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Mark Lanegan, gruff-voiced frontman of grunge’s Screaming Trees, dies at 57

Mark Lanegan
Mark Lanegan, seen performing with Screaming Trees in Belgium in 1993, died Tuesday at age 57.
(Gie Knaeps / Getty Images)
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Mark Lanegan, the gruff-voiced singer and songwriter who led Screaming Trees to fame during the Seattle grunge explosion of the early ’90s before going on to play as a member of Queens of the Stone Age and in duos with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs and Belle & Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell, died Tuesday at his home in Killarney, Ireland. He was 57.

His death was announced by a spokesman, Keith Hagan, who didn’t specify a cause of death.

Caked in guitar distortion but graced with a yearning melody that Lanegan delivered in his parched croon, “Nearly Lost You” became a top-five alternative-rock radio hit for Screaming Trees in 1992. It benefited from both Nirvana’s success the year before with its blockbuster “Nevermind” and the song’s placement in Cameron Crowe’s grunge-scene romantic comedy “Singles.”

The film’s soundtrack, which also featured music by Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, sold 2 million copies and helped drive grunge’s mainstream breakthrough.

Yet by that point Lanegan had already been playing with Screaming Trees for nearly a decade; “Uncle Anesthesia,” the band’s first album for a major label after four earlier LPs on indies including SST, came out months before “Nevermind” was released in September 1991.

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Like other grunge acts, Screaming Trees — which Lanegan formed in the mid-’80s in small-town Washington state with brothers Gary Lee Conner on guitar and Van Conner on bass and drummer Mark Pickerel — found a middle ground between lumbering classic rock and scrappy punk. What set the band apart was its searching psychedelic streak as embodied in Gary Lee’s winding guitar work and in Lanegan’s low, rumbling baritone vocals, which could evoke the Doors’ Jim Morrison; Lanegan’s lyrics pondered depression and self-destruction in writerly language full of vivid imagery borrowed from old folk and blues music.

Lanegan was born Nov. 25, 1964, in Ellensburg, Wash., about 100 miles southeast of Seattle. His family came from “a long line of coal miners, loggers, bootleggers, South Dakotan dirt farmers, criminals, convicts and hillbillies of the roughest, most ignorant sort,” as he wrote in his 2020 memoir, “Sing Backwards and Weep.” Lanegan spoke frankly about abusing drugs and alcohol at an early age; in his book he recalled being convicted as a teenager on charges of vandalism, theft and underage drinking.

Lanegan met Van Conner in detention in high school; soon he got a job working for the Conner family’s video store, repossessing TVs and VCRs from people who didn’t make their payments. Screaming Trees, which took its name from a guitar pedal, released its debut project, the cassette-only “Other Worlds,” in 1985.

Even as the band began to take off, Lanegan set out on a solo career beginning with 1990’s “The Winding Sheet,” which featured appearances by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. He went on to release a dozen solo records in all; the latest, “Straight Songs of Sorrow,” came out in 2020.

Screaming Trees broke up in 2000, but Lanegan never tired of collaborative work. He wrote and recorded frequently with Queens of the Stone Age, whose frontman Joshua Homme had toured as a guitarist with Screaming Trees, including on 2000’s “Rated R” and 2002’s “Songs for the Deaf.” In 2006, he released the first of three LPs with Campbell; each drew comparisons to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s duo records from the late ’60s and early ’70s. With Dulli he formed the Gutter Twins, who released a sole album, the lush yet brooding “Saturnalia,” in 2008.

Over the course of his career he also recorded with Moby, Neko Case, UNKLE, the Breeders, Soulsavers and the Armed, among many others.

Lanegan and his wife, Shelley Brien, moved to Ireland from Los Angeles in 2020. Information on survivors beyond Brien wasn’t immediately available.

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In an interview last year with Spin, Lanegan said he’d been driven from the United States by the pandemic and the Trump administration but added that he’d also been “involved in some s— that I shouldn’t have been involved in.” Ireland, he said, “suits me for now. Spiritually and emotionally, it’s been very good for me.”

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