Remembering Mark Lanegan, the Fierce Voice of Screaming Trees

Mark Lanegan gripped a microphone stand with intent. He often looked as though he was either holding on for dear life while the music and the various chemicals he had ingested swirled around him, or he was imagining wrapping his hands around the throat and balls of the “ignorant right-wing, white-trash hay farmers and cattlemen” (as he referred to them in his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep) that tormented him as he grew up in Ellensburg, Washington. Sometimes both were true. Just watch the video of his onstage meltdown at the 1992 Roskilde Festival when poor sound and booze pushed Lanegan into the red, leading him to toss a monitor speaker offstage, which destroyed an expensive TV camera. As Dave Grohl put it in the pages of the grunge oral biography Everybody Loves Our Town, “[You] don’t wanna mess with that dude. Give him a microphone, let him sing, then get the fuck out of his way.”

Lots of people gave Lanegan many microphones during his 57 years on this planet. Through them, he found his voice, that voice that cut through every song he lent it to like a burst of blue smoke or the tonic sting of cheap booze. Lanegan spent decades curing his instrument, building up its strength and elasticity through his time fronting Screaming Trees while simultaneously soaking it in cigarettes, alcohol and sundry intoxicants. By the time that band slipped from agit-psychedelia into the meaty blues stomp of their major-label peak, and Lanegan started kicking around the undergrowth of American roots music on his early solo efforts, the voice was nicely weathered beyond its years. It matched the weight of his words, copious with regret, the lure of devils and fools, and deep, unsated hunger.

After the Trees imploded in 2000, Lanegan became the best kind of musical wanderer, fearing no genre, song or collaborator. If any of them resonated, he gave them his all. He was given a second chance to clutch a microphone stand before teeming masses of fans as an auxiliary member of Queens of the Stone Age. He enjoyed serving as the counterpoint to softer voices like Greg Dulli, Martina Topley-Bird and Isobel Campbell. He let electronic producers like Moby, UNKLE and Soulsavers bend their circuits to his frequency. He tried on songs by The xx, Alan Lerner, Leadbelly and Guns ‘N’ Roses. He was equally curious on his own albums, working with trusted collaborators on various shades of seamy rock and darkwave. And with each step he took, Lanegan’s voice became sleeker and more silver.

It seems cosmically unfair that that voice should now be silenced. It, and the person who wielded it so well, seemed unstoppable. Lanegan survived the depths of addiction to heroin and alcohol, which he recounted with unflinching honesty in Sing Backwards. It’s a brutal but bracing read, with Lanegan offering no quarter to any of his former bandmates, collaborators and acquaintances. But the body he most forcefully and repeatedly tosses under the bus is his own. There are few excuses or justifications for his actions. Instead, Lanegan seems ruefully amused that he managed to “go right to the very edge every time” with his drug use when so many of his friends toppled over into sweet oblivion.

More recently, Lanegan somewhat improbably survived a COVID infection that rendered him temporarily deaf, and put him in and out of a coma while every breath he took, as he recounts in his recent book Devil in a Coma, was “met with the unwelcome sensation of being slammed in the chest with a twenty-pound sledgehammer.”

Lanegan was often locked in a kind of devil’s bargain as an artist. Some of his best work came out of his worst moments. His leveled-up vocal performances and shattering lyrics on Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion and Dust arrived through a haze of booze and junk. Digging into the self-torture of his past for Sing Backwards resulted in Straight Songs of Sorrow, a collection of electrified blues and folky pleas for forgiveness and relief.

Lanegan tapped out the poems and reportage that became Devil in a Coma on his smartphone while stuck in the intensive care ward of an Irish hospital. Each segment is a little ball of fire, scorching the edges of each page with anger, bitter humor, disgust (directed entirely at himself), and lots and lots of pain. As he goes on, measures of light start cooling his prose and his spirit. In the final pages of Devil, he’s leaving a hospital in Cork with the right meds and reassurance from the doctor that he’s on the mend. “I got into a cab,” he wrote, “cautiously optimistic that I might finally be on my way towards something resembling freedom.”

Reading that only added to the agony of Lanegan’s passing, as did the recent interviews he gave where he sounded ready to keep moving forward. No cause of death has been revealed, but whatever it was had to be something mighty and powerful if it was able to get Lanegan to finally relinquish his grip on the microphone and this world.

Watch a 2008 Gutter Twins performance from the Paste archives below.