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.