Mark Lanegan, ‘a brilliant soul’ and ‘a voice for the ages,’ dies at 57

Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan, prolific solo artist, intrepid collaborator and vocalist of the critically lauded Seattle grunge outfit Screaming Trees, has died at the age of 57. While the cause of death has not been confirmed, Lanegan battled mightily with complications caused by COVID over the past year, to the point of writing a book about his struggles with it. 

A statement from his Twitter account read, “Our beloved friend Mark Lanegan passed away this morning at his home in Killarney, Ireland. A beloved singer, songwriter, author and musician, he was 57 and is survived by his wife Shelley. No other information is available at this time. The family asks everyone to respect their privacy at this time.”

Revered for his compelling baritone, which sounded like a hard-packed road paved with crushed whiskey bottles, Lanegan sang of tales of lovelorn despair, addiction and grief with the passion of a howling Irish sailor lost at sea. Live, he cast an imposing figure, backlit, one hand on the mic, the other in possession of an everlasting cigarette. No cheery banter, no audience participation, just hushed reverence from the adoring flock standing before him, enthralled by his soulful growl. Those who knew him personally knew that beneath the gruff exterior was a warm and lovely man.

Lanegan was born in Ellensburg, Wash., 100 miles east of Seattle, in 1964. His childhood was noted for being rough and tumble, with several run-ins with the law and a well-developed drinking problem acquired before he hit his teens. Shortly after a yearlong stint in prison on drug-related crimes, he founded Screaming Trees with brothers Van and Gary Lee Conner and Mark Pickerel in 1984. It wasn’t long before they moved westward to become part of the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene that included Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam.

(On a tragic side note, Lanegan has joined Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and Lane Staley as Seattle frontmen who have since departed, with Eddie Vedder the sole remaining male voice from that era. Vedder paid tribute to Lanegan at a concert he gave Tuesday night in Seattle.)

They were best known for their hit “Nearly Lost You,” which was featured prominently on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s cinematic love letter to Gen X, “Singles.” The Trees hung around for seven studio albums until infighting caused them to split in 2000. In the late ’90s, Lanegan found himself at rock bottom in the throes of addiction, even becoming homeless for a period. He credits Courtney Love, who paid for his lengthy stints in rehab, with saving his life.

As the Screaming Trees were in disarray, Lanegan began a fruitful solo career, releasing “The Winding Sheet” in 1991. Dave Grohl has credited the album as the blueprint for Nirvana’s stellar 1993 MTV Unplugged concert.

Ex-Dinosaur Jr. bassist Mike Johnson was the chief collaborator on that album as well as the following three releases. He remembers Lanegan as a powerful influence and friend, “I loved Mark like a brother. My life changed because of him. We had a complicated relationship, but I never laughed with anyone like I did with him. Unbearably sad to think I’ll never see him again.”

Those four records set Lanegan on a course for an estimable solo career. He also took turns fronting Queens of the Stone Age, lending his voice to electronic mavens Soulsavers and UNKLE, joining the Afghan Whig’s Greg Dulli in the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins, contributing to the Seattle all-star band Mad Season, as well as recording three gorgeous records haunted by the ghost of Lee Hazlewood with Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell.

Lanegan’s contributors read like a who’s who of the past 30 years of rock history: Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, J Mascis, PJ Harvey, Joshua Homme, Greg Dulli, Troy Van Leeuwen, Dean Ween, Duff McKagan, Duke Harwood, Ben Shepherd and many more.  

He was active until the very end, releasing “Dark Mark vs. Skeleton Joe” with Joe Cardamone (of the Icarus Line) in November of last year.

Lanegan was also a noted author. Encouraged by his pal Anthony Bourdain, Lanegan published two memoirs in 2020, “Sing Backwards and Weep” and “Leaving California.” Lanegan had been staying in Ireland at the country home of actor Donal Logue. He sent Logue a poem a few months before his passing:

Nobody notices me here
Not the fox
Nor the deer
Not the weasel
Who runs from window to window
Banging his hands on The glass Peering in
Like a thief trying To break into the place
Not the grey and black crows
Who eat the apples and eggs we set upon the Rock wall for them
From this house I can see The mountains
And The mist over the water
And The rays of sunlight shining
Through it All is in order here
And I am at peace

Lanegan is survived by his wife, Shelley Brien.

An outpouring of memories and emotion from Lanegan’s fellow artists was shared across social media.

Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees:

“Our beloved brother, collaborator and fellow pirate has passed into the spirit world today. Mark Lanegan is moving swiftly through the realms now, so let us praise his greatness, his talent and his humanness. He can still hear us. After almost two decades going around the world in the Screaming Trees, we all became brothers in a way that is different from any other kind of brother. Mark was full of contradictions to be sure, but how else could he be, when he was destined to sing the blues? Only those who understand the darkness of humanity can also sing about its light, and Mark could sing both sides, superbly. Because of that contradiction, we understood Mark in a way that only a literal band of brothers can understand, because we saw it all, firsthand, together, in those decades on the road and in the studio.

“Mark had a voice for the ages, truly one of the great American vocalists of all time. Critics often claimed that his voice came from whiskey drinking, but Mark sang like that when he was young and sober, an ancient voice planted inside a young man’s body. By the way, we never saw Mark touch a drop of whiskey — gin & tonic was his preferred drink, and a lot of cigarettes. The critics never get it right.

“We often joked after the band broke up in June of 2000 that we could finally be friends, now that we weren’t in a band anymore. And friends we were, albeit from a distance, and mostly through emails and the occasional phone call. Mark’s tell-all book, ‘Sing Backwards And Weep’ rubbed many the wrong way, but after the initial shock wore off, we all made peace and laughed at Mark’s wry sense of humor and great storytelling style. Mark had the ability to tell the most horrific of stories, yet have you chuckling out loud as he spun the yarn to its conclusion. He had that sharp wit that all great writers have, because he also had a keen view into the hearts of people – and he showed us the full spectrum of humanity.

“It’s only appropriate that Mark would pass away in his adopted homeland of Ireland, where he was proud of his Irish roots – and his red hair. And actually, all of the Screaming Trees have Irish roots in our families, so we’re all there with him, as he goes back into the Earth.

“In Mark’s final book, ‘Devil In A Coma,’ he made a closing statement that is as timeless as anything written by any Zen master a thousand years ago. I think it’s best if I end with Mark’s own words:”

The watcher
And the observed are
The same
Good and evil
Are the
Flip side of
The same mirror
All Is love
Is God

Robert Hecker of Redd Kross:

“We toured quite a bit with Screaming Trees, particularly around the time of RK’s ‘Third Eye’ and the Trees’ ‘Uncle Anesthesia.’ ‘Bed of Roses’ is such a beautiful song. I was always impressed by Mark Lanegan, as he delivered his Jim Morrison-esque baritone vocals, firmly rooted in place, immutable as a mountain, in contrast to the Conner brothers, who would be hurling their bodies all over the stage. We got to know one another fairly decently while on the road, typical fleeting tour acquaintances, but I did convey that I would love to record some tunes with him, and I wrote the song ‘Can You Feel It’ specifically with him in mind as vocalist. Never happened, but the inspiration is obvious. My most sincere condolences to his family and loved ones.”

Zander Schloss of Circle Jerks and Thelonious Monster

“I was fortunate enough to know Mark pretty well and tour with him several times as support with the Sean Wheeler & Zander Schloss duo. Mark was a generous supporter of the duo and allowed us to share the bus, stage and dressing room with him even though we were relatively unknown and didn’t really sell any tickets. He didn’t care. When his bassist got sick on the last tour we were on together, I filled in for him for the rest of the European dates. Mark trusted me to learn the tunes on the bus and get up in front of a sold-out O2 venue audience on my first night. He even gave me an uncharacteristic wink and smile onstage. Despite his public persona, Mark was warm and affable and funny as hell behind the scenes. Anyway, I’ll miss him a lot. … Thanks for everything, buddy.”

David J Haskins of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets

“One of the all time great voices. Love & Rockets once shared the bill with Mark at a festival, and I had to put a stop to an outdoor interview we were doing which was being conducted at the same time that he was performing. You could hear him in the background and it felt downright disrespectful.”

Jesse Hughes of Eagles of Death Metal

“Mark Lanegan was a complicated man, and it’s no secret that he and I haven’t always had a Rosie Road or a happy trail that we traveled together, but in spite of that I learned a lot from The Man. He’s made some of the best records I’ve ever heard. He had a profound mind, however flawed it may have been, and he enriched our artistic community in a way that most people will probably never even be able to dream of doing. … The performances he contributed to my own music are critical and key just like the man himself. I have a complicated relationship with him, but I love him and I miss him and I’ll see him on the other side.”

Dave Clarke, DJ/producer

“So very very sad to hear that my friend and co-creative Mark Lanegan has passed away. I loved so much of his work in all its different guises and actually got the chance to work with him in my studio on my last album. He was a very generous and true soul; I wrote my first-ever lyrics and sent them to him and was wondering if they would resonate or if he would even respond. My heartfelt lyrics were hanging in the ether, and he got straight back to me and told me he loved them and that was it. We would end up working together. He came to my studio and was a total pro, but also a very open person. We spoke about so much and I realized that we had a friendship. We kept in contact and I dearly hoped we would work together again. … I feel heartbroken that he has gone, [And] if he is doing a soundcheck in his next world I bet he does his impression of Joe Cocker’s version of ‘Unchain my Heart.’”

Jeff Klein of The Gutter Twins

“Stunned and brokenhearted to hear the news of Mark Lanegan’s passing. Spending four or five years traveling the world and playing music together and getting to know him was an honor. When I first met Mark his presence terrified and intimidated me. He was the stuff of legend. Soon we became tour roommates and enjoyed so many great conversations and A LOT of laughs. Mark’s voice will go down as an iconic thread in the fabric of music history. Listening to it every night sent shivers through my bones. The best kind.”

Damon Gough, Badly Drawn Boy

“Hearing about Mark Lanegan passing away has properly stopped me in my tracks. I’m absolutely gutted. Met him on a couple of occasions and I was nervous because I loved him so much. He was a perfect gentleman, really kind. One of THE great singers of the last 30 years. So sad.”