Join host Lance Uehara Davis on the final Don't Call It Nothing podcast. We finish our four-part look at Mark Lanegan and the Screaming Trees in the 1990s. This time we hit the final two years of the decade—1998-99—as the Trees sputter to the finish line and Lanegan cleans himself up and releases a solid, if flawed effort (Scraps At Midnight) and a stone-cold masterpiece (I'll Take Care Of You). Thank you friends for your support along the way. It's been a helluva ride.
See ya on the flippety flop, LD
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. That also happens to be the name of my book. What a coincidence! This is Lance Uehara Davis and today we’re gonna finish our four-part deep dive of the Screaming Trees and Mark Lanegan in the 1990s. However, before we do that, I have kind of a big announcement. This is the final episode of Don’t Call It Nothing.
Between the 900-page book, the 25-30 hours of the podcast, the 100-song Spotify playlists I created for each year of the decade, and the 150-video YouTube playlists I also created for each year of the decade, I’ve said what I needed to say about the 1990s. I see Don’t Call It Nothing like an art installation that other people are gonna have to unpeel and unpack long after I’m gone. Certainly, long after I’m done here. And I’m pretty fucking proud of myself because I know that if I didn’t take the time to pay respect to all this music, no one would have. And I seriously doubt anyone else will—at least like this—but I hope I’m wrong.
Beyond their function as reference tools, the book and podcast have changed my life. Because of both I got hired as a music editor and film editor by HubPage. They’re an aggregator of multiple websites featuring user-generated content. In normal human terms (laughs), I edit and curate a bunch of blogs. A lot of the writing is substandard and they’re mostly writing about music I mostly can’t stand. And I fucking love it. Because it’s not about me. I love helping writers become better writers and the freedom to punch up articles with videos and images I get to create. And because I also get to write for my sites, the podcast has become superfluous. In fact, because work uses all my creative juice, I frankly don’t have much left in the tank for the pod and that’s not fair to you guys.
So here we are. Thank you to all my family members for supporting this nutty idea of a book and podcast. It’s been as rewarding a project as I’ve ever undertaken and you guys have made me feel a little less alone out here in the deep surf. Love you all. So what do you say? Let’s bring this ship into port.
Screaming Trees – Last Words
From Last Words: The Final Recordings, that’s the Screaming Trees with “Last Words,” the last track on their last kinda sorta album. It came out in 2011 with zero fanfare and it consists of tracks recorded between 1998-99. It’s hard to categorize this as a proper album because it sounds like a demo. And it sounds like that because that’s what it was. The strangest thing about Last Words—the release, not the song—is that Lee Conner might play more piano and clavinet on it than guitar. How is that even possible??? That said, there are exceptions. “Revelator” and “Black Rose Way” are guitar jams. So is “Last Words.” And this time I mean the song, not the quasi-album. We get fist fulls of Lee Conner guitar shred, Barrett Martin kills it on drums, and I love the vocal melody and how the backup vocals frame Lanegan’s voice. It sounds like the Screaming Trees.
As last songs go, “Last Words” might not be up there with The Beatles’ “The End” and The Replacements’ “The Last.” But, I’ll give the band credit for having the self-awareness to place this track last. And the lyrics are good.
"When my last words
Speak the truth and I know I'm letting go
Take away your sorrow when I leave"
Hard not to think of the passing of Mark Lanegan this past February when hearing those lines. And it was his death that facilitated the last great act of the Screaming Trees. I started outlining this four-part series within days of Lanegan’s death. And in my head I heard “Last Words” as the triumphant close out, the band riding off into the sunset on the back of that anthem.
And then, on March 19th, Lee posted two lost tracks from 1994 to YouTube: “Hearts and Diamonds” and another simply listed as “Piano Song.” I guess Lanegan found them on a hard drive while rummaging through a closet and “Piano Song” broke him … in a good way. If you knew nothing about the Screaming Trees before reading Mark’s 2020 book, Sing Backwards And Weep, you probably didn’t leave with the best impression of the band. And we can be real here. Lanegan was kind of a dick about it.
Which is why when he heard the “Piano Song” about 6-7 months ago, he broke down crying. After disparaging the band as little more than hired guns, hearing the natural harmony between he and Lee cracked his bullshit façade. In the book, h e was smart enough to keep the facts more or less straight, but this is one of the best songwriters of his generation. You think he’s gonna have a problem controlling tone, narrative, and our impression of the Trees? The problem is we all have ears. He can dismiss or downplay the contribution of Gary Lee Conner all he wants, the music is the fucking music, dude. Ball don’t lie.
Once again, though, here’s where context matters. If Lanegan hears the “Piano Song” while writing Sing Backwards And Weep, I argue that it doesn’t even get mentioned in the book. I think it would have had little impact. But, he heard it late last year, after COVID-19 nearly killed him. By his own account, Lanegan thought he was smarter than a virus and science and that arrogance led to a lengthy hospitalization in which he slipped in an out of a coma, lost his hearing, and went through a spell where he couldn’t walk.
For a guy who’d cracked his skull on rock bottom several times as a youngish drug addict, Mark’s middle-aged immune system took a direct hit that it never fully recovered from. And it was in this period of absolute vulnerability that Lanegan heard “Piano Song.” He was too weak to put up a tough guy front, so the song hit him right in the heart. He heard what we’ve all been hearing for 35 some odd years. That these knuckleheads from the middle of nowhere Washington State conjured up magic with big ass guitars and songs about life and death and those songs took them around the world. And no, they didn’t become Pearl Jam. Maybe they fucked that up. But, they were lucky enough to find each other, a bunch of misfit musicians that created a little magic for a little while. That’s something, too.
Screaming Trees – Piano Song
That’s the Screaming Trees with a recently-ish unearthed demo from 1994. Simply titled “Piano Song,” I will not lie, I cried my grungey little eyes out the first time I heard it. Beautiful tune. So, the Trees cut those demos in ’98-’99, they played a handful of shows in 2000, and while both efforts were designed to gauge label interest, there was none. So, in mid-2000, after 16 years and thousands of road miles, the Screaming Trees called it quits.
The transition year, though, is really 1998. That’s the year Mark Lanegan got clean for the first time, married singer Wendy Rae Fowler, and released Scraps At Midnight, a flawed, slightly hesitant record, but one that pops you in the feels on a few occasions.
Mark Lanegan – Stay
That’s Mark Lanegan with “Stay,” the third track from 1998’s Scraps At Midnight. This sounds like a guy who’s fallen in love, but who’s also self-aware enough to write of himself:
“Something has badly gone wrong with me
Living's not hard, it's just not easy”
Boy, ain’t that the truth. Lanegan subsequently dismissed this album and it’s probably his weakest of the decade. But, that three-song block in the middle of the album—“Stay,” “Last One In The World,” and “Bell Black Ocean”—is pretty awesome. You might not think folk pop is in the Mark Lanegan wheelhouse, but dig that Mike Johnson guitar lead cutting through the final minute of “Stay.” So good.
For Lanegan, transitioning from solo albums being seen as Screaming Trees side projects to solo albums now being his main thing, transitioning from paralyzing addiction to new-found sobriety, transitioning from single to married, and even transitioning in terms of the kinds of songs he was writing, Scraps represents the end of one era and the start of another. So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the album’s most emotional moment is a new kind of Lanegan song written about an old relationship.
Mark Lanegan – Last One In The World
In his 2017 book, I Am the Wolf: Lyrics and Writings, Mark confessed that "Last One In The World" was not written about Kurt Cobain, as some speculated, but "for my friend Layne Staley, who was still living at the time. I loved them both as family: Kurt was like a little brother, Layne like a twin." “Last One In The World” is a drop dead gorgeous pop song, the kind of song Lanegan hadn’t really written before, like lovely little chamber pop snow globes.
Little did I know that a year after releasing Scraps, he’d drop an entire album’s worth of snow globes spanning multiple genres: folk, blues, country, gospel, punk rock, and late night R&B. 1999’s I’ll Take Care Of You may be all covers, but it’s a modern masterpiece of interpretive genius. It’s as good as any of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings albums and I’ll stand on the back deck of Rick Rubin’s tastefully modern Malibu retreat and say that. Seriously Rick, if you need a guy to look after the place, I’m your guy. [sing songy] I’ll bring the Funyons …
Mark Lanegan – I’ll Take Care Of You
Mark Lanegan with the title track to his 1999 covers album. That Lanegan can nail a Bobby “Blue” Bland classic is no small feat. We’re talking about one of the great R&B singers from the late ‘50s through the ’80s!. Marvelous vocal control. Could go from velvet croon to gospel howl at the drop of a hat and hit every note along the way.
And Lanegan totally makes “I’ll Take Care Of You” his. It’s also kind of a Screaming Trees reunion with Van Conner on bass, Mark Pickerel killing it on drums, laying back on the beat just perfectly, and Barrett Martin playing those wonderfully understated vibes. But, Steve Berlin is the song’s MVP. He reproduces Teddy Reynolds’ original Hammond organ riff on flute and it sounds fucking amazing. I mean, it’s Steve Berlin. Blaster, Lobo, of course he brings his A game. Martin Feveyear, who produced, engineered, and mixed the record, puts some reverb on the flute and seamlessly integrates it into the arrangement. So awesome. “Lanegan: Late Night Interpreter of Classic R&B.”
Or, maybe you want a pure, old-school murder ballad. Aaaand done.
Mark Lanegan – Little Sadie
Mark Lanegan with the traditional folk tune, “Little Sadie.” Love the minimal arrangement. All you have is Mark’s voice, Mark Hoyt (Huge Spacebird) on hammer-on folk guitar, and Mike Johnson on judicious electric guitar lead. That’s it. And unlike “I’ll Take Care Of You,” this doesn’t sound reverby at all. Very dry, like a good room is supposed to sound, and appropriate for the tone of the song.
Clarence Ashley was the first to record “Little Sadie,” way back in 1928, but I have no doubt these verses were floating in the air for decades before that. Hell, Woody Guthrie recorded a version of this song called "Bad Lee Brown (Cocaine Blues)," which I always assumed was a completely different song, but of course there’s deceptive crossover. This is what makes early folk, blues, and country music so interesting.
Speaking of which, on March 10, Barrett Martin posted a wonderful story to his Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/barrettmartinofficial] entitled, “The Classroom In The Back Of The Bus.” In it he writes about how the back of the Screaming Trees tour bus was where he learned about the history of rock, blues, country, and folk music. I’m sure a lot of other music, as well. Martin was classically trained. He could sight read jazz arrangements. There’s a reason he was the one playing vibes, upright bass, and drums on this album and could’ve played marimba or piano had he been asked.
Instead of shacking up in hotel rooms, the Trees drove overnight between shows. This meant hours and hours of road time where Barrett was able to dig into the American and European underground rock scenes, as well as all this roots music that he missed while he was learning how to become a professional, employable musician.
At the end of the post, Martin writes:
“There are three songs that I distinctly remember Mark loving enough to sing along with in their entirety. One was “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by the legendary country artist, George Jones. This is one of the greatest songs ever written, and it’s sung by one of the greatest singers of all-time, in any genre.
Another was “Reason To Believe” by Tim Hardin, a rather obscure, but brilliant songwriter from the 1960s.
The third song was “Shanty Man’s Life” by Dave Van Ronk, a classic American folk song that is extremely haunting in its original recording. I remember Mark singing along to all of those songs, from top to bottom, perfectly. So if you’d all do yourselves a favor, please listen to those three songs on your music devices and imagine Mark singing along. Because I heard him do it, and it was magical. A true artist knows gold when he or she hears it.
—Barrett Martin on Facebook, March 10, 1992
Mark Lanegan – Shanty Man’s Life
From his badass 1999 album, I’ll Take Care Of You, that’s Mark Lanegan paying tribute to Dave Van Ronk with “Shanty Man’s Life.” I’d like to read the first paragraph of my entry on this album from my book. I think it summarizes the appeal of I’ll Take Care Of You specifically, but it could serve as a stand-in for the Lanegan catalog. It reads:
“I don’t know if this is the greatest covers album in the rock era, but no covers album does more with less. If you’ve ever spent time in the desert, you begin to appreciate how the desert tolerates no extravagance. It sustains precisely the correct amount of life and no more. I’ll Take Care Of You is a desert blues masterpiece. We get 11 tracks in just under 34 minutes. There’s no wasted space, no gratuitous solos. The arrangements are elegantly stark, sit inside a lot of open space, and Lanegan’s rich baritone hovers over the arrangements like a dense morning fog.”
—Lance Davis, Don’t Call It Nothing: The Lost History of Roots, Rap & Rock ‘n’ Roll, p. 812
I mean, is there anything in there that’s not true? The album is a treasure trove of obscurities across multiple genres and Lanegan distills all of them into his righteous version of the blues. Lanegan covers “Carry Home” by his friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Gun Club, who passed away three years before these sessions. “Creeping Coastline Of Lights” was written by another punk from the ‘80s LA scene, Falling James from Leaving Trains.
But, those are musicians you’d expect Mark to cover. It’s that he also tackles a country ballad like Buck Owens’ “Together Again” or a soul ballad like Eddie Floyd’s “Consider Me” or, as we heard, the title track and there’s no dropoff. Lanegan makes all of these songs his. So, with that I’d like to finish with the album’s most impressive on paper performance. Mark Lanegan singing gospel? Yes please.
Mark Lanegan – On Jesus’ Program
“When this life is over, I’m going home.”
O.V. Wright wrote that in 1965 when he was singing with the Sunset Travelers and hearing Mark Lanegan sing those words is powerful stuff, man. Mike Johnson does a good job replicating the original lead guitar part in the right channel, while strumming electric rhythm guitar center-left in the mix to essentially replicate the organ part in the original. I love how the drums are mixed in O.V.’s version, all up in your face, but Mark Boquist and Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden do a fine job in support. Honestly, Lanegan’s vocal is so good, everyone else’s job was basically keep it simple and let him do the heavy lifting. Just get out of his way.
That Lanegan is singing about going home feels like a good time to end. Friends, if you want a free book about ‘90s roots, rap, and rock ‘n’ roll, go to dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com/book and a PDF download will be available there for free. There’s also a Book button in the nav bar. FYI, I’m continuing to make minor edits, so a fifth version should be uploaded to the website by July 1, 2022. That’s probably gonna be the last edit I make.
This is where I’d usually shill about becoming a member of the podcast, but since it’s ending I just wanna give a shout-out to the die hards who made it all the way to the end.
Y’all are the fucking best. I love you guys. Thank you for the support. It means the world to me.
Thanks for joining me on this journey through the Screaming Trees and Mark Lanegan catalogs. I’ve had a lot of fun paying actual respect to the 1990s because it ain’t gonna happen otherwise. And with that, I leave you with the show’s theme song in full. Which means one final thank you is in order, to the great Mike Nicolai for allowing me to use his song, “Trying To Get It Right.” You can visit him at Love Wheel Records in Austin and if you do, tell him LD sent ya.
See y’all on the other side.
Mike Nicolai – Trying To Get It Right