first appeared at CMJ, October, 2004
MARK LANEGAN BAND: Heart Of Darkness
On each of his records, former Screaming Tree/Queen Of The Stone Age Mark
Lanegan has dug deeper and deeper into the core of beauty in the darkest
places: addiction, death, hopelessness. On the new Bubblegum, he's reached
his most gorgeous depths yet.
This, then, is darkness. Grim and soul-swallowing, delicious and decadent.
The absinthe-hazed bohemian Baudelaire, murmuring sepulchral lullabies
to his demonic "Lethe" in Les Fleurs du Mal. The scythewielding Red Death
banging skeletal fingers on the chambers of Poe's poor opium-addled brain.
The rising of the eldritch Old Ones from within the shadowy mindscapes
of Lovecraft. A steel-eyed Robert Mitchum, relentlessly tracking two runaways
in Night Of The Hunter (and singing all the while for extra shivers).
Oh yes-and ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan, snarling across the hellish,
clank-percussioned horizon of "Methamphetamine Blues," a dirgelike track
from his deceptively-dubbed new Bubblegum (Beggars Banquet).
First, amid the bleak cacophony, a wicked cackle rises up from this raspythroated
rake. Then, a Mitchum-ish invocation: "Wake up, wake up children, don't
ya hear me comin'?" Then, a plea from the plains of perdition: "I don't
wanna leave this heaven so soon." The children hear him coming, all right.
And all across the village, they've closed their closet doors tight and
checked twice beneath the bed, because this ain't no fluffy, green Monsters,
Inc. beastie. This is Lanegan, darkness personified, so murky you couldn't
pick him out of a police lineup or-like the family from Frailty-even catch
him on surveillance tapes. And he sings of illicit substances like crystal
meth with the same horror/fascination with which filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund
attacked the subject in his head-spinning Spun. So Lanegan is that greatest
of vicarious delights: the pleasure-seeker who stares so longingly into
the abyss that he eventually tumbles in, howling all the way down. Darkness
is his advantage; darkness is most definitely his talent. You may not
want to snort a septum-searing line of speed after listening to the man's
music, but you'll feel like you already have.
In Bubblegum's sinister heavy-metal single "Sideways In Reverse," Lanegan
moans paeans to something that "fights like a bitch and kicks like a horse"
and confesses to being a "dead high wire, well, make a connection." The
language of this siren song is also dark, almost gutter-level-a vernacular
steeped in the streets. And it's no joke, no tough-guy posturing. Lanegan
is Robert Mitchum. And with unusually self-deprecating wit, he'll admit
that "every one of these goddamn songs is about [drugs], and when I'm
talking about love, it's not a human love." He laughs, low and rumbling,
like thunder threatening to blacken all your skies. "But that's just me.
And luckily, some people can connect to this shit, this music, that aren't
junkies. But I always figured that I was making this music for my own
people." You either get it or you don't, he says.
"'Methamphetamine Blues' has got a little bit of speed psychosis going
on in there, but that's probably because I was awake for a few days when
I did it." The way the late-thirtyish Lanegan talks about himself, you'd
think he was some sewer-hopping C.H.U.D., possibly one of those compressed
alternateuniverse outcasts from Phantasm.With good reason: A U.K. critic,
noticing his hooded gaze and plethora of body art, dubbed him the Scariest
Man In Rock. At a recent European festival, Lanegan was so taken with
the blues-punk duo the Kills that he strolled backstage to compliment
them. Upon seeing him, the band cowered in a corner. "And I just kept
right on moving," Lanegan sighs. He has several running jokes on the situation.
The tattoos running down to his knuckles "are just so no one will sit
next to me on the bus," he snickers.What do they read? "Youthful Indiscretion,"
he deadpans drolly. And his addictions- which have run the gamut from
liquor to cocaine, crack, crystal and finally, heroin-led one of his old
record companies to paraphrase a book/film classic: "They actually used
to call me, not The Man With The Golden Arm, but the Million Dollar Arm.
But wow! Fuck! It's just been a blur. But it's a good one though, 'cause
I'm still standing."
How did Lanegan begin his descent into the maelstrom? It could've all
started in high school, when the Washington-bred lad drank too much tequila
during a Saxon concert at the Yakima Speedway. He awoke, mid-show, to
find the ugliest girl in school openly fucking him on the bleachers, while
his classmates watched, horrified, from the seats above. He never drank
Cuervo again. "And I knew I had a problem with alcohol early on, because
other guys didn't go haywire on it quite like I did," he assesses. When
pressed, Lanegan can trace the Dorian Gray darkness back even further
to his preteen years. "It was that morbid curiosity, that unhealthy fascination,"
he now understands. "I remember the first time I saw pictures of guys
with tattoos, I was like, 'I wanna be covered with that shit, too!' And
the first time I heard about heroin, I was like, 'You know what? I'm gonna
be a heroin addict too!' And I wasn't even 10 yet-it was a really weird
thing." Before long, Lanegan had begun a debilitating dance of death with
heroin that would last a full decade. He'd already watched his older brother
struggle to shake the beast ("He was the kinda guy who might show up and
take your TV set every year-that's how you knew he was back in town"),
to no avail. So Lanegan wound up "homeless up there in the fucking snow
and ice, on and off for about a year. Some people would let me stay with
'em every now and then, but then somebody else would come by, looking
for me to kill me for burning 'em on drug deals. Shit like that. You know-penny-ante
shit that people do when they're out there. Like borrowing my guitar player's
shit and selling it. So toward the end," he coughs, "I wasn't in any glamorous
place, that's for sure."
- Tom Lanham