Song Spotlight: Rooster by Alice in Chains


Grunge is a genre I have a lot of fondness for. Whether it’s the memorable guitar riffs, the vocal performances, or the dark subject matter present in the lyrics, it’s music I’ve enjoyed listening to ever since high school. While I completely understand why some may not enjoy it, given its relative nicheness and just how dark some of the songs can be (seriously, it can get depressing at times), I find myself listening to this type of music more often than not. 

Of course, you can’t talk about grunge without bringing up the big four. While there were obviously much more than four grunge bands that existed during the early to mid-90s, it’s four specific bands that many people immediately think of when someone brings up grunge: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and the subject of this week’s song spotlight, Alice in Chains. 

Undeniably the darkest of the four bands, Alice in Chains would also undoubtedly earn their place as one of the pioneering grunge bands. The band is defined by its sludgy, dark guitar riffs and equally dark songwriting courtesy of Jerry Cantrell, and the undeniable vocals of Layne Staley, whose distinctive vocals paired perfectly with Cantrell’s lyrics. The harmonization between Cantrell and Staley also became an integral part of the band’s music. With drummer Sean Kinney and original bassist Mike Starr, the group would create some of the classic grunge songs of the 90s, from their first two studio albums, “Facelift” and “Dirt”, and the “Jar of Flies” EP. 

Sadly, despite their success, the band suffered several hardships; Staley struggled with heroin usage during his time with the band, causing much difficulty during the production of their self-titled album in 1995. Staley would completely disappear from the public eye following Alice in Chains’ iconic MTV Unplugged performance before he tragically lost his life to a drug overdose in 2002. Mike Starr, meanwhile, suffered from similar issues, leaving the band in 1993; he also lost his life to a drug overdose in 2011. The band would continue despite these tragedies; however, with Mike Inez serving as the band’s bassist from 1993 onward, while musician William Duvall served as the lead vocalist alongside Jerry Cantrell starting in 2006. The band released the albums “Black Gives Way To Blue,” “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” and “Rainier Fog” in 2009, 2013, and 2018 respectively. 

Of all the iconic songs the band would release throughout the 90s, from “Man in the Box,” “Would?”, “Them Bones,” “Down in a Hole,” “I Stay Away,” “Nutshell,” and “No Excuses,” there is one thing which I consider to be not only one of their greatest songs, but an absolute classic of the 90s: “Rooster.”

Serving as the fourth single off of the band’s iconic 1992 album “Dirt,” “Rooster” was written by guitarist Jerry Cantrell about his father, Jerry Cantrell Sr. The title derives from Sr.’s childhood nickname. Cantrell wrote the song about his father’s time in the Vietnam War, something that greatly affected his childhood and his relationship with his father. Jerry Cantrell Sr. appears in the now iconic music video, where referring to the war, he said, “It’s a weird experience and a sad experience, and I just hope nobody else has to go through it.”

The song starts off with an instantly recognizable, flanger-covered riff from Cantrell, accompanied by Mike Starr’s melodic bass tone. Soon later, Cantrell and Staley join together for a haunting yet beautiful vocalization, before Staley fully comes in, belting out the song’s dark lyrics with his iconic voice. Cantrell’s lyrics paint a vivid picture of an American soldier in the jungles of Vietnam, struggling to survive as he is shot at by an unseen enemy, thinking about the wife and kids he’s left at home. The song gradually increases in intensity, with the soft chord progression replaced by a blistering guitar riff, just as Staley belts out the iconic lines “Here comes the rooster” and “You know he ain’t gonna die!”. 

The song is only amplified by its legendary music video, a graphic and unwavering depiction of one of the worst wars in history. Its war scenes, which have been favorably compared to the classic Vietnam film “Platoon,” are intercut with interview footage of Jerry Cantrell Sr. Despite how gritty and dark the song is, there is an underlying sense of courage and determination behind the lyrics, as the protagonist seems dead set on making out of the jungles alive. It is both an incredibly haunting and sad look at a devastating war, but also an homage to the brave men who fought for their lives during that time. 

Ever since its release, “Rooster” has gone down as a classic of the grunge era, and one of Alice in Chains’ greatest songs. Its unwavering depiction of the brutality of war, along with its underlying messages of courage and will have made it a popular song amongst actual veterans. The incredible performances of the band members themselves have left a major impact; It is both one of Jerry Cantrell’s finest displays of songwriting, and one of Layne Staley’s greatest vocal performances. Whether you see it as an anti-war anthem, a testament to United States’ soldiers, or just as a beautiful haunting and excellently performed song, “Rooster” is a grunge masterpiece, and one of the greatest songs of the 90s.