There’s been a lot written recently about how viruses spread, but Mark Lanegan was somewhat ahead of the curve. His new ‘90s grunge survival memoir Sing Backwards And Weep documents, among other bracing anecdotes, the pioneering work done in that field by Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. In the book, Lanegan remembers coming down with a terrible cold while in the studio when his band, Screaming Trees, were recording 1991’s ‘Uncle Anesthesia’.
“Cornell insisted I allow him to lick my bare eyeball to test his invented-on-the-spot theory of virus transmission,” he writes. “I was, of course, delighted to take part in the experiment. Chris never got sick. I can’t recall if this proved or disproved his theory, but it was an effective way of making me laugh.”
Don’t try this at home in the fight against corona, of course, but it’s a rare, sweet and playful moment in a life story that otherwise makes being an underground rock icon with a paralysing heroin addiction sound like a pretty gruelling way to earn a crust. One chapter, ‘Ice-Cold European Funhouse’, finds our Seattle-born hero in 1996 touring the continent while dangerously strung out. He drags himself shitting and puking through the streets of King’s Cross and then, a few pages, later he’s in Amsterdam, still trying to score, only to be repeatedly ripped off, mugged and humiliated. You have to laugh.
When Lanegan calls me from splendid isolation at his home in Glendale, just outside LA, I tell him that merely reading about his experiences has been enough to put me right off heroin altogether.
The now long-sober 55 year-old, who has enjoyed a fruitful solo career since 1990’s ‘The Winding Sheet’ and released his fantastic latest album, ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’, earlier this month, rocks with laughter. “That’s good – I wouldn’t suggest that for anybody,” he says. “It doesn’t ever work out well.”
He remembers that particular European tour as one of the most brutalising experiences of his life, and a time he found punishing to relive during the writing process. “That chapter was twice as long as any of the rest of them,” he points out, “but in a way it was the most important chapter because I went from being this juvenile delinquent to racing across Europe trying to stay well under the worst conditions. It was easily the most harrowing tour of my life. I guess that comes across.”
“Being in Screaming Trees was like dragging a boat over a mountain”
That’s a characteristic understatement. Remarkably, that doomed tour isn’t even close to rock bottom for Lanegan, who winds up living on the streets, his body infested with lice, his teeth rotten. Smoking enough crack to give yourself a stroke and then shooting heroin to bring yourself back turns out not to a healthy lifestyle choice. It isn’t until the book’s final pages that he finds any sort of way out. He’d once considered Courtney Love to be something of a nuisance, but she emerges as the guardian angel who pays his way through rehab.
There’s an obvious dilemma when it comes to writing a warts-and-all account of your life, which is that you almost certainly end up exposing the warts of all those around you as well. Screaming Trees split up in 2000 and guitarist Gary Lee Conner comes out of the book particularly badly. He recently admitted that “many of the facts may be accurate,” but hit back at Lanegan by saying that the singer’s stories are “delivered with a venom that is perplexing” and that his decision to air their old dirty laundry is “vicious and petty.”
You may be flabbergasted to learn that Lanegan doesn’t give a toss what Conner thinks. “Lee Conner is lucky I didn’t tell the full truth when it comes to him,” he spits. “He would never be able to show his face in public again if I told the real truth about what a prick he was.”
Lanegan was on marginally better terms with Lee’s brother, Screaming Trees bassist Van Conner, but says his efforts to run stories from the book past him came to nothing. “Van Conner chose to ignore each and every call,” he says. “Then after reading one page of the book he made physical threats, which is a joke because he’s well aware that I could dismantle him. And would, next time I see him. I took it easy on those guys, in other words.”
Go on Mark, tells us how you really feel! “Honestly, I hate to say it, but those guys were lucky to have me,” continues Lanegan, sounding suspiciously like he doesn’t hate to say it at all. “My experience in the Trees was like Fitzcarraldo. It was like dragging a boat over a mountain.”
Lanegan did run his fledgling book past Josh Homme, who’d been a touring guitarist with Screaming Trees between the break-up of Kyuss and the formation of Queens of the Stone Age. It turned out to be a productive exercise because Homme was able to fill in certain gaps in the narrative. There was one night on tour when Lanegan had written that he’d been unable to score any dope. It fell to his friend to remind him exactly why that was: they’d been threatened at shotgun-point by dealers who took the clean-shaven Homme for an undercover cop.
“Liam Gallagher approached me with massive disrespect right off the bat”
“To me, it was just a night when I wasn’t able to find anything,” chuckles Lanegan. “For him, it made a big impression because I almost got him killed.”
Needless to say, Lanegan did not seek Liam Gallagher’s opinion on the book. By now you may already have caught wind of the episode in question. While Screaming Trees were on tour with Oasis in 1996, Liam introduced himself to Lanegan by shouting “Howling Branches!” in his face. Lanegan, it’s fair to say, took umbrage. He tears into Liam methodically over the course of a full chapter, describing the former Oasis frontman as a “bothersome mosquito” and suggesting he was once “a kid in short pants, on a bright sunny day, gleefully jacking his miniscule dick while frying ants under a magnifying glass”.
When extracts from the chapter were recently shared on Twitter, Gallagher responded by calling Lanegan an “uptight junkie” with his “little grungy knickers in a twist”. Lanegan didn’t budge an inch. “Coke addicts are junkies too you fucking tool, the stupidest kind,” he wrote. “Still trying to make like you’re hard. i could have then and still could put serious hurt on you. leave it alone dickhead unless youre actually ready to finally step up.”
Speaking now, Lanegan seems to have mellowed towards Liam – but only a little. “The book was written from my viewpoint 25 years ago; it’s not how I really see the guy now,” he offers. “He approached me with massive disrespect right off the bat and that was something I just didn’t take from people 10 years my junior – then or now – but then I see clips of him washing his hands or making tea [on Twitter] I find him humorous, like an eccentric old uncle, you know what I mean?”
Some of Lanegan’s most powerful and affecting writing concerns his friendship with Kurt Cobain. Having relayed the tale of scoring heroin for the Nirvana frontman, he grapples movingly with the knowledge that “instead of being a positive influence on this guy I considered a genius and cherished little brother, I had become a facilitator to his undoing”. The pair were close – they were playing acoustic guitar together when Cobain wrote ‘Nevermind’ closer ‘Something In The Way’ – and Lanegan had a front-row seat when that album changed everything, not just for the band but for the entire Seattle scene.
Shortly after the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Lanegan remembers hanging out with Cobain at a hotel in Seattle.
“Nirvana are just as vital today as they were in the ’90s”
“We were hanging out, laying on the bed,” he says. “He was talking with somebody on the phone about some business thing. It was a hot day so the windows were open. We were on the third floor, and MTV was on. They were playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ around the clock at the time. He got into a heated argument with whoever he was talking to on the phone and pulled the phone cord out of the wall. Right then, ‘Teen Spirit’ came on MTV. He grabbed my boot, which was laying between us on the bed, and he threw it at the TV set. It was a perfect strike! It turned the TV off and right at that moment, from three floors down we hear a car going by, and ‘Teen Spirit’ is playing on the car radio!” He lets out a deep laugh that rolls like thunder. “That’s when I realised there was no escaping it.”
Incredibly, next year will mark three decades since the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, yet Nirvana’s music doesn’t seem to have aged at all. Lanegan didn’t catch Post Malone’s recent live-streamed tribute to the band – as far as I can tell he has no idea who Post Malone is – but he isn’t surprised to hear that Cobain’s music still resonates with people so powerfully.
“I didn’t see that but I’d like to check it out,” he says. “It’s cool that a rapper would do that. I think Nirvana are still just as vital today as they were then. If a rap star is taking the time to do a Nirvana tribute set, that’s pretty badass.”
Sing Backwards And Weep ends in the late ‘90s, with Lanegan going off to rehab, well before the collaborations with Queens of the Stone Age, which marked the start of his life’s second act. He reveals he actually passed on a bigger role in the band. “Josh asked me to be the singer in the Queens before they made the first record,” he says. “This is while the Trees were still supposedly together. I listened to it and thought: ‘I think it’s fantastic, but you need to be the singer of this thing.’ Also, as it turned out, I was institutionalised for almost a year, so I missed out on the opportunity to sing on it.”
He made up for lost time with killer contributions the band: he played on 2000’s ‘Rated R’ and 2002’s ‘Songs For The Deaf’. “Josh’s concept of having three singers seemed weird at the time but it was really great,” he says. “I’m really proud of what we did with ‘Songs For The Deaf’. That line-up with Nick Oliveri, Josh and I was easily the most powerful band I’ve been in, ever.”
These days, life sounds slightly more sedate than the old days when he was busy taking Homme on an extensive guided tour of the crack dens of Europe. “I’m still great friends with both Nick and Josh,” he says, with what sounds eerily like contentment. “We talk, and text and go to the movies and have lunch, and stuff like that.”
“Josh Homme asked me to be the singer in Queens of the Stone Age”
Getting sober has also done wonders for Lanegan’s productivity. It took him eight years to release his first three solo albums. In the last eight, he’s released six. ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ was written directly after the memoir and has the book’s enormous weight imprinted in it. “Right off the bat I realised: ‘Wow, wait a minute, these songs are kind of heavy’,” he recalls. “I realised they were directly an extension of the book.”
Finishing the record in time to release it alongside the book called for a tight turnaround, but luckily for Lanegan he could call on collaborators such as The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, Ed Harcourt and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. “When you get John Paul Jones to play on something you wrote,” he notes, “you can basically retire after that.”
He says that, but I get the feeling Mark Lanegan won’t be hanging up his microphone any time soon. He had to fight and scrap to even still be here, and one day soon he’ll be out getting his eyeballs licked along with the rest of us. By rights he should be dead several times over. Has that taught him what it takes to be a survivor? “I mean, everyone who’s alive today is a survivor,” he points out. “You, me, everybody. That said…” Cue another thunderclap of laughter. “… It’s not gonna last forever!”
Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan is out now