What California, and San Francisco, Meant to Mark Lanegan
Given an ultimatum by the Seattle Police Department and court system, singer -songwriter Mark Lanegan moved to Los Angeles to pursue rehab near Pasadena. His time in King County was running out, and he knew he had to leave to make a serious go of getting clean. That was in the fall of 1996, just about a year after I was born. He was referred by Courtney Love to the Musicians Assistance Program; his sister, my mom, lived on Bainbridge Island with my brother, my father, and me.
His death in the spring of 2022 was a shattering and upsetting loss for our family. Mark was a reliable presence in our lives, a father figure to my little brother, a steady and cool voice in any tense moment. His long tenure in California, the better part of 30 years, was an enormously positive part of his life and identity. While he had a beautiful home and litter of animal children in SoCal, his presence in the Bay Area was always much-appreciated.
On October 8 the Afghan Whigs played the Great American Music Hall and talked about Mark’s impact on the band. Fellow poet and Mark’s eulogist Wesley Eisold played The Chapel in early September, reading from he and Mark’s last book of poem’s “Ghost Radio” at Green Apple Books on the Park. And in his Hearst Media obituary, 120 entries were left with photos of his memoir, much-loved ticket stubs, and notes of understanding and longing. “Already miss ya, Mark. Never knew you, but you’re a northwest boy, and I can feel it in all your work,” wrote “James.” If there’s anywhere my uncle couldn’t stand by the end of his life, it was the Pacific Northwest —take it from another northwest boy.
It wasn’t an active animosity: Mark just seemed to know the wonders California’s sunniness and kindness brought to his otherwise dark demeanor. And his fanbase was ready for him here, too. Mark played the area countless times; a few semi-recent shows include the Great American Music Hall in 2011, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2013, and the Warfield in 2014, and his first band the Screaming Trees played along the West Coast for years and years before that. My mom remembers the band coming to the Bay in November of 1986 when the Trees were playing a UC Santa Cruz show. She lived in Pacifica with a few other girls fleeing rural Washington to the Bay Area, and she characterizes her place as a flop apartment. The show, however, was a rousing success. “Two guys from Ellensburg were going to the college, and of course they were there,” mom says. “There were maybe 30 people there. But it was really cool.”
She also points out my uncle’s friendship with Donna Dresch, a punk musician from Olympia, Washington who took over for Van Conner when he briefly quit the Screaming Trees. Mark and Dresch caught a show once Dresch left the band and moved to the Bay, a tale and friendship recounted in Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep. He said it was one of his favorite memories of being in the Bay Area. On the shittier side of things, he was arrested in San Francisco once upon a time — in his memoir he recounts sprinting away from the cops in the Tenderloin, hoping to score.
But, really, Mark thrived in that California sun. Roberto Bentivegna, screenwriter of “House of Gucci,” was a close friend of Mark’s before he died and tells me the two spent a lot of time hiking throughout Griffith Park. His book of poems, Leaving California, was a meditation on his departure to Ireland from SoCal — venturing away from his home of so many years ended up being somewhat prophetic of his final chapter. When I moved to San Francisco in 2018, Mark and I texted and talked often about how California was a land of milk and honey to someone who grew up in the dour, dusty center of Washington state. The last texting exchange I had with my uncle was about a Kenneth Whalum show at the Black Cat, the Tenderloin’s go-to haunt for jazz. “Nice,” is all he wrote, but one of the wonderful things about my uncle is that he really meant whatever staccato thing he said. And, once he passed, his wife gave my brothers and I old leather jackets of his. Mine is a horse-hide tan coat of his — made in Oakland.