In April 2002 I was lying on my bed in Lethbridge, Alberta listening to the same clock radio that is still perched on my dresser today. The local DJ took to the airwaves and announced that Layne Staley — lead singer the seminal Seattle grunge band, Alice in Chains — had died of an apparent heroin overdose.
The DJ spoke of his own troubled youth and how he found respite by locking himself in his room and listening to Alice in Chain’s 1992 album Dirt. His shaky voice gave way to tears, which in turn gave way to the “dead air” that radio station managers hate.
Alice in Chains wasn’t one of my go-to bands as an angst-filled teen, but listening to that DJ crumble to pieces live-on-air affected me. I became acutely aware of the degree to which artists whom we have never met can come to occupy important roles in our lives; they become our friends, our confidantes, our mentors, and our heroes.
Robin Williams was kind of like a goofy uncle to me. Despite being very forthright about his addiction problems, and despite his profanity-laced stand up routines, I always felt that there was something wholesome at his core.
For example, when Eddie Murphy took roles in films like Dr. Doolittle it was easy to imagine the big wad of money dangled in front of his nose. And really, who can blame him? But when Robin Williams took manic roles in films like Mrs. Doubtfire, I sensed he was exercising a genuine aspect of his personality — he seemed to delight in his ability to make people howl with laughter. I preferred to think that the innocent Robin Williams was the real Robin Williams and that the depressive, alcohol-and-cocaine addicted Robin Williams was just a small, defective aspect of his self.
Then, on August 11, he was found hanging from a belt in Paradise City, California, and I confronted my wrong-headed assessment of his life. It was a reminder that though we take famous people into our lives, and assign them roles, we don’t really know who they are. And perhaps it’s a reminder that can be extended into our day-to-day lives.
Perhaps we don’t notice the battles that our own friends are waging; perhaps we fail to recognize that brave faces mask fragile souls. Given this, the best we can do is approach one another with humility and reserve judgment as best we can.
And error on the side of compassion.
The fourth song on Alice in Chains’ Dirt is called “Down in a Hole,” during which Layne Staley sings, “Well you don’t understand who they thought I was supposed to be.”
It’s a cry of misunderstood anguish that resonates as deeply today as it did when that Lethbridge DJ found solace in it so many years ago.