“Man in the Box” is a single by the American rock band Alice in Chains. It was released as a single in 1991 after being featured on the group’s debut full-length album Facelift (1990). The song was included on the compilation albums Nothing Safe: Best of the Box (1999), Music Bank (1999), Greatest Hits (2001), and The Essential Alice in Chains (2006).
In the liner notes of 1999’s Music Bank box set collection, guitarist Jerry Cantrell said of the song, “That whole beat and grind of that is when we started to find ourselves; it helped Alice become what it was.” The song makes use of a talk box to create the guitar effect. The original Facelift track listing credited the only vocalist Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell with writing the song. All post-Facelift compilations credited the entire band. It is unclear as to why the songwriter credits were changed.
“Man in the Box” is widely recognized for its distinctive “wordless opening melody, where Layne Staley’s peculiar, tensed-throat vocals are matched in unison with an effects-laden guitar” followed by “portentous lines like: ‘Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut?’, ‘Jesus Christ, deny your maker’ and ‘He who tries, will be wasted’ with Cantrell’s drier, less-urgent voice.” along with harmonies provided by both Staley and Cantrell in the lines ‘Won’t you come and save me’.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1992, Layne Staley explained the song:
I started writing about censorship. Around the same time, we went out for dinner with some Columbia Records people who were vegetarians. They told me how veal was made from calves raised in these small boxes, and that image stuck in my head. So I went home and wrote about government censorship and eating meat as seen through the eyes of a doomed calf.
Jerry Cantrell said of the song:
It’s basically about how government and media control the public’s perception of events in the world or whatever, and they build you into a box by feeding it to you in your home. And it’s about breaking out of that box and looking outside of that box that has been built for you.
In a recorded interview with MuchMusic in 1991, Staley stated that the lyrics are loosely based on media censorship, and “I was really really stoned when I wrote it, so it meant something different then”, he said laughing.
The MTV music video for the track was released in 1991 and was directed by Paul Rachman, who later directed the first version of the “Sea of Sorrow” music video for the band and the 2006 feature documentary American Hardcore. The music video was nominated for Best Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Video at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards. The video is available on the home video releases Live Facelift and Music Bank: The Videos. The video shows the band performing in what is supposedly a barn, where throughout the video, a mysterious man wearing a black hooded cloak is shown roaming around the barn. Then, after the unknown hooded figure is shown, he is shown again looking around inside a stable where many animals live where he suddenly discovers and shines his flashlight on a man (Layne Staley) that he finds sitting in the corner of the barn house. At the end of the video, the hooded man finally pulls his hood down off of his head, only to reveal that his eyelids were sewn together with stitches the whole time. This part of the video depicts on the line of the song, “Feed my eyes, now you’ve sewn them shut”. The music video was shot on 16mm film and transferred to tape using an FDL 60 telecine. At the time this was the only device that could sync sound to picture at film rates as low as 6FPS. This is how the surreal motion was obtained. The sepia look was done by Claudius Neal using a DaVinci color corrector.
Layne Staley tattooed on his back the Jesus character depicted in the video with his eyes sewn shut.
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