On Tuesday afternoon, 22nd February 2022, I had just finished a Zoom meeting in my office at my tattoo shop, and as I was walking out, a co-worker thrust his phone at me while simultaneously saying ‘Mark Lanegan died’. This literally stopped me in my tracks. The news floored me. I instantly hit ‘play’ on his discography on the shop computer and stepped outside to gather myself. I needed to.
Mark Lanegan has been an integral part of the soundtrack-to-my-life for 28 years, going all the way back to when I purchased one of my first grunge albums, Screaming Trees Uncle Anesthesia back in 1992, on a whim, knowing they had previously been on SST Records, and because I thought the name was cool. In addition, in the pre-internet days, I seriously had no clue about his connection to another, by then, former SST band, Soundgarden, who I had already become a fan of, nor did I realize that the scene that had been brewing in Seattle, spawned them both. I did know that I was instantly struck by his voice, sandpaper rough, yet simultaneously smooth as leather. A one-of-a-kind voice, that would go on to define so much of the soundtrack to my life.
I was instantly struck by his voice, sandpaper rough, yet simultaneously smooth as leather…
Mark Lanegan was raised in Ellensburg, Washington, a hard-scrabble, rural farming town, full of country shit-kickers, on the east side of The Cascade Mountain range. Eastern Washington is as different from Western Washington, as Northern California is from Southern California. Lanegan, full of piss & vinegar stood out like a sore thumb in Ellensburg, frequently finding trouble with the law, as well as the jocks, and country boys populating his hometown. Taking solace in music, and discovering punk rock, Lanegan eventually, linked up with two of the other misfits in town, the Conner brothers, Van and Gary Lee, and Screaming Trees were born.
Taking a cue from early psychedelic music like The 13th Floor Elevators, as well as punk and classic rock, Screaming Trees quickly signed to SST Records, releasing their first four full-lengths before making the jump to a major label, Epic as Seattle, and grunge were about to go nuclear. Screaming Trees then replaced original drummer Mark Pickerel with powerhouse Barrett Martin. Frustrated by Gary Conner’s control over The Trees musical output, Lanegan began to assert himself in the songwriting process, writing all the lyrics for the first time, with the result being Sweet Oblivion.
wrapping it all in his grimy, gutter-dwelling, hard-living aesthetic…
Sweet Oblivion, on the strength of the single Nearly Lost You, released prior on the Singles soundtrack, vaulted Screaming Trees to worldwide stardom. Prior to its release, Lanegan recorded and released his first solo record The Winding Sheet on Sub Pop to widespread acclaim. The record was the first, of what would go on to inform his approach to many of his solo records: dark, acoustic, and introspective, taking a page from artists like Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Lou Reed, Neil Young, and Nick Cave, as well as American roots music, but wrapping it all in his grimy, gutter-dwelling, hard-living aesthetic. Additionally, The Winding Sheet featured a cover of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? featuring Kurt Cobain on vocals and guitar, pre-dating Nirvana’s version on Unplugged by fouryears.
Screaming Trees released one more album for Epic, the underrated Dust featuring All I Know and Dying Days as well as one of my personal favorites Gospel Plow. Josh Homme of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age joined as a touring guitarist before Screaming Trees imploded.
In 1994, Lanegan released what many consider to be his signature solo record: Whiskey For The Holy Ghost. A timeless, dark, melancholy record that features many of what would go on to be some of his signature songs, including The River Rise, Borracho, and Riding The Nightingale.
It bears mentioning that at this point in his life, Lanegan’s notorious, well-chronicled substance abuse issues were in full affect, as he was in the thralls of a crippling heroin and crack addiction that defined much of his daily existence. The fact that Whiskey For The Holy Ghost is as cohesive, and frankly amazing as it is, considering his condition, is a testament to his bottomless well of talent.
The fact that Whiskey For The Holy Ghost is as cohesive, and frankly amazing as it is, considering his condition, is a testament to his bottomless well of talent…
Eventually cleaning up with the help of none other than Courtney Love, Lanegan soon joined Josh Homme’s revolving band of alt-rock heathens, Queens of the Stone Age, firstly on Rated R and then more prominently on their breakthrough record Songs For The Deaf. Lanegan also released two classic solo records while in QOTSA; Field Songs, and Bubblegum.
Lanegan continued his prolific solo career, unleashing a string of killer records like Blues Funeral, and Phantom Radio, throughout the late 00s and 10s, as well as collaborating with artists like Greg Dulli from The Afghan Wigs in The Gutter Twins, The Twilight Singers, Soulsavers, Duke Garwood, and Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell. He effortlessly, and gracefully stepped into his role as 90s elder statesman, a grunge-survivor, a much-respected artist who was loved, and admired universally among his peers, as much for his voice and music as he was for his take-no-shit, attitude, physical presence, and the sheer fact that he had survived so much self-destruction, outliving most of his peers from the 90s.
a grunge-survivor, a much-respected artist who was loved, and admired universally among his peers…
Towards what would turn out to be the end of his life, Lanegan additionally slid into the role of author, releasing his jaw-dropping, biography Sing Backwards And Weep in 2020, right at the start ofthe global covid-19 pandemic, which I devoured in a few days, being home locked down. A stunning, harrowing, account of his youth in Ellensburg, his time in Screaming Trees, touring in the 90s his relationships with Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Dylan Carlson, and Chris Cornell to name a few, as well as his gut-wrenching struggles with all forms of debauchery, drug use, and self-destruction. Sing Backwards And Weep wound up being released to universal acclaim, and has become, frankly, one of the all-time great rock & roll memoirs.
As detailed in his second biography, Devil In A Coma released in late 2021, Lanegan and his wife left the United Sates at the start of the pandemic, settling in rural Ireland, where he sadly, and promptly caught the Covid-19 virus. Covid wrecked Lanegan, putting him in a coma, and hospitalizing him for months. He seemed to be on the road to recovery, then tragically, the soul-crushing news that he passed away sent shock waves through the music world. No cause of death has been given, but it’s worth wondering if his near-death battle with Covid played some role.
a road-weary, gravelly-voiced troubadour who provided the perfect soundtrack to late evenings, rainy days, and depressive, emotive moods…
Mark Lanegan possessed a singular voice and style that is literally unmatched in contemporary music. His gritty, baritone, soulful voice was the perfect salve for what ailed you. ‘Dark Mark’ as he was known, touched on parts of society, and the human experience, that few have the fortitude to withstand. His voice and lyrics spoke of a man who’d seen and done it all, a road-weary, gravelly-voiced troubadour who provided the perfect soundtrack to late evenings, rainy days, and depressive, emotive moods.
He was universally revered in many corners of music, obviously as a grunge pioneer, and all that came with that, as well as being deeply respected in the indie/folk/acoustic world, and the stoner/doom circles, acting as the dark, gritty raconteur, bringing his tales to all who would listen. He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of grunge, next to Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell. A one-of-a-kind voice, from a suddenly-begone era, unlike no other, who against all odds, somehow survived, and thrived. His loss is tremendous, and of all the death and tragedy of the last few years, Mark Lanegan’s death feels like the biggest of them all, maybe because most of us thought he’d be around forever, having survived more shit than most humans can even fathom.
Rest in peace Mark Lanegan, you were a singular presence, and the very definition of the word ‘legend’…
Personally, he was one of my musical heroes. I lived in Seattle in the mid-to-late-90s and Lanegan was still a presence around town, people I knew, knew him. He was tattooed by a former co-worker of mine, a portrait of Leadbelly, and Whiskey For The Holy Ghost seemed to be constantly hailed, and in constant rotation in those days, just like it is now. He is among my top favorite singers and has been a constant presence in my life for 28 years. It’s crazy writing that, but as I stated, his voice has been a huge part of the soundtrack to my life. It is a tragic loss, and will be felt for a long, long time.
Rest in peace Mark Lanegan, you were a singular presence, and the very definition of the word ‘legend’ and that legend will only continue to grow. I’m going to go listen to Blues Funeral, Dust and Field Songs now.
Scribed by: Martin Williams