I have to confess off the bat that I don’t find ‘Down In A Hole’ to be a sad song or even a depressing, angry, or particularly harrowing song. It’s strikingly pretty, it is sweeping and plodding; dramatic, sure, but Jerry Cantrell’s harmonies are the main reason for this – in a previous life he was undoubtedly a Gregorian monk. It’s expertly constructed and played, and felt deeply within every inch. But it doesn’t sound that defeated, despite the desperate lyrics, and Layne Staley certainly doesn’t seem to be down in any kind of hole while singing it. He was a drug addict, sure (he was actually smacked out while recording the vocals to this song) but Alice In Chains had sold over a million records by the time they entered the studio to record this track, and were about to hit a career high, selling five million copies of ‘Dirt’, the album from which this comes.
Songwriter Jerry Cantrell has claimed the song is about his long-term love, and their inability to stay together in the face of the band’s success. “It’s hard for us to both understand…that this life is not conducive to much success with long-term relationships”, he wrote of the track’s inspiration in the liner notes to 1999 boxset ‘Music Box’. Staley’s addiction deepened in the years following Dirt’s success, and after his girlfriend, the stunning Demri Parrot, died of a heroin overdose in 1996, he seemed to completely give up on any further attempts at straightening up.
Layne Staley spent his final few years holed up in his Seattle condo, his millions of dollars allowing him to build a wall between him and the world, while he had drugs delivered to him around the clock. Friends tried and failed to get in touch with him, his escalating heroin use resulted in him losing most of his teeth, and in April 2002, after his accountants realised he hadn’t withdrawn any money in a fortnight, police kicked in his door and found his body on a couch, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. He weighed a shocking 39kgs.
His death was dated as April 5, the exact same day Kurt Cobain had died eight years earlier – a bleak bookend to the heroin-ravaged Seattle music scene that thrived in the early ’90s. So maybe this song isn’t a particularly sad one when taken at face value, but the story certainly is.
It’s easy to search for meaning in music after a tragedy, but it’s hard to deny that, despite riding high at the time, Layne Staley was down in a hole while recording this song, and he never managed to dig himself out.