Book Review: Mark Lanegan 'Sing Backwards And Weep'

Sex, drugs and rock and roll are far from glamorous in memoir that sinks to the depths of depravity

Those familiar with Mark Lanegan’s music would know not to expect anything jovial in his memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep. What may be unexpected though is the sheer rawness and brutality of Lanegan’s account of the first few decades of his life.

Lanegan has done many musical collaborations over the years but his memoir delves into a much murkier, darker collaboration with heroin.

Sing Backwards and Weep isn’t about a singer who takes drugs. It’s about a drug addict who sings. Lanegan confesses to being ‘a compulsive gambler, a fledgling alcoholic, a thief, and a porno fiend’ by the age of twelve. He’s a drug addict whose disease sends him to the edge of hell in the constant search for enough drugs to fuel his dependency.

He doesn’t hold back on what it’s like to be a full-time drug addict including how he had to swallow balloons of heroin that had been kept under his dealer’s foreskin before searching through his own faeces to find them again.

My previous regular hook-up was a young blonde punk kid in his early twenties. I had spotted him on the street one day and made him for either a dealer or a panhandler and decided that even if he didn’t have drugs, he’d sure as fuck know who out here did.
Sure enough, when I’d approached him, he’d led me into an alley, unbuttoned his pants, and removed several balloons of heroin that he’d stuffed beneath the uncut foreskin of his dick. He’d kept them safely stashed there in case he was shaken down by the UK police, who at that time had the legal right to frisk anyone they cared to on the street, regardless of any evidence of wrongdoing...
Shortly after parting company from that first encounter, I’d passed two cops myself. They’d quickly given me the once-over two or three times, turned around, and started following me. I’d unfortunately had no choice but to quickly transfer the balloons previously held under the skin of his cock from my coat pocket to my mouth so I could swallow them if stopped, questioned, and frisked... I always carried balloons and crack rocks in this fashion while out and about in America...the police often asked me to open my mouth to show them if I was holding anything within.
On the couple of occasions I’d had to swallow my stash with nothing more than my spit to help choke it down, I’d been compelled to search through my own shit in the days following in order to find the balloons or rocks within, they being more valuable than gold to me.

Lanegan is regularly holed up in his apartment, pulling on a crack pipe and holding his breath until he’s ‘on the verge of stroking out’ before plunging the heroin-filled needle into his veins. He walks us through the dirty, unscrupulous underworld of drug dealers, prostitutes and psychopaths as his vicious cycle of dependency means he’s travelling the length and breadth of foreign countries in the middle of the night trying to score. Sometimes he’s successful. Sometimes he’s robbed and has the shit kicked out of him.

Fans of Lanegan will appreciate his honesty but may be a little dismayed at his hatred for his former band, Screaming Trees, whose moderate success kick started his career. He regularly comes across as arrogant and self-centred. He gets into fights with little provocation and blames others for his actions. These are the traits of an addict, however, whose craving need for a hit takes priority over everything else in life. Lanegan doesn’t try to hide this and his honesty is brutal.

His addictions were part of a Seattle scene that sent many of his friends to an early grave, the most famous of whom include Kurt Cobain and Layne Stayley. Somehow, Lanegan has managed to survive it all and the book reveals that this, surprisingly, is thanks to the unexpected help from Hole singer and Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love.

It’s not all doom and gloom as the darkly humorous anecdotes do raise a smile and the chapter on his experiences with Liam Gallagher is entertaining, if a little contrived. Several pages are dedicated to how he wanted to fight the Oasis frontman and interest in the book can only have been boosted by Gallagher and Lanegan’s subsequent Twitter spat.

There is no glamour in Lanegan’s rock and roll life, there is darkness, drugs and death as he finds himself sinking into the depths of depravity. His memoir is a must read for all those wondering how so many of Seattle’s talented grunge scene found themselves in an early grave and how one man, against all odds, survived.

Sing Backwards And Weep is available now and is published by White Rabbit.

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