The Dark Knight Rises

Lanegan cartoon

Fact #1

On April 5th, 1994 Rock ‘N Roll lost a brilliant mind when Kurt Cobain departed for the celestial Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame.

Fact #2

As with John Lennon, Bob Marley or any of the gone-too-soon Hall of Famers, there’s no guarantee he or Nirvana would still be creating the quality music heard at the end of the 20th century.  “Elvis died the day he went into the army” was reportedly how Lennon greeted news of the king’s death.  One could argue he himself experienced a similar creative death as seen in his post-Primal Screaming output.

Fact #3

With 2012’s Blues Funeral, one of St. Kurt’s Seattle peers is still making great music.  In fact, Mark Lanegan, known for his dark demeanor and gravely voice, has never been in finer form:  review, incl. listening samples:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/4f4z

Blues Funeral Poster

In Rock ‘N Roll’s short 60 year history, there have been great artists (Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer) who have re-conjured their magic at the end of their careers.  There have also been artists who create such amazing music in their youth that there’s sadly nowhere to go but down (Stevie Wonder, David Bowie).  Then there’s the rare artist whose second or thrid act, after ill-advised dabbles with 80’s technology or worse, is just as impressive as their first.  But it is an ever rarer artist like Lanegan who can sustain excellence without the embarrassing dip.  Even Dylan spent a long spell in the Rock ‘N Roll desert (’76-’88) before launching his never-ending Never Ending Tour (’89 – present).

Jamming in moldy garages with future band mates and doing lots of drugs in the dreary Pacific Northwest, Mark Lanegan first came on the scene in the mid-80’s.  Exercising my Roman Catholic right to criticize the Vatican, I grew up a few hours away from Grunge Ground Zero.

Despite what I consider the best song on the grunge-defining Singles soundtrack, the Screaming Trees never managed to break it big like Nirvana or other Seattle brethren.  Watch them perform the aforementioned “Nearly Lost You” on Letterman in 1992: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJIEZx-_T74

Another watershed moment for grunge, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance from ‘93 is considered by many to be their swan song – a flash of brilliance as the ship was beginning to go down fast.  The powerful cover that closes this acoustic tour de force is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”.

On his first solo album from 1990, “The Winding Sheet”, Lanegan not only performs this emotive blues classic by Leadbelly, Cobain plays guitar and sings backing vocals on it.  Without a doubt, Rock ‘N Roll was never the same after a few short years of Nirvana’s original ideas.  However, this was not one of them.

Cobain and Lanegan

Here are three reasons I believe Mark Lanegan continues to perform at the top of his game:

  • Desire to collaborate with great artists – Kurt Cobain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU6o0FFBrqs), PJ Harvey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhiqG_1woYE), and Isobel Campbell to name just a few.
  • Willingness to play second fiddle – 5 years as a guest vocalist with the Queens of the Stone Age (no apparent “Lead Singer Syndrome” – see Keith Richards’ Life for definition).
  • Singular vision – singing the blues at the height of hair metal, not just in the blues-friendly post White Stripes world.

Other than Jack White’s solid solo project Blunderbuss, I haven’t heard much new music from 2012.  But I do find it interesting at a time when the garage-blues Black Keys are winning multiple Grammys and the blues artist du jour, Gary Clarke Jr. have taken the genre mainstream, Lanegan veers left and pulls this beautiful rabbit out of his hat.

The Quietus describes the alchemy:

Blues Funeral sees Lanegan stirring together electronica, processed beats, spaghetti westerns, southern 60s soul, folk and all-out sonic onslaughts to blend his most satisfying and heady brew to date…it is the sound of an artist freeing himself of expectation and convention, and in the process has delivered the finest work in Lanegan’s already impressive canon.

Mark Lanegan is clearly an artist “transcending his influences to create a new template of his own” – clearly a key skill for steering clear of Rock ‘N Roll Purgatory.

Let me know who you think belongs in the short list with Lanegan.  Or any other any other Rock ‘N Roll issues you wish to healthily debate.  Looking forward to your comments!

Coming soon:

Anderson: Portrait of a Serial Filmmaker:  an uncanny look at Generation X’s  two greatest storytellers.

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