I first took real notice of Mark Lanegan when I stumbled across "Winding Sheet" in the fall of 1993. The album is all hazy Delta-blues rock that focuses on Lanegan's sleepy, haggard voice and lyrics about drug addiction, too much alcohol and not enough God. For the first time, Lanegan and his voice were not battling against a wall of psychedelic guitars and drums, a welcome break from his years with Screaming Trees. I was never a Screaming Trees fan; most of their songs seemed to walk in circles in small rooms, if you know what I mean. Sometimes they'd get it right, like the Doors-influenced "Ivy," but mostly I was happy to ignore the band. "Winding Sheet" was something I couldn't ignore, and while most people who've heard of the album only know it through the Kurt Cobain-assisted cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", it's a fine set of songs even without the Nirvana connection.
I listened to "Winding Sheet" constantly for months until Lanegan's second solo album, "Whiskey For the Holy Ghost", was released in January 1994. This record is brilliant, continuing the exploration of blues and booze, of losing faith in oneself and everything else under the all-seeing eye of a God who'd take us back if we'd only take Him back. A melancholy, beautiful album about drugs, suffering, love, hope and hopelessness. A great album. A masterpiece. I have listened to this album maybe a thousand times.
The sun is gone, and that's all I really know
No angels in the air
With hearts as good as gold
The closer you stand to the gates
And the gates are closed
These darkened days
Make somebody's hunger and thirst
And blessed burns the sun
It's throwing shadows on the earth
The shadow you find at the gate
And all the gates are closed
And in time you find your race is run
Felt much colder standing in the sun
Waiting for some warmth and coming down
Yes, junkie songs from the Lou Reed tradition, sung by a man heavily influenced by Jim Morrison and Howling Wolf. Pop music, maybe, warped pop music. But I have a fondess--a tremendous soft spot maybe--for these albums from thirty years ago, though I never connected with any of Lanegan's subsequent albums, nor any of his work with other artists. For me, Mark Lanegan meant "Winding Sheet" and "Whiskey For the Holy Ghost" and nothing else. Lionel Trilling writes of his great affection for Sherwood Anderson, an affection that abides even when he realizes that Anderson's novels are not the brilliant works he thought they were when he originally read them, having come to them at just the right time in his life to form some kind of unbreakable bond with his idea of the writer, a bond that outlasted both Anderson's life and Trilling's appreciation of Anderson's novels.
This is all written in haste, and I find I don't quite know what it was that I meant to say. Farewell, Mark William Lanegan.
Night train, silver moon
You ask me why I'm flying
To float on ashen wings
To choke on dust and feather
My dreams will go no further
Won't calm my violent river
Oh guardian of peace
Let the beggar walk in the winter