Grunge Angst

by Christie Dixon

I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1982 when I was fourteen years old. Like many teenagers I was interested in music and gravitated towards music my parents could not stand. It is a rite of passage for many of us! I enjoy various musical genres, but rock was my favorite. I must admit when I first listened to a bootlegged cassette of a ‘new type’ of music—I was not impressed. Why were they so angry? It seemed so rough and raw—not crafted and polished.

There was more than coffee percolating around the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980’s… Grunge. It described the music, the look, the sound. Gone were spandex, feather boas, mile-high hair, and platform boots. Enter well-worn plaid, t-shirts, beanies, combat boots, and ripped jeans. Big and well coifed hair was replaced with the days-old tangle of mane used more as a shield from curious eyes than a fashion statement. Grunge was more than music; it was a culture. It was the Seattle Sound. With it came lyrics of the emotionally tormented, socially alienated, and the need to bust free.

Early grunge musicians had little money, experience, or the studios to craft and record polished music. Hence their ‘gritty’ licks and loud sound. But it was just the right recipe because by the ‘90’s Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam were making waves and hitting the charts. Some of these ‘grunge’ bands have eschewed the label and classify their music as simply rock.

The ‘grunge look’ became a fashion statement internationally as youth began sporting flannel shirts, combat boots, stocking caps, and worn t-shirts—giving away the sentiment of the music—raw, unpretentious, and rebellious. The Seattle Sound put the Pacific Northwest on the map.

Local band Alice in Chains played a huge part in developing and popularizing this unique sound. Although many people talk of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, AIC seems to have taken a backseat. Their music should not. It has been said that AIC’s Facelift album and the song Man in the Box is what brought the sound to mainstream listeners. Combining the grunge drop-D tuning and heavy metal was new and it landed! What would follow were more angst-filled, hard hitting vocals and instrumentals that cemented a following—even today.

The band cut its teeth in Tacoma, the hometown of original band member Jerry Cantrell and below is a live performance at Legends in Tacoma in October 1989. I was at that show, and I can affirm it got your attention! The pained energy was palpable. The sound deafening. The mood—exhilarating. I did not know it then, but they would become one of my go-to bands when I was in need of a good musical wallop! Jerry Cantrell said of their music in an interview with Lars Ulrich, of Metallica fame, “completely honest, completely wrenching, punch to the nuts, to the point…really raw.” I would say that sums it up. Of note, Ozzy Osborne ranks Facelift as one of his top ten favorite heavy metal albums. That is not a bad endorsement!

Along with the sound came a lifestyle of excessive drugs and alcohol. As they sang about depression, being sidelined by society, and rejected by peers, some found the effects of substances could calm their demons and the traumas that lingered. This was not new to music, but within the grunge arena it became part of the culture—it helped define it.

They say music is born out of our emotional responses to experiences we face, and the music of Alice in Chains is no different. Each member suffered immense tragedy. Loss of family, band members and addiction plagued them—and much was evident in their music. The band became fractured as Layne Staley’s addiction became too much—delays, cancellations, and member shake-ups took the lead for several quiet years. Eventually they would come together with the addition of William DeVall on lead vocals, and Mike Inez replacing Mike Starr.

More than thirty years later they are still making music, although Jerry Cantrell states it gets harder as they get older because so much has already been said, “Music isn’t really hard, I can come up with riffs all day long, but lyrics always take the most time for me. I don’t want to say something I don’t mean or feel strongly about, so you kind of just…wait until that happens.” He does appreciate that each time he creates he is able to “start at a complete zero every time.”

Cantrell released Brighten in 2021, his first solo project in twenty years which features other musical greats, including Seattle local Duff McKagan. Although it certainly is AICish, after all Cantrell was central to their sound, it is unique and powerful. If I am not mistaken, there is a little Southern twang in a few runs—an homage to his family’s Oklahoma roots—and a nice touch for this Okie.

Many thanks to a band that helped define a genre, proved there is life after addiction and trauma, and staying true to one’s self and their art is not only doable, but fruitful. I work with individuals struggling with addiction and mental health and using the band, their story, and music has been inspiring to many. Here is to more great music, and thank you gentlemen!

Further Reading

Jerry Cantrell interviewed by Lars Ulrich of Metallica:

About the Author

Christie Dixon prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Autumn Quarter 2022, she was a senior majoring in Criminal Justice.

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