RIP Mark Lanegan — The Indestructible Dark Angel
Glastonbury, 2002. The scent of floral marijuana smoke contends with stale beer and rancid sweat, as my friend Ben and I squeeze ourselves in among the masses on this sun-kissed late afternoon.
“Do you want a go, mate?”, asks the man to my right. He is clutching a comically tiny bong and swaying slightly, causing an almost seismic toppling of the carefully pieced together, drugged and drunk set of human Jenga pieces.
Before too long, the band arrived on stage to excitable applause. There’s Josh Homme, wearing a John Lennon New York City t-shirt, swaying his hips, swaggering, gyrating, owning the stage. There’s Nick Olivieri — bereft of much in the way of clothing, cranial hair or sanity. Troy Van Leeuwen sneaks in, unassuming, doing his thing. The biggest cheer is reserved for the superstar behind the sticks. A man only here due to experiencing writer’s block with his main band. One Mr Dave Grohl. And, eventually and intermittently throughout the raucous, rampaging and rousing set, there appears this ghostly, gravel-voiced giant. It is Queens of the Stone Age. It was my first encounter with Mark Lanegan. In a black burglar beanie, this immovable tree did not scream, it growled. A fuck-you face and a grizzled snarl, the whiskey and nicotine bathed rasp somehow, amidst the frenzied rock assault behind, controlled. A croon rising above the chaos.
Life’s the study of dying
And how to do it right
I didn’t know much about Lanegan, then. But he left his mark. And, as with all the greats, they come to you when you need them. You are not required to seek out the spirits that shape you; they are already yours.
20 years have passed and that idealistic 18 year old me is gone. Life and all its deathly truth saw to that, the scythe of adulthood was merely sharpening its blades. I didn’t know it then, of course. Lanegan, the seemingly indestructible prince of decadence, the singer for losers and lost lovers, chancers and dreamers; the hopeless, mournful souls who needed a dark angel to sing them a twisted, siren song…Lanegan is dead. Life and all its deathly truth saw to him too…
This life might eventually just be the end of me
This was a man who sunk to the bottom, almost at will, and buried himself deeper beneath the light. He lived on the margins of society and seemed to plead for death to take him. There was molten fury bursting from that lacerating, scorching, earthly growl. A raucous raging fight against injustice. Against the world. A childhood of neglect and foul mistreatment, of delinquency, rebellion and nihilism. Lanegan sought out oblivion but it would not come.
By age twelve, I was a compulsive gambler, a fledgling alcoholic, a thief, a porno fiend
The words, unsparing and guttural, are taken from his stunning and soul-mauling memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep. If you haven’t read it, you should. Lanegan was never self-piteous. Nor did he romanticise the rock and roll debauchery that had him in its jaw nor excuse his own degenerate behaviour. He knew who he was. A regret-laced man, bristling with ire and self-loathing. A poet. A survivor who, blindly, doggedly, instinctively, endured. Against all the odds.
The words, the lyrics, Cormac McCarthy, Nick Cave, Charles Bukowski…he’s up there, make no mistake. Direct, devastating, despairing songs of desolate depravity. Lanegan was a biblical writer. There are unattainable heavens and fire and brimstone, resident lived-in hells within these songs. Whiskey and morphine, soul-saving narcotics numbing life’s wounds before they bled all over his own scorched self once again. Songs from — and for — the darkest corners of the human spirit. Lanegan opened the window and let the demons flood in. Amidst all of that, there was still hope. A faintest crack of light, where the mindless flight of birds arching towards gloom-drenched skies could, in the right mood, still be seen.
Then…that voice. A gravel-strewn dirt road, older than time itself, carrying a thousand lifetimes of wisdom, pain, profundity and truth down the murky underbelly of annihilation. His tone, so lived-in, so very emotive, could flip the darkness into searing light. It is beauty lurking in the shadows; a snowflake dangling on the edge of the bloody blade.
Well, Lanegan. You outlived Kurt and Layne. And when you got clean, you gifted us with a prolific, unrelenting body of work that shall outlive you. Music saved you from your own toxic impulses…eventually. And your music, your words, continue to save countless others.
You knew who you were and so did we. Rest easy, Lanegan…ride on that nightingale.