Mark Lanegan, the gruff-voiced singer who fronted Screaming Trees before embarking on a successful solo career, died Tuesday at his home in Killarney, Ireland. “No other information is available at this time,” a rep for the singer wrote. “The family asks everyone to respect their privacy at this time.” Lanegan was 57.
Lanegan rose to prominence in the late Eighties and early Nineties as frontman for Screaming Trees, the psychedelic-leaning, Ellensburg, Wash., hard-rock group that foreshadowed grunge. His deep, dramatic voice gave weight to guitarist-songwriter Gary Lee Conner’s compositions in the band’s early days before he took more of an active role himself.
The group scored Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart with the singles “Nearly Lost You” and “All I Know.” During his time in Trees, Lanegan launched a concurrent solo career, beginning with 1990’s The Winding Sheet, an album that featured guest appearances by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. He continued with his solo career after the dissolution of Screaming Trees in 2000, frequently making guest appearances with Queens of the Stone Age and teaming with former Belle and Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell, Duke Garwood, and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli. The latter duo billed themselves as the Gutter Twins.
Lanegan detailed his formative years in vividly gritty detail in his 2020 memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. Behind the scenes, he grappled with alcoholism and heroin addiction while maintaining his musical career. He cleaned up for the first time after Courtney Love paid to send him to rehab. In a Rolling Stone interview after the book came out, he explained why Love helped him. “I remember Courtney leaving me a letter saying, ‘Kurt loved you as a big brother and would have wanted you to live. The world needs you to live,'” he said. “That was powerful because I hadn’t done any good for anybody in years.” He subsequently connected with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, (who performed as a second guitarist in Screaming Trees) and toured with that group while painting sets for television shows. His most recent solo album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, came out in spring 2020.
“Mark Lanegan was a lovely man,” former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook tweeted. “He led a wild life that some of us could only dream of. He leaves us with fantastic words and music! Thank god that through all of that he will live forever.”
“May you truly rest in peace, big brother,” former Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel tweeted.
“I can’t process this,” John Cale wrote on Twitter. “Mark Lanegan will always be etched in my heart — as he surely touched so many with his genuine self, no matter the cost, true to the end.”
Mark William Lanegan was born in Ellensburg, Washington, about 100 miles southeast of Seattle, on Nov. 25, 1964. Both of his parents were schoolteachers who divorced when Lanegan was young. He claimed in his memoir that his mother was verbally abusive toward him, so he opted to live with his dad. “My father spent scant time trying to parent me,” he wrote. “Due to his own prodigious drinking schedule and his lifelong interest in playing cards all night with his pals and chasing women, he quickly gave up trying to enforce any kind of control.”
Lanegan became enamored with punk and reconnected with childhood friend Van Conner. When he learned that Van, his brother Gary Lee, and Pickerel had a band, Gary Lee suggested that Lanegan record some vocals over some of the songs he’d written, and Screaming Trees were born.
Screaming Trees’ debut, Clairvoyance, was released in 1986 to little fanfare. The music was a psychedelic swirl of guitar, church organ, and Lanegan’s reedy vocals. After signing to SST, the band released similar-sounding albums every year through 1989, during which time it built up a steady local following.
One person introduced himself to Lanegan after a concert, saying, “I’m a huge fan of yours. If you ever need an opener or want to do something musical together, please give me a call.” It was Cobain, who was also a fan of Jamboree, the 1988 Beat Happening album Lanegan and Gary Lee had co-produced. In his memoir, Lanegan recalled a moment later on when Novoselic asked to join the Trees but Lanegan counseled him to stay with Nirvana. “The difference between Nirvana and the Trees was so clear to me,” he wrote. “Nirvana were who they were from the first time I saw them: great songs, great singer, great look, everything.”
Feeling constricted artistically in Screaming Trees, Lanegan starting writing his own songs for what would be his solo debut, 1990’s The Winding Sheet. (Cobain ended up singing on two of the album’s songs, “Down in the Dark” and a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that also featured Novoselic.) The following year, Nirvana became a worldwide phenomenon and Lanegan felt some of the success both from interest in The Winding Sheet and with the release of Screaming Trees’ Uncle Anesthesia.
The band scored the biggest hit of their career when “Nearly Lost You” was included on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s love letter to Seattle, Singles. By this point, Lanegan had discovered heroin and was drinking again. When he looked back on the genesis of “Nearly Lost You,” which also appeared on the Trees’ Sweet Oblivion album, in a 2012 interview with Spin, he cringed. “It’s one of those songs I hope to never hear again,” he said. “Why? Because it was specifically written to be a single. It’s a corny, cheesy tune. But, you know, whatever. It is what it is.” When asked if fans at his solo shows ever requested it, he said no. “Luckily they have better taste than that.” (Despite Lanegan’s take, Sweet Oblivion has become a grunge touchstone; when Rolling Stone ranked the 50 Greatest Grunge Albums in 2019, it ranked Number 17.)
Screaming Trees put out one more album, 1996’s Dust, which contained the singles “All I Know” and “Sworn and Broken,” but continued to tour through 2000. Meanwhile, Lanegan continued releasing solo albums. In January 1994, he released one of his best, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, which contained more sophisticated and emotional songs than The Winding Sheet. A few months later, Cobain died by suicide, causing Lanegan to increase his drug use. “When a drug addict loses a friend, they just do more drugs,” he told Rolling Stone.
The next year, Lanegan collaborated with Alice in Chains vocalist Staley on “I’m Above” and “Long Day Gone,” two songs that would appear on Above, the debut album by Mad Season. (The supergroup that also featured Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin.) “I was not a great influence on Layne, but [drugs] were a mutual thing,” Lanegan told Rolling Stone. “I put it like this in my lyric book: ‘Kurt was like a little brother, Layne was like a twin.'”
Lanegan cleaned up when life in Seattle, where he had moved in the Nineties, no longer became safe. He had double-crossed a drug dealer and had a cop looking for him, so he looked into an organization, the Musicians’ Assistance Program, in California that Courtney Love had told him about. “They paid for my rehab,” he told Rolling Stone. “But I realized I needed a lot more than just that, and Courtney ended up paying for my rent there for months. I was also unemployable and a mess physically after all the years of doing damage to myself. I remember waking up in rehab and the room was filled with bags of new clothes that she had sent in.”
After rehab, Lanegan moved into a halfway house and worked construction until Guns n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, a longtime fan, gave him a job looking after his home. He reconnected with Homme, who had formed Queens of the Stone Age, and sang lead vocals on a few songs on the band’s Rated R and Songs for the Deaf albums, as well as records by the Twilight Singers, Greg Dulli’s post-Afghan Whigs band. In 2004, Lanegan put out Bubblegum, a critically acclaimed solo offering that featured appearances by Homme, PJ Harvey, Chris Goss, McKagan, Izzy Stradlin, and many others. Songs like “When Your Number Isn’t Up” and “Hit the City,” with Harvey, were brooding, dark, and beautiful. That same year, he fell back into drugs.
“I relapsed and immediately went into a coma for, like, 10 days or something. I almost died,” he told Rolling Stone. “When I came out of it, I can’t explain it, but music was completely drained from me. It was the most fucked-up thing. I got no pleasure or anything out of music: Music that I had loved before, new music, music on the radio, any kind of music — I did not want to hear it. I couldn’t hear it, and I certainly couldn’t fucking write or sing it. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do now?'”
While supporting himself by painting sets for television shows, he slowly got back into music by touring with Dulli and Queens. His 2012 solo album, Blues Funeral allowed Lanegan to explore his interest in electronic music — but in his typically brooding way — and he would continue exploring those types of sounds throughout his career.
Lanegan’s last decade would prove especially prolific artistically. He formed his own record label and put out albums every few years. He collaborated with Garwood and guested on songs by Earth, Neko Case, Manic Street Preachers, and many others. In 2018, one of Lanegan’s heroes, Marianne Faithfull, asked him to write lyrics for “They Come at Night,” a song for her Negative Capability album that addressed the 2016 terrorist attack on Paris’ Bataclan venue. “He’s one of the most brilliant composers there is,” Faithfull told Rolling Stone at the time. “And he did a brilliant job. It was like it was written for him.” Last year saw the release of his final album, a dark, electronics-imbued collaboration with the Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone.
In spring 2020, Lanegan was living in rural Ireland with his wife, Shelley, when he contracted the coronavirus. He was placed in a medically induced coma but survived. “It was definitely in my top five worst experiences,” he told iNews in December 2021. “But I finally turned a corner recently and I’m feeling pretty normal, so it looks like it’s behind me.” He chronicled the experience in another memoir, Devil in a Coma, that came out that same month.
“I feel incredibly blessed,” he told iNews. “For a person like me to have been to the places I’ve been, and have the opportunity to bring something to other people’s lives, it’s an amazing gift.”