Mark Lanegan’s recent passing brought to mind the beautiful instrument of his voice, but also the thrill of reading his autobiography ‘Sing Backwards and Weep‘ (published in 2020) in which he takes us through an astonishing journey via a story of his life from his young and visceral rebelliousness through to his time in music and beyond in the 80’s and 90’s. It is a shocking, saddening and funny read always striving to walk a razor’s edge of truth. The latter he achieves by bringing as much lattitude to perspectives beyond his own as possible, yet he seldom shirks from painting his own actions in the most glaring of lights, detailing the proclivities and backgrounding which led him to become a desparate and impoverished junkie and street crack dealer, while still rubbing shoulders with the nobility of music and musicians and striving when capable to make the most authentic and meaningful music that he can.
In the course of the book you never doubt Lanegan’s commitment to the transcendent power of music, even if how that transendence works, or what it brings, is left more untouched. He shares his boundless and graceful enthusiasm for the music and artists that inspired him and gave him a sense of possibility and freedom, which he wholeheartedly embraced as a line of flight.
The book is an intense, spare and beautifully paced cataloguing in story form of the outcome and transpirings of the directions and decisions of his life. The quality of the writing is such that you feel you are there with him at these moments of sometimes jaw dropping circumstance, however pithy or febrile, transcendent or self-knowing.
It is reported that Lanegan’s passing was Covid related, where his contracting the illness left him hospitalised and in a coma for 3 weeks and brought numerous complications and health problems that persisted until his eventual death barely a year later. One of the things that becomes striking when reading Sing Backwards and Weep, is the sheer amount of his friends and acquaintances that pass away, in its extraordinary sweep that includes years of struggling on the road and with the production of his music, desperate addiction and grift, along with rehabs and meetings with new (also sometimes addicted or ‘rehabilitated’) musicians. The sense emerges that for those engaged with music as a career and particularly rock music (although Lanegan went beyond that realm as his career developed) that drugs have been the accompanying question mark to the works and lives of so many musicians. From as early as 1967’s ‘Heroin‘ by the Velvet Underground and which in reality is something that has its antecedence in the work and life of various blues and Jazz musicians. If as William Burroughs once said ‘Altered consciousness is a writer’s stock in trade’ then it fits also that musicians and songwriters might similarly allide.
It brings to mind the question as to whether or not there has been a retained, functional connection with the traditionally understood role of the shaman, who might transform through different means, their consciousness to travel (and guide) upon journeys outside the meanings of the constrictions of the every day world. Sometimes with the aid of songs and improvisations.
It also goes without saying that Lanegan’s experiences and the many, many deaths of his friends from drugs related circumstances, suggest that if this is some kind of remnant of a deep shamanic past or connection between our singer/song-maker writers, then it is a deeply problematic one, that in its most problematic form, suggests a form of slavery that consumes everything for those addicted as with Lanegan’s experiences alongside many of his cohort.
Lanegan’s early life and upbringing, detailed in the crazed and emotionally crushing treatment received by his sister and himself from their mother, as well as in Lanegan’s absolute rebellion against small town Washington life – sets him up as someone that needed the escape of intoxication from as early as his pre-teen years (per wiki quoting from Sing Backwards and Weep) at age 12, he was “reviled as the town drunk before I could even legally drink“.
Screaming Trees and Mad Season drummer Barrett Martin has been writing up some of his recollections from the Trees and from his time with Lanegan, a number of which are very funny (they are posted on his FB page) although one description he wrote really caught my attention when describing the discovery of Lanegan’s vocal as being ‘an ancient voice planted inside a young man’s body’.
With its throbbing, doomy bass pulse, Lanegan’s second collaboration with UNKLE is this mean and purposeful tune ‘Looking for the Rain’ that swirls around its formidable string and voice arrangement. Released in 2017 Lanegan’s voice is as dynamic and soulful as ever and in those quiet, searing moments when the instrumentation drops down to only its quietly humming strings, the vulnerability and sensitivity of that voice is there to be heard. A super song that is among the best work from both artists.
Lanegan first came into my consciousness as a 17 year old when my love and attention to music was taking on new and powerful dimension in my life. As I have mentioned previously, my two close friends and I shared and expressed our love for music as a core part of our lives and activities, we would search out the best stuff we could among the second-hand record and cd shops of Swansea and its environs. Our tastes went through the nascent 90’s UK alternative sound that incorporated the Verve, Suede, Radiohead and others – but also crucially the burgeoning Seattle scene and ‘Nearly Lost You’ (the ‘Trees’ first and biggest hit – top) caught our attention from the Singles sound track.
While the Trees’ breakout album from 1992 ‘Sweet Oblivion’ was a regular in our scene, one of my friend’s tracked down the first Mark Lanegan solo album ‘The Winding Sheet’ that had come out 2 years earlier. An austere and somewhat patchwork album that nonetheless displayed spellbinding moments and brought Lanegan’s voice beautifully to the fore. In fact and in the proceeding 30 odd years, this album and one song in particular, I have visited and re-visited, remaining to my mind an extraordinary gem of acoustic songwriting; ‘Wild Flowers’.
There’s a tenderness in those opening words. It’s earlier in Mark’s life and he is younger, the voice is held back and yet because of this, holds a deep reserve of power, stretching out to reveal its fibrous, luxtrous insides in those rising moments ‘you could have taken me anywhere’ the song and his voice flies. A song and a moment that in the simplicity of its form is naked and bears also a question of the most interesting kind.
Before Lanegan takes off for that soaring wordless chorus a second time, he sings ‘Because my mind is an open door with nothing inside’. The sense is there of something being given over – the idea that the mind (and its relationship to being) can be empty – in all the sense that this might generate. The suggestion therefore is also pertinent of something like the Dao de Ching, in fact one of the most extraordinary parts ‘perfectly empty, as if open valleys‘ from (as per Hinton):
Ancient masters of Way
all subtle mystery and dark-enigma vision:
they were deep beyond knowing,
so deep beyond knowing
we can only describe their appearance:
perfectly cautious, as if crossing winter streams,
and perfectly watchful, as if neighbors threatened;
perfectly reserved, as if guests,
perfectly expansive, as if ice melting away,
and perfectly simple, as if uncarved wood;
perfectly empty, as if open valleys,
and perfectly shadowy, as if murky water.
Who’s murky enough to settle slowly into pure clarity,
and who still enough to awaken slowly into life?
If you nurture this Way, you never crave fullness.
Never crave fullness
and you’ll wear away into completion.
I find also a curious parallel with something written by the poet/filmmaker and artist Alejandro Jodorowsky when at the end of his autobiographical film The Dance of Reality (2013) he says the following :
‘I soar away from the past,
Land in the body present,
Bear the painful burden of years,
Yet in the heart keep the child,
As the bread of life,
As a white canary,
As a worthy diamond,
As a lucidity without walls,
Wide open doors and windows,
Through which blows the wind,
Only the wind,
Just the wind.’
I have referenced this before in writing here about the poet Lorca, but it is also curious in the additional element that Jodorowsky summons, as well as the ‘wide open doors…’ The wind becomes the anomalous force of presence in its emptiness, beckoning with its curious akin to nothingness. As the Dao says, Way is often perceived as ‘Occurence appearing of itself…’
With the Screaming Trees at this time still very much the vehicle for his career, the Winding Sheet (released in 1990 on Sub Pop) made only a modest impact (despite some of its beautiful songs). His follow up solo record 1994’s ‘Whiskey for the Holy Ghost’ was a different prospect. In Sing Backwards and Weep, Lanegan outlines just how much he wanted to make a masterpiece, while the album was troubled in production, being pulled, then re-offered by Sub Pop (with whom he had an often difficult, mistrustful relationship) and stretched out over sessions covering 4 years. It even survived Lanegan one night in desperation taking the master tapes from the studio out to dump in a neighbouring river, before being stopped at the last moment by producer Jack Endino.
In listening terms it was clear that this was a profoundly more effective album, again acoustic guitar is the central spar from which much is built, used texturally on things like opener The River Rise (above) – capped beautifully and ebulliently by the simple rising electric guitar refrain and the clever swell provided by the cymbals. Each instrument is sumptuously used, effective and evocative, such as the piano’s high striking notes, that bring that sense of rounding out to the song’s verse.
The album has many beuatiful songs, another stunning effort being ‘Carnival’ benefiting so much from its arrangement with violin and double bass, while Lanegan’s lyric surges around the carnival/sideshow/freakshow duality of the lives of addicts and the underbelly/wholebelly of a society of realised strangeness.
‘What in the world can it be?
It’s as strange as I’ve ever seen
The girls are dead in their eyes
Just standin’ around like they’re hypnotised’
There was a gap between the Screaming Trees first and second albums and Lanegan details that recording and producing their 1996 follow up ‘Dust’ was a difficult process during which he had relapsed his heroin use.
Back in South Wales we’d waited patiently for a new Screaming Trees album, and when Dust came out, I bought it immediately and found it somehow devoid of the spark that predecessor Sweet Oblivion held. In fact at the time, there was one song (‘Witness’ – above) which had the hooks and tunery that felt like it could effectively offer the kind of ‘transport’ that I’d always sought from rock music.
Dust was to be the last Screaming Trees album as they were quietly dropped after it failed to impact. Lanegan had also seemingly reached the end of the straight jacket he had come to see the band as representing in terms of the creative possibilities his solo work had taught him were possible.
He went on to record another ten solo albums, as well as recording lauded duets with Isobel Campbell, joining with Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli in the Gutter Twins and even joining Queens of the Stone Age (co-writing their humungous hit ‘No one Knows‘) for several years as co-writer and co-singer. A friendship with QOTSA’s Josh Homme which began when Homme played for several years with the Screaming Trees as second guitar. Sing Backwards and Weep goes into detail on some of the hair-raising moments between Homme and Lanegan when the younger man would accompany him into the worst parts of cities on tour to score Heroin. Lanegan’s tenure with Queens of the Stone Age included some cracking songs including this one (‘In the Fade’):
Among his solo records, there emerged some beautiful and beguiling songs, one of his most commercially successful albums Bubblegum (from 2004) yielded the short but evocative ‘Bombed’. The lyrics (co-sung with his wife at the time Wendy Rae Fowler) share a spare and visceral sense of the abstract with someone like Bukowski.
Love there are flowers hanging in the vine,
So high…you cannot see
Now my mind must go on holiday, torn from it’s hook, a broken valentine
I see the smoke from a revolver, will I get hit, I hardly care
When I’m bombed I stretch like bubblegum
And look too long straight at the morning sun
Love there are flowers along the avenue, all things perfectly in place
I build a shrine
I settle a monument
Because you’re fire
Because you’re a fire escape’
After that second Screaming Trees album, I mostly lost track of new work from Lanegan, though would return to the song Wild Flowers, which I recognised as a unique sonic moment in the depths of song writing and whose lyrics and meanings over time grew with me and gave me renewed pause for insight and understanding. When many years later (in 2020) I caught sight that he had released his memoir – with the amazing reviews that propelled it – a process of re-connecting and re-discovering so much of the work that had come in between began.
It has been a real pleasure to go through and listen to podcast interviews that Lanegan gave in his final few years, as well as to track down some of the outstanding tunes that emerged from what has to be one of the most successful collaborators of modern music. As such, when considering that that this has been a major musical artist in our midst, I lose a sense of surprise to find the emptiness of the Dao in ‘Wild Flowers’ (where else would it be?) but also to find in the poem that ends this piece, the philosophical presence of Spinoza (as well as Neizsche), and from whom came most directly the idea that the existence of God is simultaneously the existence of everything. A true student of his path, however tortured and difficult at times it inevitably was, a man whose voice took us through the howling void, something for which I and many others will remain attentively thankful for.
Barrett Martin in his posts about the Trees quotes a poem from Lanegan published within his last written book ‘Devil in a Coma’ (Dec 2021).
And the observed are
Good and evil
Flip side of
The same mirror
All Is love