At least superficially, works of medical recovery share much common ground: the bleep of life support, the arduous rebuilding of one’s new normal. But cult US musician Mark Lanegan is no Michael Rosen, the beloved children’s author whose fight with Covid is justly famed as a heroic tale: the unimpeachable battling the unimaginable and emerging a trenchant critic of the government’s failures. Rosen eventually swapped a wheelchair for a stick, one he wrote a children’s book about.
There is no Sticky McStickstick in Devil in a Coma, the slim but powerful volume detailing Lanegan’s own Covid ordeal, just the metaphorical two-by-four with which he beats himself. The author of roughly half a dozen solo albums, plus a healthy body of collaborative works that includes fronting grunge outliers Screaming Trees and time spent in Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan is an antihero who would be the first to say he is probably undeserving of our sympathy. His celebrated 2020 memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, is one of the bleaker tales of rock’n’roll excess ever committed to print.
Prompted into existence by his friend, the late chef Anthony Bourdain – Lanegan and QOTSA’s Josh Homme did the theme tune for Bourdain’s final series, Parts Unknown – Lanegan’s first memoir detailed a life of substance misuse and the interpersonal catastrophes that flowed from them, chief, among many, the loss of Lanegan’s close pal Kurt Cobain. Lanegan emerged from that first unsparing account chastened and self-aware; his gallows humour and trenchant wisdom made him a charismatic raconteur who stood outside the more conventional literature of drug glorification or rock myth-making. He also seemed absurdly immune to death, a characteristic that the musician refused to mine for macho points but, rather, regards as some imponderable state of undeserved grace.
No sooner had the accolades dried on that memoir than Lanegan, relocated to Ireland, land of his great-great-great-grandfather, to escape Covid, contracted Covid. In denial at first, he falls downstairs. Unable to breathe, deafened, with deep welts on his scalp and a useless leg, he is committed to hospital and put in an induced coma on kidney dialysis. His wife learns that Lanegan holds the hospital record for surviving longest in this parlous state. At one point, she refuses to allow the doctors to perform a tracheotomy that would have ended his singing career.
Three weeks later, he comes to. Semi-consciousness is almost worse. With his system inured to opiates from long spells of addiction, the pain relief and sleeping pills the hospital can muster amount to chicken feed. They struggle to find usable veins; Lanegan’s offer of his jugular is turned down by a young physician.
His long stay in a County Kerry hospital is “like a jail cocktail with a viral chaser”, worse, he says, than the psychiatric ward he was once committed to in Italy while withdrawing from heroin, worse than the time he’d nearly had his gangrenous leg amputated, worse than when, as a child, he was in a full body cast after falling off a bridge. He suffers hallucinations, insomnia, he can’t eat much apart from milk.
His past comes back to torment him with a vengeance, in visions and dreams: Covid, in short, feels like karma. As with Sing Backwards and Weep, Lanegan’s prose combines naturalistic speech and a kind of lucid lyricism: “I’d taken my share of well-deserved ass-kickings over the years but this thing was trying to dismantle me, body and mind, and I could see no end to it.” A number of poems that process his frustration, the fever dreams and events from Lanegan’s complicated, past break up the chronological account (he has published a collection of poetry, Leaving California, and a collection of lyrics, I Am the Wolf).
A passage that ponders the idea of Covid as a conspiracy is presented as evidence of the dark places to which the disease sent Lanegan’s addled mind. In some ways, the section sits a little uncomfortably inside a book that has nothing but bottomless gratitude to the Irish health service that cared for him. Still, there is always much to admire in Lanegan’s writing even when it is hard to agree with everything he thinks. This slight but weighty volume only adds to the man’s muscular and vivid – in every sense of the word – body of work.
• Devil in a Coma by Mark Lanegan is published by White Rabbit (£12). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply