For a quarter of a century now, Mark Lanegan has been running away from his past.
From the mid-Eighties until 2000, he fronted Screaming Trees, a hard rocking, neo-psychedelic band that got swept up in the major labels’ Seattle-grunge gold rush and crossed over into the mainstream with “Nearly Lost You.” Along the way, Lanegan befriended Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, recorded with the supergroup Mad Season, and launched a solo career playing bluesy, rootsy rock that was more melancholy and brooding than the output of his grungy peers. He’s always had a deep, husky, world-weary voice and unpredictable onstage presence that made him one of the most formidable frontmen to emerge from the Emerald City. At the same time, he also nursed addictions to heroin, crack, and sex — vices that led him into homelessness and almost to an early grave.
After Cobain died in 1994, Lanegan tried to separate himself from his origins, focusing more on his solo music, and downplaying his place in the dynasty of grunge. “You guys, Rolling Stone, have called me on the anniversary of this or that and asked for a quote, and I almost always pass,” Lanegan says at one point during a nearly two-and-a-half–hour interview. “To continue on in music, I had to distance myself from the whole Seattle thing. I had to keep it at arm’s length to avoid being known as this ex-grunge, drug-addict singer who never made it.”
Now, he’s finally looking back. In a gritty new memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, Lanegan offers an unflinching look at his shadowy past, stretching from childhood up until the death of his friend Staley in 2002. The book reads like a debauched Bukowski novel, as Lanegan drifts from sin to sin, cursing those who held him back from music, drugs, and hookups, and recounting grisly tales about his famous friends. Along the way, he quarrels with his Screaming Trees bandmates, talks Krist Novoselic into sticking with Nirvana during a prefame moment of doubt, procures heroin for Cobain, and brings Josh Homme along with him to score. But no one comes out looking worse than Lanegan himself.
“Writing this book was probably the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever done,” he says matter-of-factly. “I haven’t thought about this stuff in 25 years. I’m somebody who likes to stay in the here and now, because there’s a lot of ghosts back there.”
Lanegan, now 55, has been sober for almost two decades. He’s married and owns a house. His life is stable, but he has labored intensely to stay on the wagon, working construction and painting sets for TV shows in L.A. over the years. Despite the artiness of his solo music, his personality still feels earthy. His speaking voice is as big and booming as his singing voice, and he tends to punctuate the darkest and most self-deprecating topics with an uncontrollable, high-pitched laugh. He knows his life story is unbelievable, and he’s grateful to be alive.
Since the end of the Trees 20 years ago, he’s refined his approach to dusky, electronic-tinged blues rock for his solo LPs, which sometimes recall Nick Cave. He’s also guested on albums by Queens of the Stone Age and Soulsavers, and collaborated with former Belle and Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli. In May, he’ll release Straight Songs of Sorrow, an album of tunes about his life that came to him while writing the memoir.
After his friend Anthony Bourdain, whom he calls Tony, encouraged him to write down some of his stories — building on recollections Lanegan sketched out in his 2017 lyric book I Am the Wolf — Lanegan found that writing the book consumed him. Once Bourdain died by suicide, when Lanegan was only four or five chapters in, the singer turned to bestselling author Mishka Shubaly for guidance and completed the book, a process Lanegan describes as painful.
“Writing this was like being buried under a mountain of just shitty memories every day,” Lanegan says. “And I remember Tony and Mishka both being like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna get the most cathartic experience out of this. It’s gonna put all these ghosts to bed.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, the ghosts have been put to bed. Now, they’re all woke up.’”
How difficult has it been for you to revisit this time in your life?
As I started to go back, the memories that came back were crippling. Twelve, 14 hours would go by and I’d realize I hadn’t gotten out of the chair, that I’d just been writing this fucking thing.
You wrote at length about your close friendship with Kurt Cobain. What struck you about him when you first met him?
Kurt and I were really close before he became famous. I was actually the famous one in our relationship for a number of years [laughs]. He had a natural [talent]. I knew that from the moment I saw him singing in the Ellensburg Public Library, in the tiny town I grew up in. Dylan Carlson [guitarist for Earth and a mutual friend of the two] had asked me to go see his friend Kurt’s band play there because [Kurt] was a fan of mine. And that’s how I met Kurt: as a fan of mine. He looked up to me sort of like a big brother. But I knew this guy had something magical. It took a while, but obviously the world recognized his talent at some point, and we all know what happened with that.
You wrote that you have a deep regret for your actions around his death, because he’d called you that day and you didn’t return his calls. How did you process his death?
When a drug addict loses a friend, they just do more drugs. I moved forward by sticking with the people that I knew — Dylan Carlson and my best friend in Seattle, Layne Staley — and we continued to do what we always did, but now we were missing a huge piece of our lives. Logic would tell you that when a friend of yours [dies the way Cobain did], it would make you wise up and say, “Oh, shit, man. Do I want to end up like this, too?” But instead, what a drug addict does is they just do more drugs and cry in their beer.
How did Kurt’s death make you feel?
Kurt’s death just made me go deeper into just wanting to fucking disappear and forget that I had had what started as this really pure relationship of mutual admiration [with Kurt] for each other’s music, which we had for years. We liked the same kind of music and then that had warped into a situation where he had become so famous and had said to me at one point, “You and Dylan are the only real friends I have anymore,” at the height of his popularity, and it was just sad.
I also remember thinking, “What kind of friend am I?” Because this guy used to look up to me. And he always acted as though he did, even though I knew he saw my decline. I just remember thinking, “Wow. I could have shown some fucking decent guidance here to this kid who fucking looked up to me and who I loved.” And instead, I just was a guy who became one of those people that would go out and buy drugs for his more famous friends who couldn’t go out in public. That was hard to reconcile, and it will always be. I could have been a different kind of person, and I wasn’t.
Despite how you felt, you had a lot of people looking out for you. The person who had your back and surprised me the most in your memoir was Courtney Love.
She was directly involved in saving my life. I had to write about that. I will always carry great guilt about my actions on the day Kurt decided to do what he did, because I willfully ignored him. I had done that because around that time I had become accustomed to trying to avoid being around Courtney. I assumed that she would be there. Also, I was just a fucking shithead who was self-centered and didn’t respond to his friends — even though he would have picked up the phone anytime I called.
Sometime after his death, I remember going into a pawn shop one day, and my friend who ran the place said, “Courtney Love came in here the other day with material about some rehab.” And my immediate response was, “Tell her to shove her fuckin’ rehab.” My attitude was, unless somebody has some money for me or something I can sell or some drugs, I don’t need your help. I was just that kind of recalcitrant shithead drug addict, who’d rather be homeless than accepting anyone’s help.
What eventually changed your mind?
It came down to the fact that I was boxed in and needed to leave Seattle. I was homeless and was staying around the area where I’d lived in an apartment for 10 years previously. A cop had busted me and told me that I either needed to go to rehab and get clean or leave town, otherwise I was gonna be in deep shit. And then I had the smarts to rip off a drug dealer I was selling on the street for. He was a huge ex-con from upstate New York who could have easily broken me over his knee. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and I went back into the pawn shop months after the first time and said, “Do you still have that thing that Courtney brought in here for me?” I needed to get out of town.
The literature she had left for me at the pawn shop was about an organization called M.A.P., the Musicians’ Assistance Program, which was set up by this jazz-saxophone player named Buddy Arnold to help people who didn’t have money and had worked in music to get clean. They paid for my rehab. But I realized I needed a lot more than just that, and Courtney ended up paying for my rent there for months. I was also unemployable and a mess physically after all the years of doing damage to myself. I remember waking up in rehab and the room was filled with bags of new clothes that she had sent in.
Why do you think she had your back like that?
I remember Courtney leaving me a letter saying, “Kurt loved you as a big brother and would have wanted you to live. The world needs you to live.” That was powerful because I hadn’t done any good for anybody in years. Also, I had failed him when he needed me most. I owe her a great, great debt that I can never repay. But I also owe a lot of people that same debt. I always had done the most incredibly shitty things and had the most incredible love from people that I barely knew who have saved me.
Shortly after your rehab, you wrote that you learned about Layne Staley’s death, and that’s where the book ends. Since you were clean then, was it harder for you to process his death?
Out of my friends, I was the guy who they always thought would never have a chance of getting clean because I was so maniacal in my approach. I would have climbed Mount Everest for drugs. I was always trying to kick. Layne was a magical person who was also hellbent on doing drugs until he died.
The first time I saw him after I’d gotten clean, I’d been clean a year. I’m pretty sure that [Alice in Chains’] Jerry [Cantrell] and Mike Inez flew me up to Seattle because they were unable to get into his house. He had a camera and lived in the penthouse of this condo. So whenever anybody from that camp would come to see him, he would just ignore it. Jerry and Mike knew that when he saw me, he would let me in. I went along with that, and I also wanted him to see that I was clean, that it was possible to get clean, that his prediction that I would never be able to do it had failed [laughs]. Hopefully, maybe, it would give him the idea that he, himself, could do it. But he didn’t want to do it.
When I got there, I said, “Hey, man, it’s been a while. I’ve been clean for more than 12 months.” And he was like, “No, you weren’t, man. You just left, like, two months ago.” His sense of time had warped. And he wasn’t buying the truth from me. I remember him saying at that point, “I always just keep thinking I’m gonna get that same feeling I got the first time again.” And, dude, I never got that first feeling again after the first time I ever did dope. I immediately had to do five times more to even get close to it. So for me, that was an impossibility, but that was his obsession.
That had to be difficult to see.
It’s heartbreaking the way he went. I always knew that that’s what was gonna happen, although I always hoped there would be some medical emergency that would put him in the hospital and give him a moment away from the routine of crack and heroin that might give him a break and some insight. That medical emergency ended up being his death.
Has the way you’ve lost your friends affected how you enjoy their music?
I still love listening to Alice in Chains. When they come on the radio, it makes me feel good. But if Nirvana comes on the radio, it throws me into a depression. Like, if I’m in an Uber? You have to turn that off. And, I think, it’s because of my own actions in the deaths of both these guys who I loved equally. Of course, I was not a great influence on Layne, but [drugs] were a mutual thing. I put it like this in my lyric book: “Kurt was like a little brother, Layne was like a twin.”
Where do things stand with your Screaming Trees bandmates these days?
Apparently, the Trees got one page from the book sent to them by somebody, and they immediately put it up on Facebook and started making physical and legal threats against me. I was like, “Hey, I tried to get ahold of you 50 times last year to run this shit by [bassist] Van Conner,” who at one time was my closest friend in the band until Josh [Homme] came along, and he ignored me every fucking time.
I sent what I wrote to the band’s two drummers, Mark Pickerel and Barrett Martin, and I’d written stuff that wasn’t flattering about them, as well, and they both laughed and thought it was great. I didn’t bother to put it past [guitarist Gary] Lee Conner because he never gave a fuck about what I thought about anything. After 15 years of being in a band with him, the feeling’s mutual. Also, I took it easy on everybody except myself; had I gone into detail, none of these guys would ever be able to walk around with their head up again, and I couldn’t do that to them. But I also wasn’t not going to point out some of the more bizarre behaviors and shit that Lee put me through.
You just never heard back from them?
After they posted what they did to Facebook, I sent Van Conner an email, and I started it with a quote from the book: “Van’s jovial, good-natured, yet huge and rebellious personality, and especially crazed sense of humor, was my saving grace throughout my time in the group.” And then after that, I wrote, “Hey, dipshit, why don’t you read the whole fucking book before you start making threats? I tried to get ahold of you 50 times last year and you chose to ignore me.” He responded, “Fuck you and your book.” I said, “Dude, if you don’t like my version of your time with me, write your own fucking book or take me to court and I’ll dismantle you.” And he was like, “Don’t ever contact me again.” And I said, “Hey, the only reason I fucking contacted you this time was out of fucking courtesy and you didn’t have the fucking courtesy to get ahold of me until you saw one page of this fucking book. Fuck you.” I could give a fuck what those guys think.
So there’s no love lost.
The truth is, I hate to say it, but they were lucky to have me. And it’s not my fault that Van had to become a computer programmer after I quit the band. I had to fucking fight for inclusion in that band, just to be able to write lyrics for those songs after being in the band for almost eight years. I wrote to Van, “I’m sorry you feel like I ruined your life when I quit the band, but if you don’t understand I did that to save my own fucking life, then fuck you. You’ve never given a fuck about me. The reason I was loaded 24-7 was because it was unbearable being in that fucking band.”
You end the book around the time you completed rehab. How did you pick up the pieces of your life so that you could get to this point?
Well, first, I had to remove drugs and homelessness [laughs]. After rehab, I managed to get into a halfway house in Pasadena, and I started working construction in East L.A. I came home one day and [Guns N’ Roses bassist] Duff McKagan was standing on the porch. He’d been clean for a number of years, and somebody had told him about me.
He kept in contact with me, and at some point, he asked me, “Would you mind moving into my house up above Mulholland to keep an eye on the place?” And I was thinking, “What? Are you kidding me? I’m not gonna turn that down.” I ended up living in his houses for three years, rent-free. Even as I started to work, he would never, ever allow me to pay any rent. He always said, “You’re doing me a favor,” while I’m driving around his cars, living in his houses. He was a guardian angel, basically.
How did you get back into music?
In that same time frame, I reconnected with Josh Homme and started playing with the Queens. I made records until 2004 or so. I relapsed and immediately went into a coma for, like, 10 days or something. I almost died. When I came out of it, I can’t explain it, but music was completely drained from me. It was the most fucked-up thing. I got no pleasure or anything out of music: Music that I had loved before, new music, music on the radio, any kind of music — I did not want to hear it. I couldn’t hear it, and I certainly couldn’t fucking write or sing it. I was like, “What the fuck am I gonna do now?”
So what did you do?
A friend helped me get a job at a place that built sets for TV shows. I had never done scenic painting before, but I did that for over a year. Eventually, my good friend Greg Dulli insisted I go on tour with him. For eight years, I didn’t do anything but guest spots. I made, like, six records or so, but none of them were Mark Lanegan records. Eventually, I did a song for the trailer to a video game called Rage with [producer] Alain Johannes. He was, like, the first guy I had ever met who was able to articulate my musical vision.
After I did this video-game thing and made quite a bit of dough, Alain said, “Why don’t we just keep going and make a fucking record?” I didn’t have anything. I was back at scenic painting. I said, “Yeah, why not?” We made a different kind of record [2012’s Blues Funeral] than I had made before. I allowed myself to indulge my interest in electronic music. Alain, being the genius he is, was able to make every song exactly how I wanted it. That record ended up selling twice as much as my bestselling record had ever sold before, Bubblegum, in 2004. Blues Funeral is still my favorite record I’ve ever done with my name on it. After that, I was like, “Fuck, I’m back in it.”
You just rebuilt your life from there?
I got a deal with Heavenly Records where I own my own masters, and that’s how I got to where I am now, where I actually own my own home, which I never thought would happen. I thought if I owned my own home, it would be me dragging a trailer out to the parcel of land my mother owns, which doesn’t have any electricity or plumbing, and dying out there. Instead, I actually have a beautiful home, a wife I’ve been with 15 years. I’ve just been really lucky, basically. That’s it. Just incredible luck.