As a longtime Mark Lanegan fan, I knew he had enough stories for a great autobiography. After all he was part of the SST-led underground rock scene of the ’80s, the mainstream alternative boom of the ’90s, and he’s collaborated with just about every musician from the last thirty-five years that you’d want to read about. Somehow Sing Backwards and Weep managed to blow away my admittedly high expectations, and I breezed through its 341 pages in just two days. The story starts in Ellensburg, a dead-end Washington town where Lanegan was on the fast track for trouble early, having spent most of his teen years drunk, stoned, getting into fights, and amassing a hefty rap sheet. Discovering punk rock showed him that perhaps there was something more in the world for him than just getting fucked up and going to jail. Or at the very least, it gave him the idea that he could find kindred spirits to get fucked up and go to jail with…and that’s the path he chose. Of course The Screaming Trees are a big part of the story, as they’re probably the most commercially successful thing Lanegan has been a part of, but many will be surprised to learn that he’s embarrassed by most of their musical output (he’s not wrong either) and he especially couldn’t stand guitarist Gary Lee Connor, who is painted in an unflattering (and often comical) light. Despite feeling completely alienated from the band he was supposed to be leading, Lanegan still has great stories from their early years, including Greg Sage of The Wipers making (non-musical) overtures towards their boyish-looking drummer Mark Pickerel, Mike Watt’s penny pinching tactics on their tours with firehose, and his encounters with pre-Sub Pop Nirvana. There’s even the revelation that Krist Novaselic actually wanted to leave Nirvana for The Screaming Trees at one point. Luckily, Lanegan could tell early on that Nirvana had something special, and as much as Novaselic would have been a great pick-up for his band, he knew enough to tell him to stay put where he was.
As the ’90s began things were looking up for The Screaming Trees, with a major label deal and a lot of attention being paid to Seattle bands. However, Lanegan, ever the contrarian, went in a completely different direction from his radio-friendly alt-rock peers, launching a solo career inspired by quieter, more introspective music like Nick Drake, Galaxie 500, Leonard Cohen. Unfortunately, the pressures of a real career brought out the worst in an already dysfunctional group, and Lanegan began diving deep into drugs, alcohol, and kink; and that’s where the book takes a really dark turn. Soon he became the old cliche of going from a musician dabbling in drugs to a drug addict dabbling in music. While his friends were off conquering the world (and finding their own personal hells inside the trappings of success), Lanegan spent the next few years going off the deep end on heroin and crack, coming close to death several times. By the back-half of his ’90s his band was sputtering to a halt, whatever money he made from album sales and touring was gone, and Mark was dealing drugs just to get by. Lanegan hit rock bottom in 1997, ending up virtually homeless until Courtney Love paid for him to go into rehab, and Duff McKagan (who Lanegan had never met before) offered to get him off the streets by letting him be a caretaker at his homes in Los Angeles and Seattle.
The hardcore depths of drug addiction are brutally dark, and reading about them can be grueling, but these years were not without humor. For every shot of dope there’s a hilarious quip or story, like Lanegan’s encounters with Liam Gallagher’s cocaine-fuelled arrogance on tour with Oasis. After Gallagher made a few disparaging remarks, Lanegan spent most of the tour plotting his revenge, only to find Liam was never seen without a team of bodyguards. The book ends abruptly with Lanegan getting the news of Layne Staley’s drug-fuelled death in 2002, which is a shame because the past eighteen years have seen him get sober, build an inspired solo discography, get married, become a sought-after collaborator, and just generally get his life together. Sing Backwards and Weep could have benefitted from that redemptive ending, but maybe he’s saving that for sequel? One can only hope.