Alissa Bennett: Dead is Better, On Celebrity Death

Wednesday 06 July, 2016
6:30pm, $0

Bridget Donahue
99 Bowery, Floor 2

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Alissa Bennett reads new and published essays that reflect on her obsession with (celebrity) death in a personalized tone. Dead is Better (2016, Heinzfeller Nileisist)

Dead is Better excerpt: Layne Staley

Layne Staley, I didn't care for your music when I was a sassy teenage girl in Rhode Island. I thought everyone in Alice in Chains had bad long hair and that your videos were unappealingly affected and included too much claymation, so is it any wonder that I didn't notice that you had completely disappeared by 1997? It wasn’t until I had exhausted the possibilities of Savannah’s forum that I ventured into your own, which at over 150 pages was certainly one of the most significant compilations of fan-generated grief at the time. I became quickly obsessed both with you and with other people’s obsession for you- you were a compulsion, a vacuum, a seance- you were the only thing I could think about for weeks and I felt a desperate need to know everything I could about your life and your death.

Your forum was just so exciting, Layne- it was full of gossip and conjecture and mystery, but it was also filled with the profound sadness of your fans, many of whom were women who wished that they’d known you and been able to intervene, wished that they’d stepped in and saved your life while there had still been time. There had, they said, been whispers for years that your heroin problem was veering out of control. There had been innumerable trips to rehab, renewed promises of sobriety and many attempts at adult life that never quite stuck. The drug related death of your long-time on and off girlfriend Demri Parrott in 1996 seems to have been a decisive event, and though you continued to perform with Alice in Chains, your own drug abuse also accelerated. This is particularly evident in your last officially recognized interview in Rolling Stone, where it is noted that you wear a pair of ratty fingerless gloves and disappear into the bath room a million times to shoot up during some kind of Italian lunch that was meant to show how much fun your band had together. It didn’t work and you all sounded totally miserable. You were so angry at being called out publically for your drug use that you vowed to never again participate in an interview, which is partly why everyone wanted to throw this lady Adrianna Rubio to the wolves when she released her book, Angry Chair, which strangely contrasts the details of her anorexia with your drug addiction. In what she claims to be your final death-bed interview, Adriana regales us with a series of cautionary maxims that she says came from you. Are they real? I say who cares! In morbid fascination, I think anything goes. 

Anyway, Layne, from 1997 to 2002 you lived in your condo and left rarely, passing the time by playing video games, shooting speedballs and making some kind of spray paint art that always takes the shape of the statue of liberty in my imagination. There are a handful of photographs of you from this time, all of which are terrible and all of which fuelled rumors that suggested you had lost fingers and that all of your teeth had fallen out. I have examined footage from your MTV Unplugged session with rabid interest, and although you certainly don’t look good, I can’t determine if the teeth thing is true or not. Is it ghoulish? Is it terrible? We are all just looking, Layne, plumbing the depths, prying, searching for the exact moment when things slid irretrievably off track. Your findadeath forum lays bare all of the desperate maneuvers that our hearts propel us towards in a search for meaning, and isn’t this exactly what forums are for? To help us all reach a consensus about those who we can love only from the pathetic safety of distance?  

Eventually, I began pre-loading pages from your forum on my Blackberry handheld device so that I could read them over and over on my commute home from work, often refreshing once I had reached Court Square. By the time I arrived at the posts written by someone who called herself EMetal, I knew that I had found something holy. Emetal often wrote in semi-code that can be difficult to understand, but she also posted pictures from the inside of your emptied out condominium and told us all that Mike Starr (RIP, Mike- you’re dead too) was with you the night that you died and that he neglected to call 911 despite the dire nature of your condition. There were accusations of fraud, people were angry with EMetal and certain that she was spreading malicious lies in order to feel more important, and like a lynch mob baring blazing torches, they drove EMetal out of the Layne Staley thread for good. How were any of us to know at the time that Mike Starr would later go on Dr Drew’s Celebrity Rehab and tell an account of his last night with you that was nearly identical to the one that EMetal shared? And how do I appropriately acknowledge the devastation I felt when she simply never came back? I can’t. I can’t! 

Though people in Seattle would claim to see you once in a while buying candy or nodding out in a bar called The Rainbow Lounge, there is little to no documentation of you in the years that chronicle your reclusion. Oh there are a few stray images that begin to give a hint of the shape you were in, but there are not enough of them to construct any permanent record of exactly how you were getting along. All of us who are obsessed with your death have heard tale of a mythical last-last photograph of you, Layne- a photograph where your body has deteriorated beyond recognition and you are holding your new baby nephew, Otis. I am told that this photograph will never be released, that it reveals too much of the physical devastation wrought by years of addiction. By the time your body was found, partially mummified and stuck to your sofa, you are said to have weighed 82 pounds. There was a syringe in your arm, a crack pipe under your body, pornography strewn around the floor and a cartoon flickering in the dark.

Is it grotesque to want to know the humiliating details of a stranger’s life and death? Fandom is mysterious and obsessive and strange in all its permutations- we want rights to lives we have none to, to look into windows and rifle through drawers, and is it really so surprising that death does not offer privacy but only encourages more aggressive prying? Every so often I do a google search for you, Layne- I look to see if there are new photographs or if your old drug dealer has written about you again and is it so unusual to feel that there is never enough? That’s what obsession is, after all- our recognition that our understanding will always be somehow deficient and our secret hope that it can stay that way forever.

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