Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 21 - Early Lanegan: Young Trees

March 16, 2022 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 21
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 21 - Early Lanegan: Young Trees
Show Notes Transcript

Don't Call It Nothing pays tribute to the late Mark Lanegan by discussing the Screaming Trees in the 1980s. Everyone, even all-time greats, has to start somewhere and this episode tracks the Trees early years, when they went from faithful sons of Nuggets, Sabbath, and The Stooges to masters of melodic acid rock.

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll, and now officially based on the book of the same name. This is Lance Davis of the Uehara Clan and today we’re doing some pre-history due to the recent passing of Mark Lanegan. He was a Screaming Tree, a Gutter Twin, a solo artist, a surprisingly versatile duet partner, a surprisingly sensitive songwriter, and possessor of an otherworldly voice that sounded like a 100-year-old blues singer got stuck inside a surly poet rocker from rural Washington. That Lanegan made it to 57 is kind of a minor miracle. There were long stretches of the ‘90s when his name getting called in Dead Rock Star Bingo felt inevitable, almost cliché. Much respect to him for not only surviving, but thriving for as long as he did. Think about it. Dude had a 35-year career and he never went through a lame commercial phase or went emo or did anything but be Mark fucking Lanegan.

I met him exactly once. It was March 1991, the Trees did a quickie 10-day west coast tour with Redd Kross and the pair played the Burro Room in Chico. This tour would’ve made more sense three years earlier, when RK was touring the rockier Neurotica or three years later when they were touring the rockier Phaseshifter. It also would’ve helped had Roy McDonald been on drums. Unfortunately, in 1990, Redd Kross put out a weak, ‘70s pop pastiche called Third Eye that had a few good songs, but zero bottom end. It was so thin, like it was mixed for the mainstream adult pop market. Because of this Redd Kross should’ve opened. However, in 1991 Redd Kross had been around for 12-13 years and had a few classics under their belt. “Annette’s Got The Hits.” “Linda Blair.” Teen Babes From Monsanto. They’d earned the headlining spot and I’m almost positive they had a way higher guarantee. So, Screaming Trees played first, then Redd Kross.

The Trees came out, no nonsense, and launched into a 45-minute set of face-melting psych rock. Uncle Anesthesia was only a few weeks old, so we got a bunch of those songs, plus cherrypicking from the back catalog. Lanegan was positioned behind the mic stand where he didn’t move for the rest of the set. You don’t need Lanegan struttin around like Anthony Kiedis when you have guitarist and middle linebacker Lee Conner, to Lanegan’s right – and three feet away from me right up front – rolling around on stage while playing divebomb guitar. In fact, one of the things that made the Screaming Trees so performatively unique is that Lee was their frontman, not Lanegan. We’re so accustomed to the lead singer being the frontman (or frontwoman) that to see an inversion of this band structure can be discomfiting, like they’re doing it wrong.

On the other side of the Burro Room stage that night, to Lanegan’s left, big little brother Van was layin the wood on bass. And he was locked into drummer – not Mark Pickerel, who quit the previous fall – but Dan Peters. This was in that weird period when Mudhoney was kinda sorta broken up and remember, Dan spent the summer of 1990 dating Nirvana, but then found out Nirvana was all heart emojis for Dave Grohl. We know how that worked out. Peters then joined the Trees for a spell and, lucky for me, this show was part of that spell. You wanna know what Dan Peters sounds like with the Trees? Here’s the band two months after I saw them, on May 16, 1991, at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philly. The song is “Something About Today,” which was on Uncle Anesthesia, but was also the title track to a 12” single released the previous fall, technically the Trees’ major label debut. 

Screaming Trees (w/Dan Peters), Chestnut Cabaret, Philadelphia, May 16, 1991
”Something About Today” starts at 22:31

So, the Burro Room gets 45 minutes of that and then here comes Redd Kross in flared bellbottoms and polyester blouses, all smiles and show business, and they give us:

Redd Kross – The Faith Healer (excerpt) 

Lemme be clear. I’m a Redd Kross fan. I get why they were headlining. But, that version of Redd Kross was not prepared to follow a crossfire hurricane like the Screaming Trees. I think of all the mediocre rock bands that became household names in the ‘90s – Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Collective Soul, et cetera – the Trees smoked all of em. But, because the Conners were big boys, not pretty boys, and maybe because Lanegan was a little too unpredictable, the gatekeepers didn’t know what to do with the Screaming Trees. God forbid they get commercial radio airplay or MTV exposure. If it wasn’t for Singles becoming a phenomenon and the Trees smuggling in “Nearly Lost You” in its wake, they’d have little to no mainstream presence now. Thank heaven for small favors.

Oh, and I said I met Lanegan. It was nothing special. After the show, he was sitting by himself at the bar in the band room. It was kinda strange, actually. That was a massive show for Chico. The show was sold out, so there was considerable post-show chaos. And yet somehow Lanegan silo’ed himself at a single bar stool with no one around him. So, I kept it quick. I thanked him for the show and The Winding Sheet, which had been released only a few months earlier. In fact, I told him it was getting a lot of airplay on KCSC, where I was DJing and a lot  of the DJs were there that night, so he was happy to hear that. Rather than stretch for a double, I was happy with the single. I left him to his gin and tonic and went to the sidewalk, where Van was holding court and selling merch out of the back of the van. That’s the way it was done back then, kids [laughs].

What I wanna do today is go backwards a few years, to when the Trees were still figuring out who they were and what they wanted to sound like. And then we’ll move forward until right before they got signed to Epic in 1990. This is the story of Mark Lanegan and the Screaming Trees in the 1980s, but it’s the story of a lot of elite bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Most of these bands didn’t start out great. They evolved into greatness as they built on their influences and figured out what worked. Hell, listen to the Trees’ first cassette, Other Worlds from 1985, and you’d think they were a new wave-influenced Nuggets act, maybe even paisley underground. 

And since I can’t assume everybody knows what I mean when I say Nuggets, it’s a reference to a compilation released in 1972 and created by Lenny Kaye, then a record store nerd in New York City, and not yet Patti Smith’s guitarist. Nuggets was four LPs of classic psychedelic and garage rock singles from the mid-‘60s. Nuggets led to Pebbles, a similar series of comps in the late ‘70s, which begat Nuggets 2.0, a series of comps released by Rhino in the mid-to-late 1980s all bearing the Nuggets name. Then came CDs and you get the point. Nuggets is shorthand for two- and three-chord rock songs featuring organ and/or fuzz guitar as lead instruments.

The best garage songs open with a memorable riff like this (plays intro to The Rationals’ “I Need You”) or maybe like this (plays intro to The Music Machine’s “Double Yellow Line”) or maybe you even get the rare double intro (plays intro to Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction”). And sure, we all love a Vox or Farfisa solo, but if you’re the Screaming Trees, especially Lee Conner, you wanna hear badass guitar. So the band hears this (plays solo of The Amboy Dukes’ “Journey To The Center Of Your Mind”) and internalizes it. They hear this (plays solo to The Rationals’ “I Need You”) and internalize it. And ultimately, these influences bore fruit in the Trees in the form of “Pictures In My Mind” (plays excerpt) and “Like I Said” (plays excerpt) and “Now Your Mind Is Next To Mine” (plays excerpt).

However, like many Pacific Northwest bands of this era, the Trees also loved Black Sabbath. I mean, what’s not to like? Sledgehammer riffs, big drums, and a tone of brooding, sinister darkness. I mean, that kinda sounds like the Trees, right? So, beginning with 1986’s Clairvoyance, you start hearing this Sabbath influence play out in the Trees’ songwriting. And while they’re not yet a great band, you can hear it coming together.

Screaming Trees – Orange Airplane 

The Screaming Trees with “Orange Airplane,” the leadoff track to their first proper LP, Clairvoyance. Like Other Worlds, it was released on Velvetone Records, a small label and studio in Ellensburg, Washington, where the Screaming Trees just happened to live and gave them their first opportunity to record. This is the part where we have to get in the cage with official history. Gen Xers like myself grew up being told in no uncertain terms that the ‘60s and ‘70s were the Golden Age of Rock and bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s would always be parenthetical. All the great songs had already been recorded. The Beatles happened. Hendrix happened. Hell, in 1986-87 you’d be forgiven if you thought punk had already happened, as in it was effectively dead and buried as a genre. Historians point to festivals like Woodstock as emblematic of this revolution because it demonstrated how unified the youth culture was around rock. There was no comparable youth culture in the mid-‘80s. U2 was massive, but there were like 15 U2s in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It’s a pretty persuasive argument, especially if you hear it repeated ad nauseum. I have a counterargument. There’s no denying the best 5% of rock music from the ‘60s and ‘70s is high level material. Maybe the best ever. BUT, what if that’s the wrong way to look at it? You don’t judge the health of a country’s economy by the top 5%. They have resources and they have access. OF COURSE everything’s gonna look great from their POV. Come on. You judge the economy by how the other 95% exist in the shadow of the 5%. Always within that 95% are pockets of creativity and vitality that may not correlate economically. For instance, a successful, locally-owned restaurant in a working class neighborhood won’t produce the profit of a comparable restaurant in a wealthy neighborhood. However, the restaurant owners in the working class neighborhood know their audience. They’re serving the middle and working classes, working poor, and straight up poor because they’re their neighbors. They’re not gonna price their neighbors out of their own goddamn restaurant. That’s how you go out of business. Instead, the restaurant becomes a local institution and a P&L sheet doesn’t necessarily reflect its cultural importance.

Here’s a rhetorical question. If ‘60s and ‘70s youth culture was so great, how come the underground rock ‘n’ roll circuit wasn’t built until the early ‘80s when Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, and Meat Puppets roamed the country playing for a bunch of teenage Gen Xers? Anyone can sit in a field with 100,000 other dummies or attend a massive stadium show.  I want the kind of revolution where bands and fans without much in the way of financial resources or mainstream access manifest their own culture out of necessity. THAT is impressive and that infrastructure building took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s in places like Ellensburg Washington. There were hundreds of Ellensburgs all over America where bands could exist in the shadows, on the margins of the mainstream. Hell, I lived in one: Chico. It didn’t take much. A local label and/or a sympathetic college radio station, a record store, maybe a club or two – although back then, shows were just as likely to take place at a YMCA or someone’s backyard. These micro-cultures were a place for bands to evolve organically. They were there to inspire other local bands and build a small, but devoted grassroots audience.

If you were a band in Ellensburg in the mid-‘80s, you’d obviously be looking to play in Seattle, but you’d probably have to play Wenatchee, Walla Walla, Yakima, Olympia, and Tacoma first. But that’s ok because you connect with the misfits in those towns and before you know it you got yourself a fanbase. And if you’re good and a little lucky, the touring not only makes you a better, tighter band, but you get noticed by larger labels. In the case of the Screaming Trees, they were good and lucky enough to get noticed by the big dog of ‘80s indie rock: SST. The label that brought you Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, and Meat Puppets. SST was a logical landing spot for the Trees, who released Even If And Especially When in 1987. This is the album where they first locked into the sound that came to define them. Nuggets, Sabbath, and Stooges-inspired acid rock.

Screaming Trees – Straight Out To Any Place 

That’s the Screaming Trees with “Straight Out To Any Place.” Having listened to this album 25-30 times in the last couple of weeks, the cover of Even If And Especially When is weirdly accurate. Drummer Mark Pickerel, spotlit front and center, is the best musician in the band and I love how producer Steve Fisk has him up in the mix. He's effectively busy, with lots of cool fills, the machine gun fills from Love’s “7 & 7 Is” incorporated into “In The Forest,” e.g. It's clear that he and Van are locked in. So, checking out the cover what is Pickerel doing but watching Van and laughing, the big dude looming in the shadows, smiling mischievously, and holding up his punching fist. Your eyes are drawn to those two. Meanwhile, Lanegan's next to Pickerel, but turned away, watching Lee Conner stooped in the background. That, too, is spot on. Both dudes are solid, but in 1987, the rhythm section was doing the heavy lifting for the Screaming Trees. 

To wit:

Screaming Trees – Transfiguration 

For all of the sludge rock reference points, “Transfiguration” kinda sounds like Los Angeles circa 1966-67. Hell, I just mentioned Love’s “7 & 7 Is.” On ”Transfiguration,” Van Conner has a Chris Hillman feel on bass, Lee Connor is playing some McGuinn-style guitar (not sure if he’s playing a 12-string Rickenbacker, but it has that chime), and Pickerel is throwing down some Michael Clarke fills on drums. Meanwhile, Lanegan’s voice is bringin the Jim Morrison heat. It’s ironic that Morrison tried so fucking hard to be the Dark Poet and just came off like a buffoonish pretty boy. Lanegan didn’t have to try to be the Dark Poet. He just was. He distilled the essence of Morrison and to some extent Iggy, but eliminated the performative element because he was smart enough to know that wasn’t his strength. He let his band, his voice, and his songwriting do the talking for him.

Screaming Trees – Night Comes Creeping

From 1988’s Invisible Lantern, the Trees’ second LP on SST, that’s the closing track, “Night Comes Creeping.” Lantern is the point where the four individual members of the Screaming Trees became one. It was still stone-cold acid rock, but as the principal songwriters and arrangers, Lanegan and Lee Conner were starting to incorporate melody and songcraft like never before. For a little over two minutes, “Night” comes off like vintage Hüskers. Van especially has the Greg Norton bass wiggle down pat. I would’ve been fine if the song ended there. But, at 2:17 the Trees suddenly shift into half-time blues rock and Lanegan delivers a fucking powerhouse vocal at “Ten million directions coming up and coming on strong.” Love how producer Steve Fisk puts Mark way up in the mix and even doubles his vocal in this passage, but doesn’t sacrifice the band to do that. Lee peels paint on lead guitar as the rhythm section accompanies him into the blast furnace.

What’s that? You want more Invisible Lantern? OK fine. 

Screaming Trees – Walk Through To This Side 

The Screaming Trees with “Walk Through To This Side,” which kinda has a mid-‘60s Who feel as Lanegan’s vocal is again effectively doubled. Like “Night Comes Creeping,” the Trees are learning to incorporate melody into the chaos and this track anticipates later poppy rockers like “Bed Of Roses” from Uncle Anesthesia and “Winter Song” from Sweet Oblivion.

The thing that separated the Screaming Trees from their peers certainly, but even their mythic influences, was that those other bands maybe had good singers, even great singers. They didn’t have Mark Lanegan. Lantern is the album where you hear his voice and it’s holy shit time. He was good before, but after consistent touring, evolving songwriting, and growing confidence, Mark Lanegan had found his artistic voice.  

Screaming Trees – Grey Diamond Desert

Another track from Invisible Lantern, that’s the Screaming Trees with “Grey Diamond Desert,” featuring Steve Fisk on piano. A power ballad in the best sense of the term, this was the first track like this on a Trees record. Lanegan’s voice is obviously next level, but everyone’s doing their part. A few days ago, Lee actually posted this to Facebook.

“By the time Mark and I wrote ‘Grey Diamond Desert’ we had been escaping Ellensburg by way of touring America for a year or two. None of us had travelled much before and it was quite a revelation to get out and see the world beyond Eastern Washington. Mark's lyrics talk about ‘getting out of this ugly town’ in the second verse, but his words are mostly about the spiritual journey we were on riding in that old gray Econoline from town to town for weeks on end. Listening to it always brings back visions of those early morning drives through the beautiful desolation of the southwest desert with the brilliant stars above.”
 --Lee Conner on the
Screaming Trees Facebook page, March 10, 2022

1988 was an interesting year for the Trees even beyond Invisible Lantern. They also released a split EP with Beat Happening on Homestead. I’d put it in the category of art project because the two bands basically wrote four new songs on the spot and then recorded them with a shuffling lineup. It’s better on paper than in reality, but for a fun one-off, it’s fine. Lanegan completists will wanna hear “Polly Pereguin.”

The Trees also went through a brief lineup change when Van was replaced on bass by Donna Dresch, creator and publisher of the zine, Chainsaw, later the name of her label, and a few years before she’d start queercore pioneers, Team Dresch. I’m not sure if Van left because of a job or school or “fuck you guys, I quit,” but was he gone long enough that Donna sat in with the band for a recording session at Spinhead Studios in North Hollywood. They cut a few tracks and my favorite is this early run through “Subtle Poison.”  

Screaming Trees – Subtle Poison [Spinhead Sessions, 1988]

That’s the Screaming Trees doing “Subtle Poison” with Donna Dresch on bass instead of Van. Fun fact: Dresch was Dinosaur Jr’s touring bassist after Lou Barlow and actually played on the original version of “The Wagon,” the one that came out in June 1990 as part of the Sub Pop Singles Club. Dino’s touring bassist after Donna? That would be Van Conner, who joined in late 1990 and stayed on through February 1991, rejoining the Trees for the west coast tour with Redd Kross and the first part of the Uncle Anesthesia tour.

The band cut “Subtle Poison” and several other tracks at Spinhead in 1988 thinking they’d be part of a double album. Instead, that idea was scrapped in favor of Buzz Factory, their final record on SST, and one with Van back in the fold. They recorded it in December ’88 and released it the following April. The album feels less like new territory than an extension and refinement of what we’ve heard up til now. This is big boned psychedelic rock with fuzzbomb riffs and leads and an animated rhythm section. But, the songwriting and arranging has evolved beyond the garage. We get choruses, bridges, and proper intros and outros.  

Screaming Trees – Black Sun Morning 

The Screaming Trees with “Black Sun Morning,” my favorite song on 1989’s Buzz Factory. Granted, it’s no Cult Sonic Temple, but it’s pretty good. Buzz was the first album NOT produced at Velvetone. Instead, the band went to Jack Endino at Reciprocal in Seattle. The King of Sludge. I like the production on Even If, but I can’t deny that the bigger sound is good for the Trees. Endino actually sings a little backup in the chorus of “Black Sun.” You might not notice him what with Lanegan taking us to the woodshed again [laughs]. Just a monster vocal performance. But, props again to Pickerel for more great drumming. He’s efficiently busy, never taking away the spotlight from the voices or guitars, but heavy enough that you know he’s there. Van’s role is similar, especially in that middle 12th starting at 2:57. For most of the song he offers solid riff support, but at 3:08 he starts going on these squirrelly little bass runs, kind of a melodic counterweight to Lanegan’s vocal.

“End Of The Universe” takes that middle 12th idea to more of an extreme, so I wanna focus on that section. The song starts out like another one of those Nuggets-style throwbacks and then it enters the particle collider. Check it out. 

Screaming Trees – End Of The Universe (beginning at 1:07) 

That glorious cacophony is the Screaming Trees with most of “End Of The Universe.” Consider it an unofficial radio edit. Everything the Trees do well is packed into this 4 ½ minute jam. Pickerel giddyup drumming, Lanegan yelps, separate psych guitar tracks in each channel fighting for attention, Pickerel again keeping up, the song breaks down, here comes the Sabbath air strike, more Lanegan Godhead vocals and then the song breaks down again, and they go back into the Nuggets rip. It’s all about Pickerel until Lanegan starts the primal howls, more Lee solar flare guitar, choral vocals rise above it all, more Pickerel, and quick fade at 5:43. I mean, if you’re into that sorta thing. Maybe you just wanna chill on the back porch with a cold beverage. The Trees got you!

Lee Connor on acoustic guitar and assault guitar overdub, but “Yard Trip #7” is all about Mark Lanegan summoning spirits from the dead. Stunning vocal. The Trees toured like dogs for Buzz Factory, but ultimately left SST. They’d sign with Epic in 1990, but in between these contractual dalliances was my introduction to the band. When I joined KCSC in the summer of 1989, Buzz was spinning itself out of heavy rotation. I  was alsoa total noob and had no idea who they were and what I was looking at. However, by December, when Sub Pop released the double 7” single, “Change Has Come,” I was a practicing arborist. I crushed hard on the band at this point because it was like I was hearing classic ‘60s/’70s rock, but this wasn’t a bunch of boomer loudmouths lying about their past. This was brand-ass new rock happening in real time and some of us were smart enough to get on that bus.

Screaming Trees – Yard Trip #7 

The Screaming Trees with “Change Has Come” and “Days” (aka “Days In A Glass Cube”). Nothing from this single – which the next year was released on CD with a bonus cut – is on Spotify. I’m not sure if these tracks made any comps either. To be fair, it’s a weird little island in the band’s discography, but pound for pound it may be their best release. “Change Has Come” sounds like a dry run for “Nearly Lost You” and I love the part in “Days” where Van goes on a sweet bass run, followed by Lee on trumpet (I believe he played trumpet in high school band), followed by predictably awesome Pickerel drum spillage. “Change” and “Days” were produced by Endino while the other three tracks were produced by the Trees & Steve Fisk. If you’re a Trees fan, you’ve gotta hear this single.

Screaming Trees – Change Has Come
Screaming Trees – Days 

That’s a good stopping point for today because from here the Trees sign with Epic, record three excellent albums in Uncle Anesthesia, Sweet Oblivion, and, Dust, toured until they couldn’t stand each other anymore, and broke up. And in between this rise and fall of the band, Mark Lanegan found his solo voice, one of the greatest voices we will ever hear. Today, I wanted to do the pre-history because it’s easily overlooked. The ‘80s Trees were still figuring it out, but their journey informs the brilliant run of albums that came in the ‘90s. This will all be next time, though.

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