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Craig Reptile: Your Sunday Sonic Sundowner writesYou Only Live Once: Remembering Mark Lanegan

Photo: Steve Gullick Photography

Mark Lanegan died one year ago today, at the age of 57. In retrospect, it’s surprising he lived as long as he did. While remembered as lead singer of Seattle’s Screaming Trees, his work as a solo artist and a frequent collaborator may have been more important and has had a more lasting impact.

Lanegan’s first solo album, The Winding Sheet, was quite a revelation. Absent the buzz-saw factory that was Screaming Trees, his world-weary baritone better communicated the words he crafted; indeed, he hadn’t had any part in writing lyrics for the first five Screaming Trees albums.

On the very first song, the piano-propelled highlight “Mockingbirds,” he sings “You can’t kill what’s already dead,” and “Undertow” has him staring at the water turned ruby red, entreating the undertow to accept him, to, “Give him peace he’s never known.” Later, he’s “Drifting for a million miles to Hell,” on “Ugly Sunday.”

“Down In The Dark” brings back an electronic roar to match the laconic roar of Dark Mark’s pained voice. The loveliest moment on the album comes from the acoustic “Wildflowers,” with Lanegan using falsetto on the bridges to dramatic effect.

On the title cut, which refers to a sheet in which a corpse is wrapped for burial, “The darkness dares [his] eyes to close.” The tale of “Woe” contains references to poisons like nicotine and cyanide, guns and tombstones. This record was recorded in 1989 and released in 1990, and most of his following work over the next 30 years would follow similar themes and use like-minded imagery.

If listeners paid close attention to the lyrics, and knew he kept company with Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Layne Staley, and Kurt Cobain, all of whom tragically passed away prior to the age of 38, they wouldn’t necessarily pick Mark Lanegan to make it to almost 60.

Speaking of Cobain, the two tried to work together on an album, but Cobain was too deferential to Lanegan, and the project was quickly abandoned. Cobain ultimately contributed vocals on “Down in the Dark,” as well as guitar on a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” along with Krist Novoselic on bass.

According to Lanegan’s memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, Cobain actually asked Lanegan to sing the Leadbelly cover for Nirvana’s infamous Unplugged performance, but he demurred and offered that Cobain should sing it in the same style. Ultimately, this became one of the most chilling tracks on the classic Nirvana album.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Cobain had obsessively listened to Lanegan’s 1994 solo album, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, and called him a number of times right before his death. Though Lanegan’s own health was in jeopardy at the time, he and friends did try to find Cobain at his Seattle home, neglecting to check the room above the garage where his body was later found.

Whiskey for the Holy Ghost earned more critical acclaim than its predecessor, garnering more attention as well, as it followed the success of Screaming Trees’ album Sweet Oblivion and its ubiquitous single “Nearly Lost You.”

That hit, as least as far as the MTV Buzz Bin was concerned, was added to the Singles soundtrack set in Seattle’s grunge scene, and even though Lanegan dismissed it as an embarrassment and an attempt to write a hit single, it became what he and the band would be best known for—musically and commercially at least. 

Screaming Trees had formed in 1985 in Ellensburg, Washington, on the dusty and sometimes desert-like eastern side of the Cascades. Their first EP, Other Worlds, was released that year, and a full-length, Clairvoyance, came out in 1986, both via Velvetone.

Their next three albums were released by SST, Even If And Especially When (1987), Invisible Lantern (1988), and Buzz Factory (1989). Rather than collecting all of that, I recommend tracking down the Anthology that compiles twenty-one highlights of those years. They signed to Epic in 1990, releasing their major label album debut early the following year. 

Lanegan always oozed cool as a front man, so to have the brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner physically attacking each other in the background while they played was quite the source of embarrassment for the lead singer.

Their drummer for the first four albums, Mark Pickerel, quit amidst the acrimony of their major label debut, Uncle Anesthesia and was replaced by Barrett Martin, a hard-hitter who had made his bones with Skin Yard and other punk/metal allied groups of the Pacific Northwest.

On Uncle Anesthesia, Screaming Trees have three speeds—straight-ahead yet psychedelia-infused rockers, slower tempo ballads with an ominous vibe, and scary, baroque and broken, somber meditations, all punctuated by Lanegan’s passionate baritone.

Single “Bed of Roses” is a highlight (and gained moderate modern rock chart success), as is the Lewis Carroll-inspired “Alice Said” and the surreal “Something About Today,” but my favorite is the melodic chainsaw of “Ocean of Confusion,” inspiring the title of their posthumous Epic “best of” compilation.

The record was produced by the band, Chris Cornell (who provides back-up vocals and even a recorder), and veteran metal producer/engineer Terry Date. Unfortunately, whether due to bad timing—it came out in early 1991 and Nirvana’s Nevermind wouldn’t drop until September—or the band’s acrimonious creation process and subsequent bitterness, the record didn’t gain much attention outside of college radio circles.

Sweet Oblivion, whose titular inspiration was a line from the song “Shadow of the Season,” sold 300,000 copies largely thanks to “Nearly Lost You” and its inclusion on the Singles soundtrack. But aside from those two highlights, there are fantastic songs like the acoustic-based ballad “Dollar Bill,” the somber yet evocative “Winter Song,” and “Troubled Times,” which begins like a dirge but picks up with a chugging rhythm, engages blues tropes, is punctuated by Lanegan’s plaintive cries, and ends with a rollicking climax.

This was neither grunge nor classic rock, but still sounded like rock and roll to me.  The only time I ever saw Screaming Trees live was during the New Music Seminar in New York City in June of 1992; I think they played at The Academy, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I do remember the band rocking, and I do remember my ears ringing after the show.

To provide some context of the time period, record label flunkies worked the crowd before the show, passing out the CD single for “Would?” by a new band called Alice In Chains to anyone who wanted one.

The group attempted a follow-up album that was abandoned, and released Dust in 1996, produced by George Drakoulias (most well-known for producing The Black Crowes at that point) and mixed by Andy Wallace. The album featured the single “All I Know” and the song “Dying Days,” about all of Lanegan’s dead or dying colleagues in the music business. But the moment was over for the band, the record garnered little notice, and the band officially threw in the towel in 2000.

There exists a final record, called Last Words, but as far as I know that was only released digitally. It can be heard via streaming platforms, and is also very much of a piece with the band’s other recorded output. It would have been a strong final album, had the will or interest existed.

In the liner notes to the Ocean of Confusion compilation, music writer Michael Azerrad describes Lanegan’s voice as, “A raspy, foreboding baritone invariably described in terms of tobacco and spirits.” Later in his solo tours his “baritone of leather” (as described by CHIRP’s Billy Kalb) or “sandpapery croon” (as described by CHIRP’s Matt Garman) had become more of a craggy bass, but his gifted voice and skill as an interpreter had not diminished. 

I twice had the opportunity to see him solo­—once with his band, and once simply accompanied by an acoustic guitar.  As a CHIRP DJ, I was asked to emcee this solo show at The Old Town School of Folk Music, and the instructions provided to me asked me not to reference any of his past struggles with addiction.

Seeing him live accompanied only with an acoustic guitar was another revelatory experience, and I purchased a live recording he was selling on that tour, recorded in Melbourne, Australia, which is still my favorite of his works.

Outside of embarking on his solo tours, Mark Lanegan was a frequent collaborator, working with the projects Mad Season, Queens of the Stone Age and the Gutter Twins, with Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs. He released a trio of records with Isobel Campbell, who had been an original member of Belle and Sebastian, and released twelve records either under his own name or as Mark Lanegan Band. He even self-released a Christmas album.

Just as he was a serial collaborator, though, he was also a serial addict. After having read his two memoirs, Sing Backwards and Weep (2020) and Devil In A Coma (2021), both containing a multitude of near-death experiences, crimes, sexual exploits, and music and lyrics along the way, it seems to me that to make it to 57 was quite an achievement.

I mentioned his early solo track “Wildflowers” as a standout, containing the lyric, “In my mind I’ve done good things and never cared why; and my mind is an open door with nothing inside.” In truth there were a great many things in Mark Lanegan’s mind. After the publication of his first memoir, Lanegan fell into a lengthy coma related to his contraction of COVID-19.

Once convalesced, he wrote and published Devil in a Coma, which was plagued with production delays. My own copy only arrived after Lanegan’s death, but all was forgiven when I found it contained a bookmark signed by the late Dark Mark himself. 

Of course, Mark Lanegan is deeply missed, and his talent can never be replaced. Exactly one year later, the world still spins, there’s a rich library of recordings, but a piece is missing. He wrote in Sing Backwards and Weep, “No matter how many drugs I did, I still couldn’t escape myself.” Here’s hoping that he made that escape and is at peace.

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