Posted 1/24/11 by Danny

I often wonder how children come by their role models.  Do they just randomly select some alpha figure to idolize and shape their world around that?  Is there that much conscious choice involved, or are role models forcefully imposed upon the masses by corporate interests, like any other money making brand?

For example, the early nineties saw many kids idolizing Kurt Cobain.  So was it happenstance; a function of coincidental right-place-right-time circumstances?  Was he just a popular figure that the bright box in the living room labeled “cool”, so he filled that role?  Do I like to ask rhetorical questions?  I can imagine impressionable youths circa 1991 searching the pop culture landscape for someone to emulate, and in the barren wasteland of New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer, found Kurt Cobain an excellent candidate.

Maybe it’s something else.  Maybe children idolize cultural figures that mirror something they see in themselves.  Maybe Kurt Cobain honestly and sincerely tapped into the rebellious streak many adolescents identify with, and that rocketed him to stardom leaving old record execs puzzled.

“Why isn’t Vanilla Ice’s new album selling better?”

Kurt was certainly able to articulate the common teenage mantra of going against the societal grain.  But in addition to Kurt, there were several drug addled role models produced during the grunge era…and they all carried the burden that accompanies such a mindset.  Not only is there usually a misfit back story that is the genesis of most rebels, (saddling them with lasting psychological scars) but there is also the tendency to engage in self-destructive behavior.

So what happens when these figures become the archetype that a whole generation is emulating?  At best you’ll create a lot of self-proclaimed slackers wearing their lack of ambition on their sleeve.  At worst you’ll produce a new crop of isolated drug users, comfortable in their anti-social attitude as a point of pride because they have a kindred spirit singing songs to them on their stereo; a role model that validates it all.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m not one of those crazy censorship proponents who thinks Grand Theft Auto III inspires kids to beat hookers and steal cars.  Nor do I think listening to NWA’s “F*ck tha Police” will cause anyone to actually go sodomize the traffic cop on the corner.  But I do wonder what happens when someone respects, admires, or emulates such self destructive characters.

When I was growing up, my friends and I loved everything about the grunge scene.  Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains were in constant rotation at our houses.  We each had a favorite, and one of my friends settled quickly on Alice in Chains.  Something about front man Layne Staley really spoke to him.  As everyone knows, the grunge scene was angsty, angst-ridden, and full of angst (for lack of a better descriptor).  But in truth, I always preferred Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and STP, and thought they were a little more light-hearted than their counter parts.  Nirvana and Alice in Chains both held a much more grim and depressing outlook…which is pretty tough to do considering the video for “Black Hole Sun”

Yep, darker than this

As a little background, Alice in Chains started out on the tail end of 80’s metal.  They were basically a slightly heavier and darker version of your average hair band when they released “Facelift”.  But something kick started their evolution into the muddier grunge band they would become.  I’m not gonna assume it was heroin, but one can’t ignore Layne Staley’s proud ownership of his drug consumption.

Check out the lyrics to “Junkhead” from the album Dirt:

“You Can’t Understand a User’s Mind
But Try, With Your Books And Degrees
If You Let Yourself Go And Open Your Mind
I’ll Bet You’d Be Doing Like Me
And It Ain’t So Bad

What’s My Drug Of Choice?
Well, What Have You Got?
I Don’t Go Broke
And I Do It A lot”

So like all counter culture sheep we fell in line behind our Shepard of choice.  We were all being different, together.  And looking back now, it seems like wheels were set in motion that we were oblivious to.

I don’t think people really have personalities until their teens.  When you are a kid in the world, you’re much more of a reactor than an actor.  You don’t impose your will and opinions on the world.  The world imposes itself on you.  My Layne Staley loving friend, however, was different.  He was perceptive and charismatic beyond his years.  He was the first friend I ever had to actually read into people and their hidden agendas.  He saw behind the veil.

I, a perpetual reactor, never questioned anyone’s motives.  Why would I?  I couldn’t relate to having an ulterior motive…I’d never really had one.  My friend (we’ll call him Ben) was able to dismantle someone.  Someone more savvy than I was would call this street smarts, and he had them.

Ben grew up in a bad part of town before he moved to my neighborhood.  He had a troubled family life for his first few years, and had dealt with some heavy stuff.  Moving to my innocuous suburban world was a big transition; one brought on by some family members trying to give him the solid home life they didn’t have.  He had made it out of a bad spot but wasn’t unscathed.  There was a level of gravity to his life experience that robbed him of some of the youthful naïveté we all have.   On the surface, his extra perception made him much cooler than most of the people I associated with, and we became best friends pretty quickly.

He also had a reckless and fun loving spirit.  He was always the one to take the dare.  He would be the first down the steep uncharted hill on his rollerblades…and always made it out okay while the rest of us shredded our knees and suffered concussions.

“Road Rash” wasn’t just an awesome video game to me and my crew

He had unparalleled luck with those things – the stuff of legends.  His risks rarely backfired on him, and it elevated him to heroic status in our circle.  If you combine that with his natural charisma, you end up with a person that received a lot of positive reinforcement.  I sometimes wonder if the abundance of positive reinforcement can be just as crippling as the absence of it.

By the time we were teenagers we, like all our peers, had sought the highest level of rebellion we were comfortable with.  I was much more conservative than him…somewhere just rebellious enough to try and pass for “cool” yet still make decent grades.  His rebellion, on the other hand, was more organic to his being.  It seemed like a reflexive rebellion coded in his DNA. (This paragraph brought to you by the word “rebellion”)

It was around this time that Layne Staley and Alice in Chains had found a steady rotation on his stereo.  With that came a message exalting the recreational use of drugs.  Who’s to say why kids start doing drugs?  In Ben’s case, I’d say it was the thrill of taking the dare.  I’d say it was the elevated social status and acceptance of a whole group of kids with the same lack of naïveté that made him who he was.  I’d say it was his curiosity to see what it was that caused his family so much hardship and turmoil as a young child.

And with that first hit, Layne Staley became more than a singer.  He embodied a mantra that Ben respected.  Sometimes a “Who says what society says is right?” attitude is great thing to have.  The argument ad populum has it’s flaws, and our ability to think independently is a great strength of our culture.  Other times, though, that attitude just becomes a rationalization for shitty behavior.

So my best friend and I started down divergent paths.  I never could keep up with his appetite for the party.  A lot of our high school nights just consisted of chasing down a substance for him to consume and a place for him to consume it, while I just wanted a few beers.  And with every day his persona took on more and more of the traits of his counter culture role model.

I tried to remain a voice of reason, but there’s a point where you just start to sound like a parent.  The futility of trying to talk someone out of a high they’re chasing got to be very familiar territory, and as close as we were, I knew we were destined to be two very different people.

I left for college the same year Layne Staley died of a drug overdose.  Ben didn’t really see that as a wake-up call.  His appetite for the party wasn’t satiated yet.  He stayed behind and opted out of the collegiate experience I spent most of my high school career salivating over.  I’d reach out to him or his family every once in a while and we’d catch up.  I’d get varying versions of how he was doing from him and our mutual friends.  But we were slowly losing common ground on which to relate to each other.  Our day to day lives became radically different.

I blamed whatever I could for our distance.  I blamed myself for not making enough of an effort.  I blamed him for his fear of failure, or fear of success, or whatever operating theory I had that week as to why we thought so differently.  I blamed the substances.  It was their fault he blew me off for the dreadlocked stoner kids.

Offering a much more exciting Saturday night than I ever could

But I also blamed Layne Staley, and every other popular figure that touted the glory of getting high.  On some level, I thought they fed a dormant demon that would’ve never gotten hold of him had they not made it sound so appealing.

Time pressed on and dug a widening chasm between us.  I’d come back from college to visit and we’d play music or catch up with friends.  I’d ask him about his future plans, but always got vague responses.  He’d come up to visit me but usually ended up breaking away to hang with a more hardcore crowd.  I got my degree and Ben bounced from job to job.  We both escaped the dense gravitational pull of Montgomery – I to New York, Ben with a more vagrant plan to lay his head anywhere but Alabama.  We just weren’t that relevant to each other’s lives anymore, no matter how deep our brotherly love may be.

These days we still talk, albeit rarely.  Usually it’s shallow reminiscence about our glory days rollerblading around the block and playing guitar until 2am.  He’s spent most of his adult life drifting from place to place around the country.  Stoner manifest destiny lead him west to the hippie holy land, Oregon.  I still worry about him and really just want for his happiness.  I imagine not having a steady job or residence isn’t very fulfilling, but something tells me he’s exactly where he wants to be.

I guess life traps everyone with the machinations of cause and effect…and I guess that’s what I’m trying to take a stab here.  I’m living the effects, but I’m not completely clear on all the causes.  What really caused my friend to glorify drug use?  What caused him to lose touch with his solid foundation?  Was it Layne Staley leading him astray? Maybe Layne Staley just articulated what was already inside him.

No matter our differences, there is still a connection of love and brotherhood between us.  Wherever his life takes him, he’ll always be welcome in my life however available he wants to make himself.  I’ll never stop reaching out every couple months just to see how he’s doing.  I’ll never lose hope that we can one day be as close as we once were.  I’ll never lose the sense that a large part of my personality is due directly to him.  I’ll never stop thinking of him as family.  And despite the chaotic nature of his situation, I admire him for marching to the beat of his own drummer.  I admire his rebellion.  I try to tap into it from time to time when I get saturated on the professional world…and I usually crack a beer and put on some Alice in Chains to enhance the mood.

I recommend the unplugged album


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