Mike Starr: Bassist and self-destructive founder-member of the Seattle band Alice in Chains

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 12 March 2011 01:00
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When the grunge band Alice In Chains named their 1990 debut EP We Die Young after the eponymous composition by their guitarist and primary songwriter Jerry Cantrell, it proved sadly prophetic.

Ostensibly inspired by the sight of children dealing drugs in Seattle and built around an insistent riff, the song also served as the opening track on the dark Facelift, the group's first album, but its members failed to heed its message and soon fell into drug abuse themselves, with tragic consequences. Layne Staley, their tortured, charismatic frontman – and the lyricist of "Killing Yourself" on the debut EP – died in April 2002 after injecting a mixture of heroin and cocaine.

Mike Starr, their original bassist, who contributed to Facelift as well as the multi-million selling, even more foreboding, follow-up Dirt, was kicked out of the band in early 1993 because of his drug habit and never got his life back on track, despite what an appearance on the third series of Celebrity Rehab With Dr Drew, a VH1 reality show, broadcast in the US in January 2010, might have indicated. He was found dead in Salt Lake City earlier this week.

Born in Honolulu in 1966, Starr played in various Seattle groups after moving there with his parents. In 1987, along with Staley and the drummer Sean Kinney, he joined Cantrell's first band, Diamond Lie, who claimed to play "sleazy, bluesy, in-your-face, tough rock'n'roll." After considering Fuck as a new name, they became Alice In Chains, a revision of Alice N' Chains, a glam rock project Staley had briefly fronted as he attempted to reconcile his love of Alice Cooper and Guns N' Roses. Drawing on classic heavy metal influences, the four members developed a mean and moody sound as they attempted to become the best group in Seattle. When I interviewed Cantrell and Kinney in London in the mid-1990s – Staley had stopped travelling for obvious reasons – they stressed that the formation of Alice In Chains predated the emergence of Mother Love Bone – who evolved into Pearl Jam – and Nirvana, though they did benefit from the help of the management team behind the already established Soundgarden when they signed a deal with Columbia in 1989.

Alice In Chains might not exactly have been a grunge band but their rise coincided with the last great international phenomenon of the CD era. Shrewd management and the promotional push of a major label also played their part in their success as they went from supporting Iggy Pop in the US in 1990 to participating in a Clash Of The Titans tour featuring Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth as Facelift moved up the charts the following year. In 1992, they appeared in Singles, Cameron Crowe's epochal romantic comedy set in Seattle – starring Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon, the leader of the fictional group Citizen Dick – which popularised the slacker look and hit cinema screens at the same time as Nirvana were capturing teen spirits the world over.

Starr co-wrote "It Ain't Like That", one of two songs Alice In Chains performed in the film, and contributed a memorable sinuous bass line to the other, "Would?", the brooding Cantrell composition that became their international breakthrough hit after its inclusion on the Singles soundtrack album alongside fellow Seattlers Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney.

The bassist's other salient contributions included the simmering "Confusion" on Facelift, and the bass line that formed the bedrock of "Rain When I Die" on Dirt, the band's second full-length album, and he also played on "Them Bones", "Angry Chair" and "Down In A Hole", the drug-referencing transatlantic Top 40 hits drawn from that bestseller, and the acoustic Sap EP that preceded it in 1992. However, by the time they appeared on the first episode of the second series of Later... With Jools Holland in 1993, Starr had been replaced by Mike Inez, whom the group had met while opening for Ozzy Osbourne.

The next year, Staley told Rolling Stone the split had happened over "a difference in priorities. We wanted to continue intense touring. Mike was ready to go home," but no one was fooled. Indeed, following Lollapalooza in the summer of 1993, Alice In Chains never played more than four concerts on consecutive nights and never matched the intensity of their early recordings. Starr had proved expendable but the increasingly drug-fixated Staley, whose wracked voice gave them their smouldering signature sound, could only be trusted to make studio albums.

At first, Starr seemed to cope with his sacking well, and attempted to form a supergroup, Sun Red Sun, with two former members of a minor incarnation of Black Sabbath, the drummer Bobby Rondinelli, and the singer Ray Gillen, who died of Aids in December 1993. However, the following year he went off the rails and spent three months in a Texas jail after stealing luggage at Houston Intercontinental Airport.

The death of Staley in 2002 particularly affected him as he believed he had been the last person to see the singer alive, two weeks before his body was found in his Seattle apartment. "I wish I hadn't been high on benzodiazepine [an anti-anxiety sedative]," Starr said on Celebrity Rehab. "I wouldn't have just walked out the door. I feel naked without Layne in this life. Still to this day, I don't care about them dismissing me from the band. I love Layne for the human being that he was. I really miss him."

Despite stints in rehab, he seemed unable to kick drugs for more than six months at a time and was arrested on several occasions in Los Angeles and Seattle. In February, he was arrested in Salt Lake City on an outstanding warrant related to an earlier drugs charge, and was found with unauthorised prescription medicine.

After reuniting and performing with various vocalists since 2005, Cantrell, Kinney and Inez recorded a new Alice In Chains album with the former Comes With The Fall frontman William DuVall in 2009.

Michael Christopher Starr, bassist and songwriter: born Honolulu, Hawaii 4 April 1966; died Salt Lake City, Utah 8 March 2011.

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