Even if you don’t know Mark Lanegan’s music, the cover of his memoir is a tipoff of what’s to come: Sing Backwards and Weep looks like one of Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press releases. I’m a writing teacher and journal editor, so I see a lot of acolytes trying to imitate Bukowski’s style—or, worse—his lifestyle. Aspirants and wannabes often think they can fart out a genius first draft because Bukowski makes it look easy, but his discipline is seldom emulated. Dude wrote every single day, pages and pages, leaving most of it on the cutting room floor.
I can’t speak to Lanegan’s process as a writer, but his lifestyle certainly lined up. After appropriately scant discussion of his troubled childhood and teen years, Sing Backwards and Weep launches into his career as the singer of Screaming Trees—and a grinding, harrowing lifestyle of drinking and heavy drugs. Dude doesn’t give a fuck what you think of him or who he offends. This manifests in Lanegan naming names, pulling no punches instead of relying on the standard rock memoir trope where, “We were on tour with a band that shall not be named and the singer blah blah blah.” He sometimes does this, to be fair, but more often than not his references are unveiled. The name-naming is fascinating and titillating, to be sure.
After a point, though, it loses its luster, leaving a morass of substance abuse and bad attitude. The latter isn’t of the edgy Marlon Brando (or whoever) variety, though. It’s more like, “Why am I reading this? This guy sucks.” Mark Lanegan and his bandmates are such dicks to themselves and others, such assholes, that I’m guessing that many people won’t be able to get through the book. In this way, it’s similar to Trouble Boys, that Replacements bio that came out a few years back. When the ’Mats are discussed, there’s often a ha-ha element involved, like, “Oh, they said ‘fuck’ on Saturday Night Live; cool!” But the Replacements consistently and repeatedly abusing each other and the people who earnestly tried to help them out left a bad taste in my mouth. In Sing Backwards and Weep, Lanegan and the Screaming Trees are similarly awful.
With all this said, I’m reminded of Kathy Valentine’s memoir All I Ever Wanted, which I reviewed a few issues back. Both Lanegan and Kathy Valentine honestly inventory their faults—and their respective memoirs reveal plenty of these. It’s no easy feat to reckon with a life of selfishness, especially when the touring life becomes one big party. But Lanegan eventually hits rock bottom and begins to learn from his many (many, many) mistakes. And conducting this sort of self-inventory requires heavy discipline, making the Bukowski/Black Sparrow allusion that much more resonant. Sing Backwards and Weep isn’t a grocery list of excesses. It’s an attempt at atonement, a step. –Michael T. Fournier (Hachette)