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Mark Lanegan, Singer for Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, Dies at 57

American folk singer Mark Lanegan during
AP

Mark Lanegan, who followed a long stint as lead vocalist for the proto-grunge band Screaming Trees with a distinguished career as an impassioned solo singer-songwriter and adventurous collaborator with Queens of the Stone Age and others, has died. A cause of death was not announced, although last year he was said to be suffering from Covid-19 and kidney disease; he was 57.

“Our beloved friend Mark Lanegan passed away this morning at his home in Killarney, Ireland,” reads a statement on his Twitter account. “A beloved singer, songwriter, author and musician he was 57 and is survived by his wife Shelley. No other information is available at this time. The family asks everyone to respect their privacy at this time.”

Sometimes recording under the nickname “Dark Mark,” Lanegan lived up to his sobriquet, in his work focusing on what he termed continuing themes of “loss, longing, mortality and chemical dependence” in original songs couched in music that alternated between loud, unfettered power and a hushed lyricism. Some of his deepest material was inspired by a harrowing life of dissolution, crime and addiction.

In 1985, Lanegan was already a blackout alcoholic with a long juvenile arrest record. He was repossessing rented videocassette players for a video store in his hometown of Ellensburg, Wash. — a small rural town southeast of Seattle where he was born on Nov. 25, 1964 — when he started a band with his boss’ sons, guitarist Gary Lee Conner and bassist Van Conner.

The lure of fame and the rock ‘n’ roll road appealed to the rebellious, discontented Lanegan. “I wanted excitement, adventure, decadence, depravity, anything, everything,” he wrote in his harrowing 2020 memoir “Sing Backwards and Weep,” adding, “I would never find any of it in this dusty, isolated cow town. If the band could get me out, could get me into that life I so craved, it was worth any indignity, any hardship, any torture.”

With Lanegan serving as their imposing baritone front man, Screaming Trees was a psychedelia-tinged hard rock unit whose heavyweight early albums prefigured the explosion of grunge rock in Washington state. Attention-getting records for Southern California punk label SST Records prefaced a major-label contract with Epic. After the group’s 1990 debut for the label — which was co-produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell — their single “Nearly Lost You” was prominently featured in Cameron Crowe’s celluloid love letter to the Seattle scene, “Singles,” and became an alternative-radio smash. Powered by that single, the Trees’ second major-label debut “Sweet Oblivion,” drove the band to to national prominence.

By that time, Lanegan had embarked on an embryonic solo career: His 1990 Sub Pop debut “The Winding Sheet” featured appearances by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana (who would later perform Lanegan’s arrangement of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” at their “MTV Unplugged” appearance).

In his 2017 collection of lyrics “I Am the Wolf,” Lanegan reels off a list of artists who influenced that album’s music – including his friend and idol Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Nick Cave and Ian Curtis of Joy Division — whose impact would be felt repeatedly over the course of a 30-year solo career.

He followed up his solo debut with three more spare, low-key Sub Pop releases, all featuring guitarist Mike Johnson (Dinosaur Jr.) and a host of Seattle grunge notables, and favoring blues, folk, soul and gospel styles: “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost” (1994), “Scraps at Midnight” (1998) and the collection of covers “I’ll Take Care of You” (1998).

Lanegan’s writing of the period reflected his continuing battle with narcotics: In 1997, with the help of the Musicians Assistance Program, he entered rehab in Southern California for his heroin and crack addictions after a period of homelessness. His ongoing conflict with Gary Lee Conner, which often devolved into physical altercations, ultimately led to the breakup of Screaming Trees, who had failed to capitalize on the success of “Sweet Oblivion,” in 2000. The band had released just one album, 1996’s “Dust,” in its final eight years.

In the immediate aftermath of the split, Lanegan appeared as a featured vocalist on “Rated R,” the debut release by the Southern California band Queens of the Stone Age, led by Josh Homme, who had served as Screaming Trees’ touring guitarist in the late ‘90s. He went on to appear on four more Queens albums, and established close ties with other members of the region’s “desert rock” cadre, including Chris Goss of Masters of Reality, Dave Catching, Nick Oliveri and Queens multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes, who produced most of Lanegan’s latter-day solo records.

While Lanegan issued two solo records early in the new millennium – the affecting, lean “Field Songs” (2001) and the muddled “Bubblegum” (2004) – much of his activity focused on collaborations.

He recorded three albums with singer Isobel Campbell of the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. He engaged in ongoing work in Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli’s side project Twilight Singers, and collaborated with the singer-guitarist under the Gutter Twins rubric for a Sub Pop album and EP. He appeared as a vocalist on two albums by the transoceanic electronic duo Soulsavers in 2007 and 2009. (Later, in the twenty-teens, he cut two albums in partnership with British musician Duke Garwood.)

In 2012, Lanegan hit another bottom. He wrote in his lyrics collection, “In the aftermath of a near-death experience, music no longer had any effect on me. I had seen no white lights or tunnels to heaven but instead just woke up as if from sleep after five days in ICU….It was as if I’d been drained of all feeling and had zero desire to even listen to music.” However, urged by his teenaged nephews to start writing again, he began work on new songs.

Thus, eight years after the release of “Bubblegum,” Lanegan returned to solo work with the compelling and sonically eclectic “Blues Funeral,” a one-off for England’s 4AD. A long association with the UK’s Heavenly Recordings followed; beginning with the album of covers “Imitations,” the company issued five sonically diverse albums between 2013 and 2020; though they received only limited attention in the U.S., these releases — which sported influences ranging from pop and country to disco and krautrock — made the musician a much-admired performer in England, where his work routinely appeared on the charts.

The most recent of his Heavenly albums, 2020’s “Straight Songs of Sorrow,” served as a musical companion of sorts to Lanegan’s unflinching, oft-horrific memoir “Sing Backwards and Weep.” Graphic and bluntly honest, the widely praised book — termed “fearsome and brutal” by the Washington Post — followed the singer’s torturous path through addiction and the drug-related deaths of his friends Cobain, Pierce and Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley.

He is survived by his second wife Shelley Brien.

Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.