Mark Lanegan, the lead singer of the Screaming Trees and an icon of Seattle music in the ‘90s, died on Tuesday in Killarney, Ireland, at 57. No cause of death was specified in the statement posted to Lanegan’s official Twitter account Tuesday.
Lanegan and the Screaming Trees released a dozen albums from the mid-’80s to 2000, and though the band didn’t reach the commercial success of peers like Nirvana, they were one of the most influential and respected Northwest bands of the era. Their biggest hit was the song “Nearly Lost You,” which was on the soundtrack to “Singles” and earned them their only platinum record.
As a singer, and a person, Lanegan himself was unforgettable. Covered in tattoos and sunglasses, and with long hair, he was hard to ignore. His voice was a distinct baritone, as dark and as deep as he was. Lanegan was close friends with many icons of the grunge era including Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. Chris Cornell co-produced the Screaming Trees’ 1991 album, “Uncle Anesthesia.” In later years, Lanegan became a good friend of Anthony Bourdain, one of several friends he lost to suicide.
The news of Lanegan’s passing death hit many in Seattle music hard. “I was gutted at the news of his death,” KEXP DJ Cheryl Waters said. “Though he hadn’t lived here for many years, he will always be a cherished local son, and he’s been in constant rotation at our station for over 35 years.” Waters called Lanegan “the impassioned voice of one of grunge’s great bands.”
Major musicians took to Twitter to honor Lanegan. “Deepest respect,” wrote Iggy Pop. John Cale: “[He] will always be etched in my heart, as he surely touched so many with his genuine self, no matter the cost.” Peter Hook: “He led a wild life that some of us could only dream of.”
Lanegan is survived by his wife, Shelley Brien.
The Screaming Trees formed in Ellensburg in the mid-’80s. Mark Pickerel was a sophomore in high school when he joined as drummer. “As impressive and as captivating as Mark’s voice and talents were, the depth and beauty of his voice gave us only a small window into the deep, deep well of talent he possessed,” Pickerel recalled Tuesday.
Much of Lanegan’s 2020 memoir, “Sing Backwards and Weep,” recounted beefs he had with his former bandmates, some even physical altercations. But the book also made clear the price Lanegan’s longtime drug addiction had on the band, which saw opportunities missed. At one point Lanegan pawned his own band members’ gear for drugs.
At the news of his death, his Screaming Trees bandmates were saddened. “Mark was truly my brother and even though we had our ups and downs in Screaming Trees I always loved him, and I will love his voice forever, one of the best in rock,” Gary Lee Conner said.
“Mark was truly a tortured individual, and yet, by the grace of God, he managed to salvage his personal wreckage, turning it into works of art and beauty,” Pickerel said.
As Lanegan recounted in “Sing Backwards and Weep,” he eventually sobered up in part with help from Duff McKagan, and moved to Los Angeles. Courtney Love paid for both his rehab and Lanegan’s longtime sober housing. Lanegan worked as a carpenter on movie sets, but eventually returned to music and a series of well-reviewed solo albums, collaborations and book collections.
For much of the past 13 years, Seattle’s Jeff Fielder has been Lanegan’s lone bandmate. On Tuesday, Fielder said he was “devastated” at the news, but that Lanegan’s COVID-19 battle last year had also seen him so close to death, he thought he was gone then. The singer detailed having COVID last year in a new memoir, “Devil in a Coma,” released just two months ago.
“When he pulled out of that, we thought nothing could kill him,” Fielder said. “He had more than nine lives. He was made of wrought iron and leather.”
Lanegan and Fielder were the debut concert when Seattle’s Neptune Theatre reopened in 2011, and Fielder says he’s proud that the first sound in that hall was their soundcheck. “They were still unwrapping the plastic from the P.A. speakers,” he said.
Fielder said offstage, Lanegan also lived up to his nickname of “Dark Mark.” During one conversation on the road when Lanegan was driving, Fielder remarked that the singer was “the survivor,” having lost so many friends.
Lanegan slowed down the car, looked at Fielder. “Our time is coming, my friend,” Lanegan said.
I’d interviewed Lanegan many times over the years, and often we talked about how his work seemed to focus on darkness. “Sometimes the really sad songs are the ones where you’re trying to talk yourself into something good,” he told me. “You just know that things aren’t always going to stay that way for real.”
Lanegan had a complex relationship with Seattle. He told Fielder that the city contained “ghosts of the past.” Still, he sold out most shows here.
In 2017, I asked Lanegan, who had been living in Los Angeles for a decade, whether he still considered himself a Seattleite.
“Whether I live there again or not,” he said, “Seattle will always be my home.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Jeff Fielder lives in Seattle, not Vashon Island.