Editor’s Note: Charles R. Cross was editor of The Rocket magazine, documenting local music, from 1986 through 2000. Here he remembers Van Conner, who died this week.

I was walking on the University of Washington campus near the HUB Wednesday morning when the news broke that Van Conner of the Screaming Trees had died at 55. The bassist had been in poor health for the past year, including a stint of long COVID in 2022. His death was confirmed by his brother Gary Lee Conner, who said in a Facebook post that the cause was pneumonia. “I loved him immensely,” Gary Lee said.

It felt mournful hearing that yet another popular musician from the Northwest music scene had passed, particularly so close to the Feb. 22 death of his Trees bandmate, singer Mark Lanegan. But it also felt strange to look over at the HUB and remember seeing the Trees play one of their many legendary concerts in the venue. The band never sold as many records as groups they toured with, like Nirvana and Soundgarden, but they were without a doubt one of the most beloved and talented Northwest bands, and one of the best live acts.

Others in Seattle music lauded Van, and noted the loss of two members from one band in a year. “The life of a touring musician has never been easy,” said Ben London of Sonic Guild, a musicians assistance program. “There’s not a safety net to support musicians’ health after their careers start to wind down. To lose two members of an important band like the Screaming Trees, both in their 50s, reinforces the debt we owe for the music they gave us that brightened our lives.”

When my magazine The Rocket, polled critics on the best local records of all time in the ‘90s, the Trees’ 1987 SST release “Even If and Especially When” was judged No. 24. The band’s performances were energetic and hypnotic, and earned them a slot on the vaunted Lollapalooza 1996 tour. Kurt Cobain personally picked them to open up for Nirvana at the 1992 Reading Festival.


Van and brother Gary Lee formed the Screaming Trees in the mid-‘80s out of the back of their parents’ video rental store in Ellensburg. They met singer Mark Lanegan and drummer Mark Pickerel in high school.  

“Van was loved and enjoyed by just about everyone he met,” Pickerel recalled Wednesday. Van was the shy member of the group, but Pickerel noted that Van wrote “Nearly Lost You,” the Screaming Trees’ biggest hit, on the soundtrack to the movie “Singles.”

Steve Fisk produced many of the Trees’ best records. “Van was very talented at a young age,” Fisk said. “He was 17 when I met him, but he just rocked. That sounds like cliché, but there truly was nothing between him and trying to rock as hard as he could.”

Both Conner brothers were large men with long hair, and they were taunted by the popular kids and treated like outcasts in Ellensburg for liking punk rock. “It was a bit like something out of a Stephen King novel,” Fisk recalled. “Van always had this childlike energy, which he used as a weapon. They were treated as losers and outcasts, but that fueled their art, and created anger and explosion in their music.”

When the band became one of the first Northwest bands to sign to a label deal and get positive press, they moved to Seattle. “These outcasts then put Eastern Washington on the map,” said Fisk. “They were without a doubt the coolest thing to ever come out of Ellensburg.”

In 1990, they signed a major-label deal with Epic and released “Uncle Anesthesia,” co-produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Barrett Martin replaced Pickerel on drums the next year, and Josh Homme, later of Queens of the Stone Age, would even join the band for a time.


The Trees’ concerts sometimes featured fighting between the various band members onstage, which in a way added to the excitement of their shows. They clashed offstage as well, particularly as Lanegan descended into drug addiction, and at one point pawned his bandmates’ instruments, temporarily derailing the group’s success. Though Lanegan’s 2020 memoir threw barbs at his bandmates, he privately apologized to the Conners after its release and before his death.

And in 1996, Lanegan told me that Van was the band’s key man. “Van is the Screaming Trees,” Lanegan said. “He is the heart and soul of the band.”

I interviewed Van that year as well, and he said he still hadn’t seen the film “Singles,” where he had a cameo. When I asked if he’d had a career highlight so far, he cited watching President Bill Clinton give an inauguration speech on television, with the Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” playing in the background.

“It was just bizarre,” Van said. “Growing up in Ellensburg, in a video store, I never would have imagined anything like that in my life.”