A Eulogy for the Stars: R.I.P. Layne & Left Eye

-Photos and Article by Krusty


Layne Staley, ca. 1991

The rock and roll industry has suffered a lot of losses in the last year and a half. In March of 2001, American punk pioneer Joey Ramone died of Lymphatic cancer; it wasn't many months later that we lost Beatle George Harrison to cancer. April and May brought two more tragedies, when both Layne Staley of Alice in Chains and Left Eye of TLC were found dead.


Joey Ramone, ca. 1990

Layne Staley had a voice like a broken down angel, and lent it to both Alice in Chains, the oft-forgotten dark side of grunge, and to Mad Season, a grunge supergroup that featured members of Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, until his addiction to heroin made singing no longer a viable option. Staley droned submissively and with some reconciliation about heroin, addiction, and death in a way that seemed to prophesy his own death. On April 19th, he was found two weeks dead in his Seattle apartment, with only drug paraphernalia to tell the story of the artist's last days to police, fans, friends, and family. The circumstances of Staley's death have left those who cared to wonder how his death could have gone unnoticed for so long: where were his friends? His family? The groupies beating down his door? In the absence of any substantive answers, the press steps up to speculate: such is the fate of the addict, who alienates family and friends, be it through betrayal or sprurning for new friends with similar problems.

Staley's death raises a question that we hope we will never have to deal with: how will we handle it when a loved one, friend, lover, becomes an addict - we can no longer trust them with our belongings, our love, our time, our children? If we answer "it's their own fault" when we abandon them, we have to face the insidious fact that we're abandoning them to a disease - no less a disease than cancer any other terminal illness. How do we abide that? How do we reconcile ourselves to abandoning someone for illness? And, as Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur points out, two weeks is a noteable amount of time for any of us: But Staley was famous, loved by people who had never met him. It 2000, 45% of deaths in King's County, Washington involved opiates like heroin: 105 out of 234 deaths. Just under half. As the Beatles once sang, "look at all the lonely people." What will you do when given the opportunity to try turn away an addictive substance? What will you do when an addicted friend comes to you for a place to stay? For a bit of money?

Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, whose band TLC went triple platinum, died in Honduras when she lost control of her SUV when she broke the posted speed limit to pass another vehicle. 10,000 fans attended the superstar's funeral in Atlanta, as did fellow superstars Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Suge Knight.

The contrasts in media coverage, circumstances, and reactions to the two musicians' deaths are striking. Staley's death got a line on the ticker at the bottom of CNN's screen; Lopes' death scrambled reporters with ENG equipment to cover her death with sleek, well-produced video news packages.

Who knows what to take out of this contrast: my own coverage of the two tragedies offers almost three times the coverage for Staley's death than it does for Lopes'. It's not that I don't care; it's just that while the rest of the country seemed to feel an investment in Lopes' life, I didn't even know she existed until CNN told me she no longer did.

There is one conclusion to be drawn from this: While we're all familiar with caricatures of rock and roll lifestyle - live fast die young, sex drugs and rock and roll, born to lose, live on the wild side, and so on ad nauseaum, recent deaths in the entertainment world suggest this caricature is no more than a myth: two cancers, one car accident…and a possible heroin overdose (a conclusion about the cause of Staley's death has not been reported - not even in the Seattle papers). That doesn't do much to support our rock and roll myth. We can think back on Tupac (murdered), on Jim Morrison (heart attack), on Hendrix (overdose), on Janis Joplin (overdose), on Kieth Moon (overdose)…but what about all the rest?

In the interest of proving Proverbs 10:27, "but the years of the wicked shall be shortened," one website offers an extensive catalog of rock and roll deaths www.av1611.org/rockdead.html. But all this website does is demonstrate how few have died from what we understand to be a rock and roll lifestyle: 42 heart attacks, 22 airplane crashes, 25 cancers…and so on.

The question remains, what is the function of this myth of deadly rock and roll recklessness? I suppose it sells records. More importantly, and more insidiously, it romanticizes the dangerous behaviors that the stars themselves aren't even living themselves. Like satanic rituals, gang war, rape, drugs, alcohol, fast cars and faster women are the stuff of rock star fantasy. And our favorite artists construct compelling narratives, and sell a death wish in the process.
Perhaps rockers should be forbidden from selling dangerous fantasies. Or perhaps kids should be forbidden from investing in them. Or maybe, just maybe, we should teach our kids to read.

 

 

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