The Story Behind the Story: Was Layne Staley Going to Audition for Audioslave?

I recently read this article by Michael Christopher regarding the 15th anniversary of Layne Staley’s death and it got me thinking about something I reported in my book two years ago: that Layne told a friend of his about a year before his death that he wanted to try out for the band that would become Audioslave, a position that ultimately went to the late Chris Cornell.

Here’s how it happened: on November 14, 2012, I was doing an on the record interview with Morgen Gallagher, a friend, former roommate, and former bandmate of Layne’s in Alice ‘N Chains – his pre-Alice in Chains hair metal band. During the course of the one-hour conversation, this exchange came up almost as an afterthought, which has only been edited down for brevity to focus on Gallagher’s key quotes.  From my transcript:

Morgen Gallagher: And I saw him again at a Super Bowl party and he was more himself.  He put a little weight on and he was – he said that he was going to be – that he had to get a call from the basically from Audio… because we’ll turn into Audioslave, that they wanted him to audition and shit like that.

He said that he was going to clean up and then go to rehab or like that and go do the audition.

David de Sola:            They wanted him to audition for Audioslave?

Morgen Gallagher:     Yeah, but since he ended up dying, Chris Cornell went down and auditioned instead.

Morgen Gallagher:     [inaudible] Rage Against the Machine, shit like that and they were looking for a new singer.  And Layne said that they had asked him to come and audition, but he needed to get his shit together first before he could do it.

David de Sola:             So, Layne told you that they were – that he had been invited to audition for Rage Against the Machine, basically.  Is that what he said?

Morgen Gallagher:     Yeah.  Exactly, yeah.

David de Sola:            His exact and wow… Did he go or not?

Morgen Gallagher:     No, he never made it.  He didn’t because he wanted to go rehab first and clean – and to basically clean himself up and get his shit together before he did it.

David de Sola:            But he was interested in the project?  He was interested in doing it?

Morgen Gallagher:     He was thinking about it, yeah.

Needless to say, I knew right away that if it could be verified I’d have a pretty significant scoop on my hands.  Over the next two years, I made several attempts at requesting an interview with Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello through his representative at the time, who told me he was busy, touring, or not doing any press at one point or another. With a few weeks to go before the deadline to submit my final draft of the manuscript to the publisher, I tried reaching out to Morello again, though by that point he had switched representatives.  I told his new representative that I was on a tight deadline to submit a book manuscript and that I wanted to interview him for it, or at the very least get guidance or comment about the Layne Audioslave tip.  I sent his representative a specific question about that, with the verbatim quotes from my interview transcript (see below).  She got back to me and said he had turned down my request for an interview.  I sent a follow up email asking if I could even get some kind of off the record guidance from her, but never heard back.  Ultimately, I chose to err on the side of caution and reported this story in my book using a neutral but skeptical tone:

Morgen Gallagher ran into Layne at a Super Bowl party in January 2001. Layne told Gallagher he was going to clean up and go to rehab so he could audition for the newly vacant lead singer position in Rage Against the Machine. Based on accounts of Layne’s final studio sessions in 1998, it is unlikely this was anything more than his talking or thinking out loud.

I should also point out that I had to edit it down into this brief paragraph for two reasons: first, the initial draft of the manuscript I submitted to my publisher was too long, and I had to make a lot of rewrites and cuts to it before getting to an approved final draft for publication; and second, because I thought the claim was unlikely to be true, but was still worth including in the text. (If I thought it had been true, I would have written a lengthier and more detailed account and provided the evidence to support it.)

In the runup to the book’s release date, the publicist I was working with sent Alternative Nation an advance copy for press review and they wrote several stories based on my reporting.  They wrote a lengthy story about the Layne/Audioslave audition tip by doing their own on the record interview with Morgen and hyped it aggressively, and the story subsequently made the rounds in other publications (with attribution to Alternative Nation, not to my book – not that I’m upset about it).  Alternative Nation apparently made no effort to independently confirm the claim with anybody else, but when a fan asked Tom Morello about it via Twitter, he denied that they were going to audition Layne.

I had several reasons to be skeptical of the claim when I heard it, an instinct which ultimately proved to be correct.

First, I already had very detailed accounts of Layne’s final recording sessions in 1998 based on extensive on the record interviews with people who were also there in the studio and involved with those sessions.  The last three songs Layne recorded were for the Alice in Chains box set Music Bank, and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” for the soundtrack of The Faculty. My sources were consistent in their description of Layne’s physical appearance, health, and his ability to perform. He was already in bad shape in 1998, and based on other accounts, his health and physical appearance had continued to deteriorate by the final year and a half or so of his life, which is when he made his comment about wanting to audition for the band that would become Audioslave. Tom Morello was not present for Layne’s recording session in Seattle, but he did become aware of the fact that Layne was in poor health. He described working with Layne on the project as “Mostly sad. He was not well bless him.”

In short, Layne wasn’t in any condition to do much of anything by 2001, let alone start a new band that was about to write and record its debut album and go on an extensive worldwide touring and publicity schedule. This latter point is especially important because Layne essentially became a recluse for the final five years or so of his life following the death of his ex-fiancée Demri Parrott in October of 1996. But going back even further than that, it is necessary to note Alice in Chains had not done any significant touring since 1993 after they finished the promotional cycle for the Dirt album. Layne himself did very few interviews or public appearances during the 1993-1996 period for Alice in Chains or Mad Season, and keep in mind at that point he was still somewhat healthy and able to function. Layne was in such bad shape he couldn’t even show up to do vocals for Mad Season’s second album in 1996-1997. Layne’s mother and stepfather estimated he went to rehab 12 or 13 times over the years, efforts that were ultimately and tragically unsuccessful.

The second reason I was skeptical of the claim is a simple one: addicts lie, with nearly the same certainty as death and taxes.  They are also not the most reliable sources when it comes to memories. I found out very early on in my research that comments attributed to Layne, Demri, Mike Starr, or others had the occasional tendency of not checking out. On a few occasions, they sent me on a few fishing expeditions to try and verify something I had heard, that wound up being a waste of time and energy. I had also caught Layne blatantly lying to the press in an interview on at least one occasion.

I didn’t doubt that Layne had this conversation with Morgen – the other details about it (Layne’s appearance, the location and host of the party, descriptions of his appearance and personality, etc.) were all consistent with other things I had discovered from other sources during my research.  Beyond that – Layne was a fan of Rage Against the Machine, having toured with them on Lollapalooza 93. (Morello described himself and Layne as “Metal bros.”) Despite his poor health, his desire to create remained, mainly in his art projects at his home. He accepted an offer to sing vocals on a Taproot song called “Spacey,” a recording session that was scheduled for around the time Layne’s body was discovered in April of 2002.

Based on all of this evidence, I think it is entirely possible that Layne – having heard that Zack de la Rocha had quit Rage Against the Machine and with Alice in Chains on indefinite hiatus at the time – in his mind imagined or saw himself taking over that position in the band. I think his comments about it to Morgen were ultimately hypothetical or aspirational to the part of him that still wanted to create and perform music, while at the same time acknowledging the reality that his drug addiction and his health problems associated with it were impediments to him returning to being in a band and all the responsibilities that come with it – writing and recording new material, touring, and self-promoting.

Bottom line: Did Layne say he was going to audition for Audioslave? Yes.
Was there any truth to it? No.

Hopefully this will clear up some of the confusion that has been out there, as well as shed more light on who Layne was and what his life was like during this period.

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