I’m not particularly superstitious, but I can’t help wondering if when Kurt Cobain picked up a shotgun in his Seattle home on April 5th, 1994, he set in train a curse that would strike down the singers of all the great grunge bands. Following the Nirvana frontman’s suicide, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains died in 2002, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots died in 2015 and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden died in 2017. And now this grim list has been extended by the death last week of Mark Lanegan, vocalist with the Screaming Trees. One can only hope that Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney get to see their sixties.
Mark Lanegan’s death came as a blow because both the band he fronted in the 1980s and 1990s, the Screaming Trees, and his own solo career, which began in the 1990s, seemed to go from strength to strength. Unlike many rocks acts, they didn’t just peak after a couple of albums and then tail off in quality. The Trees’ later albums, Sweet Oblivion (1992), their biggest commercial success, and Dust (1996), were great and bore a slew of classic singles, like Nearly Lost You, Dollar Bill, All I Know and Sworn and Broken. For me, though, their finest moment was the first track on Sweet Oblivion, the urgent, pulsating Shadow of the Season, powered like all of Lanegan’s music by his husky, old-man’s-voice-in-a-young-man’s-throat vocals. Lanegan had originally signed up with the Trees as a drummer but claimed he was so useless at drumming that his bandmembers ended up forcing him to sing… Surely one of the most fortunate career-changes in modern music.
© Epic Records
Before the band broke up at the end of the 1990s due to the not-uncommon ‘differences among bandmembers’ – differences that were fuelled in part by Lanegan’s industrial-level booze and drug consumption – Lanegan had also contributed to the grunge ‘supergroup’ Mad Season, which as well as members of the Trees contained members of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, and whose lone album Above (1995) I’ve always considered rather wonderful. Later, he was associated with alternative / stoner rock band Queens of the Stone Age, whose founder Josh Homme had joined the Trees as a guitarist following the release of Dust. He contributed to the Queens during the glory years of their albums Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002). Plus, he was one half of the Gutter Twins (the other half being Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs), who recorded the 2008 album Saturnalia.
Meanwhile, his solo career, which had begun with The Winding Sheet in 1990 and had already won critical acclaim with Whiskey for the Holy Ghost in 1994, gathered a head of steam. By the time of his death, he’d released a dozen solo albums, of which Bubblegum (2004) and Blues Funeral (2012) are my favourites. Bleeding Muddy Water off Blues Funeral is the sort of song you’d consider having played at your funeral. Inevitably, with Lanegan’s gruff, mournful voice, and with his worldview coloured by a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, his canon evokes a long and honourable tradition of world-weary American troubadours chronicling the seedy side of life: Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and countless old blues singers. Indeed, the blues influence was never far away from Lanegan’s music. He once worked with Kurt Cobain on a never-released album of cover versions of songs by the legendary bluesman (and several-times convict) Leadbelly.
Lanegan was a prolific collaborator, working with everyone from Moby to the Breeders, Melissa Auf der Maur to the Eagles of Death Metal, Tinariwen to Hey Colossus, Cult of Luna to the Manic Street Preachers… Though because of my Scottish-Irish background, and because in my less violent musical moods I’m something of a folky, I have to say I like his work with Isobel Campbell, the Scottish chanteuse of Belle and Sebastian, most of all. Lanegan and Campbell were responsible for three records, Time is Just the Same (2004), Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006) and Sunday at Devil Dirt (2008), and their combined sound is gorgeous in its understated way. The Celtic beauty of Campbell’s singing meshes hauntingly with the grungy old American beast that is Lanegan’s voice.
I did not have much success when I first attempted to see the great man perform live. During the Edinburgh Festival sometime in the ‘noughties’, he did a gig at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms, but I made the mistake of trying to cram too much into my Festival-going schedule that day. I misread the start-time for Lanegan’s gig and also bought a ticket for comedian Reginald D. Hunter at the Pleasance, believing I had a few minutes after Hunter’s show ended and before Lanegan’s began to get myself from one venue to the other. When I steamed into the Liquid Rooms, Lanegan was already on stage, singing Shadow of the Season. Well, I thought, it’s nice of him to treat the audience to a classic Screaming Trees song so early in his set. However, a few minutes later, he said, “Thank you and good night!” and left the stage, and I realised I’d actually arrived exceedingly late in his set. I was so annoyed that when I walked out of the Liquid Rooms again, I almost crashed into a towering, tousle-haired figure who was being interviewed on the pavement by a small scrum of journalists – yes, it was Lanegan himself. So at least he belongs to the Pantheon Of Famous People I’ve Been Within A Yard Of (alongside John Cleese, Irvine Welsh, Mark E. Smith and, er, John Otway).
But a couple of years after that, I managed to see a full Lanegan concert at, if memory serves me correctly, the now-defunct HMV Picture House on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, and that was brilliant.
In the 2010s Lanegan became pals with globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain. Following Bourdain’s death in 2018, Lanegan penned a tribute in the Observer that described him as an “important voice for the positivity of exploring different cultures all over the world. He’s someone we really need now, especially in a country where our shambles of a president wants to vilify people of colour and stoke the fires of the ignorant… He made the world a better place.” It was Bourdain who encouraged Lanegan to pen an autobiography, finally published in 2020, called Sing Backwards and Weep. Hitherto, Lanegan had been reluctant about tackling such a project because, in his words, “The last thing I wanted to do was write some stupid f*cking rock bio.”
I haven’t read Sing Backwards and Weep, but a Scottish mate of mine who has tells me it’s great, if pretty intense – which isn’t surprising given some of the dark things that happened to Lanegan during the troughs of his addictions in the 1980s and 1990s. These included a period of being homeless, which ended when Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s missus, rescued him and got him into rehab. Sing Backwards and Weep also recounts the massive spat Lanegan had with leading Britpop gobshite Liam Gallagher when the Screaming Trees had the misfortune to support Oasis on their 1996 American tour. Lanegan was not in a forgiving mood at the time and didn’t take kindly to Gallagher referring to his band as ‘the Howling Branches’. Lanegan was still in a fighting mood a quarter-century later when the book was published: “I would still kick the f*cking shit out of that guy the first moment I got a hold of his hands because he’s a f*cking idiot.” Quite right too.
The past year had been especially rough for Lanegan. Having relocated to Ireland, he contracted Covid-19, which resulted in him having breathing difficulties, becoming deaf, losing the use of one leg, hallucinating, suffering from insomnia, falling down a flight of stairs and being put in a medically induced coma. It was the impact of all that, presumably, which finally pushed Lanegan off this mortal coil. Mind you, he wrote a second book called Devil in a Coma, published just in December last year, which described the ordeal he’d been going through with the virus. An artist till the very end, Lanegan managed to extract a creative work from even the process of dying.
News of Lanegan’s death left me feeling frustrated as well as sad – frustrated because I felt the world had been cheated out of much more, excellent music that surely he would have produced had he been allowed to live another couple of decades. The next day, I remarked on this to a friend, saying that Lanegan had been ‘on course to be a great renaissance man like Nick Cave’. But as my friend pointed out, he’d been so phenomenally prolific that, by his death at 57 years old, his output was probably as large as, if not larger than Cave’s already.
Still, it’s tragic. These days, 57 is no age.