Photo by Steve Gullick
How to quantify the impact a truly great singer has on our lives. I’m writing here about one of those rare human instruments capable of the transcendent magic of art that comes from beyond reason and rationale, that feels, when we hear it, like life itself – the grace, the depth. They come to us, presumably, at the time of our lives when we most need something that communicates the difficulties and complexities of existence, in a way that is beyond the simple meaning of words. I’m talking, I suppose, about soul singing. The Arethas, the Ninas, the Johnny Cashes. I remember the evening my father came home with a CD called Whiskey For The Holy Ghost by someone called Mark Lanegan and an accompanying promotional whiskey glass. I would have been 12, maybe 13. I probably drank milk out of the glass for the next couple of years. The CD was of a different order, however, it was everything I’d been looking for, even the stuff I didn’t know I had been. Acoustic guitars, strings, folk influences, this was a strange carnivalesque country music, all built on the most incredible singing voice I’d ever heard. A voice that has remained a balm, a strange source of intensity, of integrity, a repository for heartache, despair, an affirmation, ever since. To read and hear the reaction to Mark Lanegan’s death these last couple of days, it’s obvious the similar effect that voice has had on many, many people. And it was that supreme instrument that enabled him, over a career that has spanned many more solo records, his formative period in Screaming Trees, his stints in various supergroups and duet projects, to pursue the astounding creative restlessness that will ensure his singular reputation. His voice was the anchor, a taproot, allowing him to take us, his listeners, wherever he next went – the New Order-ish ‘sad disco’, the torch songs, the country duets. That’s how it works with the truly great singers – beyond genre, beyond form. The voice is the song.
And yet Lanegan was a writer too. A lyricist with a gift for striking, dark imagery and original phrase-making that never leant on cliche or became reliant on its own tropes. It’s well-worn to call the great songwriters poets, but in Lanegan’s case it was true, and he wrote and published his own remarkable verse side by side with the poetry of his songs. And of course there are those two incomparable, unforgettable memoirs, though the word doesn’t seem to quite do justice to the heights, or perhaps depths, of self-lacerating honesty that Lanegan insisted upon, that he built great art out of. His prose was that of a true craftsman too, spare, clean, capable of humour in the very darkest moments.
What’s the value, here, of the personal aspects of recollection? It’s true that Mark Lanegan did me, for just one example, the sort of kindness one can never repay, encouraged me when there was no call to, and will never know how much an email, a gesture, a message meant to those of us like me who had held him in such high regard for so many years and to whom he offered some wisdom, advice or affirmation. And again, watching the many reactions to the news, it has struck me just how many musicians and artists and friends of his have said the same thing, talked of his generosity, his spirit of collaboration and openness, his championing of the underdog, the misfit, the original, even while he could count as his own friends and champions the very biggest and brightest stars. People like Rich Machin of Soulsavers, Alexander Tucker, Nadine Shah, Duke Garwood. Brilliant, singular musicians who all counted Lanegan as a friend, mentor or collaborator. To re-read his wonderful 10 Commandments in The New Cue, was to be reminded again of his clarity of vision, his unerring instinct for hard-won truths and a deceptively simple philosophy of righteousness in the face of a sometimes brutal world. I suppose it should come as no surprise for someone who saw so clearly through bullshit, that he was able to retain a pin sharp critical faculty, doing his own thing to the end, and always able to differentiate between something’s true qualities and its status, or lack of. That vision serves as a reminder, now, that there is a shadow world of music and art and literature that might never chart, might always and necessarily exist on the fringes of our culture’s commercial concerns, but that nonetheless has value and meaning. Lanegan’s willingness to seek that out, to participate in it, was yet another aspect of his genius. In that shadow world of underdogs and fringe players, of hard work and self-reliance and long odds – though I doubt he’d want to take the crown – Mark Lanegan was something like the king.