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