When I was 20 years old I was suffering through my first winter in Philadelphia. It was January of 1994 and due to a vicious snowstorm our paychecks never arrived at the job. This also put the kibosh on my Mom and my girlfriend driving down to visit me from New York, so no home-cooked goodies for me. When things got back to a semblance of normalcy on Monday the first thing I did after getting paid was head on over to Strawberries, the record store on Chestnut Street. I was leaving for Panama with my Army Reserve unit in less than a week and I needed some Walkman music. That’s right, 1994 was TWENTY years ago…let that sink in for a minute. And in case you were wondering, 20 is also the number of years an album has to be released for it to even be considered for Classic Albums. And the album I bought that day was none other than ALICE IN CHAINS Jar of Flies.
This is one I’ve been sitting on for a while, just waiting for the calendar to change to 2014. But that ’94 winter/spring season I was rarely without this tape as I walked everywhere in Philly. It also got one hell of a workout in Panama for the time I was there. To me, this is the finest work the band ever did. You can argue all you like about the merits of Facelift and Dirt, but to me, those albums are incomplete. Jar of Flies is THE quintessential work sprung forth from the mind of one of rock and roll’s most tortured souls at the time, Layne Staley. You can hear it right away as “Rotten Apple” wraps you in a blanket of sorrow and “Nutshell” holds your head in its pained hands as it penetrates your very being. Jesus Christ, this man needed help and it’s never more obvious than right here!
“I Stay Away” wound up being an enormous hit for the band and it takes such an ominous turn on the pre-choruses that was music to my headphone-covered ears before radio all but ruined it for me. However “No Excuses” despite getting ten times the airplay is one I never tire of, not then, and not now. Sean Kinney’s drum patterns and fills are steady and unwavering, like a metronome, but with just the right amount of intricacy. Jerry Cantrell and Staley’s voices were always great together but on this one they truly hit on something special. This was another of those “Damian locks himself in a room and won’t come out till he learns BOTH vocal lines” songs, and I’m pretty sure my suite mates both at the International House and my roomies at Ft. Clayton got tired of hearing this one on a day I’d skip class (happened waaaay too often!).
I’ve always been drawn to things that are haunting and very atmospheric which is why instrumental “Whale & Wasp” resonated with me right away. One of my greatest memories of this album comes in the form of “Don’t Follow” my favorite here and also my favorite AIC song period. While working retail in 1996 I hired a young lady named Jennifer who, along with her future husband Mike would turn into lifelong friends. As my Assistant Manager, we spent a ton of time together listening to this record when the store was dead, and it’s like we just instinctively knew which part to sing from the very first time our voices merged. It became a ritual from then on, us singing together whenever this song came on and it’s impossible for me to hear it and not think of those days and smile.
Some people didn’t like AIC doing something a little bit swing and a little bit jazz, but me I love “Swing On This”. It’s so different for them, as is this EP, but I applauded them for doing it. Over the course of seven songs ALICE IN CHAINS gave us a glimpse as to what was going on inside them in 1994: pain, horror, rage, sadness, and longing. I’m not sure all the members were wrestling with these emotions but I know Layne sure as hell was. Ultimately he would lose the battle with his demons on April 5, 2002. When I heard the news it made me sad, but I knew that he had been in pain a long time. And no matter what I’ll always have my own box of memories thanks to Jar of Flies. From the beaches of Panama to the streets of Philadelphia, to a tiny little store in Cherry Hill, NJ, this is my Classic Album. No, it is ours. Thanks for letting me share it with you. ~dc