“Seems every path leads me to nowhere.”
Alice in Chains,
Jerry Cantrell Sr. served in the long and bloody Vietnam War, and endured its human cost that history dared not to record.
He lived by the name “Rooster”, as his great-grandfather called him, because he apparently had a cocky attitude, and also because of how his hair stood up, much like a rooster’s comb.
Similar as countless others who have survived wars, Rooster suffered from PTSD upon returning home to his family. His sleeps were of nightmares, and his days were of waking up drenched in sweat, having intrusive and violent flashbacks of the war. Great anxiety endlessly shadowed him, as to his mind and body, he was still in a war zone, and still had to anticipate danger from every corner — even though there was none anymore.
Rooster’s deteriorating mental health eventually broke his family apart. His wife and son, Jerry Cantrell Jr. left him and lived with her mother.
“That experience in Vietnam changed him forever,” said Jerry. “And it certainly had an effect on our family, so I guess it was a defining moment in my life, too. 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 thinking about him a lot during that period.”
Jerry would grow up to be a songwriter, and he never stopped thinking of his estranged father.
He said, “I certainly had resentments, as any young person does in a situation where a parent isn’t around or a family is split.” But one night, being alone at home and thinking of his father, Jerry decided to practice empathy rather than resentment. And naturally, that led him to write a song called Rooster from his father’s perspective, vividly chronicling how his eyes burned from the stinging sweat, and how the bullets screamed, based on what he had heard his father say.
He said, “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. But that’s the great thing about music — sometimes it can reach deeper than you ever would in a conversation with anybody. It’s more of a forum to dig deeper. It felt like a major achievement for me as a young writer.”
Rooster would see Jerry’s band, Alice in Chains play, and hear the song that was written about him. “I’ll never forget it,” said Jerry. “He was standing in the back and he heard all the words and stuff. Of course, I was never in Vietnam and he won’t talk about it, but when I wrote this it felt right…Like these were things he might have felt or thought. And I remember when we played it he was back by the soundboard and I could see him. He was back there with his big gray Stetson and his cowboy boots — he’s a total Oklahoma man — and at the end, he took his hat off and just held it in the air. And he was crying the whole time. This song means a lot to me. A lot.”
The song was the beginning of Jerry and Rooster’s healing from the psychological horrors that the Vietnam War had caused them. “He said it was a weird experience, a sad experience and he hoped that nobody else had to go through it,” said Jerry.
He added, “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.”
Yet, Rooster would evolve to have a different meaning than being a tribute to its namesake. As Led Zeppelin wisely equipped in their seminal song Stairway to Heaven, “Sometimes words have two meanings.”
Years later, Jerry would be performing the song with his band at a hauntingly raw MTV Unplugged performance, singing back-up along his dying friend, Layne Staley. It would be their first show in years due to a hiatus caused by Layne’s deteriorating state, and one of their very last before Layne’s tragic passing. Suddenly the song isn’t completely about his father anymore, but Layne himself. The lyrics describing the deathly jungle trek in Vietnam suddenly become metaphors for Layne’s long struggle with depression and addiction. In his weary eyes, and dressed in long sleeves and gloves to hide his abscesses, Layne gives his best vocal performance as he starts singing the first line, “Ain’t found a way to kill me yet”.
He was on the edge of losing the battle with his inner demons, but still he fought, doing the best as he can to keep the show going on.
And perhaps, the song Rooster could evolve to have much larger meanings for all of us here individually. I hear a song about standing your ground and never backing down. And you could just as well fill in your own story or meaning into it.
Isn’t that a beautiful thing about making art? It’s a gift that never stops giving. Something that starts small and personal, could well turn into something large and universal.