DEATH VALLEY BLUES
Over the past 20 years Mark Lanegan has survived addiction, incarceration
and bizarre tractor accidents to bring you his ghostly baroque blues.
"Things got a little trippy" he tells Keith Cameron.
MARK LANEGAN HAS JUST PUT THE unfiltered Camel to his lips when there's
a knock at the door. It's his UK record company's PR. "I got them!" she
says. Lanegan gratefully takes the package, pushes out two tablets from
their foil wrap and into his mouth. "Pepcid," he nods. "Best antacids
in the world. He lights his cigarette, studying the book of matches as
he does so. The custom here in California maintains that the outer flap
is a miniature advertising space, sold to an organisation mindful of reaching
ist optimum demographic. It reads: HOLLYWOOD BAIL BONDS. Lanegan gives
a phlegmy chuckle. "Hope I won't be needing these guys today. Still,"
he says, slipping the book into his coat pocket with a wink, "you never
Life has taught Mark Lanegan to expect the unexpected. His new album opens
with a song titled When Your Number Isn't Up - "because," says Mark, "there
have been plenty times when I thought it was. Probably plenty people out
there who'll tell you it should've been, too." In 1984, while working
as a mechanic's assistant on a pea farm in eastern Washington, he was
run over by a tractor. His own tractor. As we shall see, when you're Mark
Lanegan such random quirks of fate invariably dictate entire chapters
of one's life. You'll join a band as a drummer, then because your drumming
is so bad you're ordered to switch to lead vocals. The band is called
the Screaming Trees: it's the baby of two brothers who proceed to brawl
their way through 15 years and seven albums of big-bottomed, mystical
hard rock, with you throwing the occasional low blow for good measure.
Come the early '90s, in the wake of the commercial tsunami wrought by
your friends Nirvana, the Trees seem permanently poised on the verge of
a breakthrough that never happens. Meantime, you're making solo records
that receive far greater acclaim than your band's. They're calling you
a genius, the "grunge Leonard Cohen" and such-like. Then things get really
twisted. Your friends are dying seemingly at a rate of one every other
week. In 1997 you get arrested on tour for possession of crack - quite
literally rock bottom. But you find salvation and a kind of redemption
in the Californian desert. You join your friend Josh's band, Queens Of
The Stone Age, finding yourself in the unaccustomed role of sobering influence.
All the while, you keep making your own records, cutting deals here, pulling
favours there, looking no further forward than the next bend in the road,
just hoping to see this through to another day.
Until his close encounter with Massey Ferguson's finest, the 20-year-old
Mark Lanegan's life read like an archetype of smalltown indolence: dysfunctional
family, in and out of jail for petty thieving and drug-dealing, at 18
receiving a prison sentence for drug possession, which was deferred by
undergoing a year's drug treatment programme. It was this, he reflects,
that sounded the final death knell for what had been a promising high
school sports career. "Baseball was my thing. I was also a football player,
which I didn't enjoy. I think I threw the most interceptions in the shortest
period of time in the history of our school."
Compared to the relative metropolis of Seattle, 130 miles to the north-west,
Ellensburg is Hicksville, population 20,000, situated on the 'dry' side
of the Cascade Mountains in the Yakima river valley. The main local industries
are farming and logging. Median household income is significantly below
the Washington state average, while unemployment is significantly above.
As a student at Ellensburg High, Mark Lanegan befriended Van Conner, a
quietly spoken boy-man-mountain who played in a covers band with his brother
Gary Lee and, almost uniquely amid Ellensburg's conservative denizens,
shared Mark's enthusiasm for punk rock. Following his deferred prosecution,
the Conners' parents gave Mark a job repossessing rented electrical goods.
"Washingmachines, TV sets, VCRs," he says. "If people didn't make the
payments I was to go get the item back. From people who a lot of times
didn't want to give it back. I was bigger physically then, and kind of
scary, and relied on that a lot more than skill."
Enthralled by a picture of The Stooges in an old copy of Creem, the 12-year-old
Mark Lanegan had celebrated entering junior high school by trading his
collection of comic books for a slew of imported punk singles that somehow
made it to Ellensburg. These records - by the Sex Pistols, The Damned,
The Stranglers, and Mark's personal favourite, Where Have All The Bootboys
Gone by Slaughter And The Dogs - told this troubled teen he was not alone.
"When I heard Anarchy In The UK it suddenly all made sense. I knew who
I was." Eight years later, as he worked on the combine harvesters and
tractors, Mark Lanegan knew 'no future' when he saw it. Resolved to quit
his life in the Northwest, he arrived for his last day in the fields.
His bag was packed, ready for a motorcycle ride to Las Vegas, where he
would work for his cousin and make a new start. Then destiny, in the shape
of that bizarre farming accident, intervened.
Busy filling the water tank at the back of the tractor, Mark was hidden
from the view of his boss, who climbed into the cab and turned the ignition,
blissfully unaware of Mark's presence. Knocked to the ground, Lanegan
looked up to see the tractor bearing towards one of the more vital and
vulnerable areas of a man's anatomy.
"It was coming right for my balls," he says. "The thing about the wheels
is they're so big, by the time one foot would get loose and I would roll
over trying to get away, the other one would already be caught under the
tyre. Man, to this day it seems like it took a million years to get all
the way over me, but it really must have just took a couple of seconds.
It crushed my legs, fucked them up pretty good.
"After that, I couldn't ride my motorcycle. So I lent it to Van Conner.
My girlfriend left me around that time too (laughs), so he would come
by and bring me food,'cos I couldn't walk, and I let him use my motorcycle.
One day he came back without it. He totalled my bike. So now I didn't
have any wheels. That's how come I ended up being in the Screaming Trees.
Two months later we made our first record." He sighs. "God's got some
SCREAMING TREES PLAYED THEIR final gig on June 25, 2000, at the inauguration
of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. That they'd stuck around long
enough to contribute to the fanfare for this ultramodern Frank Gehry-designed
interactive music museum was one of the unlikelier postscripts to the
'90s Seattle rock revolution. The Trees were the Seattle scene's perennial
nearly-men, undone by the group's fractious and contradictory internal
dynamics, prominent among which the fact that not until their sixth album
- 1992's Sweet Oblivion - did the singer, Lanegan, write all the lyrics.
More notorious factors were the pugilistic tendencies of the Conner brothers,
and Lanegan's relationship with drugs, each of which conspired to hobble
a great band with the chalice of underachievement.
"The Trees was four complete nuts," says Mark. "We didn't have a damn
thing in common except insanity. So we fought a lot. And we had two brothers,
who fought like brothers. Only they were huge. Oh God, I can remember
so many things. We made a rule that no girlfriends or wives could ride
with us. But none of us had a girlfriend and only one of us had a wife.
So he Van Conner felt a little discriminated against. And maybe he was.
So he quit for a year and a half. And when he came back, the very first
show back, I was walking off while the show was still going, like I usually
did, and I heard a commotion that sounded not like your usual applause.
I came back out and there he was beating the shit out of Lee Conner, on-stage.
(Sighs) It was like prison. Without the sex."
Parallel to the Trees, Lanegan embarked upon a series of acoustic records.
Liberated from having to find a space amid the Conners' grandiloquent
psychedelic tapestries, he found his true voice - deep, brooding, sorrowful,
like Johnny Cash's wayward younger cousin, stained by nicotine and evidently
other, rather more illicit, substances. His second solo album, 1993's
masterful Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, was intended by Lanegan and his
co-writer Mike Johnson to be made in three days. Instead it took four
years, a tortuous exercise dictated both by the Trees' touring commitments
and Lanegan's heroin addiction. "I lost my mind on it," he says. "Then
I proceeded to not get anything done for several years after that." In
the wake of Whiskey... Mark lost many friends to drug-related deaths,
most infamously Kurt Cobain (the pair's shared love of Leadbelly prompted
the cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night on Lanegan's solo debut, The
Winding Sheet, subsequently covered, defini- tively, by Cobain himself).
In 1996, the Screaming Trees released what would be their last album,
Dust. Its songs were populated by deathly visions, religious imagery and
intima- tions of mortality. "All these dying days, I walk the ghost town,
used to be my city," sang Lanegan. His lyrics revealed a man on the brink:
"Gotta get away/Get away/Before the Lord gonna make me stay."
The third Mark Lanegan album, Scraps At Midnight, appeared in 1998, written
and recorded while its author was on a three-day pass from a Californian
halfway house, six weeks into an eight month process of rehab. "Something
has badly gone wrong with me," he Sang on Stay. "Living's not hard, it's
just not easy." It proved a decisive, life-changing event. "I didn't know
how to sing any more. 'Cos I hadn't done it in long time. A lot of friends
and family members came out to Joshua Tree and stayed with me while I
was making it. A really, really special record. That started beating me
to actually make records again."
The Mark Lanegan MOJO meets in Los Angeles upon completion of his new
album, Bubblegum, and then six months later in London, is unrecognisable
from the translucent-skinned spectre of yore. Brighteyed and chatty, he
laughs a lot, wears his red hair short, is full of self-deprecating bonhomie,
and comes over all mushy at mention of his new love: a Boston terrier
called Archie ("She's the light of my life"). His friendship with Queens
Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme, forged when Homme joined Screaming Trees
as a touring member during the Dust era, inducted Lanegan to the loose
collective of musicians centred around the Rancho De La Luna studio in
Joshua Tree, and prompted his ongoing status as a part-time QOTSA member.
His perspective on the acrimonious dismissal of that band's resident berserker,
Nick Oliveri, earlier this year is redolent of a reformed character, who'd
been there, done that (plus a whole lot else), and fortunately lived to
see another day. "It was overdue. Nick's a lovely cat but it was impossible
to live with him on the road. We're all too old and work too hard to have
the unpredictable nature of somebody's personality bring something we've
worked so hard for to its knees. I understand what he's going through.
It's not easy to be suddenly under scrutiny when you're a certain type
of guy. But I was the guy who ended up being my brother's keeper, every
day I had to keep some insanity from happening - when I had just signed
up to sing a few songs with these guys!"
But lest we forget, this is still Mark Lanegan talking: the same Mark
Lanegan who while recording Whiskey For The Holy Ghost stood on New York's
Times Square dressed only in a girlfriend's kimono, with waist-length
hair and a huge beard, vainly trying to hail a taxi ("Things had got a
little trippy"); the same Mark Lanegan who'll still knock out a bunch
of songs and sell them to publishers in order to pay a tax bill ("I'm
not a guy who ever sold a shitload of records so I gotta hustle"); and
the same Mark Lanegan who on returning to LA from a European interview
tour prior to Bubblegum's release got himself into "a bit of trouble"
and spoke to MOJO via his mobile phone from, "a - umm, how can I put this?
- 'structured institutional' setting. Heheheh! But it's all good. I get
to use my phone to do interviews, it can't be that bad!" Indeed.
"My ex-wife said I have several different personalities, and none of them
good." This is the same ex-wife, Wendy Rae Fowler, who duets with Mark
on the Bubblegum song Wedding Dress, a hilariously mordant plea for faith
from an unreliable soul to his paramour ("Will you visit me where my body
rests? Will you put on that long white dress? "). Presumably she appreciates
and understands her ex-husband's perverse sense of humour.
"She understands it too well, that's why she's my ex! Hahaha!" Mark Lanegan
laughs long, the laugh of man who's been through bleak times and then
some worse. He knows to expect the unexpected. And just in case, he's
got a book of matches handy in his pocket.
How to BUY... The best of Mark Lanegan, by Mark Lanegan.
Whiskey For The Holy Ghost ***** 1993.SUBPOP
We say: Devastating baroque blues arrangements burnish tales of consumption
and regret from a young man old before his time. Mark says: "In some ways
it added to my psychosis, that people liked it. Mike Johnson quit halfway
through. I mixed it probably five times, six times, kept writing more
and more songs. And the original idea, believe it or not, was to make
it in three days. 'Cos me and Johnson had heard that was how long it took
to make Astral Weeks. (Laughs) Three days turned into four years."
Field Songs **** 2001,BEGGARS BANQUET
We say: Magnificently rendered Americana from the badlands ofthe soul.
Mark says: "I tried to make my second record again. Not a sequel to it,
but the same record, from a different perspective. From the flipside.
From the other side of the fence. My life in the field. One of'em I made
when I was out of my mind, and this one I made when I was not. I think
Field Songs is my best record."
Bubblegum **** 2004, BEGGARS BANQUET
We say: Jukebox-compatible collection of death's head hand-jives and narcotic
crooning, with stellar supporting cast - Polly Harvey, Chris Goss, QOTSA.
Mark says: "Everybody threw themselves at it with an enthusiasm that has
been lacking on previous records. It was fun. The first record I've made
where I can say I really like it."