Mark Lanegan was not a household name. But when I think of grunge – that Seattle sound, that briefly hip ‘90s trend – I often think first of Lanegan’s husky baritone with the Screaming Trees, and all the ache and strength it conveyed.
Lanegan died suddenly at 57 this week, and for a certain brand of music lover, it was a painful blow to lose this troubled, damaged yet powerful figure.
Lanegan showed a way out of just being a grunge star. The bands that are left intact are mostly ones like Pearl Jam or Mudhoney, who’ve settled into amiable patterns where their music isn’t a heck of a lot different in 2022 than it was in 1992.
When Kurt Cobain died, half my lifetime ago, the thing that struck me hardest was that we’d never know what he might have done next, never follow up on the intriguing directions things like In Utero and MTV Unplugged hinted at. Lanegan, more than any other musician in the grunge era, picked up his longtime friend Cobain’s challenge and continued exploring and innovating until the day he died.
I loved Screaming Trees, who bubbled under the superstar level of bands like Nirvana. Their single “Nearly Lost You” was their biggest popular hit, but the band – all towering, lumberjack like characters who seemed as ominious as their cartoony threat of a name – were a powerful machine that were driven by Lanegan’s urge to be more than just a screamer. Like TAD, another band a bit too raw to make it big, they felt like whispers and ghosts of the Northwest backwoods, sasquatch with guitars.
The Trees combusted, and Lanegan was different when he branched out into underrated, heavily diverse solo work. Always a looming, dangerous figure, haunted by addictions and violence he wrote compellingly about in recent memoirs, Lanegan’s very voice let you know he had seen the darkness and stared deep. Many obituaries focused on how with the punishment he inflicted on himself, Lanegan should’ve been dead years ago.
As he aged, he became a kind of Seattle fusion of Nick Cave and Johnny Cash, charged with Old Testament authority and willing to experiment, collaborate and cast his sound far outside a narrow grunge template. He swerved from the dusty country-fried songwriting of Whiskey For The Holy Ghost to the sweet-and-sour collaborations with Isobel Campbell, the ‘70s hard rock stomp of his work with Queens Of The Stone Age, to dabbling in dark synth-pop in Blues Funeral. His final album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, seemed to amalgamate all of his interests to craft a dark, autobiographical mini-masterpiece.
It was also reminded me of how so many of the great voices of his peers have left far too early, turning grunge – a term many couldn’t stand, but it’s stuck like glue – into kind of a lost generation. There will be no big the-whole-band-gets-back-together reunion tours for Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees.
The list is long – Kurt Cobain, of course (suicide, 27), Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland (drugs, 48), Chris Cornell (suicide, 52), pre-grunge/glam act Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Patrick Wood (heroin, just 24), Gits singer Mia Zapata (murdered, 27); Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley (heroin/cocaine, 34) and Mike Starr (prescription overdose, 44), Hole’s Kristin Pfaff (overdose, 27); poppier act Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon (cocaine, 28).
Music and young death are no strangers, of course, and there’s been “lost generations” before, from the deaths of Janis, Jimi and Jim (you don’t even need to say their last names, do you?) to the rap slayings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. to the present, in the deaths of those like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep.
But grunge was my soundtrack to an age where you listen to music more obsessively than other, and nobody wants to watch their own generation slowly be washed away.
I lived a boring, drama-free 1990s compared to the antics of Lanegan, Cobain and their peers – rare binges of tequila and vodka were my peak indulgence – but the appeal of grunge to me was that the yearning of singers like Lanegan felt universal. We all ache in different ways. We all have addictions. I realised a long time ago that I’d easily get hooked on some of the temptations of the world given half a chance. I was an amateur at addiction, but something in me responded to Lanegan’s deep, groaning voice.
Friend Bob got to see him in his elemental power a few years back, and I’m very jealous. Lanegan overcame his demons and was clean for years, but a bout with COVID-19 last year nearly killed him and I wouldn’t surprised if it led directly to his early death.
Once upon a time, I would’ve said that making it to 57 was a decent run. But it doesn’t seem that way when you get close to it. Mark Lanegan was a guide through some of the darkness of life, wrapped heavily in all its shadows himself. He might have been the last lingering reminder of the power of grunge behind the hype and sadness, and that generation is gone and never coming back.