Screaming Trees vocalist sings a powerful story
The exoskeleton of Mark Lanegan’s new memoir Sing Backwards and Weep gives it the essential shape of every rock memoir ever written. Outcast kid finds inspiration and a surrogate family amid the music that calls out to him. A bit of commercial success allows him to escape his hardscrabble roots, but substance abuse and artistic differences sabotage the stardom that seems near at hand.
For Lanegan, the moody and volatile singer of pioneering Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees—whose influence on other bands always outstripped their sales—there are two things that set this utterly remarkable memoir apart from the thousand that share its structure.
The first is that Lanegan’s excesses are excessive. The daily search for just enough heroin to get well consumed his every waking moment for a decade to a mindboggling degree, no matter how much danger the drug itself or its pursuit caused him. He describes this pursuit in such brutal detail that at times this reads more like a “scared straight” cautionary tale than the cheeky, winking fake danger one sometimes gets from lesser rockers who, for example, did not have prostitutes living in their electricity-less apartment with them, and where a “long range plan” consisted of jumping out from behind a door to rob one of her customers. It’s a pitiless, unglamorous depiction of a junkie’s life. Lanegan’s astounding memory and refreshing willingness to name names, both for those who he credits with kindness and those who fucked him over, give the book an edge of realness that renders it occasionally difficult to read but even more difficult to put down.
Amid his own struggles, Lanegan opens an insightful window onto the demise of a tragically long roster of friends gone too soon. Lanegan was close to Kurt Cobain. The pair even recorded part of an album together–a collection of Lead Belly songs (one of them, Where Did You Sleep Last Night winded up on Lanegan’s brilliant and beautiful solo album The Winding Sheet). Cobain called Lanegan in desperation shortly before committing suicide. Lanegan let the call go to the answering machine because “a) I had quite a bit of cash at the moment and plenty of dope so the thought of possibly running out to score for him was a drag, and b) I assumed Courtney would be there. … I blew off Kurt because I didn’t feel like playing the pawn in a fucked-up chess game that particular day.”
Kurt called twice more in the next few hours. “Despite the gnawing feeling that I was the world’s shittiest friend, I never picked up, just continued to lie around the place in dirty boxers and the stained robe a stripper girlfriend had left in my bedroom, imagining myself a modern-day Oscar Wilde. Listening to a Stranglers record and staring mindlessly at the silent TV screen, I was oblivious to the gathering storm headed in my direction.” Lanegan and two others eventually go to look for their friend. They visit “every last dealer we could think of” and then head to Cobain’s house near Lake Washington, calling his name from room to room. A couple days later, an electrician found Kurt’s body above his garage, in a little workshop–the one room the guys didn’t check.
There’s Layne Staley, the uniquely gifted vocalist of Alice In Chains, who seems to actually be losing his mind as he descends into the drug abuse that killed him. Same for Jeffrey Lee Pierce, leader of The Gun Club, who calls Lanegan incoherent one week, sounds fine the next, and simply dies a week later. A pattern emerges showing just how closely drug dependency is linked to mental illness. It’s hard to tell whether the drugs serve as medication for the suffering these brilliant performers are already enduring or whether the substances are making the problems far worse, or both. It doesn’t really matter: They’re not getting the help they need, and it ends badly for the performers and everyone who loves them.
The second element that lifts this memoir above the pack is even rarer than its brave frankness. Lanegan is just a really, really good writer. For someone with such a distinctive and powerful singing voice, it’s perhaps not surprising that his prose carries such a strong signature. What’s more shocking is the beauty and power of his language. That was never hinted at amid the uneven catalog of Screaming Trees, where even as Lanegan was the engine of the band, the gigantic Conner Brothers on bass and guitar were the primary songwriters.
Lanegan’s solo albums do hint at this dark reservoir of power. But to my ears, he’s never recorded an album that fully showcases the electricity of the writing he captures in this book.
Ultimately, there’s a voyeuristic quality to any rock memoir. The stories of Courtney Love coming by in hopes of a fix and maybe a lay (and also her kindness in providing the resources to help get him clean). Johnny Cash providing fun and funny encouragement. Alice’s musical architect Jerry Cantrell helping himself to Lanegan’s 100-lb box of porn. And Lanegan’s near decapitation of Sub Pop honcho Bruce Pavitt, who misled him about using a particular photograph for the cover of Winding Sheet. (Pavitt comes in for some rough treatment as a poseur, but he was right about that album cover cuz the shot is alarmingly handsome.)
Lanegan’s tough upbringing in small-town eastern Washington, which in his description is indistinguishable from the Appalachians or the Ozarks, leaves him ready to settle just about any disagreement with his fists. When singer Liam Gallagher busts Lanegan’s balls by referring to his band as Howling Branches, one immediately understands the difference between a loudmouth and an actual tough guy. Had Gallagher not been surrounded by a couple of “hold me back” goons, it’s easy to picture a Lanegan punch to the throat spelling the end of Oasis. The feud persists to this day.
But the proof of what a shockingly excellent pure writer Lanegan is comes in the way the reader doesn’t experience the long passages detailing the downward spiral into addiction as a drag or even a digression. They’re critical to understanding the mindset of someone who’s devoted his life to succeeding, only to have drugs undo that lifetime of effort.
This writer’s signature is his brutal honesty throughout. Lee Connor, the mercurial 300-lb guitarist and co-founder of the Trees, has taken exception to Lanegan’s unsparing portrayal. One can see why:
“It was a constant battle just to keep [Lee] from soloing from start to finish through every song and then demanding his shrill, atonal, uninteresting playing be the loudest thing in the mix. It often seemed like the bulk of the band’s creative energy was devoted solely to tamping down Lee’s worst narcissistic impulses. I privately thought of Lee as a copycat revisionist of the cheesiest kind, his entire persona and songwriting style a cornball expression of the terrible 60s garage band revival briefly popular in the 80s.”
I suppose it’s not pleasant to see your former bandmate and friend delight in the time you were electrocuted or the thousand times your brother drew you sodomizing a goat. But the fact that Lanegan is equally critical of himself and of everyone he loves makes that kind of detail more bearable, at least to me. “Our records were a shitty mishmash of half-baked ideas and catchy tunes derailed by the stupidest of lyrics. … I longed to make music that could be taken seriously, music that I could take seriously, instead of just the tall dumbass singing on the same stage as the lunatic, Falstaffian guitar player.” It’s insightful rock criticism, but also beautiful writing.
(One tiny correction. Lanegan describes Van Connor’s 16-year-old wife screaming in front of Van at every Trees show “as though we were the Beatles at Yankee Stadium.” This Mets fan cannot let that go unchallenged, because of course the Beatles played at Shea Stadium but never appeared at Yankee Stadium.)
Sing Backwards and Weep is a gorgeous read, but fans should strongly consider the audio version. Lanegan’s narration injects the story with an unmistakable authenticity. The reader just plain believes the painful stories about his mother’s cruelty and his insane run-ins with a rip-off drug dealer in Amsterdam because of that voice, that gargling-gravel-with-kerosene voice. And there are endearing moments, as well. He pronounces formally as “formerly” and even drops a couple instances of “supposably.”
Meanwhile, the early history of the Trees serves as a primer for how Seattle became Seattle. One night, Lanegan masturbates in the yard of his ex-girlfriend while peeping through her curtains as she gets with her new beau. As one apparently does in small-town Washington. He then ducks into the Ellensburg Public Library to catch a few local bands. He’s immediately enchanted with the giant bass player of the three-piece band that closes the night. A couple days later, that fellow calls Lanegan and offers to replace Van Conner, who’d temporarily quit the Trees because they were all annoyed at his screaming wife.
“Krist Novoselic here, I play bass in Nirvana. Are you still looking for a bass player? I can’t stand playing with Kurt anymore. I’m sick of everything always having to be his way.” Lanegan tells him they are indeed still in need of a bassist, “But if I were you, I’d get past your problems with Kurt and make it work. You guys got something special there.”