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Originally published August 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 24, 2007 at 2:54 PM

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Alice in Chains singer's legacy lives on through music

The late Layne Thomas Staley — who would have turned 40 this week — was about the last kid you would pick to be a rock star, if you knew him growing up outside Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Layne Staley Tribute and Benefit Concert: Daughtry headlines the sixth-annual benefit concert, which also features Soulbender and RiverBend, 8 p.m. Saturday, the Showbox, 1426 First Ave., Seattle, where doors for the all-ages show open at 7 p.m.; $25 (206-628-0888 or www.ticketmaster.com).

The late Layne Thomas Staley — who would have turned 40 this week — was about the last kid you would pick to be a rock star, if you knew him growing up outside Seattle.

He would become world famous as the stylish, swaggering Alice in Chains singer, powerfully bellowing bombastic lyrics like "God's name is smack for some" and "down in a hole / feeling so small." As a boy he actually was small, just another quiet kid on the block.

As a teen, he was known to his friends as Layne Elmer, as he took his stepfather's last name in high school. He went back to his birth name of Staley when he started a rock career that rocketed him far beyond Lynnwood.

In 2006, Nancy McCallum represented her son by attending Layne's 20th high-school reunion, at Meadowdale High School. She introduced herself to people and had conversations with some of Layne's old friends — who were astonished to learn he had become the lead singer of Alice in Chains.

"They said 'Layne Staley was Layne Elmer? He was the quietest boy in our class!' They were shocked."

In a phone interview, his mother painted the picture of an artistic, introspective young man. Her Layne was a somewhat indifferent student, excelling in classes he liked, not bothering with homework in subjects that bored him.

"He was one of the shortest boys in his class, until his sophomore or junior year in high school. In his junior year he had pretty much lost interest in school — he'd been picked on because he was small, so he was really through with the scene. I presented the option to quit school — he was old enough that he didn't have to be in school, he could work on his hobbies and projects and have a part-time job. He had just gone through a growth spurt, going from being the shortest boy in class to being 6 feet tall — and he had always wanted to be 6 feet tall. He said, 'The girls have started to notice me.' He chose to stay in school.

"He got in trouble doing things kids do. He dabbled in trying drugs, about the age 13 or 14. Then his junior and senior years he stayed drug-free, and he was the happiest then."

Was it just pot at 13 and 14, or stronger drugs?

"Whatever they find on the playground," McCallum answered. "You say 'just pot,' but it's disgusting to me. Pot is not a benign drug, it's illegal for a very good reason. It's an asymptomatic drug in that people lose their vigor to complete their work.

"I had no preparation for that, because my family didn't do drugs at all, even medical or over-the-counter. At school Layne was around people who were using pot — I don't know if anything else was involved. My husband and I didn't drink, so we didn't have alcohol around."

Shortly after his high-school years, Layne hooked up with Jerry Cantrell, a spectacular guitarist and dark songwriter. The two formed Alice in Chains in 1987. After playing around Seattle for less than two years, the intense metal band signed with Columbia Records. By 1990, Alice in Chains was in regular rotation on MTV and touring the world. Fans bought the band's recordings by the millions.

Sometime during the early '90s, Staley started using heroin. His addiction would dog him the rest of his life.

"There was a lot of touring and fame, sign this and go there," his mother said. "It was a very fast pace and an almost impossible situation, and not conducive to disease rehabilitation and recovery."

Layne Staley died of an overdose on April 5, 2002. His body was discovered two weeks later.

Though he died alone in his University District condo, his mother stresses: "He was never far from the love of his family and friends — who filled his answering machine and mailbox with messages and letters.

"Just because he was isolated doesn't mean we didn't have sweet moments with him. I saw Layne on Thanksgiving of '01 and again just around Valentine's Day when he came to see his sister's new baby. The last time I saw Layne — and the last picture we have of him — is holding baby Oscar."

After her son's death, Nancy McCallum started the Layne Staley Fund, which she said "uses donated funds and proceeds from the sale of merchandise and tribute revenues to support community chemical dependency facilities, drug education and outreach programs." For more information visit www.laynestaleyfund.com. The sixth annual Layne Staley Tribute concert takes place Saturday at the Showbox.

"I think I have an alter ego who does the public work," Layne's mother said, of helping put on such events as this. "It is certainly not the part of me with the broken heart.

"Everyone in Layne's position assumes or believes there will be some kind of miracle or divine intervention and they won't have to deal with their final moments the way Layne did.

"Layne did experience his death by himself — I'll never be able to honor him enough for that. It must have been terrifying. Or, perhaps, beautiful."

As Mark Twain — himself deeply wounded by the deaths of his children — once wrote (in "Letters From the Earth"):

"Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain ... but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man's best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free."

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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