Book Review – “Sing Backwards And Weep – A Memoir” by Mark Lanegan

I kind of went back-and-forth when considering writing about Mark Lanegan’s new memoir, Sing Backwards And Weep. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was trying to find some balance between the book’s stark and direct portrayal of addiction and generally bad behavior (by a whole lot of of people) and, well, the fact that Lanegan comes across as a pretty unlikeable human being. There are points in Sing Backwards And Weep when you pretty much stop rooting for Lanegan, finding yourself hoping he gets what he has coming to him for the way he treated someone. And to be fair, sometimes he does, whether it’s getting ripped off by Amsterdam drug dealers twice in the same night while desperately fighting heroin withdrawal or the perceived betrayal this friend Slayer “steal” one of Lanegan’s best customers when the singer was dealing to support his habit (something Lanegan does to someone else in an example of role reversal later in the book). Ultimately Lanegan’s seeming honesty wins out. I say “seeming” because we only get Mark’s side of the story, though more often than not he comes away looking much worse than anyone else involved so it feels like at the very least we’re getting his honest recollections and perceptions of events, even if others might have different takes. Plus at times he’s brutally self-aware, clearly recognizing not only his role in events but also that, to be blunt, often he was the asshole.

Those moments of acknowledgement, while sprinkled throughout the book, are often not in the places you’d expect, sometimes leaving the reader wondering, “so if he doesn’t acknowledge how bad this particular thing is, but he does acknowledge how bad other things are, how does he really feel about this event?” And that was certainly part of my struggle in coming to grips with how I felt about the Mark Lanegan described in Sing Backwards. But to be fair, if Lanegan deeply regretted even half the things he tells us he did the book would be unreadable, nothing more than a repetitive mea culpa mantra that would have been both annoying and come across as ingenuine. Sometimes, though, you’re left unsure. Does Lanegan have any regrets about being part of the scheme to steal some of Sub Pop co-founder Jon Poneman’s record collection, which was sold to buy drugs? At the time Lanegan saw it as payback for Poneman going back on a promise made regarding the photo to be used on the cover of Lanegan’s solo debut, 1990s The Winding Sheet. I also wonder if former Poison Idea drummer Steve Hanford (♠) knew he was going to be named as the guy who physically stole Poneman’s records while Hanford was, ironically, helping the former record label exec organize his record collection. A lot of people are named in Sing Backwards, many of them in unflattering situations, and at least a few of them aren’t happy about it, such has Lanegan’s former Screaming Trees bandmate Gary Lee Conner and Oasis member Liam Gallagher, both who have gone online (Facebook and Twitter respectively) with responses.

The two most interesting threads were those around Lanegan’s relationships with a pair of fellow vocalists, Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, both who also suffered under and eventually passed in part due to their addictions. Lanegan heaped praise on both, referring to Pierce as his favorite vocalist, though was also frank when relating some of the more frightening and sobering interactions he had with each, such as the incomprehensible message Pierce left on his answering machine shortly before he died and Staley being convinced that spiders exited an abscess in his arm and were hiding in his bathroom wall. Lanegan never shies away, his storytelling almost brutal in its directness.

If I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t put down Sing Backwards And Weep. Lanegan’s matter-of-fact, conversational writing style and knack for storytelling make it an effortless read. Sure the subject matter was often dark, and more than once I found myself shaking my head as the singer sank to a new low, but the tale is powerful and harrowing even if you do become a bit numb to the squalor after so many tales of depravity. The one thing missing is the rest of the story, as it were, the book ending abruptly with Lanegan receiving a phone call in 2002 informing him of Staley’s death. I was left wondering how Mark would describe his life after kicking dope; we didn’t get the redemption part of the story. Hopefully he’ll share it with us someday.

() I wrote the first draft of this post on May 17, and planned on posting it today. So imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to learn that Steve Handford died yesterday morning. RIP Steve.

Screaming Trees – “Last Words: The Final Recordings” (2014)

I’m 97% sure I had the Screaming Trees’ 1989 Sub Pop double 7″ of “Change Has Come” when I was in high school, but that’s as close as I ever really came to becoming a Trees fan, and that was more of an obligatory purchase back in my Sub Pop 7″ days. That’s not to dismiss them – they were certainly well-knownhere in Seattle; I just never got into them because I was into the heavier, more punk, more prototypically grunge bands.

I wasn’t planning on picking up the Record Store Day re-release of the band’s last album, 2011s Last Words: The Final Recordings, but when I saw it I figured I’d just get it. As near as I can tell this wasn’t originally released on vinyl, and this version is on red wax and allegedly limited to 500 copies (though it isn’t numbered).

I don’t know much about the band’s background, other than that they’re from Eastern Washington town of Ellensburg (in Washington about 80% of the state falls into the “Eastern” category). Vocalist Mark Lanegan seems to show up a lot in various bands and projects, and he also brings in a lot of talented “guests” to appear on his solo records. Other than his work with the Trees, I’m most familiar with him for the stuff he did with Mad Season, both when Above originally came out and his singing on the new tracks that were part of the RSD re-release in 2013.

The songs on Last Words: The Final Recordings date from 1998-99, so this isn’t new material. Musically the album is very low key, like doing an entire record out of nothing but the one inevitable “slow” song that seems to appear on almost every rock album ever made. Not ballads per say… just slowish. This works as it allows Lanegan to showcase his voice, supported by some outstanding harmonizing (especially on “Reflections”). These are songs by a more mature band, one that doesn’t seem to be trying to impress anyone other than themselves by playing what they want to play, they way they want to play it. It’s music by guys who have seen and been through a lot in their lives and no longer feel the need to play the game. It doesn’t rock nearly as much as I expected it to, with the possible exception of “Ash Gray Sunday,” but I definitely enjoy it.

Record Store Day 2014

I approached Record Store Day 2014 with both excitement and apprehension, as usual. Excitement because there was so much cool stuff on the schedule for release; apprehension because I know it’s just one big mess at a lot of the stores, mostly due to people’s boorish behavior. My #1 want was Mudhoney’s On Top: KEXP Presents Mudhoney Live on Top of the Space Needle, though given that (1) it was limited to 2,700 copies and (2) I live in the band’s “home” town of Seattle, I figured my chances were slim unless I wanted to camp out. Which I didn’t. And I didn’t get a copy.

Regardless, Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I hopped in the vinylmobile this morning, got coffee, and headed to Easy Street Records in West Seattle. We arrived at just after 7AM, which is when the doors opened. People were still funneling in from the outside, and I have to say it was at least somewhat organized and I didn’t see anyone acting like a complete and total asshole. The guy behind me in line had already been through once and was carrying a huge stack of vinyl (including the elusive Mudhoney, damn him!) back upstairs where all the 12″ records were, having come back downstairs for a few minutes to scour the 7″ and 10″ releases. He let me know I was way too late for Mudhoney (thanks guy), which was confirmed by the dude working upstairs (Easy Street only got half of what they tried to get in their order). Oh well.

2014rsd1As you can see, it was crowded as hell, but more or less orderly which was nice. I picked up the Half Japanese Volume One: 1981-1985 three record set (includes download card… thank you!) along with the limited edition (I believe Seattle exclusive) red vinyl re-release of Screaming Trees Last Words: The Final Recordings before taking my place in line. And slooooowwwwllllyyy winding my way through the store to the cash registers, which took about an hour (no joke). Fortunately the trip took me through every section downstairs, including used CDs and all the 7″ records, so I also snagged Foals Live at the Royal Albert Hall that someone had discarded, a Caspar Babypants 7″, and a used CD of Mudhoney covering songs by The Sonics, which is cool.

That was a pretty respectable haul, but there was one specialty item that Easy Street wasn’t carrying, but that the Seattle branch of Silver Platters was: Eilon Paz’s monster record collector book Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting. If you haven’t checked out Eilon’s website devoted to vinyl collector profiles, you really should both because his interviews are great and his photography is fantastic. So we headed to Silver Platters and got there about 20 minutes after they opened. I initially intended only to look for the Mudhoney record and the book, but of course was immediately distracted by the huge selection of RSD titles and in short order found myself carrying Ice-T Greatest Hits, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with the 3D cover, the Pagans what’s this shit? 1977/1979, and the RSD special picture disc version of Motörhead‘s newest album Aftershock. Oh yeah, and a copy of the book I actually came for!

2014rsd2The line here was crazy long as well, but with one more cash register open than Easy Street had, it actually moved surprisingly fast – it took us maybe 30 minutes to get through. And to top it off, when we got home what was waiting for me in the mailbox? The split Legend / Sólstafir limited edition 7″ I ordered like six months ago! Score!

Now, I don’t have kids, so I’ve never been able to experience how much portable electronics have made it easier to travel with the little ones. I mean, the best I could do on a long car trip or flight when I was young was draw, read, or play with my G.I. Joes, all of which gets old pretty quick when you’re a kid and are stuck in a seat. But I have to say that having a smart phone takes the edge off of standing in line. Texting with Travis of the Guerrilla Candy blog and reading/posting RSD updates on FB with my friends helped pass the time quite a bit. As, of course, did listening to the conversations going on around me, some of which were replete with complaining girlfriends (“this line isn’t moving at all”) and various levels of music and movie snobbery.

You know, despite not getting the one record I really, really, really, really (really!) wanted, it was a very positive RSD experience. I got some cool and unexpected stuff, more material for the blog! And I’ll probably just break down and go onto eBay and get a copy of that Mudhoney record. I’ll pay “too much,” but at least I’ll have it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do.