The death of a singer seems particularly shocking. Especially a voice which, as Nick Cave has put it, 'tears right through you'. The powerful voice that will never be heard live again, even if their records live on.
The same deep shock that many felt when David Bowie left us will also have been present when people heard of the death of Mark Lanegan on 22 February. It took me back to 14 December 2019, when Lanegan played at the Liquid Room, off Victoria Street, Edinburgh. It was the last gig I went to prior to the pandemic.
This is how I recorded the events of that evening: 'Those in attendance were left rather bemused as Lanegan was forced to end his gig at the Liquid Room prematurely. After a high-energy support slot from John Robb's The Membranes, Lanegan made a strong start with his rich and sonorous voice rumbling through the venue as he sang songs from his varied back catalogue and recent album Somebody's Knocking
. The bluesy Bleeding Muddy Water
was a highlight with the band producing a fine atmospheric setting. It was only during the high tempo Ode to Sad Disco
that it became evident
that something was awry; Lanegan appeared to lose track and garbled the lyrics. It initially seemed like a technical issue but it was soon clear that
there was something deeper at issue. After a few muttered exchanges with his band members, they hurriedly left the stage. Guitarist Jeff Fielder returned a couple of minutes to say that they would, in normal circumstances,
be returning for a couple more songs but he wasn't sure if that would be the case. Five minutes later, the lights went up and as the audience adjusted to the harsh glare, it was clear that the gig was over…'
Lanegan had, as he did last month, left us too early, but not before a fantastic and rich show. He revealed a few days later that the death of a friend shortly before the gig had overwhelmed him during the performance. Like the end of that gig, his death has left many dazed and perplexed.
Up to that point, Lanegan had been considered one of music's great survivors. His books tell of the many friends he has lost along the way. These included the food writer and broadcaster, Anthony Bourdaine, who took his own life in 2021. Bourdain convinced Lanegan to tell his tale on the page and assisted him with his writing. Lanegan's widely acclaimed memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep
, tells of many drunken escapades which could have ended in fatal disaster and his struggles with addiction ('heroin, crack, just about everything').
Among other recent books by musicians and songwriters, Brett Anderson's memoir of his early years, Coal Black Mornings
, would belong to the same class, as would Luke Haines' Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall
and Elvis Costello's Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
Lanegan's final book, Devil in a Coma
, is an intense account of a Covid experience 'that goes off the rails' and almost leads to his death. It seemed that Lanegan was going to be one of those able to channel his inner torments productively into beautiful music and stunning prose well into old age.
One of his most beautiful albums was I'll Take Care of You
(1999), a superb collection of folk and country covers. This included a magnificent version of Siloh Town
, a song credited to Tim Hardin (though his authorship is disputed). Hardin was one of the great tragic figures of music. He burst onto the scene in the mid 60s with some of the most enduring songs of the era, including Reason to Believe
(made famous by Rod Stewart), Black Sheep Boy
and If I Were a Carpenter
. The brilliant Tribute to Hank Williams
on his second album celebrated the life of the country singer who had burned brightly but died young. A similar fate befell Hardin, dying of a drug overdose at 39, as his career floundered with a series of increasingly patchy, unfulfilling albums.
Hardin joined a group of other tragic figures, including Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake and Gene Clark (Lanegan's version of Clark's epic Some Misunderstanding
with the Soulsavers is well worth tracking down). They all died relatively young, following long battles with mental health issues, alcoholism and drug abuse. They also failed to achieve the success their talents merited, which contributed to their troubled lives. They seem to embody the idea that genius and madness are closely associated. Drake, in particular, is considered to be someone who found life too hard. The biographies you read of these tragic figures are heartbreaking as they struggle with inner demons only exacerbated by the difficulties they faced in getting their music out to an audience. It's laughable now given that these artists are now considered among the greats; their musical legacies live on, far outshining more commercially successful artists of their era.
Unlike these tragic figures, Lanegan did receive adulation in his own lifetime, though surely less than his talent deserves. He leaves behind an extensive and varied discography (the multiplicity of his collaborative work makes it difficult to keep track of everything he recorded). Working through that discography will provide those familiar and those unfamiliar with his work many, many hours of listening pleasure. He really was one of the great voices of his era and a mesmeric performer. On stage, he often performed in darkness, allowing his deep and rumbling voice to emanate from the shadows.
As his short book of stories behind his songs (Sleevenotes
) elaborates, his songs often came from dark places; from the 'the broken pieces of dreams and nightmare phantasmagorias'. The book details that many of his greatest and 'most personally meaningful' songs derive from tragedies that befell his friends and musical collaborators. When he performed them, the power of his performance partly derived from the experience that inspired them. Some might consider this depressing to listen to. Others might be inspired by an artist's ability to turn bitter experience into something truly beautiful. Much great art comes from deep within the soul and from inner turmoil. Lanegan's case is an extreme one. A sense of a life permanently on edge.
For those in Scotland, the three very fine albums (plus an EP) he produced with Isobel Campbell (previously of Belle & Sebastian) may be the most familiar. Hawk
(2010) in particular is a classic. The collaboration also included a fantastic contribution to The Journey Is Long
(The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project). Their gorgeous version of The Breaking Hands
sounded like the Cocteau Twins playing country and is as stunning as that sounds.
These albums highlighted the folk aspect of his music. On more recent albums (including Blues Funeral
) he embraced electronica and Krautrock, giving his records a renewed vibrancy. It was through the grunge rock band The Screaming Trees that he first came to prominence, part of the milieu with his friend Kurt Cobain. Cobain played on his debut solo album and Cobain's death was a massive blow to Lanegan. This was followed by a period of severe alcohol and drug abuse before he re-emerged with the superb Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Since his death, I've found myself re-investigating albums such as Field Songs
(2001), which combine folk aspects with a range of influences, including middle eastern sounds. Lanegan's music cannot be pigeonholed. He has died well before his time but has left a fantastic cultural legacy. Like the tragics, his music will find passionate devotees in future generations.
While I burn when there's no more tomorrows?
Will you remember me through the years I'll miss
And forget all the sadnesses and the sorrows?
(Mark Lanegan, One Hundred Days
, from album Bubblegum
, 2004 )
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh. He thanks Eva Vaporidi for her comments on an earlier version of this piece