Sing Backwards and Weep

Sing Backwards and Weep
By Mark Lanegan
[Hatchette Books]

“What happened to you that made you so sad?” This is the burning question that 7 Year Bitch’s Selene Vigil asked of the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan during a fleeting, pensive moment of rapprochement during a truncated liaison amourese. This Lanegan guy, he had (and very well may still have) problems galore. Such problems, it seems, set the template for the dark, brooding, heartbroken singer persona that emanated with such profundity from Grunge County, U.S.A., also known as the Pacific Northwest, in the early ’90s. All of the area’s major grunge frontmen: Andrew Wood, Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, Mark Arm, Tad Doyle, Art Alexakis (gimme a fuckin’ break), Saint Cobain (alas, poor Kurt) and, of course, Lanegan himself, bore the onuses of unhappy childhoods, broken homes, depression and addiction that became the de facto requisites for membership in grunge’s Fucked Up Singer Club.

Do the math. Half of those guys are dead. And, of the surviving members, Lanegan is the guy who most often found himself on the next-to-die list. Curiously, the still-living Lanegan was (and very well still may be) as or more fucked up than the aforementioned dearly departed. And this fact is not lost on Lanegan, who has seen fit to regale us with a warts ‘n’ all auto-bio that is more a neo-noir addiction memoir than a kunstlerroman. (And, with that, I’ll dismount my trusted steed, the pretense horse, for this review and quit using them fancy, foreign words.)

Anyway, Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep is actually pretty goddamned good. Lanegan’s authorial voice possesses the same high (on drugs) and lonesome, weathered, bluesy timbres that make his (excellent, perhaps the best in, ahem, “grunge”) singing voice its authority. This is to say that Lanegan’s seemingly boundless laundry list of transgressions has a ring of truth – or, at least, credibility – even though the braggadocio gets excessive. Something about it all seems “real,” even when you know good and well there’s at least a degree of affectation going on.

Let’s face it. Addiction is a kind of machismo that extends even beyond using. “Recovered” addicts will brag on and on about the oceans of booze they drank, the mountains of powder they snorted, their fourteenth and twentieth arrests, the thirtieth time their veins collapsed, that time they tried to shoot up in the penis (Lanegan, p. 216), those glorious weekends in the drunk tank, the umpteen STDs (Lanegan, p. 236), the seismic intensity of withdrawal-related seizures, who they fucked, how fucked up they got, and who they fucked over, ad infinitum. But, well, hey. Such retrospective cataloging of depravities is a popular genre. I mean, what’s an addiction memoir without the excessive excesses of Rabelaisian excess? This is what we want. And Lanegan delivers.

And this brings us back to the burning question: what happened to Lanegan to make him so sad? And this leads us back to the de facto requisites for membership in grunge’s Fucked Up Singer Club. Lanegan writes:

There had been a perpetual war between myself and the costume of persona I’d donned as a youngster and then worn my entire life. Petrified that someone might discover who I really was: merely a child inside the body of an adult. A boy playacting as a man. My lifelong hard-ass exterior, and, underneath that, ironclad interior were all an intricately constructed, carefully cultivated, and fiercely guarded sham.

In short, Lanegan’s upbringing, or lack thereof, in small town Washington state really did suck, oftentimes teetering on the edges of abuse or, at least, neglect. The lacks, wants and ruins of Lanegan’s ramshackle childhood instilled in him an as yet unresolved sense of inferiority. Lanegan overcompensated for this inferiority complex by becoming an angry, easily provoked, violent wastrel –an incapable adult. And, let’s face it, “incapable adult” is exactly what we want from a rock singer. I mean, how many charismatic rock singers are capable, ahem, “adults?” Who is sexier and more exciting, Ian McKaye or Stiv Bators? Eddie Vedder or Mark Lanegan? You get my drift. (And, BTW, the latter is the correct answer for both questions.)

While Lanegan many have been (and very well may still be) an incapable adult, he is by no means an inept writer. This guy can really turn a taut, pithy and acerbic phrase. And while Sing Backwards is indeed steeped in gloom, it also teems with wit, albeit of the acidic and sometimes self-deprecating variety. My hunch is that Lanegan himself is very well aware of the absurdity of his life story and of the genre of rock ’n’ roll/addiction memoir. Lanegan doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And, in a loveable way, he is most mercilessly disparaging of himself.

So, here’s (only sort of) the rub – which is (only sort of) my beef with this book: Lanegan’s solo work is, for my money, much better than that of the Screaming Trees’. And all of that is elided in Sing Backwards. I mean, the Trees were a good live band with a few memorable songs and a few others that veered uncomfortably nearer to the Stone Temple Pilots’ or the Gin Blossoms’ oeuvres than to those of Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen or The Gun Club to which Lanegan aspired. This is to say that the Screaming Trees were the musical vehicle that only carried Lanegan about halfway to mainstream fame, and only about a third of the way to the eventual fruition as the serious artiste he really is today. And the book ends pretty soon after the Trees’ final dissolution. So there’s a gaping hole in Lanegan’s story here – which is perhaps fodder for the next book?

Then again, Lanegan’s time with the Screaming Trees was the era for which he is most noted. And the Screaming Trees period was when the opium poppy’s flower of evil most fully bloomed in Lanegan’s life. And it was the time when he was sharing needles and bumping uglies with all of the other movers and shakers of grunge royalty. And that’s the down ’n’ dirty shit we really want from a book like this, anyway. Lanegan is saving the artistic development bit, I guess, for the sequel – which will doubtlessly sell fewer copies than this one.  With Sing Backwards, Lanegan is once again realizing “a self-fulfilling prophesy of negative consequences for an hour or two of pleasure.”

And that pleasure is mine. Like the best rock songs, Sing Backwards hits hard and fast. It is immediately engrossing, maintains its intensity from start to finish, and leaves the reader wanting more. (Granted, some of the passages about withdrawals are excruciating. And much of this book is, well, gross. But, again, that’s what we want.) The book spans Lanegan’s childhood until what was ostensibly the beginning of his addiction recovery. Oddly, only six of the book’s 332 pages (do the math: that’s 1.8 %) are about his recovery. Odder still, he does, in a single sentence, mention finding, um, God in rehab. Thankfully, that’s about as far as the sin and redemption trope progresses in this tome. The sublime and the ridiculous coexist (and are perhaps interchangeable) in Lanegan’s carnivalesque prose – in a good way. I wouldn’t exactly classify Sing Backwards as a masterpiece. But I’m pretty sure I’ll be dusting it off to read again in a couple of years, when I need another filth fix that aspires to and oftentimes nears greatness. This one’s a keeper.