Mark Lanegan died this week.
I’m not generally someone who gets upset about dead celebrities, even those whose work has meant a lot to me. I remember when Kurt Cobain died. I think there’s little argument that Kurt was the voice of my generation, or at least my segment of Generation X, and the ripples from his suicide caused lasting damage to a part of culture that I still hold dear. But at the time, I wasn’t particularly upset. It was a shock, but not in any way a surprise, given that he had only recently survived an illness, an overdose and a suicide attempt. It was sad to see him go but I didn’t think about it too much.
I remember when Layne Staley died. I didn’t know his music as well as the other big grunge bands, because for some reason they got less radio play here. But even so, not especially unexpected. Scott Weiland, almost 20 years later… well, I think everyone knew he was on borrowed time.
I was upset when Chris Cornell died five years ago. Soundgarden had always been my favourite of the big grunge bands and more than any of the others, I really felt their music. Outshined, Burden in the Hand, and Limo Wreck really felt like a part of the soundtrack of my own life. Cornell, I believed, was healthy and well-adjusted and, if anything, a bit too proud to go out the way that he did, so that was a nasty surprise.
But Mark Lanegan on the crow road, here in 2022? That has really shaken me.
I came to like Lanegan’s music slowly. The Screaming Trees received zero radio play in Australia, that I can recall, but for a brief time we had cable TV in my house and the Trees’ song, All I know was on high rotation on Channel V. It quickly became a favourite. I heard and enjoyed Nearly Lost You a few times also, but it was from their previous album and I’d skipped the movie Singles, on whose soundtrack it appeared.
A few years later, after the band had busted up, I picked up a copy of Dust, and was surprised to find that, I grew to like the quieter songs better than the songs I’d bought it for. Dying Days, Traveler, Dime Western. Those songs stayed with me. A few years later, when iTunes was a thing, I saw Lanegan had some new solo work out. I picked up the song Skeletal History first, and then the rest of Here Comes that Weird Chill EP. Those songs were like those Trees songs I enjoyed best, but darker and bluesier and more personal. Less produced-sounding, and dripping with pain and sorrow. I snaffled up Bubblegum immediately, and then its predecessor, Field Songs.
Grunge was important to me when I was a teenager and through my early twenties, when I was angry and young and directionless and frustrated. But I was a bit older now. I was far from home, lonely and disappointed and, if not defeated, I’d taken some body blows and was reeling on my feet. Unhappy, drinking more than ever before (or since), and, I think, finally starting to understand a bit about how the world worked. I grew out of grunge slowly, but I grew into Mark Lanegan’s work.
This concert poster hangs in my office. It was a gift from someone I didn’t know very well, but I think who knew me better than I did myself.
I didn’t go to the show in question–I saw Lanegan perform only once or twice. The first was with the Queens of the Stone Age in, I think 2001, and then in 2016 when he toured Australia with his own band. Solo, he was every bit as strange and intense as I could have hoped. An amazing singer but with no apparent desire to be a frontman, we was all business on stage–no banter, just the music.
Lanegan published a volume of autobiography in 2020, Sing Backwards and Weep. I’m not a huge one for drug memoirs but I devoured it. What struck me was how strong he was. No matter the punishment he put himself through, he got up again and went for another round. The volume ends with him finally getting clean. He dropped another volume last year, which I haven’t read yet called Devil in a Coma, about how he almost died from Covid. After surviving that, I thought he was unkillable. But I guess not.
Mark Lanegan made a lot of great music over and above that. His duets with Isobelle Campbell, his third of the Queens of the Stone Age vox, hius work with Greg Dulli. But the more I learned about him, the more obvious it became that he was a solitary person, and I like his solo work best. I still listen to it regularly. On headphones, when I get some alone time. I always prefer to be alone with that voice.
Field Song is one of my favourite of his songs: a weary rural idyll, a final acceptance of life and love–completed by a guitar freak-out that chills me every time. I can’t think of a better farewell.