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How Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan prevented Nirvana from breaking up during their early days

Mark Lanegan
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

While Screaming Trees never reached the same level of commercial success as some of their Pacific North West peers, there’s no denying that Mark Lanegan was an integral part of the ‘Seattle scene’ of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

As such, Lanegan, who passed away on 22 February had a lot of stories to tell, and tell them he did in his brilliant 2020 book, Sing Backwards and Weep (opens in new tab). As the music world reacts to the death of one of alternative rock’s straightest shooters, we’re revisiting the time that Lanegan prevented Nirvana from breaking up, before they even really got started.

The story, as told by Mark Lanegan, begins when he is invited to watch a band by his friend and housemate, Dylan Carlson (Earth founder, and close friend of Kurt Cobain) at the Ellensburg, WA Public Library. Lanegan was on the hunt for a bass player for Screaming Trees following the departure of Van Conner.

“As they took the stage, I was immediately struck by the bass player: a six-foot-seven-inch-tall giant with a fierce intensity, obvious before even playing a note. He looked pissed-off and I was instantly drawn to him…upon seeing this enormous guy tuning-up, my first thought was ‘Here’s my bass player’. I began to formulate a plan to steal him away from this band I’d not even heard yet.

“Once the three-piece group began playing, however, the wall of noise, the raw catchiness of the songs and the voice of the left-handed guitar-playing singer made me realise I was witnessing something special. Perhaps one of the best bands I’d ever seen. In the fucking Ellensburg Public Library, no less!”

Lanegan details how he was amazed by Krist Novoselic’s on-stage presence, as well as recalling his first interaction with Kurt Cobain after Nirvana’s set - which ended prematurely due to a scheduling error. 

Congratulating Cobain on the band’s performance, Lanegan found himself on the receiving end of praise from the future poster-boy of the grunge movement, who was a fan of Screaming Trees, and invited Lanegan to collaborate.

The pair exchanged phone numbers, and Lanegan remembers, “I walked back to my depressing hovel with an electricity in my step and a newfound buoyancy of spirit. I couldn’t shake the notion that I had just experienced something touched by greatness.”

The phone did indeed ring, but it wasn’t the call Lanegan might have been expecting. “Mark Lanegan? Krist Novoselic here, I play bass in Nirvana. Are you still looking for a bass player? I can’t stand playing with Kurt anymore I’m sick of everything always having to be his way.”

As history shows, Lanegan declined and politely advised Novoselic to stay put, thus preventing the two core, founding members of Nirvana from parting company before the band's whirlwind career took off. 

Adding in his book, Lanegan says, “I never mentioned the call to Kurt. It had been easy for us to become friends. Just a couple of long phone calls talking about girls, music, life. 

"I loved Kurt, and I envied him because Nirvana were fully-developed from the first moment I heard them. Nirvana were who they were from the first time I saw them - great songs, great singer, great look. Everything. The Trees on the other hand, were always fighting.”

Of course, Lanegan would go on to collaborate with Cobain and Novoselic alongside original Screaming Trees drummer, Mark Pickerel for The Jury - a project that didn't progress past a few demos.

The quartet recorded a number of Lead Belly songs including Ain’t it a Shame -  a reworking of Ain’t It A Shame to Go Fishin’ on a Sunday, with Cobain on vocals, along with They Hung Him On A Cross.

Lanegan never completed vocals on the instrumental of Grey Goose, however he did record Where Did You Sleep Last Night - which Nirvana would triumphantly reprise for their MTV Unplugged session - making it onto his debut solo album, The Winding Sheet. Cobain also contributed backing vocals to Down In The Dark on the same album.

Stuart Williams
Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.