Mark Lanegan

Never not busy

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

When we think of music in Seattle during the 1990s, some names come handily to mind. Kurt Cobain. Chris Cornell. Eddie Vedder. Layne Staley. So many of us are intimately familiar with their stories. For those of us who grew up then, their musical triumphs gave us the soundtrack to our lives and their tragedies are etched in our hearts.

Lesser known is Mark Lanegan.

Make no mistake: Lanegan’s grunge bona fides are legit. He was a member of Screaming Trees, along with brothers Van and Gary Lee Conner and Mark Pickerel. They got a major-label deal, scored a hit song—“Nearly Lost You”—courtesy of the Singles soundtrack, and another moderate hit “Dollar Bill.” They had long hair, a penchant for flannel and played Lollapalooza. And, like Seattle’s other grunge gods, they were troubled. The Conners were well-known for their infighting, and Lanegan’s substance abuse was an open secret in that it was more open than secret. The breakup, when it came, surprised no one.

This is the point at which Lanegan, by all rights, probably should’ve faded into obscurity, perhaps emerging occasionally to play a Screaming Trees reunion show with “Nearly Lost You” placed strategically at the end of the set list.

But that’s not quite how things went.

To look at Lanegan’s now decades-long music career is to see a man who is compelled to work, to write songs, to flesh out ideas, to collaborate with others and go wherever his curiosity and creativity take him. To put it succinctly, he’s always up to something, and way more often than not, whatever he’s up to is well worth listening to.

After the demise of Screaming Trees, Lanegan was a member of Queens of the Stone Age for a few years, contributing vocals and songwriting to their breakout record Songs for the Deaf and four other releases. He lent vocals to Mad Season’s Above and nearly became Staley’s replacement as lead singer. He formed a band, the Gutter Twins, with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs and made appearances on albums by Dulli’s other band, the Twilight Singers. He’s recorded a trio of albums with former Belle and Sebastian alum Isobel Campbell. And the list of artists and albums he’s lent his skills as a songwriter and singer to is long and ever-growing.

And when he wasn’t busy doing all of that, Lanegan was recording solo albums, now numbering in the double digits.

But Lanegan, whose rough-around-the-edges baritone and dark songwriting sensibilities often get him compared to Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, is pretty blasé—practical, even—about his impressive and varied post-grunge career. He says he writes songs because he can, that he sees things or has experiences that suggest subjects and lyrics and so he forms them into songs. He neither loves nor hates performing live, but understands it to be part of the job and the life he has chosen. He’s clear that his main driver is simply to make music he enjoys playing. He’s not self-deprecating or disaffected or downplaying his life as a musician, but he’s not one to participate in mythologizing it either.

But his seemingly nonchalant nature belies the fact that Lanegan is not just a decent singer and songwriter, he’s a very, very good one. Those comparisons to Cave and Waits and Cohen are no joke. None other than Anthony Bourdain called Lanegan “criminally underappreciated” and I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.

Lanegan will kick off a short run of Northwest tour dates on Tues., May 1 at the Wild Buffalo, and he’s invited a familiar face from his past to come with him. Pickerel, his former Screaming Trees band mate who also hails from Lanegan’s hometown of Ellensburg, will open the show, which is as close to a Screaming Trees reunion as any of us are likely to get anytime soon.

I don’t know if Lanegan will ever get the level of recognition he deserves, if he will ever be catapulted to the status of the grunge gods that were his friends and contemporaries or be inducted into the pantheon of the legends to which he is so frequently compared. But then again, I’m not sure he cares. He’s way too busy.

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