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13 May 2020updated 04 Apr 2022 7:12pm

Mark Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep: a memoir of sex, drugs and grunge in Nineties Seattle

Mark Lanegan – former frontman with Seattle proto-grunge pioneers the Screaming Trees – gives us an extraordinary snapshot of the reality behind the myths of the rock star as junkie. 

By John Niven

We are all familiar with the myth of the rock star as junkie: floating on your opium cloud while bag men deliver to your five-star hotel tomb. Towards the end of this extraordinary memoir, Mark Lanegan – singer-songwriter and former frontman with Seattle proto-grunge pioneers the Screaming Trees – gives us an extraordinary snapshot of the reality lower down the totem pole.

The chapter “Ice Cold European Funhouse” is a blow-by-blow account of a 72-hour period on a tour of Europe in the autumn of 1996, close to the near-nadir of Lanegan’s heroin addiction. Beginning in the rain at a bus stop in Sheffield – where he tries to buy smack off some horrified fans – Lanegan takes a bus to Heathrow, then the Tube into London, then another bus to Bristol, then a flight to Germany and then a tour bus to Amsterdam, all the while going cold-turkey, vomiting, lashing sweat, “black miasma” threatening to blast from every orifice. At every step of the way he begs, steals and borrows money to get from one fix to the next. He is ripped off with fake drugs then mugged. The episode climaxes with Lanegan beating another would-be con-man dealer almost to death. These 20-odd pages are one of the most compelling accounts of squalor and misery ever committed to paper. In comparison, Bukowski at his most fevered reads like Somerset Maugham. Not that the rest of the book is exactly comic relief.

Born in 1964 in a small east Washington town, Lanegan comes from a long line of “bootleggers, dirt farmers, criminals, convicts and hillbillies”. After his parents split, his childhood becomes an inventory of maternal abuse (“You’re not my son”) and paternal neglect (“I could do whatever I wanted”) that culminates in Lanegan as a fully-fledged alcoholic and criminal while still in his teens. His head turned by British punk rock singles, he forms the Screaming Trees in 1985 and moves to Seattle at the end of the decade. Which is to say, at just the right time.

With sickening inevitability, he is forced to watch as almost every one of his peers slingshots around him. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana all rocket off to multi-platinum glory while success continues to elude Lanegan like a buttered eel, to borrow the late Dave Cavanagh’s memorable phrase. It is one of the great strengths of this book (and, you suspect, one of Lanegan’s as a man) that there is not a flicker of envy or bitterness about any of this. Indeed, in the case of Nirvana, you sense a fan’s relief that the world finally recognises the colossal talent Lanegan saw the moment he befriended Kurt Cobain.

If there is a criticism it is that, here and there, the recalled dialogue is wooden and stilted, reading not unlike a book that might be called “Secret Seven Hit the Meth Pipe”. You hardly feel the breath of life in exchanges such as, “Tell me you two are not shooting heroin or, by God, Peter and Cliff are going to hear about it!” Or in “Lanegan, you are a complete time-wasting ass! What in the  serious fuck do you think you’re doing?”

But this is to niggle. Some passages are so wonderfully thick with addict-speak that, as with Burroughs, you’ll read them two or three times to figure out exactly what is going on: “I would then cure the Chore Boy, blackening a piece of it with a lighter… then I’d take a previously prepared outfit full of dope and search until I got it in a vein. I’d register… and then, careful not to jiggle the rig [I’d] hold the tube out at arm’s length and melt with a butane torch the biggest hit…”

What Lanegan is doing here is what constitutes a good time for him by the end of the 1990s: taking enough crack to almost cause a stroke and then pulling himself back from the edge with an enormous injection of heroin. As he observes himself late in the book, “how much simpler life would be if I was clean”. Well, indeed.

But this lesson is not quickly learned. I said “near-nadir” earlier because once he returns to Seattle from that European tour, things really begin to fall apart. He is living on the streets, his belongings long sold off to obtain the bronco-stunning quantities of crack and smack he needs each day. His teeth are “rotting”, he is “infested with lice”. He shoplifts batteries to survive, and has torn tube socks wrapped around his forearms “as bandages, for the huge, gaping self-inflicted wounds”. Finally – and the reader has an alarmingly slim number of pages nestling in their right hand when this happens – a guardian angel arrives in the unlikely form of Courtney Love, who gets him into rehab in California.

By this point his friends and mentors – the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Alice in Chains’s Layne Staley and, of course, Cobain himself – are all dead. Incredibly, given that Lanegan’s whole life has been a slow motion suicide bid, he finds himself still alive, clean, and with his best work ahead of him over the next two decades.

Where Lanegan wins in his songs is also where he wins on the page: in the darkness of the confession booth, with nothing held back. On that level, the book is a triumph. 

John Niven’s most recent novel, “The F*ck-it List”, is published by William Heinemann

Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir 
Mark Lanegan
White Rabbit, 352pp, £20

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This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion