From Seattle to the Stone Age
With the 20th anniversary of the Seattle scene's insurgence fast approaching, the ghosts of its fallen figures will still not be allowed to rest. However, it's unlikely that proper tributes will be paid to the survivors, those who have transcended the ubiquitous "grunge" tag and continue to make music that challenges both themselves and their audiences. Granted, there aren't many; Pearl Jam and Mudhoney have stuck to relatively familiar territory, while Chris Cornell's post-Soundgarden work is best left out of this discussion entirely. That leaves Mark Lanegan, the scene's poetic misfit, an image largely rooted in his original miscasting as lead vocalist of Screaming Trees. Yet, from his first emergence as a solo artist, it was clear that Lanegan possessed an understanding and appreciation of songwriting that far outstripped his peers. Over the past decade he has allowed those traits to consistently lead him into uncharted territory, both on his own and through a steady stream of collaborations. Whether it's making cameos fronting Queens Of The Stone Age or his latest collection of duets with Scottish folkie Isobel Campbell, Sunday At Devil Dirt, Lanegan's soul-stirring baritone always sounds at home. It's a voice that's become as powerful a vehicle of expression as any in rock'n'roll, and in spite of his well-publicized bad habits, it thankfully doesn't seem like it will be silenced anytime soon.
1964 to 1984
Mark Lanegan is born November 25, 1964 in the small town of Ellensburg, 130 miles southeast of Seattle. Some of his early years are spent in a trailer park, and by age 12 he is committing petty crimes. "When I was a kid I got caught shoplifting by a store security guard in Ellensburg," Lanegan would tell Seattle magazine The Rocket in 1996. "The next time I saw that store guard was when I got thrown in jail again - this time for not paying court fees. The guy happened to be in jail too, right next to me. That's what Eastern Washington is like - you never get too far away from anybody." He begins experimenting with drugs and is arrested several more times. Although his listening habits favour imported British punk singles, his imagination is also stoked by a box of blues records that his father, a teacher, finds in the attic of his school. Among them is Lead Belly's 1944 recording of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." In high school Lanegan strikes up a friendship with fellow punk fan Van Conner, who - along with his brother Gary Lee - play in one of Ellensburg's few bands. Lanegan, however, is more intent on a baseball career; that is until age 18 when he is arrested for drug possession and handed a prison sentence. It's deferred when he consents to enter a yearlong treatment program. Following that, he works for the Conner family business repossessing appliances and furniture. Lanegan eventually falls out with the Conners and takes a job on a farm, a position he only expects to hold temporarily until he's able to ride his motorcycle to Las Vegas where better work awaits with his cousin. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned. Just before Lanegan is about to leave the farm, his boss accidentally runs over his legs with a tractor. "After that, I couldn't ride my motorcycle," he'll tell Mojo's Keith Cameron in 2004. "So I lent it to Van Conner. My girlfriend left me around that time too, so he would come by and bring me food, 'cos I couldn't walk. One day he came back without [the motorcycle]. He'd totalled my bike, so now I didn't have any wheels. That's how I ended up being in the Screaming Trees. Two months later we made our first record."
1985 to 1986
The Conner brothers are in the process of forming a new band with vocalist Mark Pickerel when the still-recovering Lanegan offers to play drums. It's determined that Pickerel is a better drummer, so Lanegan switches to vocals, even though he has little experience in that role either. With few places to play in Ellensburg, Lee Conner buys a four-track and the band records original demos, laying the foundation for a sound that, although rooted in hardcore, shows a strong love of psychedelia, from Lee Conner's fondness for the wah-wah pedal, to Lanegan's Jim Morrison-inspired singing. Seeking to expand upon the demos, the band meets local producer Steve Fisk, who had previously put out several of his own cassettes on Calvin Johnson's K Records. Fisk gets the band to record new versions of the songs and six are chosen for the self-released Other Worlds cassette. This sparks the Trees to write more and by summer, 1986 they finish their full-length debut, Clairvoyance, released on Ellensburg-based label Velvetone. By now Fisk is the band's champion and arranges the Trees's first legitimate show on May 11, 1986 in Olympia, Washington, Calvin Johnson's home base. Johnson is impressed and agrees to re-release Other Worlds on K. The band's relationship with Johnson is fully consummated the next year when they record a joint four-song EP with Johnson's band Beat Happening. However, Fisk's next move is to play Clairvoyance to his friends at SST Records in L.A. and the Trees soon join the label's influential roster that includes Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and the Minutemen.
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