One of the producers involved with the project received a letter from King, Holmes, Paterno and Berliner, the law firm which represents Alice in Chains. The letter read in part, “The literary work upon which your project is based contains misleading information about our clients and portrays our clients in a negative and false light. Since our clients cannot be involved with your film and will not support any project based in whole or in part on any literary work written by Ms. Rubio and Mr. Brandon, our clients would prefer that you cease developing your project and move on to one that not requires our clients’ input or the literary work written by Ms. Rubio and Mr. Brandon.”

According to Rubio’s blog profile, the project was derailed because “The Staley Estate did not authorize it.” If the screenplay was to be based on Rubio’s book about Staley, and presumably with some elements of Brandon’s book about Starr, the lawyers’ complaint that their works contained “misleading information” which portrayed their clients in “a negative and false light” is well-founded.

In an e-mail, Rubio said she had passed on my interview request to John Brandon but had not heard back. She declined to be interviewed, citing her mother’s poor health. “With all due respect, both Layne Staley and AIC are not a priority in my life now.”

I’ve reached out to Alice in Chains management, as well as Layne Staley and Mike Starr’s families for comment. I will update this post later if I get any responses.

Update: I got a response/statement to this post from Layne’s sister Liz Coats. Read it here.

Live Performance

Posted: December 11, 2011 in Music
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Sparta – “Collapse”