Mark Lanegan, born in Ellensburg, Washington, 57 years ago, is one of the most distinctive singers of his generation. Since the break-up of his first band Screaming Trees, his gravelly baritone has graced and disgraced albums by Queens of the Stone Age, Soulsavers, UNKLE, Manic Street Preachers and many more, not to mention multiple collaborations with Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli and Joe Cardamone.
Lanegan, who introduced his friend Kurt Cobain to Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? when they worked together on 1990's The Winding Sheet, has over the span of 30 years released a series of consistently brilliant solo albums drawing on everything from spooky blues to scuzz-rock to electronica.
Shortly after the publication of his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, a raw, harrowing saga of addiction, destitution and grief, Lanegan and his wife Shelley Brien moved from California to Co Kerry, a place they’d first encountered when they appeared on Other Voices in 2004.
“A friend of mine had a house here,” Lanegan explains. “When I became reacquainted with the physical beauty of the place and made some really good friends right off the bat, the warmth of those people made it an easy place to stay. Sometimes I have trouble with the high voice accent, but I’m learning...”
Lanegan thrived in lockdown, entering a prolific period of writing lyrics, poetry and music, until the morning he awoke completely deaf and unable to stand or draw oxygen. He lost his balance, suffered a bad fall and was admitted to ICU, where he was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of Coronavirus.
Medically induced coma
What followed was a bedridden three-month ordeal of insomnia, hallucinations, intubations, a four-week medically induced coma, endless requests for blood tests, and the constant struggle for breath. If he’d had to contend with the American healthcare system, Lanegan says, “I’d be dead, or in debt for 10 lifetimes. It was incredibly lucky that I was here.”
This month sees the publication of his account of that season in a Covid ward, Devil In A Coma, a short but intensive work, part essay, part freeform poetry. What the prose lacks in literary finesse is more than counterbalanced by the authenticity of the author’s voice and the gravity of his experiences. He is a compelling character: restless, inscrutable, somewhat forbidding, with a graveyard wit. In person and on the phone he chooses his words carefully and uses them sparingly.
The difference between writing songs and writing books, he maintains, is simple: “One of them is enjoyable and one of them isn’t. For me, lyrics are something that come instinctually, I just try to do whatever feels appropriate for any piece of music. But putting a book together, as you know, is work, toil. And it’s hard on the eyes too, if you’re writing on your phone, which I usually do.
“When I started to write the first book, a friend of mine who was a writer said that if I was to write anything other than just a shitty rock bio I would have to find a level of honesty that I would be uncomfortable with (laughs). In a way that totally freed me up to just let it fly. There were some people who I wrote about in the book who were extremely unhappy about the way I portrayed them, but, y’know, they knew me before I wrote it.”
Squalor of addiction
More than one reader of my acquaintance has suggested that there are passages in Sing Backwards And Weep so unflinching about the squalor of heroin addiction that they should be used in NA meetings.
“Well, I take that as a compliment. I definitely wouldn’t want to relive that experience. It was not the easiest thing to write about, but it’s a good cautionary tale I guess.”
The Hungarian-Canadian physician Gabor Maté contends that all addiction stems from childhood developmental trauma. In Lanegan’s case, he had a heavy-drinking father and a mother figure who appeared to loathe his very existence.
“Obviously I’ve an extremely complicated familial life,” he concedes, “but that said, I think I was born an addict, I just needed something to bring it to fruition, because the very first time I ever put any substance into my body I was extremely happy and wanted to do it immediately afterwards again.”
Has he submitted to the joys of talk therapy?
“I’ve been sent there a few times. Actually, more than a few. But I’ve never lasted very long. I think it’s good for a lot of people, it’s just not really my bag, so to speak. I’m probably too old. Too set in my ways.”
Maybe, despite Lanegan’s past assertions to the contrary, the writing serves a therapeutic purpose. Devil In A Coma reads like a fever dream. How did he return to that hallucinatory state of mind while writing it? Did he use any particular tricks, memory cues?
“I just start at the beginning and go where it points me, basically, I’ve never really taken notes on anything, much to my editor’s chagrin on the first book, ‘cos I wouldn’t write an outline. Although he did teach me quite a few valuable real-life writing lessons. A lot of it was written while I was in it, so there wasn’t a lot to recall, and then the past stuff . . . I just have a memory for a good time!”
Did the experience make him braver, or more fearful?
“You know, I’m still sorting that out. It was incredibly long-lasting, and it took several trips to the hospital, more than I wrote about. It hit me pretty hard, so at the moment I probably fall somewhere between those two polar extremes you just mentioned.”
One of the most chilling moments in the book arises when the doctors consider performing a tracheotomy, and Lanegan’s wife Shelley intercedes because the risk to his voice is too great.
“I was incredibly proud of her, but then again, she knows me pretty well, and the doctor’s job is to maintain life, that’s what they do. If that means cutting off your legs so you can survive then they can do it, so you can’t hold any grudge against those guys for doing their job. I was just glad she was there to stop it. The people in the hospitals I was in were incredibly kind and selfless, but still, for a person like me, it’s like jail.”
Did the years of hard living make his body more susceptible to the virus?
“Tough telling, you know, it did attack some places where I had previous trauma, but that was like, accidents, stuff of that nature. I’ve a pretty hardy constitution, I think that’s probably why I’m still here.”
Craft of singing
It’s also how he’s managed to maintain a long-running solo career despite his profile never rising above cult figure. Lanegan enjoys the approbation of his peers, but he has a complicated relationship with his own creative drive. As dedicated as he is to the craft of singing (and he’s a great interpreter as well as writer of songs), he’s not a comfortable performer. I ask what he focuses on while he’s onstage, hanging off the mic stand, eyes closed?
“I try and lose myself in the song itself and not be swayed by anything outside of that, because it’s not something that really comes naturally to me, even after all these years of doing it, so I have to pay pretty close attention to what I’m doing or I might f**k it up. I think I’ve learned how to do it through trial and error. When I started I wasn’t very good at it, I was singing songs written by somebody else [Gary Lee Conner, Screaming Trees’ guitarist] who sang in a much higher register than I did.”
How does he keep an old song new, night after night?
“Somebody once told me, don’t write a song unless you’re prepared to sing it for the rest of your life. I sort of took that to heart. Although I’ve written plenty of them that I won’t, I try and make sure there’s enough of them that I’ll have a cache.”
What advice would he give to someone who wants to sing?
“Do it. I think everybody can sing. People who say they can’t are full of shit.”
Devil In A Coma is published by White Rabbit Books