The news of Mark Lanegan’s death broke early this afternoon, and it’s already sending shockwaves across the rock landscape. The former Screaming Trees frontman was a towering figure in the history of grunge. Starting in 1986 with their LP Clairvoyance, Lanegan and his bandmates set the stage for Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and so much music that followed in their wake. The Nineties would have unfolded in imaginably different ways without his influence.
For a tiny bit of proof, check out this rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” from Lanegan’s 1990 solo debut The Winding Sheet. If that electric guitar and voice in the background sound familiar to you, that’s because it’s Kurt Cobain. Krist Novoselic is on bass, with Screaming Trees’ Mark Pickerel on drums.
The recording session took place shortly after Nirvana wrapped their 1989 Bleach tour. Cobain spent days at a time chilling with Lanegan in Olympia, Washington, and listening to old blues records they both loved. “One afternoon at his place, we started talking about making a record,” Lanegan wrote in his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. “‘We should do a record of this stuff,’ one of us suggested. And then the other, ‘We should do a record of all Lead Belly covers.’ ”
They had a lot of fun talking about it, but actually recording it was a different matter. “Being pals was easy but creating together turned out to be more difficult as our respect for one another turned it into an oddly unproductive exercise,” Lanegan wrote. “Neither Kurt nor I were really willing to grab the reins. Despite being the least musically proficient member of Screaming Trees, it had become obvious to me early on that I had to be the default leader of the band, simply due to force of personality. I was used to directing Screaming Trees recording sessions … I couldn’t bear to do that in this situation, I was too awed by Kurt’s genius.”
They gave up the idea pretty quickly, but their take on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — a traditional folk tune that Lead Belly recorded several times in the Forties — surfaced on The Winding Sheet the following year. By that time, Nirvana was starting to gain national recognition. They also occasionally played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” in concert, but the most famous rendition took place on Nov. 18, 1993, at their MTV Unplugged special at Sony Music Studios in New York City. It’s one of the great musical moments of the Nineties, without any doubt, and it likely would never have happened without Lanegan’s connection to Cobain.
In a 1996 interview with Rolling Stone, Lanegan said he was stunned by the Unplugged performance of the song. “His version of that song is the definitive version — it blows mine away,” he said. “One of the coolest things that ever came from hanging with Kurt was just sitting in his shed and hearing him play acoustic guitar and singing. To me it sounded like what I imagined it would be like if I was sitting in the room with Skip James or Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was so soulful and real, it gave me the chills.”