Obituaries: Mark Lanegan, grunge legend with remarkable musical range

Mark Lanegan, singer and writer. Born: November 25 1964 in Ellensburg, Washington, US. Died: February 22 2022 in Killarney, Ireland, aged 57.

Mark Lanegan onstage in 2012 in Los Angeles (Picture: Mark Davis/Getty Images)

With the death of former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, aged 57, another son of the Seattle grunge scene has passed prematurely, leaving a prolific catalogue of punk, blues, country, rock and even electronica tracks, as well as some volumes of late blooming poetry and prose.

Despite his taciturn, introverted nature, Lanegan was a key player at the epicentre of an underground rock culture which exploded internationally in the early Nineties, with his compadres Nirvana leading the charge. Lanegan outlived many of his closest associates, including Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. He was one of the last people to see Cobain alive and regretted that he did not do more to help his friend. The truth was, he was in no shape to do so.

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In the clichéd rock’n’roll parlance, Lanegan lived fast, with drugs and alcohol a destructive feature of his life for many years. But he moved slow, if at all, as a performer. Unlike his hair-flailing, plaid shirt-wearing peers, Lanegan rooted himself at the microphone stand and let his naturally gruff baritone vocals do the talking. This was a singer schooled in the storytelling of Johnny Cash as much as the catharsis of punk – and, like Cash, he had a sobering story to tell.

His 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep is an unflinching account of the unglamorous life of the mid-ranking rock star who has failed to outrun his demons. Lanegan was not so much saved from a life of petty criminality, addiction and incarceration as diverted by music.

Despite considerable acclaim for their gnarly take on psychedelic rock, his band Screaming Trees did not enjoy the same commercial success as fellow grunge rockers Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, but they limped on through seedy antics and dysfunctional relationships until the turn of the millennium, by which time Lanegan was several albums into a fertile solo career, characterised by cool collaborations with musicians across the wider musical spectrum, including a long-running association with arena rockers Queens of the Stone Age.

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He formed The Gutter Twins with his contemporary Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs – dubbing themselves “the satanic Everly Brothers” - and enjoyed a more angelic yet utterly complementary partnership with former Belle & Sebastian singer/cellist Isobel Campbell. In a neat twist on prevailing rock culture, Campbell was the boss, writing and arranging most of the songs for Lanegan’s weathered voice. Their Mercury Music Prize-nominated debut Ballad of the Broken Seas was such a meeting of musical minds that it spawned two sequels and several tours.

Mark William Lanegan was born and grew up in Ellensburg, Washington State, a farming town roughly equidistant from northwest music metropolises Seattle and Portland. His schoolteacher parents divorced when he was young, and Lanegan chose to live with his laissez-faire, alcoholic father. Left to his own devices, the young Lanegan started drinking heavily from the age of 12 and didn’t stop for the next twenty years.

Former schoolfriend and fellow punk fan Van Connor provided an escape route from Ellensburg when he invited Lanegan to join his band Screaming Trees, first as an incompetent drummer and then as inscrutable singer. They released their debut album, Clairvoyance, in 1986, and became an established touring outfit five years before grunge broke.

One of their fans, Kurt Cobain, was keen to collaborate. He didn’t have long to wait, singing on a cover of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? on Lanegan’s 1990 debut solo album Winding Sheet. Cobain would reprise the song on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York appearance in 1993.

By this point, Screaming Trees had been hoovered up by major label Epic Records and their sixth album, Sweet Oblivion, spawned an international hit single, Nearly Lost You, which featured on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Generation X rom-com Singles. Lanegan was never a fan of the song, considering it a sell-out, but the band’s failure to capitalise had more to do with in-fighting and addiction than punk rock integrity.

Lanegan first got clean on Courtney Love’s dime – Kurt Cobain’s widow paid for his first proper stint in rehab. Other famous friends were looking out for him – post-rehab, Lanegan enjoyed the peaceful respite of house-sitting for Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, and set-painting for television programmes.

He had previously struck up a kinship with Screaming Trees’ teenage touring guitarist Josh Homme. When Homme broke through to arenas with his band Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan came along for the ride as a sometime co-vocalist, joining the band as a full touring and recording member for a time.

Despite a chaotic personal life, he maintained a steady solo career and remained in demand as a guest vocalist. In addition to his album trilogy with Isobel Campbell, he made two albums apiece with London-based instrumentalist Duke Garwood and English electronica outfit Soulsavers, as well as lending his gravelly tones to tracks by UNKLE, Moby, Massive Attack, Tuareg rockers Tinariwen and, most recently, Manic Street Preachers. His final solo album, Straight Songs Of Sorrow, was released in 2020.

Lanegan, who is survived by his second wife Shelley Brien, launched a parallel writing career after another friend, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, encouraged him to write a memoir. The resulting autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, is a candid parade of bleak exploits and dark humour, including an entertaining account of his feud with former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher.

Another book, Devil in a Coma, was published in December 2021, featuring prose and poetry inspired by a grim brush with Covid which rendered him deaf, immobilised and comatose. With characteristic wry understatement, Lanegan ranked it in his top five worst life experiences.

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