The news that broke yesterday that Mark Lanegan had died hit me pretty hard.
It wasn’t entirely surprising (like Chris Cornell’s death in 2017 was), given that he’d spent much of last year in a coma after apparently contracting COVID. But he seemed, according to reports, to have sufficiently recovered from that ordeal.
Either way, in his death we lose yet another of the unique and powerful voices of that prime 90s generation in alternative music: and, again, too soon. And also one of the more interesting personalities in music.
Lanegan, who was the frontman of the legendary Seattle outfit the Screaming Trees, was one of the handful of truly iconic figures from that music scene and era. And, like two or three of his friends and contemporaries of that time, was a truly extraordinary singer with an incredible voice.
As is said of the likes of Chris Cornell and Layne Staley (both also deceased), there was only one Mark Lanegan: as soon as you heard his voice (especially with all the guest vocals he did with various artists) you knew it was him – you couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.
While Screaming Trees never broke commercially as big as some of those other acts, they were undeniably one of the major entities and sounds of that scene and that time: and Lanegan one of the major frontmen.
To this day, there are Screaming Trees songs that are bouncing through my head two or three times a week: or are constantly in my playlist rotation. Songs like the caustic ‘Black Sun Morning’, the addictive ‘Cold Rain’ (an earlier and less-polished track, but what a tune), or the better-known 1992 single ‘Nearly Lost You’, which was one of MTV’s alternative rock staples during that period (which Lanegan later said he was embarrassed by).
Screaming Trees had one of the best sounds of all: their combined sonic signature was distinctive, as of course was Lanegan’s inimitable vocal.
At the same time, something like ‘Down in the Dark’ (which features Lanegan’s close friend Kurt Cobain on backing vocals) remains one of my all-time favorite jams: a hugely underrated song that should be talked about a lot more. While the legendary vocal performances Lanegan contributed to the seminal 1995 Mad Season album Above have been permanently burnt into my mindscape ever since I first heard those compositions as a teenager.
‘Down in the Dark’ is just simple, straightforward melodic gorgeousness that sounds as ‘grunge’ or as early 90s as anything you could imagine.
While the Mad Season performances are out of this world. I already posted a whole article about that album – and about how that one-time coming together of musicians for that one record represents an extraordinary moment in time.
On two stunning songs – ‘I’m Above’ and ‘Long Gone Day’ – Lanegan joined the late Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley on vocals. The result was magic. Two distinct and powerful vocalists helping set a mesmerising mood and create a timeless musical resonance.
On ‘Long Gone Day’ in particular, in which Lanegan sings most of the verses, the result is incredibly haunting. It is in fact one of the most haunting and moody songs you’ll ever hear: and the live version – captured from the band’s one-and-only ever live performance – is even better than the recorded version.
I said once that, even though those are some of my all-time most cherished pieces of music, I found them hard to listen to after Layne Staley’s tragic death (aged 32). Now that Mark Lanegan has passed away too, I wonder if I’ll be able to listen to them at all. Even more sad to consider, it was the late Chris Cornell who filled in some of these vocal duties for the Mad Season twentieth anniversary concert event a few years ago.
Which just highlights again how many of these great artists and iconic figures from that scene have left us: and how few are left. Every premature loss of one of them feels like a dagger.
Mad Season famously came about when several Seattle-based musicians were in rehab and trying to get themselves out of a downward spiral. Staley tragically died from his heroin addiction seven years later: Lanegan survived, but had to struggle hard for years to get clean. He in fact credited Courtney Love with having ‘saved’ his life when she paid for a year of rehab for him.
Lanegan, who once described Kurt Cobain as his ‘little brother’ but Layne Staley as his ‘twin’, subsequently expressed surprise that he even survived at all when some of his friends and contemporaries didn’t.
Even beyond that specific musical era, Lanegan was a prolific artist. More prolific, probably, than any of his contemporaries: right up until last year he was still recording and performing.
His solo albums earned him a fanbase beyond the grunge era or the Screaming Trees days, and he collaborated with so many other artists over the years that people who’d probably never even heard of Screaming Trees were nevertheless hearing his distinctive and singular voice.
It’s almost easier to list the people he hasn’t collaborated with: but among those various collaborations were the likes of Isobel Campbell, PJ Harvey, Queens of the Stone Age, and recently the Manic Street Preachers. He was in fact the main vocalist for some of Queens of the Stone Age’s best known songs.
I was even nicely surprised when I heard his distinct vocal signatures suddenly with Tinariwen: the Tuareg nomad musical act from Mali. I had started listening to Tinariwen a few years back, and imagine my pleasure when I suddenly heard this familiar, husky vocal emerge in one of their desert tinged recordings and thought ‘wait, is that Mark Lanegan?’ And sure enough, it was. Give it a listen here.
His work with Isobel Campbell over the years has in fact become some of my favorite Mark Lanegan music: though his Whiskey for the Holy Ghost album (way back in the mid 90s) is my favorite Mark Lanegan work outside of the Screaming Trees. Check ‘Hit the City’ (with PJ Harvey as backing vocalist) as a great slice of later era Lanegan material
I’m not sure if any rock artist from that era has left behind so many recordings and so many contributions to other artists’ endeavours.
He really crossed all the divides: and other artists were keen to have his voice on their projects. This situation of becoming known primarily as a collaborator on other people’s projects instead of fronting his own band is one of the things discussed when Lanegan appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s show a few years ago (see here).
Mark Lanegan’s voice is never going to be replicated. No one else sounds like that. There are few artists left either who could write lyrics like his.
He also retained – all the way to his death at the age of 57 – the same persona: and the reputation as a bad-ass who genuinely didn’t give a shit. His recent clash with Oasis, calling Liam Gallagher a ‘fucking idiot’, being a great example. And why would he give a shit? He sung on some of the greatest compositions ever, was part of one of the greatest scenes or eras in music, survived years of drugs and alcohol problems, even homelessness, and the premature deaths of so many of his friends and peers, and survived – against all odds – well into his fifties, still making music.
It always seemed as if he was someone who carried significant demons around with him for many years, which no doubt found its way into a lot of his music. More recently, he admitted in his brutal memoir that, among other things, he felt guilt for the deaths of some of his friends, including both Cobain and Staley, due to their mutual drug taking.
Lanegan lived a rough sort of life, and he had the demeanour and face of someone who’d lived that life. His face and indeed his whole demeanour was of someone whose every line and wrinkle had a story to tell.
As for his actual death itself, as yet no cause of death has been given: most articles say the cause of death is unknown. Which is very similar to what happened with the rapper DMX last year. He had COVID last year: which put him in an induced coma for a long time (he also later said he’d been having constant visions and hallucinations during that time). But COVID isn’t being given as his cause of death. I’m not sure what that means.
Lanegan in fact drew a lot of criticism during the pandemic for expressing mistrust in the mainstream narratives about the virus. However, after contracting COVID himself and almost dying from it, he appeared to change his attitude towards the subject, even saying that he would be keen to get a booster jab as soon as possible.
Whether he got that booster or not is unknown: as is the question of whether he might’ve died from either complications from COVID or from the jab itself.
Either way, it’s a sad day (curiously, he died on 22/02/22) to lose such a unique voice and legendary artist.
Rock n’ roll heaven must be really crowded by now. But some of the collabs going on up there must be out of this world.