Alice in Chains and Philosophy:
Camus Gets a Facelift
Søren R. Frimodt-Møller
The year 2013 included two important landmarks for fans of philosophy and in Alice in Chains:
- The centennial celebration of French philosophical author Albert Camus (1913-1960) and
- The release of the Alice in Chains album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.
To see the link between these to events watch the official video for the song “Stone” from the aforementioned album:
The “Stone” video features (among other things) a guy rolling a giant rock up a hill, only to have it roll all the way down, after which he starts over again. This image is taken right from one of Camus’ most famous works, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Or, to be fair, the story itself is taken from Greek mythology, in which the gods punish Sisyphus (the details of his crime are irrelevant) by condemning him to roll a giant rock up a mountain only to have the rock roll down again every time. Camus puts an existentialist spin on the story: Sisyphus is not the kind of guy who, realizing the futility of the task he has been given, despairs and kills himself. Instead, he takes on the task as something he does, a part of who he is and what his life is, in a simultaneous act of acceptance—of the task—and defiance— against the gods who thought they could punish him via the task.
The lyrics for “Stone” deal with other issues, but the resilience and acceptance exemplified by Sisyphus is a running theme in Alice in Chains’ career. And I am not just referring to the fact that they managed to make one of the strongest comebacks a band has ever made with their album Black Gives Way to Blue (2009), rebanding without their charismatic front man Layne Staley who died in 2002 from a drug overdose. Alice in Chains’ lyrics have often dealt with individuals coming to terms with their own place in life, even though that place in life is not always a nice place to be. In particular, a lot of lyrics deal in sympathetic fashion with being a drug user. Just think of “We Die Young” from Facelift (1990), “Junkhead” and “Hate to Feel” (as well as others) from Dirt (1992), and “Acid Bubble”from Black Gives Way to Blue. “Junkhead” sums up the main point of these songs:
Content and fully aware
Money, status, nothing to me
‘Cause your life is empty and bare
You can’t understand a user’s mind
But try, with your books and degrees
If you let yourself go and opened your mind
I’ll bet you’d be doing like me
And it ain’t so bad
Those words seem to come directly from an actual drug user, i.e. Staley himself. Later lyrics, such as “Your Decision” from Black Gives Way to Blue, discuss the user seen from an outsider’s perspective, yet with acceptance of his decision to follow the path he has taken.
Alice in Chains songs also tell stories such as that of the Vietnam veteran in “Rooster” (based on Jerry Cantrell’s father) from Dirt, the chorus of which echoes the defiant resilience of Sisyphus, as Staley bellows “You know he ain’t gonna die / No, no, no, no, ya know he ain’t gonna die.” “Rooster” and the junkie-related songs tell stories about individuals who try to make sense of the world around them by creating a sense of order and purpose in their life. If we look to—or rather, listen to—Alice in Chains’ music itself, we find an interesting parallel: Although the songs often have steady, heavy beats and catchy, blunt riffs, the guitar chord work and general soundscape typically have a loose, chaotic feel to them. To simplify matters a bit, the band sounds as if they are trying to tame chaos, or, if you’ll excuse a bad pun, “dam that river.” Indeed, this is the way the band works. According to the cover notes in the compilation box set Music Bank (1999), the song “Frogs” from the band’s self-titled album (1995) was composed around a recording of the frogs right outside Alice in Chains’ rehearsal space (if you listen closely, you can still here the frog sample in the background on the song). Also, in a recent interview Jerry Cantrell described his process of gathering ideas for songs as “like walking on the beach and picking up cool stones.” Later the band looks at the gathered material and starts working from there. Alice in Chains thus take an existentialist stance in making music, a stance not far removed from Camus’ thoughts on life: The world may be chaotic and without meaning in itself, but we as humans put meaning into it by adding structure to the chaos.
Alice in Chains’ lyrics typically focus on individuals and their choices in life, but the band’s lyrics have also dealt with cultural and political topics. For instance, the title track of the new album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here criticizes the extreme Christian right wing, its creationism and condemnation of homosexuality (the chorus running “The devil put dinosaurs here / Jesus don’t like a queer / The devil put dinosaurs here / No problem with faith, just fear”). And if we go back to the beginning of Alice in Chains’ career, the song “Man in the Box” from Facelift discusses, from first-person perspective, what it’s like to live your life in a cage, inspired by a conversation the band had with a group of vegetarians who explained how the calves from which we get veal are raised in small boxes. The finished lyrics go beyond animal ethics, but the video, with Layne Staley sitting in a stable with other animals in booths right next to him, seems to underline the original departure point of the song.
Camus did not consider himself a philosopher. In fact, he didn’t even consider himself an existentialist, although his reluctance to accept those labels probably had to do with his strained relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). In my opinion, though, Camus was as much a philosopher as the 100-years-older Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), given that he wanted to make his readers think, and did this by describing different fictional characters who demonstrated the consequences of different life choices. Neither Camus nor Kierkegaard wanted to give a final answer to any of the questions they asked through their writings. Answering the questions in life was up to their readers. Or as Alice in Chains put it in the lyrics for “Stone”: “I know you think I’m wrong, but I’m not your tour guide.”
Alice in Chains themselves may not be philosophers, but their lyrics—and in some sense also their music—showcase different aspects of human existence for the listener to think about, from the sometimes terrible choices we make in our youth until we “end up a big ol’ pile of them bones.”
Søren R. Frimodt-Møller is Assistant Professor at Aalborg University Esbjerg, Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology, and is also the Managing Editor of JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning. He holds a PhD in philosophy from University of Southern Denmark, specializing in cross-disciplinary music research, but also has an academic background in visual communication.
 Appleford, S. (2013). ”Through the good and the bad, Alice in Chains unbroken.” Los Angeles Times (online version), May 29, 2013. URL: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/may/29/entertainment/la-et-ms-alice-in-chains-20130529
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