Why Alice in Chains Initially Bombed Opening for Van Halen: Exclusive Interview
Sammy Hagar thought it could be a good move for both camps when Van Halen tapped Alice in Chains as an opener for 1991's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge tour. But to Hagar's surprise, the Seattle band initially struggled.
“Man in the Box” had found its legs at both radio and MTV earlier that same year, giving Alice in Chains a bit of notice at long last. They had been working constantly on the road, slowly building an audience following the release of their debut album, Facelift, which arrived on Aug. 21, 1990.
Their participation on the Van Halen tour was personally suggested by Hagar. "I loved that song, ‘Man in the Box,’” he says during an interview with UCR. “I said, ‘Let’s get these guys to open for us.’ I played the video for everybody, you know, to see what they look like. ‘Look at these guys; they’re cool.’ Everybody said, ‘Yeah’ and that’s how they came out.”
But then Hagar said Alice in Chains' created an early setlist that led with their “deeper tracks.” An Indiana date in August, for instance, opened with “Real Thing,” the plodding closer on Facelift. After that, they mixed in songs like the hooky “I Know Somethin’ (‘Bout You)” and the chiseled hard rock of “Put You Down,” alongside tracks including “We Die Young” (which had been released as part of a three-song EP in July 1990 to preview the full album) that were slightly better known.
Of course, none had achieved the same level of recognition as “Man in the Box,” so Alice in Chains were closing their opening slot with it. Even Hagar understood the tactic on some level, as they followed a time-honored tradition where bands finish with a big hit. “They used to save it until the end,” Hagar says now, “because it was kind of like their one-two punch, their power punch.”
Unfortunately, Van Halen fans were largely unimpressed. “Not real bad,” Hagar says, “but really not givin’ ‘em no love.” The fans “were pretty nasty folks on an opening act,” he adds.
“You’re fuckin’ crazy,” he told Alice in Chains, watching as fans “were flipping ‘em off and booing ‘em.”
Watch the Video for 'Man in the Box' by Alice in Chains
Vocalist Layne Staley gave as good as he got. “He would squat and take his leather jacket off, real calm, while Jerry [Cantrell] was soloing,” Hagar recalls. “He’d fold it up, like a butler and lay it down real slow on the drum riser and then he’d turn around. He’d squat down like he’s taking a shit and just take his middle finger and hold it up to the audience. Like, ‘Fuck. You.’
Staley stared the crowd down through the entire solo, and then would “start singing his ass off again,” Hagar adds. “I thought it was funnier than shit. He really, really had some balls and he sang great every night. That band was great.
“But the point is, I said, ‘Open with ‘Man in the Box,’ you dumb fucks! That song is a hit!’” Hagar says with laugh. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh, that’s who these guys are!’ You know, nobody knew who they really were.”
Alice in Chains took Hagar's advice to heart, and continued moving “Man in the Box” further toward the beginning of their set. “They did and it really helped,” Hagar says. “It helped immensely.”
By the time Alice in Chains' run with Van Halen drew to a close, a lifetime bond had been forged between Hagar and Cantrell. “Jerry Cantrell remains a dear friend," Hagar says now. “He's probably the No. 1 alumni Wabo Rat from the birthday bashes. I don’t think he’s missed ... one or two, maybe, in 30 years."
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