Mark Lanegan was a founding member of grunge band Screaming Trees and a member of Queen of the Stoneage. His memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, is published by White Rabbit on 30 April 2020.
Today I have an extract to share.
THE FIRST TIME I SAW Van Conner, he was just a little kid lying in a
wading pool in his front yard, smiling at me as I walked to grade school.
In a town of eight thousand, I always knew who he was after that, but
we didn’t interact. We met again by chance during a stint I did in detention hall during my final year of high school. He was only a sophomore, but in six years he was the only other person I’d encountered in Ellensburg who appreciated punk. He and his brother Lee were both gigantic, over six foot, maybe three hundred pounds. Van would come to my
apartment, buy and smoke some weed, and we’d laugh and listen to records.
I ran into him again after I had quit drinking.
“Hey, man, good to see you! What have you been up to?”
“Nothing, really. Just looking for a job. I need to make some dough
and get out of here. I don’t sell weed anymore. I don’t even smoke anymore. Or drink.”
“Hey, you know what? Just today my dad said we needed to hire
someone to do repo work for the store. You’re perfect for it.”
“What do you mean?” He had my interest.
“We need someone to go and take back the TV sets and VCRs from
the trailer trash who don’t make their payments.”
“Fuck yes, I’ll do that. When can I start?”
“You can start today. Let’s go talk to Gary.”
I found it slightly odd that Van only ever referred to his parents by their first names, but they were known around town as an eccentric family. Seven kids and four of them abnormally large for their ages, or any age, for that matter. Gary Conner was an ex-grade-school principal who now ran the most popular video store in town, renting all manner of
videos and selling electronics to mostly lower-income people on a rentto-own plan. He hired me on the spot.
My dad had given me his truck when he’d become a hermit and moved to a cabin deep in the Cascade Mountains, a place he had to snowshoe in and out of in order to reach the road. The truck was a ’53 Chevy with three on the tree. I began making daily trips all over the county, taking back what people did not want to give me. I was a pretty
big guy, six foot two and a hundred and eighty-five pounds. In rural Washington, violence was just something you grew up with, as common and banal as fast food. I’d learned quickly not to take shit from anyone.
As a kid, my friend Duzenski had taught me to throw a punch the minute anyone attempted to bully you. As a loner with few friends, an outcast, and a frequent blackout alcoholic, that lesson served me well. That crucial first punch didn’t always settle it, though, and violence became just another way of communicating, a second language I quickly became fluent in.
The rednecks and poor people whose stuff I had to take, they were also made of pretty rough stock. I carried with me on the job an aluminum bat and a stolen .22 pistol with a bad pull to the right. I had confrontations with people almost daily but I usually got what I came for.
There were a few times I let discretion be the better part of valor and had to return to Gary empty-handed. He’d have to take the delinquent buyer to court and I’d lose my commission, but fuck it, it wasn’t worth killing someone over a TV set.
I would enter the store through a door in the rear that led into a huge back room where Van and Lee, his older brother by several years, rehearsed with their band: Van on vocals, Lee on guitar, a wholesome young churchgoing kid named Mark Pickerel on drums, and some other kid on bass. One night, I stood outside the door and listened to them
running through an Echo and the Bunnymen song and thought, Not fucking bad.
Eventually Gary offered me a job behind the counter, as I had mainly cleaned up his repo sheet for him and he found it difficult to entice his own kids to work in the store.
“Hey, man, do you still have that drum set?” Van asked one day when it was just me and him in the store. It wasn’t a complete kit, only a floor tom, a ride cymbal, and a high hat that a guy I’d worked with at a restaurant had traded me years before in a weed deal.
“No, dude, I got rid of it. Why?”
“Me and Pickerel are sick of playing with Lee. We want to start a new band. He’s gonna sing and I’m playing guitar. We want you to be the drummer.”
“Van, I can’t play the fucking drums. Are you crazy? Sorry, bud, but no thanks.”
“It’ll be easy. Pickerel can teach you. You’re the only guy we know who is into the kind of music we dig.”
About the Book
When Mark Lanegan first arrived in Seattle in the mid-1980s, he was just “an arrogant, self-loathing redneck waster seeking transformation through rock ‘n’ roll.” Within less than a decade, he would rise to fame as the front man of the Screaming Trees, then fall from grace as a low-level crack dealer and a homeless heroin addict, all the while watching some of his closest friends rocket to the pinnacle of popular music.
In Sing Backwards and Weep, Lanegan takes readers back to the sinister, needle-ridden streets of Seattle, to an alternative music scene that was simultaneously bursting with creativity and saturated with drugs. He tracks the tumultuous rise and fall of the Screaming Trees, from a brawling, acid-rock bar band to world-famous festival favourites with an enduring legacy that still resonates. Lanegan’s personal struggles with addiction, culminating in homelessness, petty crime, and the tragic deaths of his closest friends, is documented with a painful honesty and pathos.
Gritty, gripping, and unflinchingly raw, Sing Backwards and Weep is a book about more than just an extraordinary singer who watched his dreams catch fire and incinerate the ground beneath his feet. Instead, it’s about a man who learned how to drag himself from the wreckage, dust off the ashes, and keep living and creating.
About the author
Mark Lanegan (b. 1964) is an American alternative rock musician and singer-songwriter who is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians of our time. He is the founding member of influential psychedelic grunge band Screaming Trees and was a full-time member of Queens of The Stone Age between 2000-2014 when he also penned the theme song for Anthony Bourdain’s award-winning TV show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown with QOTSA front man Josh Homme. He has collaborated with a long list of industry heavy weights over the years, including Massive Attack, Moby, Warpaint, UNKLE, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Eagles of Death Metal amongst others. Lanegan lives in Los Angeles.