Mark Lanegan – You might as well live
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…”?