A Lesson in Music and Pain

by octopushat

I remember an afternoon in 1992 when my mother once took me to The Wherehouse (remember that place?) to buy a CD . Grunge had swept across my adolescent consciousness, and I was quickly gravitating towards the darker, heavier bands.  I ended up with Alice In Chains’ Dirt.


We listened to the album in the car that afternoon.

I had listened to most of the album prior to buying it on a cassette dubbed by my friend Robby. But I hadn’t really paid attention to the lyrics much beyond the first two singles (this was pre “Rooster”). Sitting in that car and driving around Irvine I began feeling anxious that she would be worried as the music and lyrics are pretty damn dark (especially for a 13/14-year old).

I’m thinking in particular of “Junkhead”, where the chorus is:

What’s my drug of choice?
Well, what have you got?
I don’t go broke,
and I do it a lot.

I remember attempting to pass-off the album’s themes as a Grunge-y satire of the Hair Metal bands of the previous decade.

As clever as (I thought) that argument was, my mom didn’t buy it. But, she put my mind at ease saying that she lived through the 60s, and she knew that the best music was sometimes fueled by drugs, darkness, or pain. She told me to use music like that to learn from and as a warning about the pitfalls or drugs. To listen to the artist’s pain and understand it so I wouldn’t have to experience that pain myself.

I want to taste dirty, stinging pistol
In my mouth, on my tongue
I want you to scrape me from the walls
And go crazy like you’ve made me

-From the album’s title track

Of course, Alice In Chains was about the furthest thing from satire – the music was incredibly earnest, and I think that is why the album is still so affecting 20+ (!!!) years later. Singer and lyricist, Layne Staley would only be with the band for another 3 or 4 years, and heroin would kill him in less than 10.

I have, however, often returned to Dirt, especially when I feel depression’s gnawing creep. The album has become a touchstone of introspection and perspective for me, and I think it stands as one of the iconic albums of the grunge “genre”. More importantly, my mom, in her wisdom that she too often denied,  used the album as a teaching-tool and not as a barometer for her struggling (weren’t we all at 13 or 14) son’s mental state, which would have been both easy and understandable.

Her lesson has stuck with me for decades. A simple drive to the record store, and what must have been a challenging conversation for my mom, forever altered how I would relate to music – and even to other people.

I’m not sure why these thoughts bubbled up this time I queued-up the album, but I’ll take it as another part of her lesson.