Mark Lanegan: You Might As Well Live
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
— Dorothy Parker, “Resume”
The fingernails by which Mark Lanegan has been hanging these last few years — maybe his whole life — have been gnawed to the quick, and the hands themselves worked hard. He is dressed all in black, even to the knit cap that covers his rough-cut hair. Unable to find a key to anything more than the battered pickup he’s driving, we walk around the side of Barrett Martin’s Seattle home and settle on the back porch. The air is clear and sharp with the final edge of winter. Puget Sound sparkles blue and, beyond, the Olympic Mountains rise toward the midday sun, all old rock and glistening snow.
It is a good day to be alive.
Mark’s still wrestling with that.
This is tangled up in too many threads, and there’s no easy way to unravel them.
Mark Lanegan is lead singer for the Screaming Trees (Martin is his drummer), a quartet first formed in Ellensburg, Washington, in 1984. The Trees recorded a fistful of fine, dense, dreamily psychedelic albums for SST, equal parts punk Love and Lee Hazlewood, back before grunge.
An old wound, that. Wasn’t supposed to hurt. Wasn’t even supposed to happen, really.
It is hard, today, to summon even the memory of the exultation that infused Seattle in 1991, but there was once magic in my old hometown. Discredited now, but what a marvel to have watched grow, to have lived through. In the end, commerce overwhelmed genius — it always seems to — and those first fragmentary ideas became codified, another rigid corpse on radio. And the toll of drugs.
But first grunge swept up every good and not so good act in Seattle. Screaming Trees (not quite a Seattle band, but, then, neither was Nirvana…) signed to Epic, for whom they cut three albums. The one in the middle, Sweet Oblivion, the one that had the hit single from the Singles soundtrack (“Nearly Lost You”), almost went gold.
Along the way, Lanegan, who had come slowly into the idea that he might be a singer of some merit, recorded two solo albums for Sub Pop: 1989’s The Winding Sheet and 1993’s Whiskey For The Holy Ghost. A third, Scraps At Midnight (also on Sub Pop), is set for release July 28.
They are extraordinary, those records.
How to explain the rest?
Some nights one stares too long in the mirror. If there is a bottle open, and one of Lanegan’s albums should spring to hand…
Some nights it is good to cry, but not too much.
Certain voices — Blind Willie Johnson, Hank Williams, Ira Louvin — are best savored amid that four-in-the-morning solitude. Lanegan’s is like that, though his is a very private moan, a quiet, lonely sound, the dry, deep voice of hope eroded by folly.
But it is quite one thing to sit on this side of the speakers, stare into that mirror, empty that bottle. One visits, then. Is a voyeur, perhaps. Living there, that’s different.
Kurt Cobain, with whom Lanegan learned Lead Belly’s “In The Pines” in a garage in Olympia, long before anyone dreamt it might matter — Kurt killed himself. (And he did, never mind the rumors; the medical examiner had booked one of Nirvana’s first Seattle shows.)
It casts a pall.
Two years ago, Screaming Trees released what would be their final album for Epic; the contract was officially severed this May. Dust was a painful mess, and sold poorly. Lanegan was a painful mess and, one heard through the grapevine, sold pretty much everything he owned.
We did a short interview in his apartment that April, sat in his small living room, heat on ten, Lanegan complaining of a migraine, his deep, raspy voice barely above a whisper, a Kurosawa video running silent on the TV, Coltrane CDs on the table, Lanegan rail thin, his eyes pinned. Smacked. After, he swept up some loose bills and asked for a ride to the cash machine. Once outside, he changed his mind. Maybe the borrowed Volvo station wagon didn’t belong in the neighborhood he wished to visit; perhaps he simply took pity on the visiting writer.
It seemed like an end, and a hard goodbye.
This was about the time friends began to speak of the teenagers they were meeting who had moved to Seattle to become heroin addicts. Some of them hung out in the coffee shop up the street from my old neighborhood, nodding out over lattes. It is hard to write about. Those were not the chords the music had played in my heart, but one never knows how words and sounds will be heard by others. Nor how they’re meant, in the end.
So I started this damn country magazine…
Memory heaps too much dirt upon Scraps At Midnight. It is largely a celebration — however muted — of life, of rebirth. Of survival. At some point Lanegan moved to Los Angeles, and there began the difficult, uneasily guided path back.
Difficult. “Hospital Roll Call” opens his third solo album, just one word carrying the three-minute song, that one word and a moan: “Sixteen.” And in that single word he conveys everything.
“One time I was in a hospital in Quebec,” Lanegan explains, smoking methodically. “A French-speaking hospital. For eight or nine days, in the hallway. Socialized medicine. I was just on a gurney, lined up against the wall, with just a number above my head. So I was ’16.'”
He pauses, offers a slight, self-effacing grin.
“Another way to get a song without any words.” As if he added “sixteen” to an instrumental just to meet his publishing requirements.
As Steve Earle has been fond of saying of his own recovery, Lanegan’s not that well yet. Not well enough to accept the promise of his own art, nor its standing, nor its significance. Not well enough yet to forgive himself for trading it so cheaply.
Back in 1996, Lanegan spoke of writing songs with the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce, a few weeks before Pierce died, and of plans for the next solo record. “Yeah, I recorded a whole record, actually,” he says, acknowledging that, as so many times before, he discarded the results. The Trees, too, have recorded entire albums (including their first stab at Dirt) that have never made it past the studio door. Lanegan has walked away from at least that many solo efforts. Indeed, he almost threw the tapes for Whiskey into the river in frustration.
For most of his career, this has been a measure of how hard he drove himself, how uncertain he was. Later he took to recording demos as a hustle to extract money from his record labels.
And then even that stopped.
“I didn’t write anything for like two years,” he says, eyes clear and fixed on the mountains, or the ships sailing. “I didn’t listen to music at all, or pick up a guitar. Not that I had any.”
Scraps At Midnight, recorded like its predecessors in collaboration with guitarist Mike Johnson (ex-Dinosaur Jr., and a solo artist in his own right), took a month, all told. Maybe less. “I’m a little less insane these days,” he offers. “It’s easier. I’m not willing to make it hard. I just care a lot less about records than I used to. I don’t think you have to be obsessed and out of your mind to make something good. I’m more into the idea of doing it and going home. I tried to do it differently, and it worked. I wrote the lyrics right before I sang ’em; the first time I sang ’em was on the mike in the studio.”
Though Scraps At Midnight begins in that Quebec corridor, it is principally a meditation on what to do with a life one hadn’t planned to live. “Something has badly gone wrong with me/Living’s not hard, it’s just not easy,” he sings in “Stay,” and even that seems a revelation to the singer.
“It’s such a surprise and shock to even be present. I didn’t think I would be,” Lanegan says, a weary flatness in his voice. “I was pretty sick. It’s been 18 years on and off for me, since I was a kid. I had like a seven-year stretch where I was OK, but you get to a point where, fuck, I can’t stop. And it’s misery. And you just give up, give up. I gave up a long time ago, thinking that I would have some sort of normal, substance-free existence. So it was a big surprise when I didn’t go.”
And so the negotiations of peace begin. “I never understood [life], but now I think I do a little more,” he says. “You just have to be part of this whole thing, and I never, at the most basic level, had any understanding of what was the point of being here. I don’t understand this entire deal, I’m not part of it, I don’t want to be, because I don’t understand it. I’m not afraid of it, that’s the way I look at it now. It’s a lot easier for me to sleep.”
Another glimpse: “Oh, I remember your voice/Turning around and around and around in my head/Now it’s just like you said/Everything inside is dead,” he sings in “Hotel.” One suspects he is, at least in part, singing to Cobain.
“I don’t know, man, because sometimes I have specific people in mind. ‘Last One In The World’, I had a specific person in mind. But, you know, that stuff is always there. If you love somebody it’s always in mind. I think about him all the time, so…that’s the way it is. But usually, uh, I have somebody who’s still alive in mind,” and he vents a short laugh.
But, “Now it’s just like you said…”?
He pauses, sorting words. “That was actually something that somebody else said to me, specifically. What can you do? I spent a lot of time dwelling on that kind of shit, you know. Not intentionally, but you just can’t help it. If you live in a constant state of dread, sorry about something that already happened, for me, eventually I gotta do something to get rid of that feeling. And that’s where my more unwholesome appetites come into play, because then I don’t have to think about anything.”
Sober today, Lanegan has been sober before. Still, this seems a last chance (“It can be worse next time, although that’s really unimaginable”), and, like Steve Earle, he seems emboldened with a certain urgency to take advantage. Notoriously uncomfortable singing in public (“I really like singing, but I’d rather do it by myself”), he has embraced the idea of touring with Tuatara. Trees drummer Barrett Martin anchors the largely improvisational ensemble whose members include R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. He will replace Mark Eitzel, another happy-go-lucky singer.
“I would only stop long enough to get work done,” he says, doubtless not remembering that the first time we formally spoke, in 1993, he was eating his first solid food after days of private detox. (Actually, we first spoke shortly after The Winding Sheet came out, though he managed but one word in two hours: “No,” when asked if he would tour behind his solo album.)
“I guess I did a lot of work when I was drinking and stuff like that. [I would quit] drugs … when I had to work, I mean, actually make records. And then usually not make it all the way through, but try to. It would change my voice, too. Some records my voice is really high and not powerful. That’s from drugs. Normally I have a little control over my two-octave range,” and he finishes another thought with that short laugh.
That two-octave range won’t explain his tender, caressing reading of “She’s Not For You” on the Twisted Willie album. Eyes closed, he stood front and center in a small, wooden studio, Martin playing upright bass, Mudhoney’s Dan Peters trying hard to muffle his drums. Wan and worn, he gave what he had; not having much was perfect, that day, for that song.
The politics of not dancing. Catharsis. There is solace, alone those late nights, in knowing one is not…quite…alone. It may seem odd to have that solitude broken — held, comforted, shared — by a stranger’s voice through the speakers, but there it is. (How else to explain infomercials?)
That voice, Lanegan’s voice often enough, burnishes that spot, polishes those nerves. “For me,” he says, “listening to sad songs doesn’t make me feel bad. It makes me feel good, so I have to look at it from that angle. I think that works for some people.”
Sometimes it does.
Sometimes it doesn’t, even for the singer. “After the last one, I just felt like it was so negative, and I just felt for a long time, why make music? Because my whole being was so negative; that’s all I was to everybody that I was around. I thought, shit, I’m just projecting this intense negativity onto the ten people who buy these records. And then I decided I don’t even want to make ’em, it’s all so depressing.”
Lanegan will tell you he sings to meet girls, because it’s easier than working, because he’s unqualified to do anything else. And that singing saved his life. He believes all those things, perhaps equally.
“This is cliche and stupid, but I know I wouldn’t even be around [without the Trees]. I mean, [Trees guitarist] Lee Conner taught me how to sing, line by line. I was homeless at 20, the first go-round, and just out of jail, and those guys were kids who went to church school and didn’t swear. And they gave me a place to live, gave me a job repossessing appliances. I don’t think music would have been what I would have chosen. I didn’t realize that the thing I heard my entire life was really music. But there was always something there. And it was a relief to find out that’s what it was. And to have these guys who, for whatever reason, really, wanted me around.”
Now 33 and living in a friend’s Los Angeles art studio, Lanegan for the first time faces the odd question of what to do with the rest of a life he has only lately come to value. “Here I am, still hanging on. Hello,” he sings on “Wheels,” the album’s centerpiece. Mike Stinette’s saxophone winds gently around his voice: “You’ve got to walk in the morning sun, and got to smile with everyone.”
“I thought, if there’s a point in being here, I guess I’ll make records. I’m going to try, in whatever way I can, to make it a little more positive,” and here he offers that brief laugh for proof. “I hope it comes across. But I can’t really consciously try and make something positive, either; otherwise it’s just ridiculous. I played it for my sister, and it made her cry. And I thought, shit, here we go again. But she said they were good tears.”
No Depression co-editor Grant Alden was managing editor of The Rocket in Seattle from 1989-1994. He never met Kurt Cobain, nor Eddie Vedder.