When talking about classic albums from Seattle’s grunge heyday, Alice In Chains’ 1992 breakthrough album, Dirt holds a special place of reverence. The raw vulnerability contained within these songs is a mirror into the souls of their creators, touching on themes of hopeless addiction, fractured relationships, and both the psychic and physical toll of life on the brink of complete collapse.
Of every agonized track on Dirt, one song stands slightly apart from the rest. By stepping into the shoes of Jerry Cantrell’s father, “Rooster” touches on a different kind of darkness.
Given a budget to record “Would?” for the Singles soundtrack, Alice In Chains took advantage of the cash influx and worked on a number of other songs within the same session. While the bulk of those tracks became the SAP ep, they saved a song called “Rooster” for later.
In an interview with Metal Hammer, guitarist Jerry Cantrell recalls his living situation when writing “Rooster” by saying, “I was between places to live at that time so I moved in with Chris Cornell and his wife, Susan Silver at their house in Seattle. Susan was managing Alice In Chains at the time. I stayed for a few weeks, up in this little room.”
Released as the fourth single from Dirt, “Rooster” spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, peaking at number 7.
With a title taken from a childhood nickname, “Rooster” tells the story of the impact that two tours in the Vietnam War had on the life of Cantrell’s father.
Speaking about the song to the LA Times, Cantrell touches on these themes by saying, “Vietnam is something he never talks about. I asked him about it once and he said, ‘That’s dead, son, let it lie.’ When I wrote it, I was getting this vibe, thinking about him and what he’s lived through – two tours of duty in Vietnam, he’s been a prison guard. I was thinking about the things he might have thought and felt there.”
Common to many soldiers, Cantrell’s father suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the guitarist said of the transition from combat zone to civilian life, “My dad was trained to be a fucking killer. After that, you can’t just come back home and say, ‘OK, everything’s cool. I’m going to work from 9 to 5 now.’ That stuff scars you forever. We had a lot of problems and occurrences because of that.”
These reassimilation issues led to Cantrell’s parents splitting up. He elaborates in an interview with Louder Sound, “He didn’t walk out on us. We left him. It was an environment that wasn’t good for anyone, so we took off to live with my grandmother in Washington, and that’s where I went to school. I didn’t have a lot of my father around, but I started to think about him a lot during that period.”
The gravity of his father’s pain led Cantrell on a spiritual journey of empathy, saying to Metal Hammer, “I certainly had resentments, as any young person does in a situation where a parent isn’t around or a family is split. But on “Rooster”, I was trying to think about his side of it – what he might have gone through. To be honest, I didn’t really sit down intending to do any of that; it just kinda came out.”
After completing the track, Cantrell played the song for his father and asked if his depiction of war was accurate. He told Metal Hammer of the experience, “When I first played it to my father,” recalls Cantrell, “I asked him if I’d got close to where he might have been emotionally or mentally in that situation. And he told me: ‘You got too close – you hit it on the head’. It meant a lot to him that I wrote it. It brought us closer. It was good for me in the long-run and it was good for him, too.”
While speaking to a father’s experience in Vietnam, the lyrical content of “Rooster” has remained continually relevant in our current era of warfare. Cantrell told LouderSound, “I’ve been all around the world and I’ve talked to combat Vets from Desert Storm and the recent war in Iraq – and they have a deep affinity with the song.
I just recently got a letter from a guy in Iraq who told me his unit had changed his call sign to “Rooster”. Obviously it’s unfortunate that these guys still have to fight for political ends. But it’s cool that people connect with that song; for it to be part of them getting through.”