Deep Black Vanishing Train: Mark Lanegan Remembered

A personal look at the singer's legacy...

The year is 2009. I am sitting alone on the train from Nottingham to London, 15 years old and new to pretty much everything. I have lucked out and nabbed a table seat, but, as the carriage starts to pack out, I am unsurprised when a heavily tattooed woman about ten years my elder takes the seat right next to me. What does surprise me, however, is when she tips out the contents of her rucksack out onto our table: a pair of headphones, a Sony Walkman (a lesser spotted sight even in ’09) and a small tower of CDs, only one of which I recognise.

“Is that the Queen of the Stone Age’s ‘Lullabies To Paralyze?’” my ignorant teenage self asks, “that’s a cool record.”

“That’s right! I just love the way Mark opens it. Every time I hear his voice it makes me shiver something awful,” she replies.

“Cool. Yes. Wicked. Who is Mark?”

As it turned out I had met a lesser-spotted Mark Lanegan superfan, fresh from seeing him at Rock City and heading down to the capital for the weekend to catch him again accompanied by a stack of his albums. Over the ensuing two and a half hours she played me assorted highlights from ‘Bubblegum’, ‘Field Songs’ and ‘The Winding Sheet’, and provided me with a potted history of his turbulent life.

I stepped off at King’s Cross amazed that a) a guy I had never heard of before could be so central to someone’s life, and b) any human being could possess a voice like the one I had heard clawing its way out of that battered Walkman.

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‘Angelically demonic’ is the only way to describe that one-of-a-kind voice, a sandpaper rasp in which you could hear every mistake its owner ever made. It’s a voice that sounds every bit as captivating bellowed out over Dave Grohl’s punishing drum workouts on ‘Songs For The Deaf’ as it does whispered over Duke Garwood’s spectral musical sketches on ‘With Animals’.

This voice would follow me around closely for the next 13 years, especially on long solo train journeys. When I listen to ‘Blues Funeral’ it takes me back to the misty sea view on the Great Western Rail track from Exeter to St Ives. The ‘No Bells On Sunday’ EP is the sound of disembarking at Euston Station just before midnight. ‘Nocturne’ is the interminable long jaunt through the Welsh valleys. There is something about watching empty, mottled landscapes drift past you that calls for the company of those gravelly tones.  

Mark Lanegan passed away yesterday on 22/2/22 at the age of 57. There will be many that say this is a tragedy, and that he is the latest in a long line of talented but troubled Seattle singers taken too soon: Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood (24), Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (27), Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley (34) and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (52).

But while, yes, it would have been wonderful to hear the new heights of weathered gnarliness his voice would have reached in his 70s, we should not lose sight of the fact that, in Lanegan’s own eyes, he was remarkably long-lived. As his essential 2020 memoir Sing Backwards And Weep details in harrowing detail, neither he or any of his peers in the burgeoning Seattle scene (where he was perhaps better known in his capacity as a dealer and junkie extraordinaire than as the singer of his own band Screaming Trees) expected him to survive to see the new Millennium.

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Until the publication of this book and its companion (apparent swansong) record ‘Straight Songs Of Sorrow’, Lanegan was always reticent to discuss his early years. It’s easy to see why. While most hagiographical obituaries tend to sweep more unsavory aspects of their subjects under the carpet, it’s impossible to look back over Lanegan’s storied life without acknowledging the deeply destructive presence he was for many years.

Nicknamed ‘The Shark’ due to his dark irises and devilish demeanor, his corrosive influence led many of his closest friends into the depths of addiction and death, a fact that weighed heavily on his thoughts and words in later years. In one particularly gruesome chapter of his memoir he recalls spending weeks on end secluded in a tiny squat with Layne Staley doing nothing but shoot heroin, watch cartoons, and freak out. This was in 1992, right after Alice In Chains and Screaming Trees had released their respective masterpieces ‘Dirt’ and ‘Sweet Oblivion’. A couple of years later, in a similar state, he would ignore a call from his friend Kurt Cobain just hours before he took his own life.

After hitting rock bottom more times than he could handle, Lanegan managed the herculean task of ending the heroin dependency that had threatened to strangle his own musical career in the cradle. From that point onwards his relationships with fellow musicians would no longer be defined by a shared taste for self-destruction, but by a collaborative spirit, eclectic taste, and willingness to lend his soulful growl to any project, no matter the style or scale.

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From tiny cult bands like Hey Colossus to household names like Moby, from Swedish post-metallers Cult Of Luna to North African nomads Tinariwen, the unexpected arrival of a Mark Lanegan guest spot was usually the emotional highlight of any record. He also cultivated fruitful, lifelong creative relationships with electronica duo Soulsavers, Greg Dulli of the Twilight Singers, Isobel Campbell of Belle and Sebastian, and, of course, Josh Homme of QOTSA and Kyuss. The deluge of artists coming forward after news of his death broke to declare him their favorite singer of all time says it all: Mark Lanegan was a musician’s musician, an undeniable vocal presence whose voice became a stamp of quality for any song lucky enough to host it.

The year is 2019. I am on the phone to the man I have been calling my favorite singer of all time for nearly a decade now. Our allotted 20 minutes are long over, in fact Mark Lanegan (who I had been worried might be a prickly interviewee) has been nattering away happily for well over an hour about the musicians he most respects, his recording process, the difficulty of writing prose, etc.

I should hang up soon, as there’s another engagement we have to get to, my wife reminds me, pointing at her watch.

But how the hell am I meant to silence this voice? This voice that sounds like it’s lived a million years and really felt every one of them? This voice that sounds like track marks running over the rugged landscape of prehistoric earth?

“Five more minutes,” I mouth at her, and sink back into the greatest sound in the universe.

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Related: Someone's Knocking – Mark Lanegan Interviewed

Words: Josh Gray

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