Former Screaming Trees/Queens of the Stone Age singer Mark Lanegan 's autobiography Sing Backwards and Weep is an easy read dealing with difficult subject matter.
Covering his life from birth in the small logging town of Ellensburg, Washington to his raise to fame as a member of the Trees, to his inevitable crash in the summer of 1997; it's not a story of redemption. Lanegan only briefly touches on his emergence from the horrors of heroin and crack addiction in the books epilogue.
Instead, he tells the story of a misfit from the wrong side of the tracks. A misfit who somehow blindly stumbled into success, and then did his damnedest to destroy it all. It's a very unflattering look back at his troubled life, but one that he makes no apologies for.
Into the Book...
While it is standard issue for musicians to write in their stories about how they had the deck stacked against them in early life, and how this leads to the bad choices they make, Lanegan takes a different route. Yes, all the classic demons are there; An abusive mother. An alcoholic father. Poverty and bullying. Lanegan makes it clear that he decided to be a screw up from day one. Whether it was stealing bicycles, gambling, or becoming an alcoholic by age 15, Lanegan never once blames anyone but himself.
After destroying a promising baseball and football career with drinking, drugs, and a tendency to become violent, the tall, gravely voiced teen befriends the Connor brothers; bassist Van and guitarist Gary Lee and forms the Screaming Trees. The band is now looked at as one of the Godfather's of the Seattle Music scene. However, unlike the grunge giants we all know, such as Nirvana and Alice In Chains, the Trees were rooted in psychedelic rock; especially their first 4 albums released on indie label SST.
Screaming Trees & Solo Work.
Mark talks about constantly butting heads with the elder Gary Lee, who in the beginning was the sole songwriter of the group. Mark points out that it wasn't a band built on grounds of a stable relationship. It was a band of misfits, each one with their own quirks and demons.
After signing a major label deal in 1989 and releasing Uncle Anesthesia, Lanegan quit the band; returning only when Gary Lee Connor promises to make the next record a collaborative effort. At this same time Lanegan, who had been fairly sober for the last 4 years, picks up a heroin addiction.
Putting out his critically acclaimed first solo album The Winding Sheet, the newly confident singer takes the reigns on the Trees best selling record Sweet Oblivion. The band is finally able to crack the mainstream. However, the horrible timing of the release of their single "Nearly Lost You" on the motion picture soundtrack for "Singles" just two months before the release of their record, sees its sales stymied.
The band, already road warriors for almost a decade, sets out all over the world as Lanegan slides deeper into addiction. He supplemented his income (of which there isn't much of) by making and selling crack to the local addicts in Seattle. Whereas most former junkies tell similar tales with regret; Lanegan states them matter of factly, as if he had no other choice at the time because he knew he couldn't keep himself straight.
The only time Mark shows any sense of grief is when he discusses the loss of his two best friends; Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. He flounders through the time in his life when he should be his happiest by admittedly causing chaos around everyone. Missing shows due to a blood infection that almost caused the amputation of his arm from using dirty needles. Altering tour schedules so he could be in place to score dope at all times. Destroying a budding romance with 7 Year Bitch singer Selene Vigil; and finally ending up homeless and on the streets of Seattle, ripping off big time dope dealers and hiding from death threats.
Lanegan barely mentions his final salvation, brought on from an unlikely source, because that isn't what his story is about. Anyone who has listened to his other solo records such as Whiskey for the Holy Ghost or Scraps at Midnight can grasp the self inflicted torment in his songs; and he has stated that his newer records tell more of the redemption story than he could ever put in prose.
Sing Backwards and Weep is well written and framed beautifully, even in its darkest times. Lanegan has become an alt/rock raconteur, somewhat in the vein of Dylan, Reed, and Cohen. A definite recommended read, as well as a listen to his haunting music.
Listen to Lanegan's works while you read Sing Backwards & Weep.
PHOTO CREDIT: All photos of Mark Lanegan & Sing Backwards & Weep used for promotional use only. All photos are property of Mark Lanegan, the publisher, and the original photographer.