When it was announced yesterday that musician and writer Mark Lanegan had died at the age of 57, the news felt impossible. There’s a handful of people who made it through the 1990s with a tenuous grasp on their mortality only to pass away later, still prematurely, even though it felt like they were in the clear. Scott Weiland was one of them. Lanegan was another. His dependence on drugs (namely heroin) and alcohol was well documented. His death would not have been shocking had it occurred in 1995. Why, now, is it so hard to hear?
Maybe because he allowed us to know entirely what he’d been through. His 2020 memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, is not for the faint of heart. He details his life and career in it, which he couldn’t do accurately without mentioning the many times he nearly died and the times when those around him actually did. That includes the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, and his close friend Kurt Cobain, whose death Lanegan never forgave himself for. In the days before Cobain’s body was discovered, Lanegan had been avoiding his phone calls. He expected to either have to seek out drugs for Cobain or be inevitably drawn into the politics of his relationship with Courtney Love, neither of which Lanegan was interested in anymore.
Lanegan released another memoir, Devil in a Coma, chronicling his experience with COVID-19, which leveled him entirely for several months in 2021. He was always fighting for his life.
So, after all that, it felt like Lanegan had won. This wasn’t just someone people admired on record for his immense talent, which would have been enough to justify the outpouring of grief that his loss has triggered. John Cale, Iggy Pop, and Kid Congo Powers are among the luminaries who have publicly paid their heartfelt respects. There are others, though: people you’ve never heard of. Fans posted photos of themselves with Lanegan, with all parties smiling, arms around each other. Part-time musicians and writers shared snippets of conversations with them on Twitter. So long as there was a shared interest and mutual respect, he talked to anyone and everyone.
Lanegan first came to prominence as the frontman of Screaming Trees, who weren’t from Seattle but rural Ellensburg, Washington, about a hundred miles southeast on I-90. In Lanegan’s own words, from Sing Backwards and Weep: “My family were from a long line of coal miners, loggers, bootleggers, South Dakotan dirt farmers, criminals, convicts, and hillbillies of the roughest, most ignorant sort.” He ended up in a band with his friend Van Conner, Van’s older brother Lee, and Mark Pickerel simply because they were the only guys around who knew what punk music was, let alone appreciated it, in 1984. They would smoke weed or take LSD and listen to records.
Lanegan’s later overlap with Queens of the Stone Age makes perfect sense. The Trees owed their sound to psych-rock more than anything else. Just listen to “Shadow of the Season”, the opening track from their 1992 breakout Sweet Oblivion. Despite tension with Lee, especially, Lanegan was determined to make the Screaming Trees enough of a success that he could escape from Ellensburg. It worked.
Lanegan’s first solo album, The Winding Sheet, was released on Sub Pop in 1990. On it is his version of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, with backing vocals from Cobain (who, of course, would later close Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set with his take). The label botched it, using a cover photo that Lanegan specifically didn’t want—what he perceived as a glamour shot of him straddling a chair and making eye contact with the camera. He was livid; label co-owner Bruce Pavitt promised Lanegan he wouldn’t use the photo, and there it was staring back at Lanegan when he opened the box of albums sent to his place. Because Pavitt went against his word, and that’s the kind of thing that was important to Lanegan, he refused to promote The Winding Sheet, which did fairly well anyway. He went on to release 12 solo albums in total, all of them received positively by critics.
Lanegan brought an air of authenticity to everything he was involved in, which was a lot. He was on 1995’s Above, the sole album from grunge supergroup Mad Season, along with his friend Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam‘s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and the Walkabouts’ John Baker Saunders. He did three albums with Queens of the Stone Age in the early aughts: Rated R, Songs for the Deaf, and Lullabies to Paralyze. (He and Josh Homme would later contribute the theme song for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown TV show.) He released a series of duet albums with Belle & Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell. He recorded an album with the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins. The list goes on and on. If Lanegan was involved, the project was worth listening to. You knew you were in good hands.
So many people, especially celebrities, are described as singular, one of a kind, the real deal, etc., when they die—too many for it to be true in each case. Lanegan actually was these things. His voice, that deep, rough, surprisingly versatile baritone, was instantly recognizable. It was powerful, but it never overshadowed the people he sang with. Depending on who was asked, Lanegan was an asshole (Liam Gallagher was not a fan, and their feud nearly came to blows on tour, which may be more of a Lanegan endorsement than anything else) or the best friend you could ask for. Lanegan was righteous in the literal sense, with firm principles and morals. He couldn’t fake being okay with something when he wasn’t, and he was unafraid to call bullshit on anyone, including himself.
There’s a Screaming Trees performance from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1993 that Lanegan talks about at length in his memoir. To hear him tell it, it’s the worst thing ever captured on camera: “From the first second of the song to the last, I was acutely aware that I sucked.” He was going through heroin withdrawal and had aspirated stomach acid. The sound in the studio was awful; the producer switched songs on them at the last minute. Of course, everyone who reads that passage heads to YouTube to see for themselves…that it’s perfectly fine. But Lanegan never wanted to be seen as amateurish or lazy, no matter how he was abusing himself in his free time.
To get a sense of Lanegan in his element, pull up any of the performances he did on his own terms, which is how he preferred to do things. There’s a great 2010 live version of “One Way Street”, a song from his 2001 solo album Field Songs. Or the excellent cover of Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell”, with Maggie Björklund on pedal steel guitar. When he delivers this line, written by his friend Layne Staley, it’s one of the more convincing things ever performed: “If I can’t be my own, I’d feel better dead.” That’s how he lived, often precariously close to that sentiment. We’re lucky that he shared so much of himself. He was better than all of us and none of us.