When I first learned what this story of Mark Lanegan’s early years in music would entail, I couldn’t help but think of Bob Mould’s own autobiography, See A Little Light, and all of its recriminations and petty swipes at his ex-bandmates in Hüsker Dü. But at least I can understand Mould’s bitterness, if not accept or agree with it, because it comes from a place of passion — a band that he and his former musical compadres wanted to be in, music they wanted to make, and then life and its complication sours the milk.
From what he writes in Sing Backwards And Weep, however, it seems that passion was never really there for Lanegan. In fact, he’s seething with resentment from the get-go — for losing his shot at a career in baseball (ultimately by his own doing), for an adolescence smeared with drink and drugs and petty crime (ditto, but we’ll get back to that) and for taking a role in a band that he didn’t like, with bandmates he didn’t particularly care for at best but mostly outright loathed, seemingly for having the temerity to… not be to his exacting standards?
For sure there are many accounts of the Screaming Trees’ guitarist Gary Lee Conner of being a, well, difficult individual — those physical squabbles with his brother, bassist Van Conner, were no secret to this guy reading about the band in snippets from the ’90s music press. And Lanegan initially paints what feels like a fair picture of Gary Lee as an introverted loner, prone to the selfish tantrums of the coddled. But far from understanding that, Lanegan uses it as fuel for his self-righteous, unnecessarily savage character assassination.
For page after tedious page, Gary Lee Conner is the albatross around Lanegan’s neck; he’s a fraud obsessed with a musical bygone era, whose lyrics Lanegan is embarrassed to sing; or he’s the tyrant steering the band away from the heights only Lanegan is capable of reaching; he’s the ‘large’ or ‘huge’ — or whatever synonym for ‘fat’ he could find in the thesaurus — individual taking up valuable space that could be filled with Lanegan’s own ego.
It may not seem so to Lanegan, even though he wrote the thing (we’ll get back to that, too) but it’s pretty clear to any reader not taken in by his shtick that he’s just put out he wasn’t the boss as the frontman. He rode the Screaming Trees’ coattails to escape life in a dead-end town (which is at once universally populated by deplorable rednecks, but also has a university with lefty arts students — not the only contradiction within these pages) and, as my friend Erik Highter pointed out, he’s mad he has to share his legacy with them.
And the Screaming Trees do have a legacy; far from “terrible”, their earlier albums are treats of rough-hewn backwoods psych — even their debut Clairvoyance, which has that kind of we-made-a-record spirited naivety. It’s telling that the first record the band made that gets anything close to the Lanegan seal of approval, 1992’s Sweet Oblivion, is their most bloated and least interesting. (Lanegan wouldn’t be so gauche to admit this is the one where he finally called the shots, because that would give the game away, but it’s not hard to read between the lines that’s exactly the case.)
When he’s exhausted his tirade against the band he’s convinced locked him in chains, along come the drug bore stories. It’s an attempt at a warts-and-all confessional, but those are meant to be cathartic, part of a learning experience laid out on the page. But there’s little to learn here. Instead, there’s a nagging sense he’s enamoured with the picture he paints of himself a romantic fuck-up, taking advantage of everyone and everything in his purview for the next score of skag or whatever he’s shooting up or smoking today to “get well”; an aura of conceptual art about his almost ritual puking and shitting in the throes of withdrawal.
It detracts from any attempt he makes to recount the struggles of making his solo records, which are all excellent. (See? I’m not just bitter he hates a band I like!) This is when he gets so, so close to grasping his self, but his solipsism won’t let him; he’d rather go for faux humility, or unintentionally reveal his desperate pettiness (such as his decade-long enmity for Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt over an album cover photo that’s perfectly fine). It’s not funny, it’s just pathetic. (See also: his constant objectification of women, who he can only view through a prism of attractiveness, read fuckability; yet another aspect of his character he fails to grasp despite it being right there for the taking.)
When he recounts a member of another band the Trees are touring with remarking, “That idiot thinks he’s Jim Morrison!”, rather than take the opportunity for self-examination he goes on the defensive. If he’s trying to be sarcastic, it’s lost amid the seething ire that reverberates throughout the text.
And let’s talk about the text, because there’s a distinct impression this is not the unmediated expression of one Mr Mark Lanegan, but the contrived, purple prose of a ghostwriter, or an editor entrusted to massage whatever scribbles he came up with. It only reinforces the sense of dishonesty which is the book’s real admission. Even near the end, when we get the ‘big reveal’ that the source of his sheer awfulness is, by and large, his mother, who appears to be a uniquely cruel and abusive influence on his life, he resists the characterisation lest it casts him as a ‘mommy issues’ cliche. His ‘born again’ prodigal son bullshit in the final pages passes muster, but that’s too much? Quite.
Cross-posted from Goodreads