The Devil was fairly profligate with the best songs, but rare was the singer blessed with His very own voice. Grunge pioneer Mark Lanegan – who died yesterday (February 22) aged 57 – sang like a southern swamp, a canyon catacomb, a gallows tree.
His enigmatic allure and voodoo vocals made him something of a post-grunge Zelig, if Zelig had defined every situation he cropped up in. Beyond his formative grunge work with Screaming Trees and 11 elemental solo albums, he collaborated with a vast array of figures including Kurt Cobain, PJ Harvey, Queens Of The Stone Age, The Breeders, UNKLE, Manic Street Preachers, Guns N’ Roses‘ Duff McKagan and former Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell, with whom he shared a Mercury Prize nomination for 2006’s ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas’.
Unlike most musicians who battled hard drugs for decades, almost lost an arm to heroin, spent a period homeless and underwent several stints of rehab, Lanegan retained the respect and admiration of his peers throughout his storied career. His loss marks the crumbling of one of the foundation stones of modern alternative rock.
Born in Ellensburg, Washington, in 1964, Lanegan’s was a life virtually suckled on rock’n’roll. His schoolteacher parents divorced when he was young and, according to his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards And Weep, his father’s drinking and gambling soon rubbed off on him.
By the age of 12 he was “a compulsive gambler” who was “reviled as the town drunk”, he claimed, and his hard drug use began aged 18, by which time he’d been arrested for theft, breaking and entering, insurance fraud, vandalism and spent a year in jail on drug charges.
He was also a punk fanatic, and joined fledgling Ellensburg band Screaming Trees in 1984 as drummer: “I was such a shitty drummer that they made me sing,” he said. The psychedelic hard rock of the band’s debut album ‘Clairvoyance’ (1986) was one of the key ingredients in the formulation of grunge, and as they developed the sound over three further albums on Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s label SST in the late-‘80s, they joined Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana as major players in the Seattle scene.
Cobain, who had first introduced himself to Lanegan as a fan after a show, would guest on Lanegan’s debut solo album ‘The Winding Sheet’ in 1990 – an influence on Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ concert and a record Dave Grohl would rank as “one of the best albums of all time”. Lanegan continued making solo records throughout the ‘90s, even as Screaming Trees signed to Epic Records and began forging inroads into the US rock charts with ‘Uncle Anesthesia’ (1991), ‘Sweet Oblivion’ (1992) and the singles ‘Bed Of Roses’, ‘Dollar Bill’ and ‘Nearly Lost You’, the last becoming the biggest hit of their career thanks to its inclusion in Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-based movie Singles.
Lanegan’s worsening drug use (it was on a 1992 tour that an infection from heroin abuse had doctors considering amputating his arm, and in the wake of Cobain’s death in 1994 he admitted diving deeper into drugs) didn’t seem to hinder his productivity. His 1994 solo album ‘Whiskey For The Holy Ghost’ was considered amongst his finest. 1995 saw him collaborate with Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready in the supergroup Mad Season.
In 1996, Screaming Trees released their final album ‘Dust’, a creative and critical triumph but commercial disappointment. As Lanegan worked on his 1998 solo album ‘Scraps At Midnight’ and got clean through life-saving rehab part-funded by Courtney Love, hiatuses became common and infighting rife. With no labels interested in the 1999 demos for an eighth Screaming Trees album, the band split the following year.
“Lanegan retained the respect and admiration of his peers throughout his storied career”
In the wake of Screaming Trees, Lanegan found himself briefly homeless, working labouring jobs on construction sites and film sets or caretaking Duff McKagan’s house. But his was a talent that the American rock scene wouldn’t let fade away – projects and collaborations quickly stacked up. His close friend Josh Homme invited him to sing on Queens Of The Stone Age’s 2000 album ‘Rated R’, and then join the band in 2001, playing on their breakthrough record ‘Songs For The Deaf’ and its follow-up ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’: “it’s great to play with, essentially, my best friends,” he said, and his glowering presence during their breakout period helped give the Queens their essential desert rock mystique.
By 2003 he was collaborating with Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs as The Gutter Twins, who released one album (‘Saturnalia’, 2008), and in 2004 he began a celebrated collaboration with Isobel Campbell which would stretch for seven years and produce three albums.
Meanwhile his solo career continued, with many of his friends and associates from the US rock scene and beyond contributing to ‘Field Songs’ (2001) and ‘Bubblegum’ (2004, featuring PJ Harvey). Following a drug relapse which sent him into a 10-day coma in 2004 and another bout of rehab in 2007, the past decade was particularly prolific, producing six albums delving beyond his grunge rock roots into electronica and ‘80s post-punk. His thundercloud voice also made him a popular guest vocalist for acts as disparate as Moby and Swedish metal band Cult Of Luna .
Recent years saw him become an author, too – his last book Devil In A Coma detailed a near-death battle with Covid which saw him put into a medically induced coma in spring 2020, near his home in Ireland. He lived to tell that tale; the tragedy is that grunge’s greatest survivor had plenty more in him yet.