Sing Backwards and Weep

Review :

Towards the end of Mark Lanegan's engrossing memoir is a series of scenes in which he shares space with Liam Gallagher, the singer of British rock act Oasis. It is September 1996 and Lanegan's band, Screaming Trees, is supporting Oasis on an arena tour of the US east coast.

Oasis's star is on the ascent while the Trees are on a slow descent into obscurity, and Gallagher's very first interaction with his American counterpart is to take the piss out of Lanegan's band name by spitting "howling branches!" in his face while backed by two huge, hired goons.

By this point in the book, 260-odd pages deep, we know enough about the narrator to recognise the extraordinary mistake that Gallagher has made in provoking Lanegan, who earlier had detailed his innate ability to keep people at arm's length - and to keep the seat next to him open on a crowded, standing-room-only city bus - by mastering a dark, dead-eyed visage that once had earned him the nickname "Shark".

"It would take more than one blowhard singer to intimidate the Trees," writes Lanegan. "I was a veteran of violence foreign and domestic, onstage, backstage, rural countryside, big city, barroom, parking lot, pool hall, and alleyway All I knew was that in my 31 years on Earth, I had never encountered anyone with a larger head or tinier balls. And he had chosen exactly the wrong guy to f..k with."

This stand-off between the two rock singers is an extremely funny interlude in an otherwise painstakingly unflinching account of a troubled life further troubled by the excesses of rock 'n' roll. History records Screaming Trees as also-rans in a Seattle alternative rock scene that bloomed in the early 1990s with multi-million-selling album releases by the likes of Nirvana and Alice in Chains.

Lanegan was close friends with the singers in those two bands - Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley respectively - and, like both of those men, he carries inside him a powerful, singular instrument, with his baritone style occupying the deepest end of the male vocal spectrum. And, like both of his friends, eventually he would become desperately mired in drug addiction.

This book chronicles about a decade in Lanegan's life in Seattle and abroad - from the mid-80s onward - in ultra-high definition, and if you're looking for detailed retellings of sordid scenes with some of the key characters from that highly romanticised time in popular music, there are certainly plenty of those.

About halfway through, for instance, he describes scoring dope for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds when the Australian act passed through Washington. When the band leader arrived at Lanegan's apartment to score heroin, the author writes: "Cave looked at my f..ked-up arms, crisscrossed like a road map of Germany with huge, deep, red-and-black abscessed tracks. 'Damn,' he said. 'I guess you can't just pop into the can for a quick hit'."

Lanegan was a prime candidate for becoming a compulsive user, but it's not until late in the book that we learn of the gruelling array of traumatic abuse he experienced as a boy, which explains the deep well of rage that ran through his psyche and why he was thrilled eventually to find a numbing substance that dulled his painful memories.

"My entire childhood, my mother, who, unbelievably, worked as a college lecturer of early childhood education, had been a wholly detestable, damaged witch," he writes.

The abuse detailed in these passages is completely shocking, even more so because Lanegan detonates those bombs so late in the narrative of his 20s.

But writing a lacerating self-examination is only half the challenge for any memoirist; the other half is writing it beautifully, in a way that connects with readers whose lived experiences are distant to the author's own. In that respect Lanegan surely succeeds, for his tone throughout Sing Backwards and Weep, the title of which is taken from a lyric from his 1999 song, Fix, is wry and knowing without ever transmitting a trace of self-pity.

With great skill, he renders long-ago memories in vivid three-dimensional scenes that perfectly capture who he was then and why he acted how he did in the moment. Only occasionally does he allow a modicum of present-tense wisdom to enter into the narrative and, when deployed economically, it becomes brutally effective.

Take this passage on page 95, which comes just as Screaming Trees are finally beginning to find a wide audience with the release of their sixth album, in the wake of Nirvana's success with their 1991 breakthrough, Nevermind, whose rising tide lifted all boats.

At this time Lanegan had become a regular but cautious heroin user as he found its appeal overwhelming, yet he hid his use from everyone - including his girlfriend, with whom he lived - because of fear and shame of being caught:

"But it was the fear of showing my true heart, at times either so full it might burst or so empty I could cry, that hounded me most viciously. [] 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 a man. My lifelong hard-ass exterior and, underneath that, ironclad interior were all an intricately constructed, carefully cultivated, and fiercely guarded sham. I was, in reality, driven by what I'd heard referred to in rehab all those years ago as "a thousand forms of fear". Sadly, somewhere deep in my soul, I knew that was probably me."

Is that not one of the most cuttingly honest and striking self-descriptions you've read

The author writes with the ragged pen of one who has not only lived through some of the most depraved psychic and physical states that our species can endure but has wallowed in that world for years on end.

As his lucid, unguarded depictions make abundantly clear, there is absolutely nothing glamorous about heroin addiction. It is a haunted wasteland of the human soul that consumes all of one's time and energy until the host dies - as happened with Cobain in 1994 and Staley in 2002 - or the addiction is kicked.

Lanegan eventually stumbled his way down the latter path. The very last word he writes here is what he became: clean. We are all the beneficiaries of that outcome, not only because his singular artistic voice is still with us today, and still creating and performing, but because he was able to write this extraordinary, unforgettable book. It is right up there with the very best memoirs I have read, by a musician or anyone else.

It is not often that a book's cover blurb is worth repeating in a review but, in this case, a succinct summary of its contents could not be better expressed than what Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin came up with, and with which I wholeheartedly concur: "raw, ravaged and personal - a stoned cold classic".

(Originally published in The Weekend Australian Review, July 4 2020:

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