Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan review – eye-popping trip

The singer-songwriter’s memoir is a harrowing but often hilarious chronicle of addiction and regret

The annals of rock are littered with used needles and the damage they have done. Few drug enthusiasts can have sunk so low, however, as singer Mark Lanegan, whose eye-popping memoir explores hell’s many sub-basements, and lived to produce good writing.

There is no way this man should be alive. But being 6ft 2ins and made of sturdy north-western US stock has meant the gravel-voiced vocalist, now solo, but perhaps best known for his crepuscular guest spots with Queens of the Stone Age and his excellent first band, the Screaming Trees, has outlived many of his fellow travellers. On the day of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, he ignores his dear friend’s calls, wary of getting caught up in some drama occasioned by Courtney Love, Cobain’s wife. Lanegan’s savage regret haunts this memoir.

Lanegan and Kristen Pfaff, the bass player from Love’s band Hole, never get to consummate their mutual attraction before she overdoses in 1994, two months after Cobain. Lanegan’s other close friend, Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, whom he saves from an episode of crack psychosis involving talking spiders, eventually ODs on a speedball of heroin and cocaine in 2002. At one dire point in this harrowing tale, Lanegan’s sex worker/addict companion – known as Shadow – disappears. He eventually learns from a news report that she has fallen victim to a serial killer. Whether this is the single most awful thing to happen in these pitch-stained pages is a close call.

Great survivor: Lanegan on stage with the Screaming Trees in 1993.
Great survivor: Lanegan on stage with the Screaming Trees in 1993. Photograph: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

The draw here for the uninitiated may well be Lanegan’s proximity to Cobain. But Lanegan is no mere bystander. His own output is enduring. Although the singer loathes being in the Screaming Trees, a dysfunctional melodic hard rock band based around two warring brothers, two of their albums – Dust and Sweet Oblivion – remain underrated high points in the grunge scene. When Nirvana covered Lead Belly’s In the Pines as Where Did You Sleep Last Night, it was after Cobain had recorded it with Lanegan for a collaborative disc of Lead Belly covers that never came together.

Eventually, Lanegan puts out solo albums, the first of which featured the Lead Belly cover and other duets with Cobain. The second, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, cemented Lanegan’s reputation as a writer in his own right; a chronicler of the hard road taken. His latest record, Straight Songs of Sorrow, is inspired by the work on this memoir.

The writing here is mostly rugged, male and often blackly malevolent: “I was a veteran of violence foreign and domestic,” Lanegan writes, when Liam Gallagher antagonises the wrong guy on a joint 1996 tour of the east coast of the US, “onstage, backstage, rural countryside, big city, barroom, parking lot, pool hall, and alleyway. I’d been an active participant in bus stop, trailer park, housing project, public sidewalk, private party, crack house, dope house, and jailhouse violence that stretched back 15 years or more…” But Lanegan is just as often hilarious: “I could see [Gallagher] as a kid in short pants on a bright sunny day, gleefully jacking his minuscule dick while frying ants under a magnifying glass.”

How low does Lanegan go? He’s a delinquent teenage alcoholic who gets sober, but becomes gripped by addictions once again, with his raging alcoholism assuaged by the short-lived peace of heroin.

One of the more fascinating accounts here is of the touring addict’s stratagems; of the honour among junkies (and the vengefulness). Eventually, Lanegan’s prodigious drug habit turns him into less of a musician and more of a dealer, one who will go anywhere at any time to deliver drugs to his varied clientele. At one point, his disapproving goth neighbours are agog to find Nick Cave coming out of his flat.

Lanegan asks for little pity: he confesses to a slew of extraordinarily unsavoury acts. All his bad luck, self-sabotage and radical candour is delivered in an eloquent, matter-of-fact tone. There is real regret for the relationships he ruined and a fierce and idealistic loyalty to the music that moves him.

More than halfway through this distressing book, he tackles the prism of his upbringing by a cruel and self-serving mother and a troubled father. Although Lanegan briefly acknowledges that his mother had demons of her own to contend with, the bleakness of his childhood and the complexity of his family dynamic still take you aback.

It might be a spoiler to reveal how Lanegan’s salvation eventually comes and who, unexpectedly, foots the bill for his rehab. This is a narrative packed with surprises, most not of the good kind. But there is room in this heavy, heavy book for quite astonishing turns of kismet.

  • Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan is published by White Rabbit (£20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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