Saturday, September 26, 2015
Mark Lanegan - Houston (Publishing Demos 2002)
I’m not going to try to dazzle you with a meticulously-researched music history lesson about how, when, and at what speed the music of Seattle spread like wildfire around the country, because, truthfully, I only really know firsthand how it happened for me in Albuquerque.
Most of my indistinct memories of the second half of high school are set to the music of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Mötley Crüe, as well as, regrettably, a fair sprinkling of Warrant, Ratt, Slaughter and Scorpions (the whistling Scorpions, not the rocking ‘70s Scorpions).
But then, tucked in there in the fall of 1991, comes this sharp, lucid recollection of driving to school one morning and finally, belatedly, intensely noticing “Smells like Teen Spirit” playing on the radio. Who can guess how many times it had bounced off my ears without me processing what I was hearing? It was high school; the radio was always on, but we weren’t always listening.
I don’t recall going home and dramatically purging my CD collection – hell, I never even became that big of a Nirvana fan – but no further scenes in my mental high school movie are set to a hair-metal soundtrack. Everything just seems a lot sharper and more significant after that.
By graduation, I was a big Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains fan, so I bought the Singles soundtrack as soon as it came out in the summer of 1992. I didn’t recall until I was fact-checking my dates that the soundtrack album was actually released months before the movie, but I’m not surprised: I really dug that movie, but I loved that soundtrack. It was so undeniable, so perfectly compiled, that I wanted it to be my soundtrack, especially as I headed into college. I soaked in it like cherries macerating in whiskey. It got into my blood. It had two previously unreleased Pearl Jam songs on it (igniting my lifelong obsession with exclusive, non-album tracks), but it also introduced me to a band with a singer unlike anyone I’d ever heard fronting a group. Thanks to Singles, I discovered the Screaming Trees, and their unique, unmistakable voice, Mark Lanegan.
Lanegan had a vocal delivery that was nothing like what I was accustomed to hearing from a rock frontman – no high-register wailing, no over-emoting to the point of pretentiousness. His gravel-throated crooning seemed transplanted from a place where the founding tenets of cock-rock vocals hadn’t been popularized by Plant and perfected by Dio. Rather, Lanegan coasted across the riffs like a smooth, baritone waverider, favoring longboard gliding over ostentatious shredding. It was so subtle, actually, that it took me years to realize how cool it was.
I grew up in New Mexico, then went off to school in Florida for most of college. Neither of those places ever had a sound that I experienced. But Seattle had one, at least as far as I, a kid from New Mexico, knew. And that sound was separate from grunge. Grunge was a catch-phrase for a scene that got huge for a few quality bands from Seattle, got parlayed into success for some shittier bands from other places, then faded away, as anything does when you pour an increasingly diluted version of it down peoples’ throats for years.
I was barely paying attention to the scene. I was tuning in to the sound of a city. It was dark and gritty, and while no Seaweed song sounded like a Green Apple Quickstep song or a Mudhoney song, they all had a darkness and a struggling that united them and (in my mind) identified them with the place. Defined the place. I was captivated.
Over the years, my interest in some of those bands dwindled, while the Lanegan canon took on an increasingly prominent role in my life’s carefully curated score. His songs, often haunting, seemed to indicate that he was generally living a rougher existence than most other artists, and that only gave them more weight.
Mark Lanegan’s music brings an intensity to almost any moment, one you may not have expected or even wanted. A walk through your neighborhood is just a walk till you put on “Leviathan” from Blues Funeral, and then it’s as if you’re carrying your last dead friendship in a metaphorical casket through a bittersweet funeral march. One minute you’re contentedly posting photos of your breakfast on Instagram, but one listen to “No Easy Action” from Field Songs later and you’re gazing somberly at the ruin of the last fifteen years of your life, wondering how and where you went wrong. I mean, shit, if Lanegan can hold it together, how the hell could you fuck it up?
Oh, and let’s not forget religion. Lanegan’s songs are about Christianity the way Indiana Jones movies are about Christianity: The little nods and touchpoints are there, but more because religious guilt and the threat of damnation make for great story anchors; no one is trying to send you home with a bible and a new joy at your place in God’s universe.
It’s 2015, and I’ve been living in Seattle for almost three years. In just a few days, I’m leaving. Measured from the year that Singles came out and this city caught my attention, it took me twenty years to get here, and now my stay is almost over.
As a little reminder of the insubstantiality of things like time and place, I have a new solo album from Mark Lanegan, the onetime Screaming Trees singer that I’ve still never seen perform live, just to give me one last jab in the ribs. (I missed him by an hour two years ago when I’d purchased scalped tickets to see him. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.)
His new record, Houston, is actually a collection of dark little demos from 2002, in which Lanegan is once again scraping at his soul for new ruminations on late nights, doomed pursuits and the burden of living. As is generally the case with his music, these tunes epitomize the sound that has enthralled me for over half my life.
Layne Staley once sang about struggling and losing himself in this city. It’s a place where restlessness and territoriality create a weird sense of isolation (despite a population of over half a million), and Lanegan wrote and sang songs here about inner demons, alienation, and the stinking fucking rain for decades. And, like a dark pint of porter on a cold city night, he always managed to make them sound comforting despite the chill.
Seattle has been weaving in and out of my life since 1991. It gave me Alice in Chains and Sweet Water. It taught me that an entire city could have a distinct musical personality, one that was indifferent to what the rest of the world was doing. It’s where my first band made our first record, and, in 2012, it gave me a destination when I needed one. It really is the Emerald City, and I’ve spent three glorious years here, soaking up its infuriating bleakness and standoffish idealism. It’s been indescribably wonderful…even though whatever I thought could or would happen once I got here perhaps never did.
Through it all, Lanegan keeps putting out great records, and I’ll be singing “I don’t want to leave this heaven so soon” from Houston’s “When It’s In You” as I roll out of town. He may live elsewhere now, as I soon will, but Mark Lanegan will always be the haggard, addictive voice of the Seattle sound for me.