Mark Lanegan, born in Ellensburg, Washington, 57 years ago, is one of the most distinctive singers of his generation. Since the split from his first band Screaming Trees, his gritty baritone has graced and dishonored albums by Queens of the Stone Age, Soulsavers, UNKLE, Manic Street Preachers and many others, not to mention multiple collaborations with Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli and Joe Cardamone.
Lanegan, who introduced his friend Kurt Cobain to Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Leadbelly? when they worked together on The Winding Sheet in the 1990s, released an ever-brilliant series of solo albums in 30 years, drawing inspiration from everything from creepy blues to scuzz-rock to electro.
Shortly after publishing his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards And Weep, a raw and heart-wrenching saga of addiction, destitution and grief, Lanegan and his wife Shelley Brien moved from California to Co Kerry, a place they had. first met when they appeared on Other Des Voices in 2004.
“A friend of mine had a house here,” says Lanegan. “When I regained my awareness of the physical beauty of the place and made some great friends from the start, the warmth of these people made it an easy place to stay. Sometimes I have trouble with the accent of the high-pitched voice, but I’m learning. . . “
Lanegan thrived during confinement, entering a prolific period of writing lyrics, poetry and music, until the morning he woke up completely deaf and unable to stand or draw oxygen. He lost his balance, had a bad fall and was admitted to intensive care, where he was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of coronavirus.
What followed was a three-month bedridden ordeal of sleeplessness, hallucinations, intubations, a four-week medically induced coma, endless demands for blood tests, and the constant struggle to breathe. If he had had to face the American health care system, says Lanegan, “I would be dead or in debt for 10 lifetimes. I have been incredibly lucky to be here.
This month sees the publication of his this season’s story in a Covid service, Devil In A Coma, a short but intensive, part essay, part free-form poetry. What the prose lacks in literary finesse is more than offset by the authenticity of the author’s voice and the gravity of his experiences. He’s a compelling character: restless, impenetrable, somewhat off-putting, with a graveyard spirit. In person and on the phone, he chooses his words carefully and uses them sparingly.
The difference between writing songs and writing books, he argues, is simple: “One of them is nice and the other isn’t. For me, the lyrics are something that comes instinctively, I just try to do what I think is appropriate for any piece of music. But putting together a book, as you know, is a job, a labor. And it’s also hard on the eyes, if you write on your phone, which I usually do.
“When I started writing the first book, a friend of mine who was a writer told me that if I was to write anything other than just a shitty rock biography, I should find a level of honesty that I would be uncomfortable (laughs). In a way that totally freed me up to let it fly. There were people I talked about in the book who were extremely unhappy with the way I described them. , but, you know, they knew me before I wrote it.
The misery of addiction
More than one reader I know has suggested that there are passages in Sing Backwards And Weep so inflexible about the misery of heroin addiction that they should be used in NA meetings.
“Well, I take that as a compliment. I certainly wouldn’t want to relive that experience. It wasn’t the easiest thing to write, but it’s a good caveat, I guess. “
Hungarian-Canadian physician Gabor Maté argues that all drug addiction stems from childhood developmental trauma. In Lanegan’s case, he had a drinker father and a mother figure who seemed to hate his very existence.
“Obviously, I have an extremely complicated family life,” he concedes, “but that said, I think I was born into a drug addict, I just needed something to make it happen, because the whole first time ever putting substance in my body I was extremely happy and wanted to do it again immediately after.
Has he submitted to the joys of talk therapy?
“I have been sent there several times. In fact, more than a few. But I never lasted very long. I think that’s good for a lot of people, it’s just not really my bag, so to speak. I am probably too old. Too anchored in my habits.
Perhaps, despite Lanegan’s claims to the contrary in the past, the writing serves a therapeutic purpose. Devil In A Coma reads like a feverish dream. How did he get back to that hallucinatory state of mind when he wrote it down? Did he use any particular tricks, memory cues?
“I just start at the beginning and go where it takes me, basically I never really took notes on anything much to my editor’s chagrin on the first book because I wouldn’t write no plan. Although he taught me quite a few writing lessons that were useful in real life. A lot of it was written while I was there, so there wasn’t much to remember, and then the past stuff. . . I just have a memory for a long time!
Did the experience make him more courageous or more fearful?
“You know, I’m still working this out. It went on incredibly long and took several trips to the hospital, more than what I wrote. It hit me pretty hard, so right now I’m probably somewhere in between those two polar extremes you just mentioned.
One of the most frightening moments in the book comes when doctors consider performing a tracheostomy and Lanegan’s wife, Shelley, intercedes because the risk to her voice is too great.
“I was incredibly proud of her, but again she knows me pretty well, and the doctor’s job is to sustain life, that’s what they do. If that means chopping off your legs to survive then they can do it, so you can’t blame these guys for doing their jobs. I was just glad she was there to stop him. The people in the hospitals I was in were incredibly kind and selfless, but still, for a person like me, it’s like prison.
Have the years of difficult life made her body more susceptible to the virus?
“It’s hard to say, you know, it attacked some places where I had been traumatic before, but it was like accidents, stuff of that nature. I have a pretty sturdy build, I think that’s probably why I’m still here.
This is also how he managed to maintain a long solo career despite his profile which never exceeds the cult figure. Lanegan enjoys the approval of his peers, but he has a complicated relationship with his own creative drive. As devoted as he is to the art of singing (and he is an excellent performer as well as a songwriter), he is not a comfortable performer. I ask what is he focusing on when he’s on stage, hanging off the microphone stand, eyes closed?
“I try to get lost in the song itself and not be swayed by anything outside of that, because it’s not something that really comes naturally to me, even after all these years of playing. do it, so I have to be very careful what I do or I might screw it up. I think I learned to do it by trial and error. When I first started I was not very good, I was singing songs written by someone else [Gary Lee Conner, Screaming Trees’ guitarist] who sang in a much higher register than me.
How does he keep an old song fresh, night after night?
“Someone once said to me, don’t write a song unless you’re willing to sing it for the rest of your life. I kind of took that to heart. While I’ve written a lot that I won’t, I try to make sure that there is enough that I have a cache.
What advice would he give to someone who wants to sing?
“Do it. I think anyone can sing. People who say they can’t are full of shit.
Devil In A Coma is published by White Rabbit Books