barrett martin, eulogy, gary lee conner, mark lanegan, memoir, rahim al haj, Screaming Trees, sing backwards and weep
My high-school buddy Brian turned me on to Screaming Trees. I didn’t get them at first. They sounded unlike any of the hair-metal, teeny-bopper bands I was into in the mid-1980s, or the more straight-forward punk bands I was beginning to appreciate, such as Minor Threat. In hindsight, I realize that opening my ears to the Trees was the beginning of my love for genres such as garage, psychedelia, and a lot of what gets called shoegaze or stoner rock these days, and maybe even jazz, jazz-rock fusion, and music from around the world.
I caught the Trees in concert twice. On the Buzz Factory tour, they played the club Mississippi Nights on the waterfront in downtown St. Louis. I loved that album and still do, but hearing songs from it in-person blew me away. The sound quality of Trees albums was pretty bad in the early years, like they had been recorded on a wax cylinder or something. The songs were energetic, fun, and brilliant, but something got lost in the low-budget recordings. In concert, the Trees sounded MASSIVE.
At Mississippi Nights, guitarist and main songwriter Gary Lee Conner launched into one of his wah-pedal-drenched solos then apparently lost his mind. He rolled around on the stage with his SG, then tumbled off the elevated stage to land on the floor. He writhed on the floor and kept shredding. The guy was like a force of nature that fell into the crowd.
This venue was all-ages, with a rule that underage kids like me could be in the general area right in front of the stage, but not in the areas that served alcohol. It’s the same place I caught Nirvana and lots of other great acts when the so-called Seattle sound was on the cusp of becoming a nationwide phenomenon.
The all-ages venue meant my buddies Dan, Brian, Dave, Chris, Amy, and many more could rock the hell out and be right up in the action. I stood in a circle of teenagers who were absolutely stunned by Gary’s electric performance on the floor in front of us.
A few years later, when singer Mark Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. By that point, I’d been learning to play guitar for a few years and was attempting to write and sing my own songs. To say The Winding Sheet influenced me is an understatement. It was everything I aspired to.
So in 2020, when I read Mark’s brutal memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, it came as a shock to me that he basically hated the Screaming Trees and hated his first album. That’s an oversimplification, so let me expand that thought.
Mark’s version of his life with the Trees begins with being blown away by the young Gary Lee Conner’s songwriting and demo recordings. It wasn’t until later that he came to feel the lyrics of the composer’s neo-psychedelic songs were hippy-dippy nonsense Mark just couldn’t feel. I think more mature adults would have realized they simply had creative differences and went their separate ways. But I say that now at age forty-nine, and I remember what my twenties were like.
In Mark’s recollections of early Trees tours, personality conflicts replaced their initial camaraderie. We’re talking about a bunch of kids here. If you pack a van with any group of guys barely into their twenties, you’ll get conflict. Hell, I’m sure anyone who knew me when I was that age would tell you I was an abrasive jerk. Creative? Absolutely. Easy to get along with? Fuck no. It’s just part of being young, artistic, broke, and stupid.
Mark was right about one thing about the early records: The sound quality was crap. It’s easy to understand his frustration with albums that changed the way I heard music, such as Even If and Especially When, Invisible Lantern, and Buzz Factory. (You can hear twenty-one of their best songs from this era in the collection, SST Years.) The Change Has Come EP is awesome—one of my all-time musical favorites—and almost captured the live intensity of the Trees’ sound. But it wasn’t until Sweet Oblivion that the recordings started to sound as killer as the concerts.
The second time I caught the Trees in concert was at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit around the time Sweet Oblivion came out and the single Shadow of the Season was getting airplay on corporate alt-rock stations across the nation. They opened with Before We Arise from Uncle Anesthesia, an album produced by another of my musical heroes, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, with a better recording budget and sound quality than previous albums.
But from the first dark, droning notes of the tune at St. Andrew’s, it was once again clear that no album had quite captured how HUGE the Trees sounded in concert. If I were to rank the top-ten sonic experiences of my life, that concert undoubtedly would be on the list. And I’ve been at shows from Swans, Crash Worship, and Kodo. The album version of Before We Arise is a pale shadow of what I experienced in Detroit. In that brilliant set, they also performed Julie Paradise, an awesome song that came close to capturing in the studio just how stellar the Trees sounded in concert.
In Mark’s memoir, he was notably happier with how Sweet Oblivion turned out, and also its successor, Dust. Besides improved sound quality, Mark felt the songs were more of something he could believe in—songs that more closely matched his personal vision of the music he wanted to create. Dust sounds amazing, and the first thing I did after buying it on cassette the day it came out and listening to it was listen to it three more times in a row. The raw, noisy solos of Gary Lee Conner’s youthful recordings had become melodic masterpieces, and the entire band sounded tighter, more focused, and more in control of the same youthful energy that made them one of my favorite bands in the first place.
But I warn you to proceed into Marks’ memoir with caution. Sing Backwards and Weep is one of the most crushing stories of misery I have ever read, only equaled perhaps by Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a tale of growing up in starvation, neglect, and dehumanizing poverty in twentieth-century Ireland. Sing Backwards and Weep includes graphic scenes of drug abuse and self-abuse, such as when Mark is simultaneously shooting heroin, choking himself, and smoking crack. It’s clear that he went way beyond partying and “getting high” for fun or inspiration. He had devolved into an extremely dark state of self-loathing where no one should ever venture.
Reading that book broke my heart. There was one of my rock’n’roll heroes who had made so much music that was meaningful to me and influenced my musical development, but he spent those decades miserable and, by his own admission, being a horrible person.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that Courtney Love, wife of one of Mark’s best friends, Kurt Cobain, helped get him into rehab. Mark maintained his sobriety until his death this year in 2022. Along the way, he recorded brilliant solo albums and contributed to great recordings by his friends in Queens of the Stone Age. My favorite Lanegan solo albums are Blues Funeral and Bubblegum, but they are all worth a listen.
I don’t think a cause of his death has yet been released, but Mark almost died of COVID-19 a couple years ago and published a book about it, and the disease is known to cause lasting health problems even if you are lucky enough to survive.
Recently, Gary Lee Conner released a video of a solo performance of his song Low Life, which never appeared on a Trees album until Last Words: The Final Recordings, after the band had broken up. It is basically the Trees’ next full album, and I enjoy hearing Gary belt this one out. It reminds me of the rebellious joy I found in early Trees recordings and their concerts, and that despite whatever internal conflicts the band struggled though, their music has been rocking my world for more than three decades.
Gary Lee Conner has released several albums under his own name. They hearken back to the psychedelic garage vibe of early Trees, and I love them. Ether Trippers, The Microdot Gnome, and Unicorn Curry are like what early Trees albums would have been if they had a bigger recording budget.
Another member of the Screaming Trees, drummer Barrett Martin, has released a number of albums that go beyond rock into a more jazz-influenced and world-music vein. Trading with the Enemy by Tuatara showcases his drumming in a band whose influences span cultures across the globe.
More recently, The Barrett Martin Group has expanded this global influence on albums such as Scattered Diamonds.
The many musical guests on Scattered Diamonds include an amazing Iraqi oud player named Rahim Al Haj, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a solo concert in Phoenix about a decade ago. My saxophone player and I chatted with him at length after the incredible performance.
Rahim was a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and he has since released many incredible albums of oud music. My favorite is When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, a collection of taqsims based on Arabic musical modes, sort of like Indian raga where soloists perform within a limited collection of notes and basic melodic ideas, but have the freedom to improvise.
So much of my love for music can be traced back to Screaming Trees and related projects. From garage rock to jazz fusion, from psychedelia to musical cultures around the world, the Trees are at the nexus of many things I love.
I don’t think those kids from Washington were on a mission to change the world. But they sure as hell rocked mine.