Sing Backwards And Weep is an unflinching trawl – or would be, were it not marginally leavened by straight-shooting yet eloquent language, gallows humour and his sweet, boyish excitement at the briefest of encounters with musical heroes such as Waylon Jennings and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Lanegan’s outlook is black, white and brown all over. He makes no attempt to varnish his ignoble behaviour, neither excusing himself nor wringing his hands over a chaotic carousel of theft, neglect, hustling and vengeance.
Rock memoirs are traditionally full of myth-building and depravity, but Lanegan’s account of his tenure in the proto-grunge quartet Screaming Trees sidesteps the myth-building and rushes headlong into grand guignol scenes of degradation and self-abuse. Rare in its rawness and candour, the book is a brutal chronicle of addiction that began aged 12 when Lanegan was “reviled as a town drunk before I could even legally drink”, and continued into his 20s when he branched out into heroin and crack.
With sickening inevitability, he is forced to watch as almost every one of his peers slingshots around him. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana all rocket off to multi-platinum glory while success continues to elude Lanegan like a buttered eel, to borrow the late Dave Cavanagh’s memorable phrase. It is one of the great strengths of this book (and, you suspect, one of Lanegan’s as a man) that there is not a flicker of envy or bitterness about any of this. Indeed, in the case of Nirvana, you sense a fan’s relief that the world finally recognises the colossal talent Lanegan saw the moment he befriended Kurt Cobain. If there is a criticism it is that, here and there, the recalled dialogue is wooden and stilted, reading not unlike a book that might be called “Secret Seven Hit the Meth Pipe”.
One of the more fascinating accounts here is of the touring addict’s stratagems; of the honour among junkies (and the vengefulness). Eventually, Lanegan’s prodigious drug habit turns him into less of a musician and more of a dealer, one who will go anywhere at any time to deliver drugs to his varied clientele. At one point, his disapproving goth neighbours are agog to find Nick Cave coming out of his flat... Lanegan asks for little pity: he confesses to a slew of extraordinarily unsavoury acts. All his bad luck, self-sabotage and radical candour is delivered in an eloquent, matter-of-fact tone. There is real regret for the relationships he ruined and a fierce and idealistic loyalty to the music that moves him
This is a narrative packed with surprises, most not of the good kind. But there is room in this heavy, heavy book for quite astonishing turns of kismet.