Grunge pioneer Mark Lanegan, dead at 57

The influential singer for Screaming Trees had appeared in Israel many times.

Mark Lanegan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark Lanegan
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Mark Lanegan, who followed a long stint as lead vocalist for the proto-grunge band Screaming Trees with a distinguished career as an impassioned solo singer-songwriter and adventurous collaborator with Queens of the Stone Age and others, has died. A cause of death was not announced, although last year he was said to be suffering from COVID-19 and kidney disease; he was 57.

“Our beloved friend Mark Lanegan passed away this morning at his home in Killarney, Ireland,” reads a statement on his Twitter account. “A beloved singer, songwriter, author and musician he was 57 and is survived by his wife Shelley. No other information is available at this time. The family asks everyone to respect their privacy at this time.”

Sometimes recording under the nickname “Dark Mark,” Lanegan lived up to his sobriquet, in his work focusing on what he termed continuing themes of “loss, longing, mortality and chemical dependence” in original songs couched in music that alternated between loud, unfettered power and a hushed lyricism. Some of his deepest material was inspired by a harrowing life of dissolution, crime and addiction.

With Lanegan serving as their imposing baritone front man, Screaming Trees was a psychedelia-tinged hard rock unit whose heavyweight early albums prefigured the explosion of grunge rock in Washington state. After the group’s 1990 debut for the label -- which was co-produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell -- their single “Nearly Lost You” was prominently featured in Cameron Crowe’s celluloid love letter to the Seattle scene, “Singles,” and became an alternative-radio smash. Powered by that single, the Trees’ second major-label debut “Sweet Oblivion,” drove the band to national prominence.

By that time, Lanegan had embarked on an embryonic solo career: His 1990 Sub Pop debut “The Winding Sheet” featured appearances by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana (who would later perform Lanegan’s arrangement of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” at their “MTV Unplugged” appearance).

INDIE ROCKER Mark Lanegan delivers a night of brooding power and rock gravitas at the Barby Tel Aviv. (credit: LIOR KETER)INDIE ROCKER Mark Lanegan delivers a night of brooding power and rock gravitas at the Barby Tel Aviv. (credit: LIOR KETER)

In his 2017 collection of lyrics “I Am the Wolf,” Lanegan reels off a list of artists who influenced that album’s music - including his friend and idol Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Nick Cave and Ian Curtis of Joy Division -- whose impact would be felt repeatedly over the course of a 30-year solo career.

He followed up his solo debut with three more spare, low-key Sub Pop releases, all featuring guitarist Mike Johnson (Dinosaur Jr.) and a host of Seattle grunge notables, and favoring blues, folk, soul and gospel styles: “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost” (1994), “Scraps at Midnight” (1998) and the collection of covers “I’ll Take Care of You” (1998).

He recorded three albums with singer Isobel Campbell of the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. He engaged in ongoing work in Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli’s side project Twilight Singers, and collaborated with the singer-guitarist under the Gutter Twins rubric for a Sub Pop album and EP. He appeared as a vocalist on two albums by the transoceanic electronic duo Soulsavers in 2007 and 2009. (Later, in the twenty-teens, he cut two albums in partnership with British musician Duke Garwood.)

Lanegan appeared many times in Israel and had a strong fan base. For many years, he was a strong social presence on social media and staunchly defended his right to perform wherever he wanted, in the face of calls for him to boycott Israel.

“I’ve been to Israel just playing with me and an acoustic guitar player, which is as naked as you can get, and as part of The Twilight Singers with Greg, which was a six- or seven-piece band,” he told The Jerusalem Post in 2012. “Whatever it is, I’m just singing and enjoying the music. I don’t really care about the setting. I don’t feel any pressure – I’m just there to sing songs, it’s not that complicated.”

Lanegan returned to solo work with the compelling and sonically eclectic “Blues Funeral,” a one-off for England’s 4AD. A long association with the UK’s Heavenly Recordings followed; beginning with the album of covers “Imitations,” the company issued five sonically diverse albums between 2013 and 2020.

David Brinn contributed to this report.