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Mark Lanegan, gruff-voiced frontman of grunge’s Screaming Trees and Ellensburg native, dies at 57

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 23, 2022

Van Conner, Mark Lanegan and Gary Lee Connor of Screaming Trees photographed in 1990.  (Karen Mason)
Van Conner, Mark Lanegan and Gary Lee Connor of Screaming Trees photographed in 1990. (Karen Mason)

The standout track from Mark Lanegan’s final solo album, “Straight Songs of Sorrow,” is “Skeleton Key.” The moody and dark tune echoes the recklessness of the debauched singer-songwriter’s 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 will not be the last man standing. The Screaming Trees frontman died Tuesday at his home in Killarney, Ireland, at age 57, due to unknown causes.

Lanegan, easily one of the most famous citizens to come out of Ellensburg (along with former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe), was dubbed the Keith Richards of grunge, thanks to his appetite of self-destruction.

The tall, brooding author chronicled his myriad issues as a self-destructive singer-songwriter in his entertaining memoir, “Sing Backwards and Weep,” which was released in May 2020, the same month “Straight Songs of Sorrow” dropped.

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 Lanegan was indeed the Keith Richards of grunge. Lanegan’s addictions to heroin and crack led the brooding bard to homelessness, but he somehow survived during the darkest of days.

The revealing book provides plenty of details about his relationship with Kurt Cobain. Lanegan was akin to a big brother to the Nirvana leader, and Lanegan admitted to not being there when Cobain needed him most. Cobain called him days prior to his death, but Lanegan didn’t call him back.

Lanegan, who worked with Queens of the Stone Age and in duos with Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs) and Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian), painted a vivid, unwavering portrait of a selfish, dangerous junkie who was lucky to be alive. The songsmith, who rarely granted interviews, looked 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 revelatory stories.

The gravelly voiced vocalist, who penned a pair of memoirs and books of poetry, often shrugged off his contributions to alternative rock. Lanegan earned acclaim when Screaming Trees’ sixth album, “Sweet Oblivion,” broke 30 years ago, courtesy of the infectious single “Nearly Lost You.” That track, featured on the iconic soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s film “Singles,” was a top-five hit and cemented Screaming Trees as one of the key bands of grunge.

He came off to many as a curmudgeon, but those close to him paint a different picture.

When guitarist Alain Johannes was introduced to Lanegan in 2001, the former didn’t initially see the latter. But he heard him.

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.

That meeting was appropriate since Johannes, who worked with Lanegan for 20 years, described his friend’s voice as a disembodied sound.

“It’s as if what comes out of Mark comes from nowhere,” Johannes said in 2020. “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 had considerable respect for Courtney Love. Cobain’s widow is one of the most polarizing figures in entertainment over the last generation. Lanegan, however, is indebted to Love.

“She was directly involved in saving my life,” Lanegan told Rolling Stone in 2020. “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 that 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.”

The 57-year-old is survived by his wife, Shelley. Rock icons on Tuesday took to social media to express their sadness at his death.

Peter Hook, co-founder of Joy Division and New Order, tweeted, “Mark Lanegan was a lovely man. He led a wild life that some of us could only dream of. He leaves us with fantastic words and music! Thank god that through all of that he will live forever. RIP Mark. Sleep well. Love Hooky. X”

John Cale of the Velvet Underground Tweeted that he couldn’t process the news. “Mark Lanegan will always be etched in my heart – as he surely touched so many with his genuine self, no matter the cost, true to the end. xx jc”

The Godfather of Punk, meanwhile, kept it succinct.

“Mark Lanegan, RIP, deepest respect for you. Your fan, Iggy Pop.”

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