Mark Lanegan, co-founder of grunge pioneers Screaming Trees who overcame his demons to forge a successful solo career – obituary

Mark Lanegan in 1993 - John Atashian/Getty Images
Mark Lanegan in 1993 - John Atashian/Getty Images

Mark Lanegan, who has died of as yet unknown causes aged 57, was a singer and songwriter who sprang from the Seattle grunge scene that spawned Nirvana; he found fame with his band the Screaming Trees, and later with Queens of the Stone Age, but he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, although by the end of his life he had been sober for more than a decade.

His raw yet tender and melancholic voice conveyed his inner turmoil, ranging from a rumbling baritone to a full-blooded howl, like Tom Waits crossed with Kurt Cobain. But until he kicked his habits he was in the deadly grip of pharmaceuticals. “I would have climbed Mount Everest for drugs,” he recalled.

Mark William Lanegan was born on November 25 1964 at Ellensburg, Washington, into a family of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh descent; his mother was abusive, his father a drunk, he recalled. Mark himself was effectively an alcoholic by the age of 12, and spent his teens in and out of jail for theft and drug offences.

Aged 20, he nearly died in a road accident involving a tractor, and was told by a doctor that he would not live to see 30 unless he stopped drinking. Of his heroin use, he later remarked, “I know this is not a PC, kosher thing to say but for me, it was a way that I stopped drinking.”

Screaming Trees' debut album
Screaming Trees' debut album

In 1984 he formed Screaming Trees with the brothers Van and Gary Lee Conner, for whose parents he was working, repossessing televisions from trailer park residents. The band went on to become an intrinsic part of the grunge scene as it spread out of Seattle to centre stage in the world of pop and rock music, alongside bands like Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana.

Screaming Trees released their first album, Clairvoyance, in 1986, and an album a year followed, critically acclaimed though without the corresponding sales. But for Lanegan it was a bitter, painful experience as he clashed with Gary Lee Conner over the band’s direction while grappling with his own penchant for self-destruction.

On tour in 1992, his arm was so badly infected from his heroin injections that doctors considered amputation. “The reason I was loaded 24/7 was because it was unbearable being in that f------ band,” he told Rolling Stone in 2020.

His close friend Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994, and Lanegan was consumed by guilt, having supplied heroin to the Nirvana frontman and then ignored his phone calls in the days and hours before his suicide. Lanegan’s own drug consumption soared, and in 1997, a year after the Screaming Trees’ final album as a working unit, Dust, he was arrested for possessing crack cocaine, and was homeless for a while.

Lanegan's memoir was described in the Telegraph as 'the most brutally honest rock memoir imaginable'
Lanegan's memoir was described in the Telegraph as 'the most brutally honest rock memoir imaginable'

He went into rehab (paid for by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, who told him, “Kurt loved you as a big brother and would have wanted you to live”), and while in a halfway house he took a call from Josh Homme, leader of Queens of the Stone Age. He joined their ever-shifting line-up, going on to make several albums and tour with the band, who he described as “essentially my best friends”.

There were other fruitful collaborations, with artists as varied as PJ Harvey, Tinariwen, from Mali, the guitarist Slash, and most notably with Isobel Campbell of the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. They released an acclaimed trio of bittersweet, folk- and blues-accented albums, the first of which, Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006), was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

Encouraged by his friend, the chef Anthony Bourdain, in 2020 Lanegan published an autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep – described in the Telegraph as “the most brutally honest rock memoir imaginable” – and the following year came Devil in a Coma, about his protracted struggle with Covid-19: for a time he was deaf, unable to walk and was in a coma for weeks.

Mark Lanegan married, firstly, the singer-songwriter Wendy Rae Fowler, and he is survived by his second wife, Shelley Brien, with whom he moved to Killarney, Co Kerry, in 2020.

Mark Lanegan, born November 25 1964, died February 22 2022