Mark Lanegan’s book begins with an umbilical cord tied around his neck and ends with the death of a famous singer. In between, there is sex, crack, and heroin, consumed and consummated prodigiously by its narrator. There is also rock music.
Combine all of these ingredients and the usual offering is that dreaded soufflé of bullshit known as the rock memoir—the airy embellishment of glory days that inevitably collapses under the weight of its own conceit. But Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep is a rock memoir only insofar as its author happens to have sung rock n’ roll in seminal bands while developing close friendships with some of the genre’s most dearly departed.
Lanegan’s book reads more like a reluctant glance in the rear view mirror than a salacious tell-all and that’s mainly because he never wanted to write it in the first place, even after being pestered to do so by fellow memoirist, friend and Parts Unknown theme song collaborator Anthony Bourdain. It’s only after Bourdain died that Lanegan finally sat down and unearthed some very dark and very hard truths about poverty, violence, and addiction that plagued his formative years as a singer-songwriter.
The descendant of “coal miners, loggers, bootleggers, dirt farmers, criminals, convicts, and hillbillies of the roughest, most ignorant sort,” Lanegan seemed destined for a similar fate, the feral byproduct of maternal abuse with a promising future as a repo man and a teenage rap sheet that included theft, insurance fraud, urinating in public, illegal dumping of garbage, and 26 tickets for underage drinking.
Thanks to blind luck and a big voice, however, he managed to stumble into the Screaming Trees, early forebearers of Seattle’s grunge scene, and then into Queens of the Stone Age and then into a successful solo career, despite his best attempts at self-sabotage, all of which are described in excruciating and mesmerizing detail in Sing Backwards and Weep.
We spoke to Lanegan about his book, his dead friends, and why most rock memoirs suck while he was buying a mouse at Best Buy after his home ProTools set-up was ravaged by hackers. Over the phone, his voice is a baritone but his laugh is a falsetto, erupting frequently and betraying a giddiness and sense of humour—albeit a very dark one—that rarely comes across in his music.
“I like to laugh,” he assured me from the Best Buy parking lot. “But I just want to buy this fucking mouse and have a fucking cigarette. Goddammit.”
VICE: Sing Backwards and Weep is dedicated to “Tony and all my other absent friends,” who is Tony?
Mark Lanegan: Anthony Bourdain is the one who talked me into making this book. The last thing I wanted to do was write some stupid fucking rock bio and I’ve never written anything in my life—I graduated high school with a fake diploma. But Tony was a great enthusiast and champion of my work and when he wrote a blurb for a book of lyrics that I did, he made it known to me that I should write a book. I sent him a prologue and he said, “You’re doing it!” That was it.
Did his death motivate you to finish the book?
He took his own life, which was stunningly shitty and devastating. He was such a bright light in dark times and such an important person to me. At that point I said, “OK, now I have to finish this book,” even though it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I felt an obligation.
What did you learn from him as a writer?
Honesty. I was going to have to find a level of honesty that I was uncomfortable with. I walked into writing this book unprepared for what I was going to find. I stand here now and I don’t look back that often, especially not back to that time. It was a painful time, a very painful time for me. I did a lot of shit I’m not proud of. It’s not something you want to dwell on.
The horrible irony is that Bourdain ended up dying the same way a lot of your friends do in the book.
Exactly. Horrible irony. Fucking devastating. I can’t tell you why so many people I know have wanted to die like that. I have been to a place where I’ve thought, “OK, if this is going to go on like this ten more minutes, I may have to off myself.” [ _Laughs._] But I’ve never seriously thought about killing myself. It’s not part of me. Yet, I’ve known all these guys who have done it.
Why do you think you’ve outlived so many guys who had their shit more together than you did?
I have a strong survival instinct and I’ve been blessed with pretty good health. I’m 6’3, 200 pounds, I’m 55 years old, I can probably still kick the shit out of most 20-year-olds. That has to have something to do with it. There’s plenty of guys bigger than me who have OD’d and died, but I also have a really high tolerance. I walked around for years with a huge habit, but I was the least high of anybody. I was spending the most money and chasing the most dope and not really getting that high.
But that survival gene almost killed you.
Once the survival gene comes into contact with the substance, that’s what causes addiction. It grabs hold and becomes the all and everything. That survival gene was my biggest enemy and my biggest ally.
Why do you think most rock memoirs suck?
Because they’re about rock. That’s why I avoided doing it for so long.
Was it hard to write such personal stories about dead guys?
Even though the book is supposedly about me, it’s also about the people around me. There’s no way to avoid the people in my life and a lot of them happened to be famous, departed, iconic rock stars; right off the bat, that puts you in tabloid territory. I was worried about telling the private stories of my dead friends, like, “Is that cool?” But it’s part of my story and you can’t tarnish the reputation of a great singer like Layne Staley or a genius like Kurt Cobain; just because I told a couple of stories that might not be that pretty about their private lives doesn’t make them less great.
It’s an incredibly dark book, but I think it’s fundamentally hopeful.
The question I’ve been asked more than any—and I’ve done hundreds of interviews unfortunately, it’s a bummer, but this one’s OK, I guess, but a lot of them suck—is “Don’t you feel like you got fucked over when all your friends became famous and nothing ever happened to you?” But I’ve always felt I lived a life beyond my wildest dreams: I made a record that led to another one and another one, I’ve traveled the world most of my life, got to see my favourite bands, and played music with my heroes. I’m the luckiest guy on the face of the Earth. It just depends on your outlook, I guess.
Are you attracted to the darkness or is it something that follows you around?
One man’s darkness is another man’s Disneyland. Some people consider Joy Division’s Closer to be one of the darkest albums of all time, but it’s one that saved my life by uplifting me. I find comfort in things I can relate to and I can definitely relate to the feelings of hurt on that record. I suddenly don’t feel so alone. The best art can do that to someone—give them something to relate to.
There are a lot of ghosts in your book, but there are also a lot of people who had your back.
I’ve had a lot of guardian angels in my life and I have no idea why, because I was a complete shithead for most of it. People felt the need to take care of me I guess.
Like Courtney Love?
Courtney saved my life and I owe her a debt I can never repay. I became homeless at a certain point, post-Trees, and I used to go into this pawn shop every day that my friend owned to use their phone, there was a sign that said “Mark’s phone” on it. I would always bring questionable shit in there to sell.
How did she track you down while you were homeless?
She was trying to get a hold of me and she left rehab literature at the pawn shop. I said, “Tell her to shove her fucking rehab!” A year later, I had burned a bad guy I was working for on the street and a cop had told me to get clean or leave town. I was hiding out and the bad guy found me somehow and easily could have killed me. I had to get out of town so I went back to the pawn shop and looked at what Courtney had left for me. When I got to the rehab they gave me a huge dose of phenobarbital and when I woke up five days later, Courtney had sent all of these new clothes for me. It was obvious that I needed long-term treatment, because I was a maniacal kind of addict and she paid for almost a year of treatment for me.
That’s pretty gracious, given that you were avoiding her on the day Kurt Cobain died.
Kurt reached out to me several times on that day and I fucking ignored him. But the reason why—and it’s no excuse because he would have picked up the phone any time I called—was that I assumed that Courtney was there and I had become conditioned to avoid both of them at the same time. There was always drama involved at that point and I didn’t want to get involved. But the shame of my life is that I just fucking sat there and listened to him speak into my answering machine three times that day.
Any advice for young people who want to play music and avoid these trappings?
Clearly, I’m not the guy to give advice. That should be pretty obvious. The last thing I ever thought I would do with my life is get up in front of people and do anything. Being a singer is totally bizarre for me. If you want to do music, take any expectation out of it and do it for the pure love of it, you can’t go wrong. Also, heroin is not good for you.
At one point in the book, the Screaming Trees are falling apart and on tour with Oasis while your management, Q Prime, tries to force you into rehab by threatening you with a Canadian tour. Why was touring Canada considered a punishment?
They were going to make us tour Canada for six weeks! Where do you play in Canada for six weeks? Can you buy dope in Edmonton or Calgary? Q Prime carried us for a long, long time and never made a cent. They were really good to me, but I couldn’t be handled. Instead of touring Canada for six weeks or getting clean, I decided I was going to fire Q Prime and quit the band, but not before I kicked Liam Gallagher’s ass.
Why did you want to kick Liam Gallagher’s ass?
He had been mouthing off to me for the whole tour, with these two huge bodyguards protecting him every time he wanted to mouth off. My anger level was pretty high, to say the least. I was over it; 15 years in the same band with guys who didn’t want to get better. When I’m the only guy who cares about stuff, you know something’s fucked up. The next day I decided that before I quit this thing, I’m going to go to the next arena and kick Gallagher’s ass and then I’m going to quit. But he had quit Oasis the night before and gone home. I was off the hook in all regards.
This old beef was reignited by him on Twitter recently, when that chapter was picked apart by British tabloids.
Well, I’m not going to let him talk shit about me again. Q magazine offered me to print that entire chapter in their magazine, but I refused because I knew it was for tabloid reasons. On that day, where shit jumped off on Twitter for him and me, all of the tabloids in England front-paged it. They used me as the dildo to fuck Liam because they hate him. It made me look like a cunt too, but the point was to get under his skin and get him to talk shit, but I don’t allow that, not then and not now. I would still kick the fucking shit out of that guy the first moment I got a hold of his hands because he’s a fucking idiot. (Lanegan has since extended an olive branch of sorts to Gallagher.)
Where does this aggression come from?
It came from a fucking small, shitty redneck town in Washington state, known for agriculture and cattle ranching and the fourth largest rodeo in the United States. Guys I went to high school with wore cowboy hats and cowboy boots to school and shit like that. I was one of the hill folk, but I had earrings, and tattoos, and listened to Joy Division.
Why does the book end so suddenly?
The book ends with an epiphany or spiritual awakening or whatever you want to call it where I realized that my entire way of thinking was backwards. From that moment on, I tried to be a different kind of guy. I didn’t want to write a book about recovery, I just wanted to end it there. Where it goes after that is up to your imagination. I wasn’t going to write about my post-rehab experience. I wanted it to be entertaining and there’s nothing entertaining about AA meetings, not a goddamn thing.
How are you still alive?
Just luck, I think. That and I’m an ornery bastard. Let’s put it this way: if they come to get me, I’m going to at least get two or three of them before they get me. To die honourably, I’m going to have to take two or three of them out first, unless they hit me with the Howitzer from 30 miles away and I don’t see it coming.
You know… Whoever’s coming. [ _Laughs._]
Thanks Mark and good luck with your new mouse.
[ _Postscript: Lanegan accidentally cut the cord of his new non-Bluetooth mouse while attempting to open the box it came in._]
Follow Nick on Twitter.