Sing Backwards and Weep, written by Mark Lanegan, published by White Rabbit Books
I feel like an imposter in most situations. And despite being a fan of punk music (am I even describing it accurately?) since the 90s, I feel like an imposter here too. That song by Nirvana, In Bloom, I’m convinced that’s about me. But, as a young teen, in the early 90s, I spent all my time choosing to listen to Hole, Nirvana, Babes in Toyland. I was forced to listen to anything with Jello Biafra fronting it or anything on Lookout or Fat Wreck Chords because that was my teen boyfriend’s world.
But we lived in relative comfort. Listening to these amazing bands and feeling like we connected was a stretch. In some ways we did connect of course – I struggled with extreme anxiety, panic attacks and social awkwardness – I had issues. I dabbled with party drugs to boost my confidence. But let’s be absolutely honest – my life was nothing like that of my idols. And if there’s one book that reinforces my punk rock spectator status, its Mark Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep.
I’ll be honest, I only knew a couple of Screaming Trees songs prior to reading this. And they were probably the more commercial ones (All I Know being a fave, so). So should I even feel able to write a review on the book?
The thing is, this memoir is about so much more than music. And as a trustee for an addiction recovery charity, and someone who has seen friends struggle with the issue (some sadly no longer with us), I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that de-glamourises the problem more than this book.
Growing up I was fascinated by heroin and drugs. I bought every book, watched every movie and was intrigued by Nancy Spungen’s tragically short life. But it’s so easy to glamourise it, to link it to some kind of romantic notion as a youngster. Mark Lanegan’s memoir smashes any illusion we might have to pieces. Many of us who understand addiction but haven’t experienced it might know about the compulsions and hardship and physical illness it causes. But there’s one thing saying it makes you sick, its another thing accompanying Lanegan on his dope-sick journey, leaving him puking black liquid, collapsing on the streets, being laughed at by passing kids – believe me, I’ve barely began. But within 24 hours, he’s feeling well again and informing his dealer he’s about to go on the Later…With Jools Holland show. Nothing – not status, not money, not artistic talent – will shield you from the unbearably ugly side of addiction if you land in its trap. And, in my view, nobody has described this as grotesquely honestly as Mark Lanegan.
There were times when I was reading this book that my husband asked me if I was OK. He heard my reactions to what I was seeing. In fact, it’s as close to experiencing it as somebody who hasn’t is going to get. You feel his desperation, you feel his physical pain and mental turmoil. And then you’re reminded that he’s about to get on stage and do a show and you almost feel the entrapment.
They say that everyone’s rock bottom is different. And I’ve seen people who have lost everything and become accustomed to a life functioning as an addict, in another world, with new ‘friends’ and serious and chronic physical ailments that will stay with them for life. They have no reference point – other than seeing old friends every few years, their world has become wholly normalised.
This is why isolation from your real, true life is so devastating. Luckily for Lanegan, somebody reminded him that there was hope. He didn’t accept it immediately. But when the stars aligned, when he’d had enough, when he felt his soul fragment into pieces of nothing, he accepted the help.
This book takes you on his journey into music, addiction and too much grief to even know where to start. It’s breathtaking and raw and vile and beautiful all at once. Sometimes I hated him, sometimes I loved him, sometimes I could barely face what was likely to come next further down the page. This book is so real.
My only complaint is that I’d love to hear more about his recovery. After such an intense life, turning it around is unbelievably inspirational and how he did that would be a joy to read – and no doubt as honest and challenging as his journey into addiction. After all, detox is only the beginning.
Grab a copy of this Sunday Times bestselling book from White Rabbit Books for £20.