Mark Lanegan defied darkness to become one of his generation’s most soulful singers

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Once primed to self-destruct, Lanegan found salvation and creative freedom in collaborations that brought out the nuances of his uniquely dignified voice

Mark Lanegan: Screaming Trees singer dies at 57

Mark Lanegan, who died on Tuesday morning at the age of 57, was perhaps the greatest singer of his generation. His remarkable gift was apparent from his earliest work with Screaming Trees: a worn, soulful burr betraying heavy emotional and physical mileage, but possessed of considerable dignity, vulnerability and heroism.

It only deepened as he pursued a lauded solo career, served as floating vocalist-in-residence with Queens of the Stone Age and engaged in collaborations with artists including Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli, Martina Topley-Bird and Manic Street Preachers. A drug user and alcoholic for many years, Lanegan wove his agonising struggle with addiction into a grim, gripping memoir, 2020’s remarkably frank Sing Backwards and Weep, at the insistence of his late friend Anthony Bourdain. His 2021 bout of Covid-19 – which left him hospitalised for weeks – yielded a further tome, Devil in a Coma, published in December.

The widespread acclaim Lanegan enjoyed through the latter half of his career seemed unimaginable during the years he toiled with Screaming Trees. Lanegan first met the group’s founders, brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner, in the early 80s while working for their parents, repossessing televisions from trailer park residents in his home town of Ellensburg, Washington. Signed to legendary underground label SST Records, and releasing several overlooked, undersold albums throughout the decade, Screaming Trees was fractious from the out, Lanegan resenting guitarist Gary Lee’s creative control of their output and penchant for acid-rock written in a register higher than Lanegan could comfortably sing.

Screaming Trees, with Mark Lanegan left, in London, 1989.
Screaming Trees, with Mark Lanegan left, in London in 1989. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Lanegan wrested control for Sweet Oblivion, the Trees’ second album for Epic Records, penning the lyrics and singing them in the forbidding baritone that he’d begun developing on tracks such as Grey Diamond Desert from 1988’s Invisible Lantern, and that became his trademark. Sweet Oblivion arrived in 1992, just as the underground scene of the Pacific north-west suddenly went overground, thanks to the success of groups including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. These groups were Lanegan’s friends – “Kurt [Cobain] was like a little brother, [Alice in Chains frontman] Layne Staley was like a twin,” Lanegan told Spin last year – and Screaming Trees were tipped for similar stardom.

But while Sweet Oblivion and its 1996 follow-up Dust were majestic records, matching the intensity of Lanegan’s vocals to high-impact heavy rock (grunge never burned with such eloquent, self-lacerating regret as on No One Knows) Screaming Trees seemed doomed by both their in-fighting and Lanegan’s snowballing taste for self-destruction. A fractious 1996 stint supporting Oasis on a high-profile US tour saw Lanegan tangle backstage with Liam Gallagher, an encounter recounted with scathing hilarity in Sing Backwards and Weep. Another Trees tour the following year was sidelined after Lanegan was arrested for possession of crack cocaine, a crack-pipe and a hypodermic needle. Dust was the final album the group would release in its lifetime.

Lanegan had been boozing since he was 12 years old, and a doctor had told him at the age of 20 that he wouldn’t live to see another decade if he didn’t quit drinking; he initially turned to heroin “to save me from becoming an alcoholic”. His memoir offers harrowing accounts of the depths to which his addictions pushed him, ruining friendships and debasing himself physically and mentally in pursuit of a fix. His substance abuse accelerated following Cobain’s death, as Lanegan struggled with his guilt over scoring heroin for the Nirvana frontman and ignoring his phone calls in the days before his suicide.

The intervention of Cobain’s widow Courtney Love – who once described Lanegan as “Seattle’s Nick Cave” and paid for him to enter rehab – helped save his life. “It was the end of a nightmare that had lasted for years and years,” he told me in 2004. “Nobody likes to believe they need anybody’s help in anything, and the smarter you are – and I’m not smart – or the tougher you are – and I thought I was pretty tough – the more trouble you have. The smartest guys I ever met are not around any more because they thought they could think their way out of an unthinkable situation, and the tough guys have to just be beaten up repeatedly. And some guys just never do make it out.”

While living in a post-rehab halfway house, Lanegan recorded Scraps at Midnight, the third in a series of dark, mature solo albums he’d begun with 1990’s The Winding Sheet (on which he’d been backed by Nirvana for a chilling cover of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night, years before Cobain’s own MTV Unplugged version). On these early solo records, Lanegan channelled his love for folk, country and blues, drawing inspiration from Van Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, and showcasing a complexity that had been overshadowed by the Conner brothers’ guitar heroics.

He was at the halfway house when Josh Homme, who’d played second guitar on the final Screaming Trees tours, approached him to join his new band, Queens of the Stone Age. He had to turn the offer down, but later stepped aboard Homme’s unruly alt-rock pirate ship for their 2000 breakthrough Rated R, his weighty growl grounding the album’s abundant debauchery on comedown blues Into the Fade, and delivering highlights of 2002 follow-up Songs for the Deaf like the doomy thrash of Song for the Dead. While he subsequently exited the core group, he remained a member-at-large, guesting on later albums.

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.
Lanegan with Isobel Campbell. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Related: ‘This thing was trying to dismantle me’: Mark Lanegan on nearly dying of Covid

With his solo work showcasing his skills as a singer and songwriter, and QOTSA scoring commercial success he’d never previously tasted, Lanegan cut loose over the last two decades of his life. He was prolific like never before, and shared his gifts with a list of collaborators both inspired and unexpected. With Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell, he cut three albums that brilliantly inverted the paradigm set by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra decades earlier (“I write the songs and he’s the eye-candy,” Campbell told me. “Sometimes, we’ll be on stage, and he’s singing The Circus Is Leaving Town, and it sounds so sad, so true, I want to cry”). With longtime friend and kindred spirit Greg Dulli, he recorded a sublime album of soulful regret as the Gutter Twins. He worked alongside PJ Harvey and Slash, and undertook projects with lesser-known talents including Duke Garwood, Soulsavers and Joe Cardamone. His energy was fearsome, his approach fearless; his later albums embraced electronic music (2012’s Blues Funeral) and icy post-punk (2019’s Somebody’s Knocking), his final album, 2020’s Straight Songs of Sorrow, inspired by the experience of writing his memoir.

Fifty-seven is no age to die, especially for a man with a voice that promised only to grow richer and more variegated with age, a voice that had earned a place alongside greats such as his beloved Johnny Cash. He’d outlived so many of his friends – Cobain, Staley, Bourdain – which is a curse all its own. But in those years his doctor had said he’d never get to taste, he created some of the greatest music of his career, found love with his second wife, Shelley Brien, located a unique voice as a prose writer, and lived long enough for his gifts to be recognised. “I feel that the fellas and myself didn’t get our due,” he told me in 2004, the ignominy suffered by Screaming Trees clearly still painful. Eighteen years later, Lanegan was finally accruing those dues, and it’s a tragedy his story ends so soon.