#54 Mark Lanegan: Whiskey for the Holy Ghost

Dying mama
Barely breathing in a bed of nails
To wander through the ruin smoking and pale
I came upon an angel and a nightingale
Hanging where the darkness comes
Between the earth and skies above
Dead weight are my body’s bones
I think I dug too deep a hole
Think I dug too deep a hole
Better run for cover, babe, you better hide
Don’t do no good to wait ’til time decides
Time decides
Time
Time
I need a little more time

Riding the Nightingale

Right everyone, let’s get sad.

Mark Lanegan passed away on February 22nd 2022, adding to Necessary Evil’s sadly growing death list. His last appearance was as a typically commanding guest vocal on the Manics’ recent album highlight Blank Diary Entry. He actually died while I was writing the 2021 Legit Bosses list, meaning a rapid (and, to be honest, rather shocked) rewrite to that song’s entry at #93. I didn’t want that rushed and dismayed edit to be my final word on an artist unarguably an important and consistent part of the modern rock canon, and someone who had long been close to my heart. So I entered the 1994 album that I long considered his career highlight into NE2022.

Mark Lanegan was never at the top table in terms of commercial success. Screaming Trees, the band he was a part of over their 1984 – 1996 existence, were incredibly influential, being a notable name in American alternative rock pre, during and post Grunge. But their record sales were – financially speaking – fucking peanuts, and they actually split up simply because they couldn’t find any record company willing to finance the release of their seventh album. Before we begin that old fashioned cultural boomer argument about how much better music used to be, and how Kurt Cobain would have only shot himself in the head earlier had TikTok existed (probably live on TikTok, come to think of it. That is quality content), remember that twenty five years ago one of the most influential rock bands of their generation had to stop making music because nobody would give them money to continue. Mark Lanegan’s solo output was fortunate enough to be given more of a chance, partially because of the changing sands in the music industry and the greater respect paid to his legacy, and partially because having Kurt Cobain guest on your 1990 debut solo album is relatively useful for longterm financial sustainability. Kurt Cobain first introduced himself to Lanegan as a fan after a show, and it was Mark Lanegan who first dug up old US folk classic Where Did You Sleep Last Night that soon became something of an alternative rock standard after Cobain pilfered the idea for Nirvana’s classic MTV Unplugged show (this was when I first became aware of Lanegan’s work, and I imagine many other’s too). Dang, even 070 Shake, the experimental hip-hop artist, even semi-covered the song on 2020’s greatest album, showing how the longterm influence of Lanegan highlighting the track on his debut album more than thirty years ago are still reverberating today.

It’s hard to imagine he was ever that young

I’d say, if the layperson has heard of Mark Lanegan, then he’s famous for two things. One minor one major.

The minor thing he was famous for is – Jesus Christ – being a massive caner. In his 2020 autobiography Lanegan explains how his father was an alcoholic and gambler and he claims these habits rubbed off on him. He states than he soon became a compulsive gambler who was “reviled as the town drunk”. By age twelve. If you start off as an alcoholic when you’re twelve, that stuff’s gonna get pretty lame and ineffectual pretty fast, and he was doing hard drugs when he was eighteen, spending a year in jail on drugs charges. His huge heroin use would have doctors debate whether to amputate an arm in 1992, and Kurt Cobain’s death in 94 only saw him dive more deeply into drug use (with little affect on his creativity, as this 94 album shows). Courtney Love funded a successful rehab stay for Lanegan in 98 (who at that point was homeless and working labouring jobs on construction sites. Oh, and caretaking the house of G’n’f’R bassist Duff McKagan’s house??), though there was a relapse in 2004 that lead to a ten day coma and another stint in rehab in 2007 (which at least by this point, you’d like to think, he was able to afford himself). Him being put into a medically induced coma in 2020 due to COVID and coming out the other side seemed to solidify the belief that he was alternative rock’s great survivor. Like the Keith Richards who doesn’t make you feel sick when you consider what a greedy capitalistic leech he is.

The other thing – the major thing – is by far the most important though: It’s that fucking voice, no??

Let’s put aside any ‘in modern rock’ or ‘in alternative rock’ or ‘in rock’ caveats, Mark Lanegan simply had one of the greatest and most soulful voices ever put to record. He possessed a voice that you worried would accidentally summon the most dangerous ghosts of the plains of the Mississippi Delta. And those ghosts would be angry. But also remorseful. And also incredibly fucking sad. There have never been many more distinct captures of the male soul being so remorsefully bared than when Lanegan sang. His was the voice of a billion souls having their collective throats being sliced and the blood seeping into the microphone. He was the devil himself after someone finally had the thought to turn around on that road to hell and ask “Hey, big fella, I get that my sins are plentiful, but how are you feeling?”. His was “the voice of a grizzly bear on fire that’s angry at you stealing his cigarettes“. I mean, it’s amazing that The Manics in 2020 were the first artists to attempt to siphon of this otherworldly energy that one human had managed to possess.

Psyche! Dude, of course they fucking weren’t! To just tick of a small percentage, he worked with PJ Harvey, UNKLE, Moby, Cult of Luna and Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli. A large part of his early 21st century rebirth was being invited by his friend Josh Homme to join Queens of the Stone Age and contribute to the semi-supergroup masterpiece ‘Songs for the Deaf‘ and later work. In one of the most bizarrely unexpected moves in recorded history, he joined Isobel Campbell (her from Belle and fucking Sebastian!!) to record three incredibly well received albums, the first of which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Personally, I want to make special effort to mention the two records he released with electronic artists Soulsaver, which produced what I consider to be his greatest ever song, Revival.

Notably, he once moved Liam Gallagher to call him a “fucking ginger bearded bastard” and later an “an uptight junkie”.

But this 1994 solo effort has always been the one closest to my heart, the one that played the biggest part in my own personal emotional and musical growth. During the third year of university my (ahem, first) wife lived together for the first time, and this gorgeous struggle with emotions and mortality became a central part of our lives and our relationship. It means nothing in the wider scale of things, but Lanegan always meant something to me. It’s incredibly sad that rock’s great survivor didn’t make it past fifty seven, but it would be far sadder if he hadn’t released such an extensive catalogue of music, if he hadn’t had such a physical presence on so much of the most notable and important music released over the past thirty five or so years.

I’ve been very, very luck. I’ve always had this core audience that has picked up new members along the way. Sometimes I’d play in Milwaukee and it would be 20 Screaming Trees fans and that’s how they would know me, but when I play in England I’m thought of as a guy who’s making music that is vital and of our time, people don’t even know who Screaming Trees are

Oh, and in 2017 I introduced this award, so I guess this album wins it as well:

BandCamp

2017 #34

2014 #59

(solo)

2009 #21

2007 #11

(with Soulsavers)

3 thoughts on “#54 Mark Lanegan: Whiskey for the Holy Ghost

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