When Alain Johannes was introduced to singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan in 2001, the former didn’t initially see the latter. It couldn’t have been more fitting.
“I looked around after (Queens of the Stone Age frontman) Josh (Homme) introduced us, and there was nothing, but then I heard, ‘What’s up, bro,’ ” Johannes said while calling from Santiago, Chile.
The initial meeting at Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron’s wedding was appropriate since Johannes, who has been working with Lanegan for nearly 20 years, describes his friend’s voice as a disembodied sound.
“It’s as if what comes out of Mark comes from nowhere,” Johannes said. “It doesn’t have a body, but it has a texture. I love working with Mark. He’s one of my five most favorite singers of all time. There is no voice like his, and I’m just fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him all these years.”
Lanegan, 55, is fortunate to have worked with Johannes or, well, anyone this century considering his issues with pharmaceuticals.
The Ellensburg native chronicles his myriad issues as a self-destructive singer-songwriter in his entertaining memoir, “Sing Backwards and Weep,” which was released last month.
Lanegan, who is clean and sober now, survived a harrowing downward spiral.
During a recent conversation about chemical abuse with Evan Dando, the leader of the Lemonheads admitted to being a drug dumpster. When Dando was asked what drug he had yet to experience, the thoughtful singer-songwriter paused. “I did every drug but MDA, not to be confused with MDMA, where you see the little green men,” Dando said. “Hey, a lot of us did some serious drugs back then.”
“Then” was the Clinton era. Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Lanegan were among the many recording artists to emerge during the ’90s who were notorious users. The troika were best friends, but only the latter survived.
After reading about Lanegan’s sordid exploits during the ’80s and ’90s throughout “Sing Backwards and Weep, it’s evident that the former leader of Screaming Trees was the Keith Richards of grunge. Lanegan’s addictions to heroin and crack led the brooding bard to homelessness, but he somehow survived.
The revealing book provides plenty of details about his relationship with the iconic Kurt Cobain. Lanegan was akin to a big brother to the leader of Nirvana. Lanegan admits to not being there for Cobain when he needed him most. Cobain called him days before his death but was ignored.
Lanegan paints a vivid, unwavering portrait of a selfish, dangerous junkie who is lucky to be alive. The poetic songsmith, who rarely grants interviews, looks back at his dysfunctional relationship with his Screaming Trees bandmates and his much-publicized offer to fight Oasis singer Liam Gallagher in 1996, among other stories.
Johannes, who helped Lanegan with the audio version of the book, has nothing but good things to say about his friend. “Mark has been so sweet to me ever since we met,” Johannes said.
Lanegan has some enemies, but he’s more than kind to Courtney Love. Cobain’s widow is one of the most polarizing figures in entertainment over the last generation, but Lanegan is indebted to Love.
“She was directly involved in saving my life,” Lanegan told Rolling Stone last month. “I had to write about that. I will always carry great guilt about my actions on the day Kurt decided to do what he did because I willfully ignored him.”
It was surprising the intensely private Lanegan went the memoir route. Unlike many of his peers who published their history, the experience wasn’t cathartic. “Writing this book was probably the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever done,” Lanegan told Rolling Stone. “I haven’t thought about this stuff in 25 years. I’m somebody who likes to stay in the here and now because there’s a lot of ghosts back there.”
Lanegan is clearly in his comfort zone in the studio, particularly due to his relationship with Johannes. “Happy birthday to the greatest musician and person I have ever known, the legend, Alain Johannes,” Lanegan tweeted out this month to mark his pal’s 58th birthday.
“Mark is the nicest guy,” Johannes said. “He treats me like an instrument, and I resonate with him. He respects and trusts me.”
The longtime comrades quickly crafted Lanegan’s latest album, “Straight Songs of Sorrow,” which dropped on May 8.
The centerpiece of the compelling and spare album is the moody “Skeleton Key,” which echoes the recklessness of his days from the last decade of the 20th century.
“I spent my life / Trying every way to die / Is it my fate to be the last man standing?”
Lanegan is consistently deep and dark throughout “Sorrow,” which features nice acoustic guitar picking from Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton. Johannes, who produced the album, fills in the rest of the gaps.
“I love this album since it’s a little looser on the edges, but it’s texturally more daring in some ways than what Mark has released over the years,” Johannes said. “It’s cool how sparse this album is. There is nothing I like more than working with Mark.”
That’s saying something since Johannes has worked with some heavyweights. The former member of Queens of the Stone Age has recorded and performed with P.J. Harvey, the Eagles of Death Metal and Them Crooked Vultures, which includes the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Johannes co-produced Chris Cornell’s 1999 solo album, “Euphoria Morning.”
“I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done so far in my career,” Johannes said. “I’ve had some amazing experiences, but I can’t compare my experiences with Mark Lanegan with anything else I’ve done. He comes in and records, and it’s never longer than three takes. He knows what he wants, and he just knocks it out. I’m looking forward to more projects with Mark, who is so talented and original.”
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