The prolific pioneer of grunge and alternative music died suddenly at the age of 57
Photo credit Steven Friederich
Music is the greatest giver of gifts we have. There are those who sing and give pleasure to our ears for a lifetime. Then there are the rare few, whose voices come from a place the rest of us cannot reach and land squarely in that hole where our gut, soul, and heart converge to create that small space where certain emotions live. That's exactly where Mark Lanegan resides in anyone who's welcomed him in.
On February 22, 2022, the world lost Mark Lanegan at just 57-years-old. The co-founder and lead singer of one of the first Seattle bands to bring grunge/alternative music to the masses, Screaming Trees, had a career most musicians could only dream of.
In addition to his groundbreaking work with the Trees, Lanegan, born on November 25th, 1964 in Ellensburg, Washington, has worked with some of the biggest artists in rock. His collaborations include Kurt Cobain, Queens of The Stone Age, PJ Harvey, Duff McKagan, Mad Season, The Breeders, Isobel Campbell, and others.
More than a musician, later on in his life, Lanegan became an accomplished author with five titles to his credit. One, in particular, Sing Backwards and Weep, is one of the most honest, raw, and heart-wrenching stories of someone's life you'll ever read. Its companion album, Straight Songs Of Sorrow, is one of the most beautiful, dark and textured records I've ever heard. Lanegan could never be accused of walking the straight and narrow. He had demons shadowing him his entire life. From his troubled childhood with an abusive mother, alcoholic, and gambling-addicted father, it's no surprise his life went off the rails by the ripe old age of 12.
Drugs, drinking, crime, stints in jail, and an overall directionless life seemed to be his lot. Music saved him and by 1984 he'd begun what would become a storied, eclectic, and influential career in music. This isn't to say his demons disappeared for good because they did not. Not one to run from anything though, Mark would battle and fight to get his life back every time he started losing his grip. He made no excuses and told his story honestly, never blaming others.
We all have our scars and faults. Folks everywhere have fallen in or are constantly trying to avoid trauma, self-destruction, and just plain bad luck. This wasn't unique to Mark Lanegan. What was decidedly unique to him though was his talent. As a singer and songwriter, Lanegan had the unusual ability to create music that touched nerves we didn't know we had. If you only know him from Screaming Trees or QOTSA, you'll hear a great rock vocalist with a power and beauty in his voice that immediately stands out. It's in his solo work however that his gifts are most evident.
Albums like the aforementioned Straight Songs Of Sorrow, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Scraps at Midnight, and Bubblegum are just masterpieces of introspection. Lanegan's subdued gravel and quiet destruction floor you with each passing track. His ability to get inside and behind those places where most musicians can't is uncanny. It can be uncomfortably beautiful yet as necessary as the air we breathe.
"Nothin' good is sustained, I gladly accept the blame But all my words won't add up to a dollar Yes, my all words won't add up to a dollar
Love me, don't say that you love me Nobody has ever loved me yet, pretty baby Cryin', quit your cryin' I have ten thousand tears that you can borrow
Skeleton key, bent and rusted
As broken as the heart the dirt has eaten
Love me, don't pretend to love me
I've lost enough to know when I am beaten
I've lost enough to know when I've beaten
I've lost enough to know when I've been beaten
Yes, I have lost enough to know when I've been beaten"
Lyrics like these, from the song "Skeleton Key", hits you in the face even without hearing the desperation in the music playing underneath.
Upon hearing the shocking news of Mark Lanegan's death yesterday, I immediately did what I do when I need to feel something, I listened to music. I listened to Mark's music. I took a trip throughout his career, weaving in and out of solo material, Screaming Trees, collaborations, The Gutter Twins, Queens Of The Stone Age, and so on. I'm not sure why this is, but the darker the music, the more difficult the lyrical content, the better it makes me feel. Some may see that as negative or depressing. While those elements absolutely exist, I tend to look at them a bit differently. I hear honesty, introspection, self-realization, and sincerity. I hear truth.
Due to the invention and innovation of recorded music, we can take Mark Lanegan's songs with us wherever we go, even if Mark can no longer join us. There's solace in that. The loss of life is always most difficult on the family and friends left behind. When it's a public figure, there's an extra element to this. In the case of musicians, the fans are added to the list of those who grieve.
I was thinking about this in a broader sense yesterday. Mark Lanegan represents a period of time for me and I'd imagine many of you reading this as well, that is sacred. Those early days of discovering this new and exciting genre of music in the late 80s/early 90s will always hold a special place in my heart. Even for the casual music fan, what became known as "grunge", has its most popular figures whose bands and names almost everyone knows. With Lanegan's untimely death, the losses from those bands are sobering.
Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam are the bands most would recognize as the godfathers of the Seattle scene. Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder are the only frontmen left.
RIP in peace Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Chris Cornell, and now, unfortunately, Mark Lanegan.