MAGNET editor Eric T. Miller mourns the loss of Mark Lanegan and recalls a memorable night he spent with the Screaming Trees vocalist 30 years ago
“Say farewell and close the door/You’ll find me nevermore” —Screaming Trees, “For Celebrations Past”
Screaming Trees were a rock band, plain and simple. Even during the “grunge” years. And they were everything a rock band should be. They were utterly original, but you could hear myriad influences—punk, psych, folk, blues, metal—in each of their songs. They were simultaneously dangerous and comforting. They had the potential of being the greatest live group in the world one night, a train wreck the next. They were completely dysfunctional. (The Replacements had absolutely nothing on the Trees in that department.) And they had The Voice. Nobody could sing like Mark Lanegan. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, Lanegan was born with the gift of a golden voice. Countless rock critics have written that about countless singers, and that might be sort of true for many of them. But with Lanegan, it’s a fact, not opinion. If Lanegan sold his soul to the devil for that voice, Satan got screwed. Big time.
At MAGNET, I had a number of interactions with Lanegan and his camp over the years, setting up interviews, photo shoots, etc., for the magazine. I was also at Lanegan’s infamous 1997 solo show in New York City, during which he had an onstage breakdown the likes of which I hadn’t seen before or since. But when I think about Lanegan, the first memory that always comes to mind actually predates MAGNET.
It was 1992, on an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving eve at the Trocadero in Philly. I was set to interview Lanegan and guitarist Gary Lee Conner for a Screaming Trees feature I was doing for a local magazine. Interviewing a band while they’re on tour—between soundcheck and their set—is the very worst time to engage in such an activity. Even if and especially when you’re writing for a magazine they’ve never heard of. Since there were no cell phones back then, essentially what you had to do was show up at the venue, hope someone was working the door, then talk your way inside the club—hours before the show started and they let people inside. Then you had to go to the backstage area and tell one of the security people that you were there to interview the band playing that night. Then the security person had to go find the band, hopefully convincing them to come out for the interview. The whole process was always torture for everyone involved.
On this particular night, Screaming Trees were nowhere to be found at the Troc, so I had to persuade the surly security guy to let me stay in the club until the Trees arrived. It wasn’t until the Troc started filling up with patrons that I finally saw Lanegan walking in the front door and approached him. As far as intimidating people go, Lanegan was way up there on the list. I told him who I was and why I was there, and he told me that no one had mentioned to him that he was doing any interviews. Lanegan was hesitant at first, but he finally agreed. And then I mentioned to him that I was also supposed to be interviewing Conner with him as well.
“Don’t you know anything about us?” said Lanegan. “Lee and I don’t speak to each other, let alone do interviews together.”
“I know a lot about you guys, but I didn’t know that,” I said. “And how do you write songs with somebody if you’re not speaking to them?”
“You just do,” said Lanegan, visibly annoyed. “Do you want to interview me, or do you want to interview Lee?”
“OK, but first you need to do something for me.”
Since it was an all-ages show, the bar was upstairs and 21-and-over. You had to keep your drinks up there, no exceptions.
“Take this,” Lanegan said, and he handed me some cash. “Go upstairs and get me a whiskey and whatever you want, and bring the drinks down here. Then we can go outside and have a drink and do the interview.”
“Uh, OK,” I said. “But you aren’t allowed to bring drinks downstairs.”
Lanegan took off his black leather jacket, and he handed it to me, saying, “After you get the drinks, drape this over your shoulder and hide the drinks underneath the jacket.”
Even though I had just turned 21 the month before, I had interviewed countless bands, yet I had never had a musician request I do anything like this before. But it didn’t seem like Lanegan was asking. He was telling. So I did it. And it was all working just fine until I got back downstairs and the security guard checking IDs at the foot of the steps asked me, “What are you hiding underneath the jacket?”
Before I could answer, he pulled the jacket open and saw the booze. He went to grab me and throw me out. (At this point in the history of the Trocadero, getting thrown out of the club meant being picked up by security—they wore shirts that read, “Troc Crew. Fuck You”—and literally thrown into the sidewalk or, worse, the busy street.) Desperate, I pointed to Lanegan, who was standing a few feet away with a smile on his face. I said to the security guard, “I’m with him!”
“I don’t know who ‘him’ is.”
“He’s the singer from the band playing tonight.”
“He’s in Alice In Chains?”
“No, he’s in Screaming Trees, the opening band.”
At this point, Lanegan had joined us, showed his tour laminate and told the security guard that we were just taking the drinks outside to do an interview. Somehow, that worked. Probably because “Troc Crew” guy didn’t want to “Fuck You” with Lanegan.
On the sidewalk, I chose not to tell Lanegan that drinking booze out of plastic cups outside of a club in Philly is frowned upon. This was partly because I really needed a drink and partly because I didn’t want Lanegan to think I was a pussy.
So there the two of us were, standing on Arch Street in Chinatown, drinking our whiskeys, Lanegan answering all of my many questions. He was thoughtful, funny, opinionated and personable. He exhibited a rock-star quality that people like me only dreamed of, but he sometimes came across as introverted and introspective, almost shy. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but as far as interviews went, it was a good one.
When we were done, we headed back toward the Troc, Lanegan’s hands in the pockets of his jacket. He stopped, looked at me and said, “You didn’t go through the shit in my pockets, did you?”
When we got inside the Troc, Lanegan shook my hand, saying, “Nice to meet you,” and then he was gone, walking through the crowd to get to the dressing room for a few minutes before the Trees went onstage.
I’ve remained an avid fan of Lanegan’s music in the 30 years since then. Not all of his solo work, collaborations (Gutter Twins, Queens Of The Stone Age, Isobel Campbell) and guest appearances (UNKLE, Soulsavers, Moby, Twilight Singers, to name just a few) have been great, but his ratio of hits to misses is as good as anyone else I can think of who’s had a career that spans nearly four decades.
To this day, Screaming Trees remain one of my favorite bands of their era, a soundtrack to the ocean of confusion of my late-teenage years and the sweet oblivion of my early 20s.
R.I.P. Mark Lanegan. Something good has gone and left us.
Read our classic Lanegan feature: