The Seattle rock icon pulls no punches in his revealing new memoir
“Obviously, nobody looks worse in the book than me,” is Mark Lanegan’s assessment of his own lacerating self-portrait in his new memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep.
It’s an often brutal story of his harsh upbringing in Ellensburg, Washington (from the moment he emerges from his mother’s womb “with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck,” it’s a constant struggle), the infighting battleground that defined the existence of his band, the Screaming Trees (“Violence had been an occupational hazard of the Trees’ live performance from the very beginning”), and his descent into the nightmarishish hell of drug addiction.
He settles plenty of scores along the way too; arguments with the Trees have continued over the book’s content (Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor tweeted “while many of the facts may be accurate, it is delivered with a venom that is perplexing”). But Lanegan’s always hardest on himself, and the book is not without its humor, as you watch him lurch from disaster to disaster and still end up landing on his feet. And he writes with great love and respect of his close friends, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley. Now happily clean and sober for over two decades, he talks about why he’ll never write a second memoir, his great new record, Straight Songs of Sorrow, and why he’s the “Michael Caine of rock.”
Your previous book, I Am the Wolf: Lyrics and Writings, has little introductions by you for each section, which made me wish you’d write a full book someday. Did other people come to you with the same idea?
Yeah, a couple of people who were pretty important to me were pretty emphatic that I write an actual book. And I didn’t want to. In fact, I didn’t want to do those writings in I Am the Wolf. I just didn’t read the small print! I was like, “Writing? What do you mean by that?” I thought it was going to be copying down lyrics. That in itself was a chore, because I had to listen to those records, trying to remember what the words were. But writing — that was like climbing Mount Everest.
VIDEO: Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in Seattle with Mark Lanegan
Tony Bourdain was a friend of mine, and he was a great enthusiast and champion of my work. And he convinced me that I could write a book, and it wouldn’t just be a run-of-the-mill book that somebody who didn’t know anything about Seattle or music could find interesting. And at the same time, the guy who edited the book, Mishka Shubaly, was doing the same number on me. That, and the money that they offered me, I couldn’t resist.
But it was rough. I’ll tell you, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t. I was sending chapters to Tony as I was doing them. And then when he was gone, I felt that even though he wasn’t there, I felt an obligation to finish, even though I did not want to. It was way more than I thought it was going to be. I walked into it like an idiot, like I do everything, without really realizing what I was going to uncover, or things I was going to remember. Because I’m somebody who pretty much stays in the here and now, it’s how I stay happy. And I don’t do a lot of looking back. And by its very nature, this insisted that I look back every single day.
It was overwhelming. I think you have to protect yourself, when you go naively wading back into memories of the shit you did that you’re not only not proud of, but stuff you did, or didn’t do, that had negative effects on people that you really loved. It was heavy. It was really heavy. That’s why I burned through it in four months. Because I just wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. They told me that I was the only guy whoever turned in his book six weeks early!
So I guess there won’t be a volume two.
Hell, no! No, no possible way. I would never do it again. Here’s why. I have one ex-wife and I have one wife. And neither one of them would ever allow me to write about anything that happened during the time they were with me. And I know I ended this one on a rosy note; and I really did have a spiritual awakening of the lightning bolt variety like I describe in the book. But I also did not immediately change my behavior. I was just now aware of what a shithead I was. I didn’t just immediately stop being one. So there is a story there, but it’s one I’ll never tell.
Some of the writing, the depictions, are very cinematic. Had you done any other writing before?
Not at all. I never “journaled.” I’ve been to a lot of court ordered rehab and counseling over the years, and that was always part of the program, to journal and do all that sort of stuff, and I never did do it. I’m just so not scholarly or writer-ly, or whatever you want to call it. It’s just not me. And so that’s what made this book challenging, because I didn’t have any previous knowledge or skill. And I remember Mishka telling me, “Dude, you can’t tell a backstory within a backstory within a backstory!” And I was like, “Dude, if you haven’t read Kinski, then you have no idea where I’m coming from.” That’s Klaus Kinski, whose autobiography is pretty much just pure performance art.
You might have changed the course of music history, had you let [bassist] Krist Novoselic join the Screaming Trees, after seeing Nirvana play in Ellensburg in 1988.
And I’d only gone down there because Dylan Carlson [of drone metal band Earth] had asked me to go meet his best friend who was a fan of mine, and that was Kurt. When I saw Novoselic, he was the guy I immediately zoned in on; he was the first guy on stage, and I immediately said, “Dude, this is my guy.” Because he looked angry, and that was how I always felt when I was on stage. He just had this aura about him. But then, once they started playing, I realized that it was something really special. And I immediately became good friends with Kurt, we traded phone numbers afterwards.
And oddly enough, two weeks later, Krist called me up on the phone. I hadn’t met him, I don’t how he got my number. And he said, “Are you still looking for a bass player? Because I’m sick of playing with Kurt. Everything always has to be his way.” I’ll never forget, that was the line. By that time, I’d had a couple conversations with Kurt, and we were friends. And not only could I not steal his bass player, I also realized that they were something very, very special. I said, “Well man, you know, I would love to have you in my band. But if I were you, I would get over my problems with Kurt, because you’re part of something that’s really special, and you’re going to be sorry if you bail out on that.” And that’s the best advice anyone ever gave that dumb ass!
I know Kurt appeared on two songs on your solo album The Winding Sheet (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Down in the Dark”). It’s a shame you didn’t make more music together.
Playing acoustically was something we did a lot, when it was me and him or me, him, and Dylan Carlson sitting around the bedroom. Kurt asked me to go on Unplugged and sing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” But I just felt like it was inappropriate charity. I thought, this’ll be weird, because they’re the most famous band in the world and I’m still pretty much a nobody. It just didn’t feel right.
So he said, “Okay, I’m going to sing it like you did.” I told him he could sing it however he wanted. But the stupidest thing I did, well not the stupidest, but amongst many, many stupid things I did, was that I didn’t realize that that Leadbelly song was traditional, and I could’ve credited it, “Arranged by Mark Lanegan,” because I did arrange it, and then I would’ve made all the millions from their version!
VIDEO: Nirvana performs Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on MTV Unplugged
I hadn’t known how close you and Layne Staley were.
I struggled a lot with, was it right of me to tell personal stories about these friends of mine who were genius musicians and beloved artists? Who am I to tell these tales out of school about the ugly aspects of their personal lives? It was tough to reconcile that. But I couldn’t tell my story without them. And so that was troublesome. But Jerry [Cantrell, Alice in Chains’ guitarist] was like, “This is your story, and Layne was part of it and you have to do it.” So I got the okay from the guys that mattered to me, and that was helpful. But still, I didn’t want to do tarnish the reputation of these guys who I love.
You didn’t; I felt you really honored the relationships you had with them.
And also Courtney Love, who ironically the reason I didn’t answer the phone on the day that Kurt was reaching out to me [after he left rehab in the days before his death], which I’ll probably never ever get over. I didn’t answer the phone because I assumed that she was there, too. And I was trying to avoid her. And she ended up being directly responsible for saving my life. I couldn’t not honor that. Yeah, I did find it taxing to hang out with her (laughs) and I also did have that moment where I thought about clubbing her and my apartment manager to death with a bat! But ironically, she’s the one who saved me. She not only helped me get into rehab, she also paid my rent for almost a year, and bought my clothes. I was unemployable. I was very, very ill. And she took care of me for a very long time.
And you ended up having a companion record for the book, too.
As soon as I was done with the book, I started writing songs. My previous couple of records were sort of like exercises and stuff I hadn’t tried before. Like my previous record, I was like, okay, I’m going to make a double album, which I’d never done, and I’m going to fill it with the most blatantly catchy songs ever that I’ve ever done. Just because I’d never done it. Because when you’re my age and you’ve made hundreds of records, you have to do stuff to try and keep it interesting.
But this stuff that was coming out of me as soon as I was done with the book was so directly linked to the book that I realized there was a depth of honestly and emotion to it that I had never had on a record before. Not that my records are all bullshit and lies, it’s just that the songs aren’t real life. My songs usually start in some place of reality or something I may have heard or seen or done, but it’s not always just about that. It’s more about a mood. I think of them as like pieces of dreams. And I don’t really think that deeply about what the lyrics mean.
But I clearly saw these songs I was writing post-book were all directly influenced by the book. I wrote all these fucking songs in two weeks. And it was the first record in 35 years with song where I played almost every instrument myself. I’d never played an instrument on a record before, except when [producer] Alain Johannes would sneak my acoustic into a track and I would hear it later and I’d be like, “What?” And it actually sounds like a good record! And it also has every famous friend I ever had, because I had to call in favors to get it done, and a lot of my friends and artists who I’ve always admired all said, “Yes, I’ll help you get this done.” I’m really proud of the record
You’ve been so prolific; this is the sixth album you’ve released in the past decade.
Well, here’s the deal. I was never a guy who made money off of radio airplay, or record sales for that matter. So the only way for a guy for me to make money is, I have to travel and play live. And to be able to do that, I have to be able to make records. So I have a garage that I took out a loan and made into a recording space, because the writing was on the wall. Nobody’s giving me money to go into a fancy recording studio. And I learned how to use Pro Tools, and bang, I learned how to make records in my own house.
But I make records so often because I have to have a reason to go out and play shows. And ultimately my real job is shaking hands and signing people’s merch and taking pictures and talking to people. I sing for up to two hours every night, and I then I sit for up to two hours after that, doing this other job! (laughs) That’s why I’ve been so prolific.
And you were planning on going out again with this record before the pandemic hit?
Well, yeah. I maxed every credit card I had last year just to survive, and now this. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to have to get real creative.
In 2005 I became a scenic painter, which is guys who paint sets on TV shows. And I did that for a year and a half, almost two years, and I toured also, and did guest spots for friends of mine, Greg Dulli mostly. But last year I thought, “Fuck man, I might have to go back to being a scenic painter.” And then I realized that I was at that point ten years old than the guy we called the “old man” the last time I did that job! (laughs) So that’s not gonna work. I’m in music and that’s it. So some way or another I’ve gotta make it work. Because that’s all I’ve got.
One thing you don’t really say in the book. You’re friends with all these other bands in Seattle that get big, and I wondered, did you want the Trees to get that big? Of course, you wanted them to sell records. But as you illustrate in your book, fame can be a double edged sword. Did you feel you missed out by not becoming famous, bigger than you were, or were you glad it stayed at that level you did?
This is a form of the question I get asked the most. And usually it’s asked in such a manner that it pisses me off. But you asked it in the best way that anybody ever has! Because it usually goes like, “You didn’t get your due, all your friends are famous and you got screwed,” that set up. And the truth of the matter is, I was always amazed that anybody wanted to hear anything that I had anything to do with. And I always felt incredibly lucky that we had another chance to make another record. And I still feel that way.
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I’m sort of like the Michael Caine of rock. I’ll take any job, because I’m always afraid it’s the last one I’m going to get offered. And I’ll give it my best. And that’s why I say yes to just about everything. If it’s something I can hear myself doing it doesn’t matter who it is, whether I’ve heard of them or not, whether they’re famous or not. If it’s something that I can hear myself doing and I feel like it, I’ll do it. And all good things have happened to me because of that attitude, just by saying “Yes.” And trying my hardest.
No, I never felt like I lost out. In fact, I felt like, I can’t believe we’re actually here. How did this happen? We’ve been making records for eight years and suddenly we’re playing in front 60,000 people at Reading and my friends are all in the Top 10. It was strange, but I watched it as an outsider. It wasn’t like it was happening to me. It was like I was along for the ride. And that was more than enough for me. I was always surprised at every step of the way that we didn’t just get shown the door.