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.