Rock and Roll Book Club: Mark Lanegan's 'Sing Backwards and Weep'

Mark Lanegan, 'Sing Backwards and Weep' book cover detail.
Mark Lanegan, 'Sing Backwards and Weep' book cover detail. (Hachette Books)

Some time in late spring 1994, Mark Lanegan got a call from Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland. She wanted to connect him with Kristen Pfaff, the bassist in Hole. Pfaff confirmed what Lanegan guessed: she'd been making eyes at him during Kurt Cobain's memorial. She wanted to go out with him. They'd talk as soon as she got back to Seattle from Minneapolis. In his new memoir, Lanegan tells the story of what happened next.

A couple of weeks later, a tearful, completely downtrodden, and embattled-sounding Courtney [Love] called and left a bullet-to-the heart message: Kristen had OD'd and died in a bathtub the first night she was back in Seattle. I dizzily sat down on the floor, put my head in my hands, and stared numbly through my fingers at the wall in disbelief. Not only was my pipe dream of some sort of relationship with this exotic girl crushed, but horrifically, she was stone gone forever. Life was an utterly cruel, savage beast. Everything and everyone around me was f---ing cursed.

There's a reason Lanegan's new book is called Sing Backwards and Weep (buy now). It begins with his '70s youth in the working-class enclave of Ellensburg, Washington. Addiction was a fact of life, abuse was rampant, you couldn't waste any time before you punched a bully out. When Lanegan finally made a musical connection, it was with a giant, surly guitarist. "I tried my damnedest to be friendly with him," writes Lanegan about Lee Conner, "but it was like talking to a stone. His only two speeds were mute or enraged. I would often hear him scream- ing 'F--k you, Gary!' at his dad on the phone."

But he could write a hook. Conner's brother and bandmate, Van, was trying to recruit Lanegan to form a new covers band that didn't include Lee, but Lanegan convinced them to keep Lee in the band. Mark and Lee would collaborate on songwriting, Mark — who couldn't play any instrument — would sing, and their band named after an effect pedal might just be the thing to get him out of Ellensburg.

It sure did. In fact, it got him on The Tonight Show, where the strung-out singer ended up on the couch next to actor James Garner, whose appraisal of Screaming Trees' performance was, "That wasn't bad, young fella. It coulda been a lot worse!"

Screaming Trees came out of the Seattle scene so early that their record label didn't know what to do with them. Epic seemed to think they were the latest hair-metal band, a new Twisted Sister or Quiet Riot. Fortunately, some of the company's younger executives got it: Midnight Oil or Psychedelic Furs were a closer comparison point, independent rockers who listeners would respect for their integrity. If they banged their heads a little bit along the way, all the better.

Nirvana, of course, would change everything, turning Seattle and grunge into veritable brand names — almost against their own will. Screaming Trees got caught up in that wave, canonized when "Nearly Lost You" landed on the iconic Singles soundtrack. Lanegan's bitter about that, though: not only did Screaming Trees (unlike some other artists on the soundtrack) not get paid, they had to waive their fee for the song being featured in the movie. Plus, the movie was bad. "In other words," writes Lanegan, "we'd given them a hit single for absolutely nothing."

Knowledgeable musicheads don't need a soundtrack to tell them who's part of a scene, and Lanegan was truly integral to Seattle rock in the '90s. He first saw Nirvana perform at the Ellensburg Public Library. He thought Krist Novoselic would be a great fit for Screaming Trees, whose bassist Van was temporarily out of the group after marrying his pregnant teenage girlfriend, but when Novoselic expressed interest, Lanegan said he'd be crazy not to stick with Nirvana.

Lanegan and Cobain became friends; poignantly, Lanegan remembers how closely Cobain would walk to him on the sidewalk, hugging near to him like a little brother. Nirvana's clout would later help get Screaming Trees on massive festival lineups, but Lanegan didn't let fame go to his head. Just about the only thing going to his head, it seems, was heroin and alcohol. Okay, sometimes also weed and crack and the hormones from his constant hookups.

Given Lanegan's intensely self-destructive behavior, it's incredible to realize how successful he was both as frontman and solo artist; Love later said that Lanegan's solo album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost was one of Cobain's go-tos in his final weeks of life. Chalk it up to his artistry, but also, as Lanegan acknowledges, it was a very different time in the music industry: record companies were nearing the peak of their profitability, making duckets on expensive compact discs.

Record com- panies spent vast amounts of dough signing a bunch of bands, only to throw them like wet dog s--t against a wall and wait to see which ones stuck and which would slide to the ground, out of sight, into oblivion.

While Lanegan became revered by indie rock fans, he never became a household name. In that sense, Sing Backwards and Weep reads kind of like the grunge-scene Andy Warhol Diaries: check the index, and there's probably a great story about your favorite artist. Lanegan admired and enjoyed the company of peers like Chris Cornell, who once licked Lanegan's eyeball to see if he'd catch the Screaming Tree's cold that way. (He didn't, but don't go around licking eyeballs.)

Toward the end of their '90s run, Screaming Trees even shared a bill with Oasis. It didn't go well. Liam Gallagher dismissively called the band "Howling Branches," and Van Conner had to whack the combative brother's head with his bass stock to get Liam to quit giving the Seattle band the evil eye from side-stage during their set.

Sing Backwards and Weep makes for a rather astonishing, if not precisely enjoyable, read. Lanegan's attitude is summed up by his reflection on an episode in which vigorous copulation on a fiberglass sailboat led to a backside full of painful splinters. "That was my life in a nutshell: a stolen moment of desperate pleasure, an assful of tiny daggers, then an eternity of agony."

The agonies pile up. There was the time Lanegan stormed offstage three songs into a set because strep throat made it impossible for him to sing; he cold-cocked himself on a low beam over the backstage stairs and woke up in the arms of an astonished rock club staffer. Then there was the time Lanegan got high and accidentally broke a lightbulb on a dressing-room mirror; when Lee Conner got backstage covered with sweat after the show, the guitarist unknowingly leaned his arm back and made contact with the bare filament, causing a flash of blue light as he shocked himself. "Needless to say," writes Lanegan drily as he describes the vinyl-clutching fans who were waiting outside having won a radio contest, "the meet-and-greet was a disaster."

The book ends with the 2002 death of Layne Staley, Alice in Chains frontman and another of Lanegan's close friends. "It was a call I had expected for years but it destroyed me nonetheless," writes Lanegan. "His loss left a void I've felt every day since. I expect I always will." Sing backwards, indeed, and weep.

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May 6: Resistance: A Songwriter's Story by Tori Amos (buy now)

May 13: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder by Mark Ribowsky (buy now)

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