[Landline] In the Fade
for Mark Lanegan, 1964 - 2022
The stars and the moon
Aren't where they're supposed to be
Mark Lanegan has died at his home in Ireland. He was 57.
I’m in shock. I knew he’d got very bad Covid in 2020. But it seemed as if he had made it through, even writing (and publishing) a memoir about the experience — his second book in less than two years. I guess I thought Lanegan had outrun his varied demons, made it past bad fortune, beyond hard living and poor judgment, past addiction, self-sabotage, illness and all that, through to something like golden years. Silver years, bronze years, whatever. Something like Iggy Pop, maybe—another hard-living singer nobody thought would make it to 30, somehow settling into a mid-life good run and eventually outliving everybody.
The first time I talked with Mark Lanegan was in 2002, in person. I was working on a cover feature for the LAWeekly on Queens of the Stone Age, who were finishing recording what would become Songs for the Deaf. At this point Lanegan was basically a full-time member of the band, so after I interviewed Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, an interview with Lanegan was arranged through a publicist. Mark was “in the studio working on a solo album” but he could take a few minutes to talk about Queens.
Early one July afternoon I pulled into a parking lot behind Stagg Street Studios in Van Nuys. No one was there to meet me, and Mark wasn’t answering the phone. A disheveled guy was sitting on the bench, arguing on the phone with somebody. I knocked on the studio door.
Inside, guitars out, laughing, were Josh, Nick and Dean Ween, none of whom I expected to see there. (I think these were the sessions that ended up producing the wonderful, little-heard Here Comes That Weird Chill EP.) Awestruck (Dean Ween!?!) and a bit embarrassed, I said whoops sorry, I’m just here to talk with Lanegan real fast, know where he is?
Turned out the guy that I’d walked right by outside was Lanegan. Eventually he got off the phone and I explained why I was there. He didn’t know anything about it but he was willing to take a few minutes. But first he said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”
He sat next to me on the bench, took off his sunglasses and looked me as directly in the eye as anyone has ever done, and said, “Do I look like I’m dying?”
He was serious. I was shocked. I stumbled over something about how yeah I guess he was a little pale, offered some half-remembered health advice, something about trying to only eat what’s in season locally.
A giddy Chris Goss drove up with some amps while we were talking and started wheeling them in. Lanegan and I went and talked for a few minutes about Queens in my car with the windows rolled up, so the tape recorder would pick up his voice, and so we wouldn’t be interrupted. He said he was going through some hard stuff. He told me he had been coming out of a local coffeehouse recently and saw a woman get hit by a car. I think he said she died in his arms.
The second time I talked to Mark at any length was when I was tasked with writing the promotional material for his next solo album, 2004’s Bubblegum. You can read the full piece here.
I still think Bubblegum and 2003’s Here Comes That Weird Chill, recorded in different sessions in the same 18-month period, are Lanegan’s finest start-to-finish solo jams, and this song, featuring Chris Goss on backing vocals, his loveliest (and saddest) ever.
Around this time, I was able to convince Mark to participate in the Junior Kimbrough tribute album that Matthew Johnson was assembling at his Fat Possum label. Mark said he had sworn off appearing on any more artist tribute albums — he was always getting asked. "I'll make an exception," said Mark, “but this will be the last one.” He turned in a dark, gorgeous piece that was a tribute, not a cover—an exact meeting place between him and Junior. A collaboration with an intimidating ghost elder he’d never met, who demanded respect, and (I think) some kind of sacrifice. Bring your own riff. That kind of thing.
I liked Mark, I liked his music. And I liked him because he loved music so much. It wasn’t just psychedelic rock or garage-punk stuff, it was every category. Blues, soul, jazz, classic rock, reggae, underground rock, art rock, contemporary electronic music. He was omnivorous, wide-ranging. He was a huge Kinks fan! He’d done a record with Beat Happening! He had a collaboration in progress with Greg Dulli, another one with Isobel Campbell from Belle & Sebastian! And in those early ‘00s years, he was in what at that time was the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, a band he didn’t have to lead.
Which was important, because Lanegan was so unusual: he was a natural singer who was not a natural frontman. He seemed far from at ease onstage, usually just squinting and standing stockstill, holding onto the mic for dear life. He was not a showman. Didn't matter. His voice was so rich, and the material clearly meant so much to him, that it worked.
A few years ago I had a bad argument with Mark on Twitter. He’d announced he was going to play some shows in Israel and I foolishly decided to register my disappointment in public. I pounced on him and it got rough. (Some of it is still there to read.) We made up in private right away. Mark thought deeply about stuff, and wanted to do the right thing, and was obviously torn. I’m glad we patched it up, but I regret starting the argument in public in the first place. Not cool.
Last year I went through a period of listening closely to the early Screaming Trees albums, which, for some reason, I'd never checked out in any depth. There's so many gorgeous, melodic moments on those records, somehow positive music despite persistent intra-band bad vibes.
But in the end, there's no Screaming Trees song I've listened to more than “Sworn and Broken,” from their final album, Dust (1996). This song is bigger than life — majestic, perfectly arranged and performed, sensitive without being mawkish or overwrought. When Benmont Tench's organ solo comes in... forget it. The clouds part.
Bigger than life? Bigger than death. Three and a half minutes: brief and beautiful, an instant elegy. Whenever I hear it, I wish it would go on a while longer, but of course, it doesn’t. It gives what it can, and ends.
Goodbye, Mark. Thank you for giving what you could. I wish I could’ve told you that one more time.
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