When news that Mike Starr of Alice in Chains had been found dead in his home broke, there was sadness, but probably not a great deal of surprise.
Immersed as he was in the heroin-dominated music scene of late 80s/early 90s Seattle Starr began his slide early, leading to his departure/dismissal from his multi-platinum-selling band in the middle of a tour.
Mike Starr was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on April 4, 1966. By the mid-80s he had gravitated to Seattle and joined Diamond Lie, a hard rock band formed by guitarist Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney. After vocalist Layne Staley joined the band it became Alice in Chains, whose first album Facelift made the Billboard Top 50 in 1991, propelled by the hit “Man in the Box” that featured Starr’s bass playing heavily. The same year the band won massive crossover appeal when they opened the Clash of the Titans tour that featured Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth. In September 1992 the band released Dirt, still regarded by many critics as one the best rock albums of the 1990s. Despite the aura of morbid self-loathing that pervaded it, Dirt peaked at #6 on the US and #13 in Australia and spawned five US hits, including three that went Top 10. During the subsequent tour with Ozzy Osbourne however, Starr was replaced by Osbourne’s bassist Mike Inez. The reason for his departure was down-played at the time, but many years later Starr revealed that it was because of his drug problem.
After leaving Alice in Chains, Starr joined drummer Bobby Rondinelli and ex-Badlands singer Ray Gillen in North Carolina band Sun Red Sun, headed up by former Belladonna guitarist Al B. Romano. The group recorded a self-titled album before Gillen died from AIDS on December 1, 1993.
Starr drifted into obscurity after this as his addictions took hold. While Alice in Chains went on to score two consecutive US #1 albums, Layne Staley’s increasing heroin problem forced them off the rails in 1996. Staley died six years later, on April 5, 2002, the day after Starr’s 35th birthday. In an effort to get clean, in 2010 Starr signed up for the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab. During the course of the season, Starr revealed that he spent birthday with Layne at the singer’s apartment and they argued when a sick and emaciated Staley refused to let Starr call him an ambulance. When Layne died after Starr left, the bass player perhaps understandably blamed himself, carrying the guilt for the rest of his life.
Like both Staley and Staley’s ex-girlfriend Demri Lara Parrott (October 1996), Hole’s Kristen Pfaff (June 1994), John Baker Saunders of Mad Season (January 1999) and Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood (March 1990), Starr finally succumbed to the Seattle scene’s curse. On February 18, 2011 he was charged by police after a traffic stop found him illegally in possession of prescription opiates. Eighteen days later, on March 8, his body was discovered at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Despite his efforts to stay clean, his room mate claims Starr was self-administering medication and mixing methadone with anxiety drugs. He was 43.
As an original member of one of the most influential and best-selling bands of the 1990s, Starr’s legacy will remain on the rock scene for decades to come.